Film industry faces liberal winds of change

The film “Let Her Cry,” a tantalizing tale of an extramarital affair between an old professor and his seductive student, might not have been shown on screens in Sri Lanka a decade ago.

Works that were hostile to the Government or provocative in nature were banned by the previous administration, which ruled the country tightly nearing the end of a 30-year interethnic war.

But since the new national unity Government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe assumed office in 2015, the social ambiance has relaxed and people are more open-minded about iconoclastic expression.

The film, directed by Asoka Handagama, portrays a complex web of psychological and physical interactions involving the professor and his young, bewitching student, and his devout wife, who all become distraught and caught between their carnal desires and moral obligations. Produced in 2015, the movie is set against the backdrop of modern Sri Lanka, still coming to grips with its postwar wounds and new societal challenges.

“My early films dealt with larger social issues of the war, gender and ethnic tensions, but this one is an experiment in a microscopic introspection of a modern Sri Lankan family, dealing with micro rather than macro issues,” the director told The Korea Herald during the Sri Lankan Film Festival. The event was hosted by the Sri Lankan Embassy in Seoul and Korea Foundation.

“The contemporary society is run by wanton, material desires and people are chasing one another. But such symptoms operate on both macro and micro levels. I have attempted to draw a larger picture of the society through my psychoanalytical film.”

The audience reception has been generally positive, he said, mentioning that a famed 75-year-old singer married a 35-year-old woman following the movie’s release, which some people attributed to the storyline. “Things are changing. Society is becoming more liberal,” the filmmaker said.

Under the current liberal political climate, the country’s market has also become liberalized and unregulated, Handagama explained. “The irony of all this is that we now have to compete with Hollywood and Bollywood head-on.”

He continued by saying, “We have much more freedom to express our ideas, but it is also challenging to stay afloat in an industry dominated by big money and influence. Our principal challenge is to get our independent films released in theaters.”

Anomaa Rajakaruna, an independent curator who organized the Sri Lankan film festival in late June as part of celebrations marking the 40th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Sri Lanka and Korea, said freedom has increased for artists and writers, who were previously confined to the straitjacket of censorship.

Moving on from the Government that banned certain films or cut parts of them, now the public film board classifies works according to age and content, she said.

The multiplex theater CGV Myeongdong Station Cine Library, where the event was held, is a fine example of ensuring the visibility of diverse films, the curator highlighted.

“With two arthouse screens and a public library, this theater is such a good example of guaranteeing the survival of both commercial and independent films,” Rajakaruna said. “Cinema is not just about movies, but an entire culture of films. A place like this is conducive to nurturing a whole generation of film lovers, students and critics. This can be modelled and replicated in Sri Lanka.”

The curator suggested Korean companies invest and build multiplexes in the Sri Lankan cinema industry, where standalone theatres dominate. Young generations of filmmakers in their late 20s and 30s are springing up across the country, she noted, adding they use cinematography as a medium of their newfound power and purpose.

But in the absence of proper film schools and funding, they find it difficult to enter the industry and succeed. Most movies are produced in the Singhalese language in Sri Lanka, where Tamil and English are also spoken.

There are many societal questions stemming from the war and peace and stability, said the movie director.

“There are issues related to the reconciliation between Tamil and Singhalese ethnic groups,” he added, acknowledging his commitment to exposing the war’s naked truths and lingering legacies. He is currently working on a co-production on the theme of reconciliation with two other filmmakers.

The Government also promotes art, theater and literature to help advance the reconciliatory efforts and promote social harmony, Handagama said. He also encouraged Korean filmmakers collaborate with Sri Lankan partners for co-production, noting the island nation offers countless picturesque sites as movie backgrounds.

Pointing to a host of cultural festivals in Sri Lanka, including the Fairway Galle Literary Festival, Colombo International Theatre Festival and Jaffna International Cinema Festival, he said, “The enthusiasm and interest for cinema are there. What we need are the political will and commercial investment to exploit these passions.” (Courtesy Korea Herald)