While we await some commercial Singapore film offerings from established filmmakers like Jack Neo and Kelvin Tong to hit our screens early this year, here comes along a documentary gem which is made by a Singapore-based filmmaker. I've a personal affinity for documentaries because they offer that keen insight and perspective through the filmmaker's lens on their pet subject and in Singapore, we're witnessing a growing number of quality documentarians who are operating from within the country, or based overseas, tackling topical subjects about our country or subjects of a more global nature.
Think Tan Pin Pin, James Leong and Lynn Lee, Tan Siok Siok and Pek Siok Lian, Singapore filmmakers tackling documentaries from both within the country and abroad, with current projects ranging from <a href="http://www.twittamentary.com/">Twitter</a> to <a href="http://www.theafricancyclist.com/">African cyclists attempting to conquer the cycling circuit</a>. Then there's Amit Virmani, a filmmaker who has set up his base in Singapore (amongst others such as The Insomniac's Madhav Mathur), and had recently completed a documentary film about the beach boys of Bali. Personally, I interesting now to see how our population, with its influx of foreign talent, would unearth additional filmmakers who would find it both interesting and worthwhile to pursue film from within our shores, adding to the mix of tales told from an expectedly different perspective about topics from within, or abroad.
Making its Asian Premiere overseas at the DMZ Korean International Documentary Festival, and was in the running for 3 awards at last year's Asian Festival of First Films, Virmani's Cowboys in Paradise may seem on the surface as a film about the sex tourism industry in Bali. Mention sex industry and your imagination would probably run wild with images of dirty old men running lustily after or exploiting nubile women, but this film by Virmani examines the reverse, that of women seeking out the companionship of local Balinese men, given the latter's charismatic appeal, in the sandy beaches of the idyllic Kuta beach, where it's sun, sand, surf and party, some quarters being ever ready to frown upon the decadent, immoral lifestyle.
It's not hard too understand why the Kuta Cowboys, as they're known, are so well liked and popular. First of all, they're always all smiles, with physically buffed and bronzed bodies thanks to days spent under the sun surfing the waves, half naked except for gravity defying bermudas, hilariously mentioned in the film, protecting their modesty. They speak a smattering of languages in genuine attempts to engage in conversation, are funny, fun loving, and sweet with their tongue too in more ways than one.
Sure there may be similar happenings in other parts of the world, but as a documentarian, Virmani has demonstrated that despite being a first time feature filmmaker (since he has not done anything more than 10 minutes long before), he's got that knack for both visuals to engage, and depth in examining a lot more beneath what's brewing at the surface. It's not about the sex or the gigolo-type (and this is contentious and made perfectly clear in the film) of service these guys may seem to offer, but slowly but surely, it's about mindsets of different cultures and attitudes that seem yet all the same from folks around the world, as we learn through the course of the film, engaged by animated personalities on both sides of the fence, from expert opinions to personal first hand experiences, especially those who had found courage to justify their obsession, and passion.
It's not about money or love, though that's a start of what I thought was always a transaction, which may seem to bring up the sad, cynical adage about men providing love for sex, and women providing sex for love, or in this case some temporary romance. Virmani's film reserves judgement on these cowboys and their female friends, and goes behind the scenes to look at the cowboys' lifestyles and family even, to understand them a lot better, and the social and economic dynamics that these guys bring to and the effect on their community. In fact it starts off quite cheerfully in true beach-bumming relaxed fashion, where we're introduced to the players (pardon the pun), and they candidly share their tactics, objectives and motivation, which has sprung into a cottage industry of sorts, with older players fading away, and new ones eager to take over something that doesn't even look like a job, but pays well, is enjoyable (to them that is) with good returns if they play their cards and work on their sums on returns of investment right.
Virmani managed to capture some priceless moments with his subjects, some even involving very private accounts of reminiscence of a long gone friendship and companionship, and the downside of human emotions plagued by differing expectations. While one can always be cool about it all being without feeling, that it's all business and laughter, we're human after all, and there are times where the expressions of exasperation, suspicion, and fear got betrayed beneath the Colgate smiles that cannot go unnoticed or denied. Comedy also got introduced at the right places, sometimes unwittingly thanks to mannerisms and things said, and yet balanced with the barbed-wire real world dangers that we get reminded of, punctuated by Virmani coverage of a wide spectrum of issues in this documentary, with some chapters leading to shocking revelations.
It's been a long time since I last set foot on Bali (some twenty years perhaps), and if I do anytime soon, you can bet I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for these guys, and probably observing them from afar to see just how they operate with my own eyes, and ponder about the issues as brought out in this documentary. Heck I may even seek some lessons from them, surfing lessons that is!