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Diverse region makes progress toward building a more mature biz

HONG KONG — Geographically it’s easy to identify where Southeast Asia lies on the map. Economically, though, the region is wildly diverse, ranging from the highly organized and super-high-tech Singapore to isolated and desperately poor Myanmar.

Local moviemaking is financially poor. But there are pockets with great potential, others with festival appeal and still others, like the Philippines, that seem stuck in a time warp.

Parts of the Thai and Singaporean industries maintain close allegiance to Confucian and Chinese influences, while others in Malaysia and Indonesia are more Muslim.

Overall, the region always seems full of promise but mostly falls short of a dramatic international breakout.

However, sales companies representing films from the region claim to have plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

Carrie Wong, prexy of Golden Network, says that Thailand, for instance, now has the kind of genre diversity typical of white-hot Korea. That diversity is not easily found in Hong Kong, where the much narrower action and slapstick duopoly still reigns.

Thailand’s strength emerged in the “IMF period” when the country’s economy was on its knees and local distribs couldn’t afford to buy foreign pics. A generation of young helmers that had cut its teeth on commercials, such as Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (“6ixtynin9,” “Invisible Waves”) and Nonzee Nimibutr (“Nang-Nak”), popped at home and on the fest circuit.

Others who have trod similar paths, such as Wisit Sasanatieng (“Tears of the Black Tiger”) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul (“Tropical Malady”), are now hitting the arthouse front row.

While directors such as Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom, students who delivered chiller “The Shutter,” or Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol, who helmed $20 million epic “Suriyothai,” are able to plow more commercial furrows.

Thailand’s very relaxed, Buddhist society is a key factor behind why gender-benders, such as “Iron Ladies,” and physical actioners, including “Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior” and “Tom Yum Goong,” are allowed to pass uncensored. Those same movies were released in Hong Kong only after substantial cuts, but Thailand isn’t a nation that draws a causative correlation between on- and off-screen violence.

Compared with Thailand, ethnically mixed countries such as Singapore and Indonesia have less clear-cut identities in the minds of film buyers. Moreover, the melodramatic style of performance typified by Filipino or Indonesian cinema is very different from the tastes of international markets.

“Japanese and Chinese cinema is the easiest Asian cinema to export,” says Wouter Barendrecht, co-prexy of sales house Fortissimo Films. “Gong Li holding back the tears can be related to much more easily in the West than the tearful Indonesian or Tagalog films — or  Bollywood and Korean melodramas.”

While Thailand continually hovers on the edge of breaking out, chronic underfunding may hold back progress by its neighbors.

“Production companies, often owned by TV stations, and exhibitors, do not have expertise to deliver the best filmgoing experience. Often, too, they monopolize the funds available,” says Lorna Tee, head of marketing at Focus Films, a Hong Kong sales outfit that has picked up films from around the region including “Singapore GaGa” and Indonesia’s “Joni’s Promise.”

“It is easy to say that Thai films are still in the Dark Ages, but they have a much clearer identity abroad now than they did five year ago,” says Golden Network’s Wong. “We’d like to believe that Southeast Asia’s other cinema industries can make the same progress in the next five years.”

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