Southeast Asian Cinema: A Seedling Straining to Thrive

Local conditions limit fruits of rich crop of filmmakers

The upcoming relaunch of the Singapore Intl. Film Festival and the steady expansion of the Luang Prabang Festival in Laos, both of which focus entirely on films from Southeast Asia, suggests growing interest in pics from the region.

Thai, Filipino and Singaporean films have taken major festival wins in recent years. Creativity is hardly in short supply.

But numerous problems and contradictions await filmmakers in the region.

Positives include growing economies and improving exhibition infrastructure. Negatives include censorship, a lack of access to capital, narrow distribution channels for independent films and the lack of a regional marketplace — let alone an international one.

Thailand, which has by far the strongest filmmaking infrastructure in the region, is a case in point.

The country has soundstages, experienced crews and international-quality post-production facilities that service domestic and international shoots. And it is producing world-class cinema: Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul took the Cannes Palme d’Or in 2011 for his “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.”

But successive governments have failed to heed clear calls for the establishment of location incentives or more structured support of the local industry. That has left the Thai industry with just a handful of stable companies and a narrow focus on the most commercial genres.

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“Thai films are audience-pleasers, which we can program many of, without subtitles, and in the biggest venues,” says Gabriel Kuperman, director of the Luang Prabang festival in neighboring Laos. Six of the 28 films in the December edition of his festival hail from Thailand. But more discerning international audiences have largely spurned Thailand’s garishly commercial output.

That creates a gulf between Thai-funded films made for domestic consumption and films made by local directors who are recognized on the international festival circuit. Aside from Weerasethakul, whose work is largely funded from Europe, these include Pen-ek Ratanaruang (“Headshot”) and Nonzee Nimibutr (“Jan Dara”), both of whom have projects in Busan International Film Festival Asian Project Market.

Neighboring Malaysia and Singapore also present mixed pictures.

A multiplex building boom in Malaysia coincided with several years of growing local film production. The business got a further boost with the recent opening of the Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios. But after several years of growing audiences for Malaysian films, the trend has recently reversed. Veteran Australian producer Mike Lake, who spearheaded the studio building initiative, has now been drafted to develop content.

Years of government stimulus for Singapore’s film and TV industries have failed to consistently lift box office market share for local films above 5%.

Indonesia and Vietnam represent two of the region’s brightest prospects. Structural change has propelled Vietnam’s box office on a breakneck growth path. Two thirds of the exhibition sector is now in Korean hands, but CJ Entertainment has recognized that it will need to support local films if that B.O. arc is to continue.

Though the country is vast, Indonesian filmmakers have long struggled with poor finances and a near-monopoly exhibitor.

However, with “The Raid: Redemption” and its sequel, Jakarta-based Welsh director Gareth Evans and star Iko Uwais have been catalysts for others. Also improving the outlook: A well-financed local conglomerate, Lippo, now seems set to break open the exhibition sector.

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