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Only a few months ago, hundreds of Asian film executives were expecting to attend this week’s Berlin festival and the European Film Market. For many, it would have been their first participation in a top-tier overseas festival for nearly two years.

But the Omicron variant has upended those dreams. And, except for those folks with a film playing in the festival, most have stayed at home. Again.

That amplifies a trend of diminished Asian participation that was noticeable at both Cannes and Venice in 2021, though was less pronounced at Locarno.

And Asia’s own top festivals are becoming similarly disconnected from the rest of the world. Shanghai, Busan and Tokyo managed to return to their traditional calendar dates and operated as in-person events, but travel restrictions throughout the region crimped program scale, film selections and rendered their physical components almost entirely local. Tokyo said that there were just 42 international guests on its red carpet.

Berlin counts four Asian films in its 18-title main competition. Two are from veterans Rithy Panh and Hong Sang-soo. Two are by directors who are less familiar to Western audiences: China’s “Return to Dust” by Li Ruijun, and “Before Now and Then” from Indonesia’s Kamila Andini.

But it is also clear that many titles and directors who might reasonably be expected to be in contention for top festival berths in 2022 are not currently playing. Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou are both understood to be nearly ready with their next films. So too are former Cannes-winner Kore-eda Hirokazu and Park Chan-wook. Korean studios are understood to be sitting on piles of 100-200 titles that are completed or in deliberately-paused post-production.

“Festivals are really important for the strategies of a lot of films from Asia, but [for them to take up places] they need a lot of other things to fall into place too. And many folks are currently having a rethink,” said Michael J. Werner, a former head of Fortissimo Films who is now focusing on production and consultancy. “There is no lack of films. And I’m convinced that there is no lack of interest from festivals. Rather, what we have is a convergence of very disruptive factors.”

These factors include travel to and from Asia, where places such as Hong Kong and Taiwan are still trying to eliminate COVID by border closures and quarantines; an unwillingness to play new and commercial films at festivals with large online components, due to the risks of piracy; and stalled theatrical releasing systems in many Asian territories.

Korea’s “Emergency Declaration,” which played as a special screening in Cannes, for example, has still not been able to use that status as a springboard. Its commercial release in Korea has been repeatedly delayed.

An additional headache is an apparent go-slow in censorship approvals in mainland China. Festival historians may remember Berlin 2019 losing two Chinese titles that fell afoul of changing censorship rules. In this year of a continuing Cold War with the U.S., the Beijing-hosted Winter Olympics and a Communist Party Congress in November, censors find it easier to say no than yes.

Quite which group is most impacted by Asia’s particular set of woes is moot. While interest in all forms of Korean culture is running high — think “Squid Game” and “Hellbound” — some in the industry feel that smaller production territories are worse off.

“Since the pandemic, some film festivals must adapt their programs, reducing their quotas. That situation especially impacts Asian films from countries other than the most popular ones (Japan, China, Korea, Iran or India),” said “Before Now and Then” producer Ifa Isfansya. He also points to streaming platforms as creating an expectation of immaculate production values that low-budget arthouse titles cannot match.

“Many Asian films, especially from young directors, are so personal and with a low production budget, that we really need more programmers that have the the vision to defend Asian cinema,” Isfansya said.

Other territories in the region may be going though more secular changes.

“Taiwan and Hong Kong have almost swapped roles,” said Norman Wang, a veteran publicist and consultant to the Berlin and Shanghai festivals. “Hong Kong is currently redefining itself, behind the camera and in front. Many established directors are no longer making Hong Kong movies, but instead are working in the mainland. And the new talent has not all yet emerged.”

A high degree of political uncertainty and a new censorship law are reported to be also slowing the flow of film investment in Hong Kong. The once-prolific production hub is currently subject to near-lockdowns and cinemas are currently enduring their fourth period of mandatory closure.

Taiwan, once operating at a slower pace than its neighbor, is now being ramped up by government action and multinational streamers, who have helped reinvent it as a hub for Mandarin-language series production. “This really speaks to the maturity of the Taiwanese industry,” said Wang.

But all is not doom and gloom.

“There may be a shortage of the more commercial films at the moment, but if the tentpole titles from East Asia are missing, that might be creating opportunities for others,” said Lorna Tee, who recently sat on the Tokyo festival jury and is involved in production in Malaysia and the Netherlands.

“It is great to see a mainstream Bollywood film in Berlin [Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s “Gangubai Kathiawadi” plays in Berlinale Special section] and a film by Kamila Andini in competition. She is a director who has truly worked her way up and deserves her chance,” Tee said.

Tee noted that Asian independents are now fully plugged-in to the global network of project markets, development labs and grant schemes. “Independent filmmakers really need to get out and co-produce, despite everything. And I think they are. Artistry, collaboration and co-production are not diminishing,” she said.

Others too are looking forward. “While commercial films don’t need festivals in the same way, many Asian filmmakers are living with the allure of optimism,” said Werner. “They are now focusing instead on Cannes, looking forward to meeting in person and preparing to engage with arthouse films.”