With nearly twice the population of the U.S., youthful demographics and an increasingly positive economic forecast, the region's film future is brighter than ever.
Whenever the surging growth of China's box office finally begins to abate, bet on Hollywood to turn its sights toward Southeast Asia. With a collective population of 620 million (nearly double that of the United States), youthful demographics and a steadily expanding middle-class, the region is set to become a hotspot for filmgoing.
“Generally, the Southeast Asian region represents what many believe is the next great global growth story in the industry,” says Rance Pow, founder and president of Artisan Gateway, a cinema consulting company specializing in Asia. Pow points out, however, that the region is a patchwork of development scenarios, with wildly different levels of industry expertise, cinema infrastructure, regulatory frameworks, and moviegoing habits and tastes. “In fact,” Pow adds, “the Southeast Asian nations are every bit as diverse a collection of film markets as many people commonly understand the European nations to be.”
Despite such diversity, the film communities in most nations of the region are united by a sense of positive momentum. Southeast Asia’s developed territories have begun to assert their voices more confidently at international festivals — Singapore has two films in Cannes this year — while rapid cinema construction in the developing countries has meant a bigger overall pie for both local studios and Hollywood distributors. And the region’s stunning locations and rich cultural histories continue to attract high-profile Hollywood productions — Legendary Entertainment’s Kong: Skull Island concluded a multimonth shoot in northern Vietnam early this year, while Angelina Jolie Pitt recently wrapped her next directorial feature, First They Killed My Father, in Battambang, Cambodia.
Here’s a closer look at five key territories in transition.
The past year has been a mixed bag for the Thai film sector. GTH, the country’s most influential film studio of the past five years (it produced Thailand’s all-time biggest film, Pee Mak, which earned $33 million in 2013), was forced to dissolve following a dispute between its owners. But before the studio closed shop, it scored a commercial and critical hit with cult indie director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s mainstream debut, Freelance, about an overworked graphic designer who falls in love with a beautiful, young doctor who treats him for a rash. The film dominated the first two weekends of September, grossing $2.3 million.
Last year also saw the return of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose Cemetery of Splendor, premiered at Cannes but was never released in Thailand due to the director’s concerns that it would cause trouble with the military dictatorship that has ruled the country since 2014. That year, Thailand suffered its first decline in foreign productions since the 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami. But the global industry appears to be returning to the location-rich and wellcrewed country. Last year, the number of foreign shoots increased by 15 percent, led by China, which shot 48 films there. (Thailand has been a favorite foreign location of the Chinese industry since local comedy Lost in Thailand broke China’s then-all-time box-office record in 2012.)
Talent to Watch: Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit
After winning the Busan New Currents award with his debut 36 (2012) and premiering his second film Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy (2013) in Venice, Nawapol swept the 2015 Thailand National Film Association Awards, taking eight trophies with his latest rom-com Freelance, including best film and best director. Die Tomorrow, his next project, entails six short segments about the impermanence of life, all inspired by deaths reported in Thai daily newspapers. It is one of three projects being featured in Thailand’s annual Thai Pitch Event during Cannes this year.
"Through a combination of individual efforts, the actions of organizations, the opening of quality movie theaters and the democratization of digital cinema, it is obvious that the Cambodian film industry has really been undergoing a revival in recent years,” says Cambodian-French director Davy Chou, whose first feature-length documentary, Golden Slumbers, explores the birth of Cambodian cinema in the 1960s and its destruction by the Khmer Rouge.
Chou points to Cambodian director Kulikar Sotho’s recent win of the Tokyo International Film Festival’s Spirit of Asia Award, as well as increased Cambodian participation at the Asian Film Academy in Busan, as signs that the Cambodian industry is gradually coming into its own. “Many young filmmakers have started to make short films, whereas I couldn’t name a single one six years ago,” says Chou. Occasional Hollywood shoots are warmly welcomed by the country for the learning opportunities they offer to hired crews and technicians. Angelina Jolie Pitt’s Khmer Rouge drama First They Killed My Father, co-produced by Cambodian auteur and Cannes favorite Rithy Panh, trained a large number of Cambodian crewmembers when it began filming there in February.
Talent to Watch: Davy Chou
Filmmaker Chou is one of the leading voices — and advocates — of the resurgent Cambodian cinema scene. In 2009, he established a filmmaking workshop in four Phnom Penh schools and founded a collective for young Cambodian filmmakers. His feature-length debut, Golden Slumbers (2011), was selected by the Berlinale Forum and the Busan International Film Festival. His fictional short Cambodia 2099 screened in Directors’ Fortnight in 2014. Chou is back at Cannes this year with his fictional feature debut, Diamond Island, a coming-of-age drama set amidst the rapid modernization of present-day Cambodia.
Vietnam's box office grew 10 percent in 2015 to hit $85.2 million. The budding box office has led to a bumper crop of local filmmaking, says Victor Vu, director of Yellow Flowers on the Green Grass, Vietnam’s highest-grossing film last year. “Currently there is a Vietnamese film released nearly every week,” he says. “Just five years ago, we saw maybe 10 films released all year.” A shortage of experienced film professionals is seen as the biggest factor holding the local industry back from taking full advantage of the new market opportunities. “From scriptwriters to editors to colorists, there is a huge need for experienced professionals to help keep up with the growth of the industry,” says veteran producer Tran Thi Bich Ngoc. Tran and leading local Vietnamese directors Phan Dang Di and Tran Anh Hung host a film forum in Danang every fall called the Autumn Meeting, where they conduct workshops with emerging directors and crew.
Talent to Watch: Nguyen Phuong Anh
Born in Vietnam and educated in the U.K. and the U.S., Nguyen wrote and directed several award-winning shorts before the screenplay for her feature debut, The Third Wife, was chosen by Spike Lee as a recipient of the Spike Lee Film Production Fund award in 2014. In March, the project won the top prize for foreign productions at the 14th Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum. Set in 19th century rural Vietnam, the project tells the story of a newly married 14-year-old who must fight to find her place in a household full of strangers. Produced by Tran, it begins shooting later this year.
In 2013, the Malaysian government introduced a hefty 30 percent cash rebate for all in-country production spending. The incentive was timed to coincide with the launch of Malaysia’s flagship $150 million Pinewood Iskandar film studio. There are signs that the rebates and cutting-edge facilities are having the desired effect. Netflix’s period adventure series Marco Polo, produced by The Weinstein Co., signed on to shoot its second season there, and Andy Serkis’ Imaginarium Studios announced in March that it is launching a specialist performance-capture and content creation hub at the facility. The hope is that the international skills concentrated at the studio will begin to spill over into the local industry as more and more Malaysia technicians staff the various projects and companies concentrated at Pinewood.
The National Film Development of Malaysia and Creative Content Malaysia are again showcasing the country’s top talent at their annual Malaysia Goes to Cannes program, running May 16-20. Five of the country’s most exportable titles will be screened for potential buyers.
Talent to Watch: Syamsul Yusof
Thirty-one-year-old director Syamsul’s latest horror film, Munafik, became the second-highest-grossing local Malaysian film ever upon its release last year, totaling $4.3 million. Malaysia’s first “Muslim horror” film, Munafik tells the story of Adam, an Islamic medical practitioner who cannot accept the death of his wife from a hit-and-run accident. The son of prolific Malaysian director Haslam Yusof, Syamsul has directed nine films to date and his audience has steadily grown.
The year is poised to be a breakout one for Singapore, which has two films at Cannes: Boo Junfeng’s Apprentice in Un Certain Regard and K. Rajagopal’s A Yellow Bird in International Critics’ Week. In 2013, Anthony Chen’s domestic drama Ilo Ilo put Singapore on the map, winning the Camera d’Or. “That was a milestone for the industry,” says Chen. “And it is such great news to see that wave continue with this year’s crop. It’s a real achievement for a country of our size.” Notably, the Singaporean films gaining recognition abroad are grittier than the genre fare that the country has been known for in the past, says Chen. Boo’s film deals with Singapore’s capital punishment system, and Rajagopal’s is about a convict trying to rebuild his life after a prison term.
Singapore already has one of the world’s highest per capita cinema attendance rates at 4.2 visits per person per year, and total box office remained flat last year at $161 million. According to Chen, an inward focus, paradoxically, is what will help the local industry continue expanding its influence overseas. “Rather than trying to reverse engineer what we think would appeal to international audiences, we should start with what will move and excite locals — authentic stories, narratives that take risks and articulate diverse Singaporean experiences,” says Chen. “Because this authenticity is what will ignite global interest.”
Talent to Watch: Boo Junfeng
Boo made his feature-length directorial debut in 2010 with Sandcastle, which premiered at Cannes’ International Critics’ Week and won the awards for best film and best director, as well as the NETPAC Jury Award at the Vietnam International Film Festival. Boo is back at Cannes this year with his second feature, Apprentice, which will compete in Un Certain Regard. A moody drama examining Singapore’s capital punishment system, the film took Boo five years to research, write and produce.