Asian Alliance


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Related: Infinite possibilities

BEIJING -- Beijing may have dethroned Hong Kong as the center of Chinese-language filmmaking but in sprawling, polyglot Southeast Asia it is harder to say where the moviemaking heart beats strongest.

From Malaysia and Indonesia to Thailand and Singapore, the market of 11 countries -- where more than 560 million people speak more than 44 languages -- is, at best, fragmented. But at every point of the compass it's also wildly rich in storytelling tradition.

With a strong taste for Hollywood blockbusters and, from country to country, varying levels of media freedom, government support, film industry infrastructure and preparedness to deal with economic crisis, Southeast Asia is the very definition of untapped cinematic potential.

In 2008, for instance, Vietnam more than doubled domestic distribution, opening its 100th movie screen (for 85 million people), while neighboring Laos produced its first commercial feature in 33 years ("Good Morning, Luang Prabang").

But with the three movies going to the 62nd Cannes Film Festival, it's not hard to argue that filmmakers from the Philippines occupy the vanguard of a new wave of Southeast Asian moviemaking.

Director Brillante Mendoza's dark drama "Kinatay" (the word means "butchered" in Tagalog) is one of 20 movies chosen to compete for the Palme d'Or, making "Dante" (his nickname) the first Filipino director ever to descend on the Croissette two years in a row.

Next, "Manila" -- co-directed by Adolfo Alix, Jr., and Raya Martin -- is one of just six movies chosen for a Cannes special screening. And Martin's "Independencia" fills out the Filipino trifecta as one of 20 movies included in the festival's Un Certain Regard section celebrating "young talent, innovative and audacious works."

Mendoza's encore at Cannes is all the more remarkable for the speed with which he pulled it off. Just as with "Serbis" -- which he shot digitally starting last March 21 and finished in time for Cannes 2008 -- "Kinatay" (a.k.a. "The Execution of P" and "Chop Chop") also was shot in no time at all; and for under $100,000.

"I work best when I'm under pressure and doing everything at once," Mendoza told The Hollywood Reporter over the phone from just outside a Manila editing room the day after he learned he'd been invited back to Cannes.

Though the story had been brewing ever since a ghastly murder by ex-military killers hit Filipino newspapers in 2004, Mendoza and "Serbis" writer Armando Lao didn't finish the "Kinatay" script until late January and began shooting "early," at the end of February. "It feels great to be doing it again," Mendoza said.

Producer Ferdinand Lapuz, Mendoza and French executive producer Didier Costet (who also backed "Serbis") always planned to take the film -- which stars former Miss Philippines, Maria Isabel Lopez -- to Cannes; but the morning after the film was accepted, Lapuz admitted: "I didn't even know it was finished!"

Focused, lean and mean is the Mendoza message. No actor on his set is allowed to take up bread-and-butter work on TV soaps until Mendoza's finished with him or her.

"With these films, we can't make back our money in the home market, so I don't encourage my directors to transfer to 35 millimeter from digital until we have the festival invitation in hand," Lapuz said on the phone from Manila, thrilled to be a part of the experiment.

To the West, in Bangkok, where three multiplex chains earn steady money on a mix of homegrown ghost thrillers and Hollywood tent poles, Gilbert Lim of Sahamongkol Film International, is following another business model entirely. Southeast Asia is nothing if not diverse.

Lim, a Singaporean who has worked in Thailand for 16 years, says the Thai movie market has become crowded with a new picture releasing every week. Five years ago, it was once a month. Sahamongkol is Thailand's largest independent distributor, handling titles such as "Twilight" and the Cannes- bound "Drag Me to Hell." But the company is best known for producing crowd-pleasing films on the shoulders of action star Tony Jaa ("Ong Bak").

"If you look at Hollywood, what sells?," Lim said. "The biggest films are usually action films. This is a formula we like and one we'll stick to." He allows, however, that despite a rise in boxoffice sales in the first quarter of the year, Jaa's last period action epic, "Ong Bak 2," was a slight disappointment at home after its December release, earning only $3.5 million.

Though the plot-lite but action-packed film about a 15th century elephant-herding warrior's revenge sold to Magnolia in North America and Jaa, who also directed it, now is making a $15 million sequel for release at the end of the year, Lim said, "the time might, no, will come when we'll have to look further afield for finance."

Thai banks are being more careful about where they spend and there's a strengthening temptation to snap up one of the regular offers to work with other Asian martial arts legends. "Trouble is," Lim said, "Our model of development and production is so quick that it may not make sense for co-pro partners to come in."

Still, he said, "Tony has never made it a secret that he'd love to work with Jackie (Chan) and Jet (Li). All three of them together would be a dream project."

Jaa is, after all, Southeast Asia's brightest star these days, with all due respect to Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh ("Mummy, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"). So Sahamongkol is grooming Jaa's female foil in 25-year-old actress JeeJa Yanin whose as-yet- unnamed kickboxing action adventure follow-on (but not sequel) to the 2008 film "Chocolate" (2008) is going to market at Cannes.

The age-old industry themes of cultivating new talent and forming cross-border partnerships are never more apparent than with a group of movie-mad filmmakers and industry executives with an audience too small to support their craft in tiny Singapore.

Founded in 1965 after declaring independence from Malaysia and decades of British colonial rule, Singapore has built itself into the region's model business hub by drawing elite talent in every field to its orderly multicultural island of just over 4 million people.

The government's Media Development Authority promotes and supports the heck out of local filmmaking and, over the years, has hoisted up director Jack Neo ("I Not Stupid") as an example of a local boy made good.

All the focus on Neo's locally inflected, heart-warming comedies in English and Mandarin and Cantonese has begun to pay off. "Suddenly the 'local' market for Jack's films is Singapore and Malaysia which allows us to grow his budget and earn a lot more back," producer Daniel Yun, founder of MediaCorp. Raintree, says.

Neo's "I Not Stupid 2" is the only Singaporean film ever to screen in Hong Kong's vibrant movie market for any length of time, earning HKD$5 million. His latest films got backing from Malaysia's Premiere Media and Double Vision and Neo himself is raising $7 million to make financial co-productions for distribution in China.

Singaporean filmmakers have long been hampered by a small market, says Yun, noting with no shortage of excitement that 10 years ago the country made only three films a year and now makes about 15. "Getting our movies to travel is everything," he says. "It's the main thing that will make our business sustainable."