New Currents filmmakers cautiously optimistic

Directors face hurdles for Asian independent cinema

BUSAN, South Korea -- Emerging directors across Asia a wary hope for independent cinema in Asia despite the pitfalls of distribution barriers for art house films at Monday's Directors' Presentation Event, featuring 12 directors and one producer from the Pusan International Film Festival’s New Currents competition.

Producer Dustin Nguyen of the film “Floating Lives” – a Mekong Delta-set tale of cuckolded husband whose children bring home a wounded prostitute - said Vietnam is experiencing a new wave. “It's very exciting and promising.  I think the momentum started about two years ago.”

“There aren’t a lot of challenges to get distributed because there is a thirst for locally-made films, so distributors are more than willing to take on locally-produced films that reach a certain technical standard.” Nguyen said that although there are only about 100 screens for a population of 86 million, more theaters are appearing to keep pace with demand. 

In the Philippines the independent film movement is showing prolific productivity and mainstream cinema is threatened by a decline. Sheron Dayoc, director of “Ways of the Sea” a film about human trafficking, said that both state support and support from local festivals such as Cinemalaya is responsible for the fecund growth in indie cinema. Filmmakers rely on themselves to bring their films to audiences.

“We do our own legwork in terms of distribution. We market our own films, touring schools and colleges,” Dayoc said. Meanwhile, he thinks mainstream cinema is ailing. “What’s happening now in mainstream Philippine cinema is it's slowly losing its audience – most commercial films don’t earn back their bottom line.” 

In Hong Kong, filmmakers are eagerly eyeing the mainland.  Derek Tsang, who co-directed the romantic omnibus “Lover’s Discourse” with Jimmy Wan, sees the surrounding province of Guangdong as a huge market where Cantonese is used.  “Over there we can have our own Cantonese version screening,” he said. 

Chris Chow, director of supernatural thriller “Strawberry Cliff” warns that producing Hong Kong films for both local and mainland markets is difficult.  

“The China market is huge and developing a lot – but there are lots of issues in terms of cultural background because Hong Kong is very different from China – so if you cater to the mainland audiences a lot of local audiences will walk away.  It’s hard to find a middle ground.” 

China’s strict import barriers on films are another hurdle, but one that can be jumped, he said. “Co-productions with China are the best way to access the market.”

In China itself, independent filmmakers face the challenge of finding audiences. Lu Yang, director of “My Spectacular Theater,” about a movie theater for the blind, laments that blockbusters rule. “Chinese audiences have a lot of pressure in life so they don’t want to pay money to see a more serious-toned independent film – they prefer blockbusters.” 

He added that with the recent proliferation of screens across the country, a niche market for independent films is starting to grow and production companies are trying to build a cinema chain for art house and independent films. 

Over in India, the outlook for independent films is less promising according to Sanjoy Nag, director of “Memories of March” – a drama bound to be controversial at home because of its homosexual themes. “In India, homosexuality was illegal until only last year when the law was overturned.  But you cannot change the mindset of a people with law.” 

Independent cinema in India faces a similar hostile environment. “Discrimination takes place not at the audience level but at the distribution level. Even with a television deal, the time-slot is never prime time. And Indian media generally ignore or are hostile towards independent films.”

Two films from the New Currents competition will take home prizes of $30,000 each. Emmy winner Wada Emi heads the New Currents jury, and is joined by Indian director Murali Nair, "Lost" star Kim Yun-jin, Taiwan actress Yang Kuei-mei, and Berlin film festival International Forum head Christoph Terechte.