Southeast Asia 2013 in Review: 'Pee Mak' Huge in Thailand, 'Iron Man 3' Lands in Myanmar

"On the Job"

Thailand's "Pee Mak" tripled the local box office record, Philippine cinema came to the fore, and directors working in Singapore and Cambodia put their countries back on the map.

From a breakaway box office hit in Bangkok to surprise wins at Cannes, to an Indonesian social movement inspired by a documentary about genocide, the fortunes of Southeast Asia's film industries were as wildly diverse as the region itself in 2013.

Thai studio GTH smashed the country's box office record with ghost comedy Pee Mak. Iron Man 3's global domination stretched all the way to Myanmar, where the country's media and entertainment sectors continue to make gains after decades of military rule. Indonesia's monopolistic cinema sector prepared for a major shakeup, while Philippine cinema had a banner year, with more international exposure and interest than in any period in recent memory. And Cambodia's Rithy Pahn did his emerging country proud, winning the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes and being honored as the Busan Film Festival's Asian Filmmaker of the Year.

Here is a closer look at some of the big film industry stories of 2013 in Southeast Asia:

Pee Mak Triples Thai Box Office Record
Thai director Banjong Pisanthanaku's Pee Mak Phra Khanong, a rom-com take on a well-known local folk story, redefined the scale of Thailand's movie market in 2013. The film pulled in $35 million, more than tripling the $11 million gross of prior box office champ, The Legend of Suriyothai (Transformers 3, Hollywood's most successful film ever in Thailand with $10.2 million, is the all-time number three). GTH, the local studio behind Pee Mak and a string of other youth-oriented hits, then announced that it has begun setting its sights on an even bigger moving target. In August, GTH revealed a partnership with Hong Kong hitmaker Stephen Chow to co-develop the first Thailand-China co-production for the China market. 

Lost, Then Found, in Thailand
While the first co-production is still forthcoming, Thailand began feeling the impact of the Chinese industry's rise in 2013. Hit Chinese road comedy Lost in Thailand ($206 million), shot in northern Thailand and released in China at the end of 2012, inspired waves of Chinese tourists to descend on Thailand in 2013, as they looked to retrace the film's steps in Chiang Mai and have their own exotic Thai adventure. Early in the year, the president of the Chiang Mai Tourism Business Association, said the number of Chinese tourists in the region had ballooned, with the area's estimated 40,000 hotel rooms averaging 80 to 90 percent occupancy. Meanwhile, a local research group estimated that travel related business stemming from Chinese tourism will log a 44.4 percent increase once the numbers are in for 2013.

Thailand's Tourism Department sought to further emphasize the national benefit of foreign shoots by hosting a new festival solely dedicated to promoting the country's history as a destination and setting for international films.

And late in the year, the local industry was given a brief scare when a fire broke out on the set of the latest Hollywood title to shoot in Thailand, The Coup, starring Owen Wilson and Pierce Brosnan. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

Philippine Cinema Comes to the Fore
Philippine cinema began to find fresh footing abroad in 2013. At the Cannes Film Festival, for the first time three Philippine features screened in the Directors’ Fortnight and Un Certain Regard sidebars: Adolfo Alix Jr.’s prisoner of war piece, Death March; Lav Diaz’s four-hour meditation on injustice, Norte, The End of History, and crime thriller On the Job, from Erik Matti. And no less than seven Philippine films screened at the Busan festival this year. More significantly, perhaps, Matti's movie was picked up for U.S. distribution by Well Go USA and Universal Pictures optioned it for a remake, with Iceland’s Baltasar Kormakur attached to direct.

The Act of Killing Sheds New Light on Indonesian History
Following its screening at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it won the Panorama Audience Awards, The Act of Killing became one of the most talked about documentaries of 2013. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer and executive produced by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, the film inventively recreates scenes of the 1970s communist purge in Indonesia, with some of the actual perpetrators of the genocide as protagonists. The movie was screened underground in Indonesia hundreds of times for students, intellectuals and local movie enthusiasts, and has led to calls for the Indonesian government to officially acknowledge and apologize for the incidents addressed by the film.

Indonesia's cinema sector, meanwhile, has long been criticized as inadequate for the country's 240 million population, and non-competitive, because of the near monopoly local exhibitor Cinema 21 has held since the Suharto era (the company controls 90 percent or more of Indonesian screens). But in November, a deep-pocked local conglomerate, the Lippo Group, announced plans to shake up the industry. The group plans to open its first cinema in February and will roll out 1,000 more screens over the next five years.

"A New Chapter for Singaporean Cinema"
Twenty-nine year-old Singaporean director Anthony Chen's debut feature, Ilo Ilo, won nearly every award it was in the running for in 2013. Chen's subtle domestic drama picked up the Camera d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and later became a surprise hit at home in Singapore, where Hollywood blockbusters and local genre fare typically dominates. Ilo Ilo also won Chen best director and best feature trophies at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards, shortly after he singed with UTA. Many in the Singaporean industry have hailed the film for proving that independent cinema is commercially and critically viable in the territory. 

Rithy Pahn Carries the Banner for Cambodian Culture
Cambodian director Rithy Pahn had a busy 2013. His latest feature, The Missing Picture, won the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes and shortly after he organized and launched Southeast Asia's first cinema heritage film festival in Phnom Penh – at the visual culture center he also founded. The Missing Picture was Cambodia's official entry in the Oscar race for best foreign language film and made the December short-list. For his efforts, Pahn was also named the Busan film fest's Asian Filmmaker of the Year.

Myanmar Entertainment Regains Its Footing
After decades of military rule and repression, Myanmar continued to open its doors to the world in 2013. Tony Stark's global box office reign reached all the way to the once reclusive Southeast Asian country, where a record number of cinema-goers turned out to see Iron Man 3. And a new locally organized human rights film festival made use of the country's new found freedom of expression, taking international and local documentaries on a cinematic roadshow to 13 villages across rural provinces -- in some regions where many residents had never experienced cinema.