Southeast Asia Starting to Loosen Hollywood's Hold on Its Home Turf

Directors from the region like Brillante Mendoza and Apichatpong Weerasethakul are growing in prestige on the global stage.

Local cinema in Southeast Asia last year was a typical showcase year for the region. Avatar dominated, both for the year and all-time, demonstrating once again the strength of Hollywood product in those markets. However, the year also continued to show that while domestic audiences may still choose Hollywood fare, local filmmakers are creating compelling films that can make an impression on the international stage.

Hollywood’s domination of Southeast Asian box office is increasingly facing competition, but not from local film industries. The region’s two major cultural powers — China and India, each of which have large expatriate populations in many Southeast Asian countries — are appealing to cinemagoers in those countries. That’s primarily bad news for local film sectors that struggle to create a following in their own country or language.

Ironically, it is overseas that Southeast Asian directors are finding acclaim, and Cannes has been one of the best platforms for them.

Aside from possibly having the entry with the longest combined title and director’s name ever, Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives won the Palme d’Or. Capping a competition that featured a strong Asian field, Apichatpong was the only Southeast Asian representative. He maintained the Southeast Asian presence initiated in 2008 by Singapore’s Eric Khoo who competed with My Magic, and followed in 2009 by the Philippines’ Brillante Mendoza with Kinatay, which earned him a Camera d’Or. By contrast, the 2011 edition has no Southeast Asian films in competition, although Khoo’s Tatsumi appears in the Un Certain Regard category.

Here’s a look at developments in each of Southeast Asia’s film sectors:

The Philippines
The Philippines remains Asia’s most avid movie-going nation, but more often than not that means seeing Hollywood fare. However, the success of Brillante Mendoza — at least critical success on the international circuit — has given a boost to local filmmakers.

Digital filmmaking seems to be the method of choice. Along with Mendoza, Manila’s Raymond Red has used the high-definition Red One camera with success to produce Manila Skies, an independent and controversial film that looked at turn of the 20th century politics in the Philippines. Funding and distribution remain the main barriers, as cinema operators stick with what makes money, and that, for the moment, remains Hollywood blockbusters and the declining number of mainstream films the Philippines itself produces each year.

Despite its small size and population (fewer than 5 million), Singapore sucks up a vast amount of Southeast Asia’s heat and light. 2011 will be no different for the island nation, as it plans to audaciously plant its flag as claimant to the title of “Nation That Finally Got the Southeast Asian Film Festival Right,” when the red carpet rolls out for ScreenSingapore for the first time in June.

Certainly a reliable outlet for Hollywood product, it still took the Avatar juggernaut to finally knock off local favorite, Jack Neo’s Money No Enough as its all-time box office king, after more than a decade.

Beyond attempting to put itself on the world film festival calendar, Singapore is also trying to establish itself as a production center for regional film. It is the only Asian nation that has signed a co-production with China, and also holds a co-production treaty with Australia, under which the shark film Bait 3D was made in October.

To support filmmaking, the Media Development Authority, which regulates film in Singapore, launched a $74 million film fund in cooperation with China-based Gobi Partners shortly after the China co-production treaty was signed, and followed up by establishing a further $50 million fund to back filmmaking in Singapore, in cooperation with Korean giant CJ Entertainment. It also created a separate international animation fund with FremantleMedia Enterprises that offers up to $3.5 million per qualified animation project, for film and other media.

The MDA also struck a deal with Tiger Gate Entertainment — a joint venture between Lionsgate and Saban Capital — through 2014 to commission an action, horror and thriller slate, which would then receive production, distribution and television output under the agreement.

Just a month before Aphichatpong Weerasethakul stood to receive the Palme d’Or last year, parts of Bangkok were in flames, including the historic, 800-seat Siam Theatre, torched by Red-Shirt, anti-government protesters. Also consumed in the blaze was the 15-screen SF World Cinema, which burned along with Central World, Thailand’s largest shopping mall. The latter cinema, and part of the mall, re-opened in October.

One of Thai cinemas top overseas icons, martial arts star Tony Jaa, stepped into less than a month after the fires, releasing Ong Bak 3, the third film in his trilogy of the same name. However, despite being an established star, the film received poor reviews and performed poorly at the box office, taking in only about 40% of the $8.5 million the second Ong Bak film did. An ongoing curfew in Thailand may have negatively affected the film’s run.

Most controversial was Insects in the Backyard. Banned by the Film Board of Thailand, the film portrays the struggle of a transgender father raising two children. The film’s transgender director, Tanwarin Sukkhapisit, appealed the ban but was unsuccessful in securing an adults-only classification for it. Despite the regular appearance of transgender people on Thai television and in films, graphic sex rather than its actual theme would have set off the censors.

One of Thai film’s other stars, Ananda Everingham, made his debut as an action star in The Red Eagle, a remake of a 1960s film series with the same name. The film received poor reviews and underperformed at the box office.

In October 2010, Vietnam gambled that the Asian festival season — with the Busan International Film Festival early that month and the Tokyo International Film Festival at its end — had room for one more cinema event, and scheduled its first-ever Vietnam International Film Festival right in the middle.

The event was in part designed to coincide with celebrations of Hanoi’s millennium, but also to jump-start the film industry of this nation of 80 million, half of whom were born after the end of the Vietnam War.

International participants included jury members Australian film director Phillip Noyce [The Quiet American] and Venice Film Festival artistic director Marco Mueller.

“It’s very important to have a new event in Southeast Asia,” Mueller says. “There have been other attempts, but they did not correspond with a dynamic scene. The population is very young, and it is quite right to escort those new talents for discovery both within Vietnam and outside.”

Although its “international” moniker was not inaccurate, the Vietnam festival was more of a showcase for Southeast Asian film, and indeed, with the exception of a best actress award, all of the festival’s honors went to Southeast Asians, including best directing and best feature for Singaporean Boo Junfeng’s Sandcastles.

The five-day festival was more like a film event than an actual festival. Screenings of the 68 films were shown at three venues spread out across Hanoi. Some attending the festival complained they didn’t know when their films were being shown, or that they arrived at screenings only to find they had been moved or rescheduled.

Laos’s UNESCO world heritage city of Luang Prabang held its first-ever film festival in December 2010. The festival in the city of 100,000 featured an entirely Southeast Asian film lineup. Organized by American expatriate Gabriel Kupermann, the event was designed to help spark Lao filmmaking. Because Luang Prabang, despite having previously been colonized by the French, has no cinemas of its own, all screenings were held outdoors, on screens provided by Utah-based Open Air Cinema.

Jonathan Landreth in Beijing contributed to this article.