Why Is Southeast Asian Cinema Lagging Behind?
Since the 1970s, Southeast Asian films have experienced a steady growth in recognition both within and outside their domestic markets. Then in the 1990s, the industry experienced a resurgence of interest as a new wave of independent auteurs—from Singapore’s Eric Khoo and Thailand’s Pen-Ek Ratanaruang to Malaysia's U-Wei Saari—shaped their local film sectors with unique directorial visions and provocative works.
In the two decades following, several of the region’s filmmakers, both commercial and art house, also experienced success. From the 2003 action flick Ong Bak and 2004 horror film Shutter to the 2013 family drama Ilo Ilo, directed by Gen.T honouree Anthony Chen, which won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Southeast Asian cinema has been steadily on the rise.
But on a global stage, Southeast Asian filmmakers have yet to see the same level of international recognition as their South and East Asian counterparts. This is due to a combination of factors, say the three filmmakers we speak to, including the nature of Southeast Asian films and the lack of a well-equipped ecosystem to groom and support talent. Here's what they have to say:
It’s long been said that cinema is a universal language. "It's the language of images," said celebrated Mauritania-born Malian film director and producer Abderrahmane Sissako. “Each image can be traced to a specific place, and that makes the territory of an artist an important issue.”
Despite this, Indonesian filmmaker Mouly Surya says language remains an additional hurdle that Southeast Asian filmmakers have to overcome. “When your film is in English, your market is naturally bigger than when it isn’t.”
For commercially successful foreign films coming out of countries such as France, China and South Korea, the existence of a strong film culture within their local markets has given them great cultural cachet.
“Different films carry within them different cultural capital depending on where they are made,” says Singaporean filmmaker Kirsten Tan. “To give an example, if we had two equally lauded films coming out of international film festivals at the same time, one is French and the other is Burmese, more often than not, the French film will get more traction once it’s released simply because it’s French. We need to recognise that there is entrenched cultural imperialism that is working against many Southeast Asian films and filmmakers. The path for us [Southeast Asian filmmakers] isn’t as greased and it takes more [effort] to get a breakthrough."
Both Surya and Tan agree that in order for Southeast Asian films and filmmakers to gain more recognition, the change has to start locally.
In Indonesia, for instance, there are fewer than 2,000 cinema screens for a population of nearly 270 million people—or about 0.6 screens per 100,000 people. By contrast, the US has about 12.5 screens per 100,000 citizens, while China has about 4.3 screens per 100,000. This limits the exposure and success of local films, even though the large size of the market suggests otherwise. But this looks likely to change in the years to come, as the Indonesian government relaxes its restrictions on international investment into the local film industry.
In fact, access to funding and distribution networks is an issue prevalent across the region. During a roundtable film event organised by Purin Pictures in Bangkok last July, Filipino screenwriter and film producer Monster Jimenez said that this may be due to the lumping of films from Southeast Asia as a single genre, which forces a diversity of filmmakers to compete with each other for a limited pool of resources.
“I’ve had a hard time convincing sales agents that my film was a hip-hop film, not a Southeast Asian film,” said Jimenez of her experience producing Respeto, a 2017 independent film directed by Treb Monteras II about an aspiring young rapper and an elderly poet. “It feels like we’re competing with the rest of the world, but we’re always at a disadvantage.”
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In many countries across the region, state-imposed censorship plays a big part in hindering the growth of its local film sector. In Singapore, for instance, films by directors like Tan, as well as fellow Gen.T honouree Boo Junfeng, are subjected to strict classification guidelines set by the country’s media authority.
“If we really want Singapore’s film scene to flourish and see our filmmakers make bold films that naturally attract eyeballs, we should relook at and revise our Film Act,” says Tan. “It currently limits original storytelling by curtailing works from exploring political issues or featuring queer characters. And I absolutely believe that this pervading culture of censorship and self-censorship handicaps the growth of our film industry.”
In Thailand, the government has cultivated a culture of censorship to curb any form of dissent, while its film censorship board has been called "unpredictable". The passing of its 2008 Film Act introduced a new ratings system, which was seen as an update of its controversial 1930 Film Act. The law, which local filmmakers have described as vague and unclear, maintains the government's power to ban films based on disrupting "public order".
Boo says a large proportion of Southeast Asian cinema today is driven by arthouse films, which are not always made to make money.
“Many Singaporean filmmakers like myself want our voices to be heard in our films,” he says. “We’re artists who want to produce authentic films that speak of life and don’t replicate any formula simply to please the domestic audience. We wouldn’t be making such films if we were focused purely on commercial gain. And this is where one of our biggest challenges lies—to grow the local audience’s appreciation and demand for our kind of films.”
Local film festivals can help in this respect, Boo says, citing the example of the Singapore International Film Festival, which relaunched in 2014 after a two-year hiatus. The filmmaker himself is a beneficiary of the annual film event and has shown several of his short films in previous years. Today, he is one of its board members.
“It has three decades of credibility and cultivating relationships, so it’s highly regarded in the region,” he says. “More importantly, bigger film festivals often have regional scouts based in Southeast Asia that attend local film events to look for new talents and voices. So there’s an opportunity to be discovered for regional or international exposure.”
Surya shares a similar view to Boo. “A film festival is like fashion week,” she says. “It exposes people to local content through the immersive experience of a film event. Film festivals can help to build new communities of fans, while inspiring new talent to the industry and attracting new sources of support for filmmakers."
Building strong foundations
In addition to local film festivals, Tan also points out the potential benefits of implementing screen quotas, a system that will require local cinemas to keep a minimum number of screening days per year for domestic films. "Policies like that can help to protect the distribution aspect of the domestic industry," she says.
The UK was the first to enforce this system in 1927, with other countries such as France and South Korea following suit as a means to protect their local film industry.
At present, there are only a few initiatives serving to elevate the Southeast Asian film industry. In Singapore, the Singapore Film Commission (SFC) has been providing support to young talents such as Tan and Boo, offering scholarships to aspiring filmmakers and funding short and feature films. It has also launched a co-production grant for filmmakers across the region.
The entry of streaming giants such as Netflix, which established its Asia-Pacific headquarters in Singapore, also brings promise of greater recognition to Southeast Asia's filmmakers. "It's an interesting new development for Southeast Asia because Netflix isn't just a passive platform that screens films and TV shows," says Tan. "They're also active content creators and tastemakers with immense financial backing."
How streaming will shape Southeast Asian cinema has yet to be seen, but Tan remains hopeful. "It's possible that platforms like Netflix might become somewhat of a monopolising entity," she says. "But hopefully they will also enable regional storytellers to create more original domestic content while exposing international audiences to films from different cultures."
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