Behind the camera

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Challenges and opportunities for Southeast Asia’s movie industries.

Manila in the Claws of Light is like an Italian Neo-Realist film set in Hell”.

This was the comment regarding the film of Lino Brocka, the most famous Filipino director and producer. The movie received critical acclaim already in 1975 when it was released. From the East: FAMAS (Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences Awards) awarded it the prize of Best Movie, Best Director, Best Photography Direction, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor. But also from the West: it was added to the list of Best Movies in The World, screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013, and written about in an extensive article in the New York Times. In its Blu-Ray version, the movie is introduced by Martin Scorsese.

In the golden years of Italian cinema, it was quite unusual to hear about Southeast Asian actors and directors. However, the receptivity of Brocka and others in Europe from the 2000s is the sign of the new interest in the Asian continent’s seventh art. The most striking case is probably Parasite, the movie by the South Korean director Bong Joon-ho which was in 2020 the first movie in the world to be awarded the Oscar prize as Best Movie and Best International Movie simultaneously. 

Compared to Japan and Korea, there are still many difficulties for ASEAN countries to break into the Western film market. However, despite obstacles, some of them have managed in recent years to fit into the Cinema International Festivals circuit.

Indonesia is a good example with its Gundala, a superhero movie sprung from the creative vein of the director Joko Anwar. The main character is based on one of the protagonists of the Indonesian comic artist Harya “Hasmi” Suraminata, or “Indonesian Stan Lee” thanks to his 50+ years of experience in drawing cartoons. Gundala is probably the most famous superhero in Indonesia, and Anwar decided to pick him as a subject for his film. Released in 2019, Gundala drew more than one million visitors to movie theatres in just one week. The premiere was held at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is not uncommon to find it in several Italian Far East Asia Festivals held throughout the year, together with Impetigore, a horror masterpiece from the same director. In 2020 Gundala was also dubbed in French and released on Blu-Ray by Condor Films, an industry well known for distributing Cannes or Sundance Film Festival award-winning movies.

The documentary genre is well represented by Midi-Z, a movie director born in Myanmar but a naturalised Taiwanese citizen. His Ice Poison, released in 2014, was selected by Taiwan to compete for the Foreign Language Academy Awards. A sensible choice considering its debut at the Berlin Film Festival and its award as “Best International Feature Movie” at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Midi-Z himself was nominated as “Taiwanese Director of the Year” at Taipei’s 53rd Golden Horse Awards. Despite he is a naturalised Taiwanese citizen, Myanmar is a constant theme of his works: from Return to Burma (2014) to Road to Mandalay (2016).

Despite Southeast Asian movies’ versatility, not a lot of them can reach European movie theatres if we exclude Film Festivals. Not only weak demand from the market, but also the lack of funds and government support for the creative movie industry play a major role. Italy, in this sense, is privileged: there are important spaces for Asian movies in many Italian cities, first and foremost the Venice Film Festival. For some years now, Rai (Italian State Broadcaster) too offers attractive spaces on a global level for moviegoers, where they can find special products as well as niche curiosities. A crucial role for Italy, that if used properly, might lead even more people to enjoy the ASEAN countries’ rich film repertoire.

By Valentina Beomonte Zobel

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