Thai Cinema as an instrument of ASEAN soft power

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The pandemic has had a dual effect on the film industry in Southeast Asia. While it has caused a freeze in domestic theater screenings and given way to new consumer trends, it has also confirmed the resilience of the more traditional culture of cinema in physical theatres.

Recently, Southeast Asian cinema has made an appearance on international screens, demonstrating how the region's dynamism also finds expression in a vibrant film production. Back in 2017, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the regional organization, Vongthep Arthakaivalvatee, Deputy Secretary General for the ASEAN Sociocultural Community, extolled the role of the film industry as a “vehicle to promote ASEAN awareness and intercultural understanding regionally and internationally”.

In this panorama, Thai cinema stands out. Domestic production amounts to 40-50 films per year and normally represents about one fifth of the total box office of the entire sector, while the remaining market share is occupied by foreign imported films, mostly from the United States. In the past two years, however, the domestic film industry has managed to secure a larger share of the market, benefiting from the delays and complications in the distribution of foreign blockbusters caused by the pandemic. In 2020, the local comedy "Riam, Fighting Angel" (2020) even beat out "Tenet" (2020) and "Mulan" (2020), both U.S. films nominated for the latest Oscars, at the box office.

But it is on international screens that the most significant successes have been recorded. Despite competing with the well-established film industries of Japan and South Korea, Thai productions have recently made their way onto the circuit of the major international festivals, receiving praise from foreign critics and audiences. This summer alone, Thai director Apichatpong Weerasetakul, already a Palme d'Or winner in 2010 with "Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives" (2010), won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival with his latest film "Memoria" (2021), as well as the Grand Prix d’Honneur at the Marseille International Film Festival. The film "One For The Road" (2021), produced by renowned filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai and directed by Baz Poonpiriya from Thailand, was awarded for its "creative vision" at Sundance 2021, the most important international kermesse for independent cinema, while the black-and-white family drama "The Edge of Daybreak" (2021) won a Critics' Award at the International Film Festival in Rotterdam.

However, along with the wave of international attention, the challenges imposed by the pandemic have also intensified. Most of the Thai titles that made their world premieres have not yet been able to debut in their home countries. In April, a third wave of COVID-9 prompted semi-lockdown measures that not only forced the entire industry to shut down, but also triggered significant changes in social and viewing habits. Forced to spend more time in their homes, consumers have shifted significantly toward video streaming services and, as a result, some production companies are rethinking distribution strategies by repurposing them for on-demand platforms.

On the other hand, some professionals in the sector are more reluctant to say goodbye to cinema culture in its more traditional version and are ready to wait for theaters to reopen so that they can continue with in-person screenings. Banjong Pisanthanakun, who directed the Thai-South Korean horror co-production "The Medium" (2021), underlined that the most passionate cinephiles will hardly give up on the irreplaceable atmosphere that only the big screen can give. Therefore, the successes collected during the international events will not be enough to raise the economic fortunes of Thai cinema. According to the chief operating officer of the country’s second largest multiplex chain, Suwannee Chinchiawsharn, "the cinemas will have to work hard to offer not just content, but experience, to give something to the audience that they cannot have at home. We will come back, but even after the pandemic, I believe the battle will continue”. The forthcoming reopenings represent an unmissable opportunity for the authorities of South-East Asia to relaunch the cultural and entertainment sector, in line with the hope to see in the movies a powerful tool to "connect people and promote the ASEAN identity to the world".

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