The selection from Southeast Asia at this year’s Far East Film Festival is a clear indicator that creativity in the region is in hardly in short supply. But these filmmakers encounter numerous challenges and limitations, especially in countries where the industry is still budding.
There are the typical limitations, such as poor financing and a lack of freedom in direction, but another major challenge is balancing the expectations of audiences at home and abroad.
Laos has produced only a handful of films in its history and Mattie Do’s Dearest Sister, a psychological thriller infused with the supernatural, may not fit your stereotype of a Southeast Asian film. Do is the country’s first woman director.
She told a FEFF panel discussion her goal was to create films that are as Lao as possible. That was a challenge when Lao film-goers expect to see something fitting Thai film genres and foreigners expect to witness tales of poverty.
“I’m sick of foreigners telling me that I’m not being authentic if I don’t make a movie about some kid who lost his leg and is squatting in the mud,” Do said.
“That is not my country. That is not the story that we have to pass on. That is not my goal. If you really say you want to experience a country’s films, then let us filmmakers make the films that we feel are true to our country.”
Thai filmmakers face a similar problem. Take Me Home director Kongkiat Khomsiri said there was a lack of diversity in the cinema there, with filmmakers resorting to films that are clichéd and safe, which they know audiences will watch.
“You can see, like, 10 romcoms in a year,” Kongkiat, speaking through an interpreter, told the audience attending the discussion.
“That gives no choices for the audience when they go to the cinema because that becomes our routine.”
For Malaysian director Ho Yuhang, direct competition with neighboring countries such as Thailand and Indonesia – which have better-established film industries – presents a challenge to filmmakers producing genre films.
“I think they also make good films,” Ho told the panel. “They get shown in our cinemas and they really beat the shit out of our own films. We face this challenge and yet we don’t know what to do.”
Competition has not dissuaded him from making genre films, with Ho saying his next project was likely to be a horror flick. He directed Mrs K, an action film screening at Udine.
Despite trying circumstances, all three directors believe that there is potential to move the film industries in their countries forward. One way to do that would be through a collective identity, and co-production.
Kongkiat and Ho both said the possibilities were vast, as there had been a lot of co-production by Southeast Asian countries in recent years. Do was also in favor of the idea, as there are a lot of similarities among cultures in countries that belong to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“There is an Asean identity,” Do says. “Even though my entire goal is to make films that are uniquely Lao, I do think there should be co-productions with our sister countries. But it’s so new. We’re still not sure how to do it yet.”
Joshua Lim is this week attending the FEFF Campus, which is sponsored by Asia Times