It is undeniable that Southeast Asian films have their own position and have gained the spotlight of the world through various forms of appreciation. Films like “Kinatay” by Briliante Mendoza from the Philippines won the best director category at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009. In 2010, there was a movie titled “Uncle Boonmee” from Thailand made by director Apichatpong Weerasethakul who won the Palme d’Or in the same event . Last year 2016, the same award was awarded to Indonesian filmmakers. The work of Wregas Bhanuteja titled “Prenjak” became the best film on this prestigious film festival . The above facts serve as evidence of Southeast Asian cinema’s success in taking a position on the world cinema map.
The shine of some Southeast Asian films on the international scene is indirectly influenced by several factors. In general, the conditions of Southeast Asian countries, most of them are the former colonies, make the cinema born in this region has a different experience in comparison with other areas. The most important thing in influencing the cultural diversity of Southeast Asian cinema is the high level of ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity in the region. Cultural diversity of Southeast Asian cinema is also influenced by economic conditions of countries in Southeast Asia. Some countries are as developed as Singapore, and there are countries with low economies like Myanmar. A prominent filmmaker from Indonesia, Garin Nugroho in an interview described the condition of cinema in Southeast Asia as a paradox. Paradox in the sense that many gaps are happening. Due to the many gaps that occur, a lot of drama is created. The creation of many of these dramas spawned many surprises in cinema in Southeast Asia.
Budi Irawanto as a speaker in the discussion of SEA-Talks # 9 mentioned that understanding the picture of Southeast Asian films can be done by looking at the characteristics commonly owned. The first characteristics is that Southeast Asian films tend to always lift national identity and culture. One form of this application can be seen in Southeast Asian commercial films in the genre of action that always include local martial arts as a form of identity. Another trend of Southeast Asian films is that melodrama and horror films are still favorite genres to produce, because the required budget is relatively cheap.
Despite its general characteristics, the development of Southeast Asian cinema has its own story in each country. The rise and fall of Southeast Asian cinema industry development is marked by the number of films that can be produced. This is influenced by several things, including the political and economic conditions that occur. One example of the cases is the Philippine film industry that had experienced two golden times in the 1950s until the 1960s, and in the 1970s. The peak of the Philippines film industry had dominated the film industry in Southeast Asia with the number of production reached 200 titles each year. The condition of the Philippine film industry then experienced a drowning in the 1990s, marked by the decline of the number of film production that was only about 40 titles per year. The condition of the Filipino film industry has improved, driven by the inclusion of independent players into the realm of the commercial industry.
In Thailand, Film production began in 1923 with the film titled “Nang Sao Suan” by foreign filmmaker Henry McRay. At that time, the condition of Thai society with high illiteracy rate made foreign films entering this country must go through the process of dubbing. The condition continued into the 1970s. The implementation of the economic development policy in Thailand from 1957 to 1973 brought a big leap forward in film production in Thailand. At that time an average of 4 to 5 movies were released each month. Peak in the late 1970s, about 160 titles of films were produced each year. The 1997 was the lowest condition of the Thai film industry. In that year, less than 10 films were able to be produced in a year. But that time became the turning point of the recognition of Thai films on the world scene, after the movie “Pen-ek Ratanaruang” (Fun Bar Karaoke) became the opening film at the Berlin Film Festival.
In Malaysia, the initial history of the country’s film began in Singapore, when Malaysia was still a part of British Malaya. The first film to be produced was titled “Leila Majnun” (1930) directed by B.S. Rajhans. The influence of film studios in Malaysia began in 1947, and ended in the 1970s monopolized by Chinese businessmen. The golden era of the Malaysian film industry was in the 1950s and 1960s, especially with the success of the films by P. Ramlee. The new wave of Malaysian film industry took place in the late 1980s or early 1990s, marked by the emergence of new directors, such as; Suhaimi Baba, Uwei Haji Saari, Rahim Razali, and friends. In the early 2000s, the presence of digital technology at the beginning encouraged the emergence of a new wave of Malaysian film industry. The presence of independent directors marked the birth of a new wave of Malaysian film industry. The director came from diverse ethnic backgrounds, Amir Muhammad, Ho Yuhang, Tan Chui Mui, Liew Seng Tat, James Lee, Woo Ming Jin, Deepak Kumaramenon, and others. They came up with a lot of lifelong social and political themes of ethnicity in Malaysia.
Unlike the case of what happened in Myanmar, the film industry in the country began to experience tight government control since the events of 1998. Filmmakers were forbidden to engage in politics. Finally more production was produced in the form of video with the comedy genre. Myanmar’s first film was actually produced in 1910, the film about the funeral of Tun Shieng (A Burmese freedom fighter). But the film industry of Myanmar was then started by a producer named Ohn Maung who produced a movie called Love and Liqour, which was screened on 13 October 1920. Wathann Film Festival was the first film born since the political openness in Myanmar. That period opened up the production of documentary films.
Talking about the film industry is certainly incomplete without discussing the development of independent (indie) films. In general, the spread of independent film production in Southeast Asia began to occur in the early decade of the 2000s, or after the monetary crisis hit the region. The development of indie films in Southeast Asia was facilitated by the presence of digital cameras with standard broadcast quality at affordable prices, relatively cheap editing and computer software, and the presence of DVD burners that allowed filmmakers to duplicate their own movies. The movers of indie films mostly had film education backgrounds and came from diverse ethnic backgrounds, and had previously worked in television or advertising agencies.
In contrast to mainstream cinema, indie films in Southeast Asia often raise issues of life of marginalized groups and minorities as well as urban conditions as a form of social criticism. The production process is mostly done by mutual cooperation, financially or skill. The increase in the production of indie films also encourages the birth of “regional cinema”, or cinema produced from the hands of regional filmmakers who are outside the film production center in the nation’s capital. The independent film development is also accompanied by the presence of a number of film festivals in the region, such as Wathann Fest films in Myanmar, Salaya Doc in Thailand, Salamindanaw in the Philippines, Prabang Hole in Laos, and several other film festivals.
Despite a fairly good development, film development in Southeast Asia is still experiencing contemporary problems. Budi Irawanto mentioned that the problem is that the still tight film censorship tends to limit the freedom of expression of filmmakers. Another problem is the limited access to financiers who participate in making film production difficult to run sustainably. Another factor limiting the development of independent films in the region is the limited distribution and exhibition networks, not to mention the problem of limited regional and international markets for Southeast Asian cinema. This is influenced by the demand and dependence on very strong Hollywood films’ influence.