Opportunity knocks

The pandemic pivot to streaming services, like Netflix, opened up Southeast Asian filmmakers to a global audience

While movie theatres and the film industry on a whole are still affected by the pandemic, streaming services have become the latest medium to help save entertainment. The information revolution is breaking down even more barriers between people and countries.

Netflix is a prime example for Southeast Asian filmmakers to showcase their work to a larger, international audience. Last month we saw its first iteration of the Sundance Film Festival in Asia that took place in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta. The Sundance Institute teamed up with Netflix and invited three well-known filmmakers from Southeast Asia -- Vanridee Pongsittisak from Thailand, Mikhail Red from the Philippines and Timo Tjahjanto from Indonesia -- as well as Netflix's SEA content director Malobika Banerji to lead a special virtual panel discussion on TikTok (@SundanceFFAsia) titled "The Future Of South East Asia Cinema".

The panellists each discussed how Southeast Asian cinema is flourishing in a new era of international recognition.

"Southeast Asia is a region that is culturally very diverse. We have a lot of local stories to tell. But in the past, we were all too familiar with our role as an audience of films produced elsewhere in the world. But now we have stepped up to become a content creator and producer of films and movies and series, and we are more internationally accepted," said Vanridee Pongsittisak, a producer with the major Thai film studio GDH 559 behind the success of many films such as 4bia (2008), Bangkok Traffic (Love) Story (2009), SuckSeed (2011) and Pee Mak (2013).

Vanridee Pongsittisak of GDH 559. (Photos © Netflix Thailand)

"We have a lot of stories from this part of the world. But in the past, these stories have been told only for local audiences, and through a local perspective. These stories can be retold for audiences in other parts of the world. And in my view, this is our advantage if we can take this perspective and regrow from this. We can be even more internationally recognised, and will no longer be regarded as just filmmakers in this exotic part of the world."

Like in many SEA countries, Vanridee said the Thai film industry is facing financial issues caused by the pandemic. It forced many countries to carry out various restrictions, including the closing of cinemas, which has forced film industry players to think creatively to find new revenue streams.

"This makes alternative film distribution channels like Netflix an integrated part of the industry. Besides that, we also have to face other challenges in seeking financial support, which we still lack because our film industry isn't as big as in Hollywood, or even the Korean and Japanese film industries," said Vanridee.

Mikhail Red, director of thrillers like Birdshot (2016), Eerie (2019) and Dead Kids (2019), which was the first Netflix original film from the Philippines, said the production process in the midst of a pandemic is very challenging. However, this situation actually makes local filmmakers more motivated to innovate.

Indonesian film director Timo Tjahjanto.

"It shows the resilience of all film industry players to adapt and find new ways to tell their stories. Coupled with the competition facing the Hollywood film industry, which forces us to present even more authentic stories with a strong local cultural touch," said Red.

"Birdshot is a very Filipino story that involves many Filipino themes. But it's surprising as the film got into arthouse and genre film festivals. I guess you could say, well, it's not just engaging, but there's an entertaining layer within. It shows other filmmakers that films like this can be done and we can make a film that can reach a broad audience not just locally, but internationally, and yet still tell very relevant and important stories."

Timo Tjahjanto, an Indonesian film director, producer and screenwriter best known for horror and action films such as The Night Comes For Us (2018) and May The Devil Take You Too (2020), says competing in the global film industry is a big challenge for Southeast Asian filmmakers. But support from Netflix has opened doors to new audiences. His latest directorial project titled The Big Four will also be released on the streaming service in 2022.

Filipino filmmaker Mikhail Red.

"For me personally, as a filmmaker who was mainly staying in the genre sort of field, I feel like I have some kind of advantage. I feel generally it's something that most audiences understand regardless of where they come from. For example, if you saw Gareth Evans' film The Raid (2011), which is almost a uniquely universal story, presented in an Indonesian way," Tjahjanto said.

"Or how Thailand came up with Shutter (2004) and all other films from the glory days of the Thai horror genre, you know, we have the advantage of crossing borders, the limitations of being labelled exotic and all that stuff.

"I feel that if we are going to engage people outside Southeast Asia, then obviously, we have to use a common sort of language and film itself is already an international language. And now filmmakers like Mikhail or myself have several films on Netflix. And it allows people outside of the region to have easier access."

Netflix's SEA content director Malobika Banerji. 

Tjahjanto said that collaborations between Southeast Asian countries and filmmakers could hopefully expand the market for quality films in the future.

"I believe there's a similarity in the way we work, whether Indonesian to Filipino or Thai filmmakers," said Tjahjanto.

"One of my dreams is always to collaborate with a Thai crew because I think they have a very interesting way of working, which is similar but not the same. I also had experience working with a Japanese crew in the Killers (2014). I feel like now the barriers are slowly getting lowered, you know."

Banerji said she finds the many cultural backgrounds in Southeast Asia interesting to review.

Shutter. (Photo © imdb.com)

"At Netflix we believe that great stories can come from anywhere and be liked by anyone. That's why we are always looking for the best stories from all corners of the world, including Southeast Asia, and collaborate with the best filmmakers to ensure that all these stories can be brought to the international stage through Netflix," she said.

"I am very hopeful that, given the opportunities and the moment in time we are in, the next decade is very, very promising for Southeast Asian filmmaking. And hopefully one day we will be on a panel where we'll have people from Hollywood talking about the great Southeast Asian films which they are watching."

Mikhail Red's Dead Kids. 

Timo Tjahjanto's May The Devil Take You Too. 

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