After six weeks on the road, I’ve heard a lot, watched a lot, learned a lot, and just had to buy a new MacBook Air after my old one decided to die of exhaustion. Although I’m not far behind it, I’m sharing a few thoughts on what I’ve discovered in the past few months.
1. Busan Was Busy But How Much Business Was Getting Done?
As the first in-person market in Asia since the start of the pandemic, the Asian Contents & Film Market (ACFM, October 8-11) at this year’s Busan International Film Festival was a frenzy of pent-up face-to-face meeting activity. According to figures released by the organisers, the attendance rate was the highest since the market was launched in 2006 – 1,059 companies and 2,185 industry participants from 48 countries. Europe’s film industry was physically back in Asia for the first time since the start of the pandemic, under the umbrella stands organised by European Film Promotion, UniFrance and Film Export UK. With Hong Kong Filmart taking place virtually for the past three years, and Tokyo’s TIFFCOM also opting to stay online again this year, this was the first opportunity many people had to press the flesh since 2019.
And that flesh pressing continued well into the evenings with dinners, parties and karaoke, where the masks that had been kept on during daytime meetings were gleefully abandoned. Meeting everyone in person again was exhilarating and an information overload that confirmed my suspicions that you never get the same depth of knowledge from Zoom meetings as you do from even a casual face-to-face chat. ACFM has also been wise in splitting its activities and floor space between sales booths, the Asian Project Market (APM) and new strand, the Busan Story Market, a much sexier branding and expansion of the former E-IP Market, where meetings focused on optioning the rights to books, webtoons and online novels.
What was less clear was how much actual business was getting done, at least in terms of the traditional sales business. While lots of new projects were being announced, very few sales deals were being trumpeted, a trend that had already kicked in long before Covid but seems much worse now. Most markets in Asia have experienced a box office rebound over the summer, but not full recovery; revenue is heavily weighted towards Hollywood tentpoles and big-budget local films; Chinese buyers remain absent as they can’t travel and anyway operate in a very uncertain climate; and the international rollouts of many Asian films are being complicated by delays to release dates in their country of origin.
And as we all know, talent in most territories – directors, writers, actors and producers – are all busy working on series for the streamers. Investment is flooding into the ecosystem, and a ton of content is being made, but many Asian countries are experiencing more restrictive censorship, there’s been a big uptick in authoritarianism during the pandemic, and the streamers appear more interested in placating governments than taking a stand. So while everyone is busy, I’m not convinced that the streamers are going to be a platform for nurturing bold voices, who speak truth to power, innovate artistically and question the world around them, at least not in Asia. That job still falls to arthouse cinema, the part of our content ecosystem that is being the most unrelentingly squeezed.
Busan is a pragmatic film festival. It has embraced streaming through the launch of its On Screen section, which showcases new series, and the Asian Contents Awards, which this year gave prizes to Squid Game and Extraordinary Attorney Woo. But it still plays an important role in supporting both established and new voices working in cinema through the APM, Asian Cinema Fund and Asian Film Academy. Long may that work continue, because in the post-pandemic landscape, both political and economic forces are working against any filmmaker with something interesting to say.
Another organisation doing similar work is the Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF), which is planning to take place physically for the first time since 2019 next year. One question I was asked repeatedly during ACFM is whether it would still be worth coming to Hong Kong for Filmart and HAF (scheduled for March 13-16, 2023). One person I spoke to said some previous attendees were “feeling icky” about returning due to the imposition of the National Security Law and other political changes in Hong Kong.
All I can say in response is that neither the Beijing or Hong Kong governments really give a toss whether you come or not, in fact, Beijing would probably prefer it if you stayed away. But by continuing to engage with local producers, directors and distributors, you could make a big difference to ensuring the future of creativity and film culture in Hong Kong.
2. How India Is Starting To Look A Lot Like China
Speaking of feeling icky, before Busan I spent three weeks in Mumbai, and while it was great to catch up with people I hadn’t seen face-to-face in three years, I had a growing sense of unease about what I was hearing, which only accelerated when I started bumping into Indian filmmakers in Busan. Again and again, I heard stories of films and series that have been interfered with or significantly altered by censors, or even more worrying, shelved completely by studios and streamers.
And it’s not just individual projects that are being targeted. Over the past few months, I’ve speculated for both Deadline and Streamlined about why mainstream Hindi-language cinema, a.k.a. Bollywood, is not doing so well. One factor I’d missed is the extent to which the industry as a whole is under pressure from Indian PM Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government. For sure I’d noticed the #BoycottBollywood campaigns, and dismissed them as the rantings of nutjob nationalists who have emerged on social media in most countries in recent years (Britain, my country of birth, also has them). But it’s becoming difficult to ignore the many ways in which the B.J.P. government has been coercing Bollywood into falling in line with its wider agenda to Hinduize India.
Bollywood has always been a diverse, pluralistic industry, with Muslims, Hindus of all castes and other religions rubbing along with each other and respecting each other’s cultures. But over the past few years, censorship has increased, filmmakers have been under pressure to make patriotic films about the Indian army or historical Hindu kings, often with liberals or Muslims playing the villains, and stars and other high-profile figures (or their children in the case of Shah Rukh Khan) who don’t comply with this agenda can suddenly find themselves accused of drugs offences or worse. Meanwhile films that celebrate marginalised groups or feature inter-religious relationships are disappearing from view.
All of which sounds a lot like what has been happening in China since film regulation was moved under the propaganda department of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2018. Replace Xi Jinping’s version of Communist ideology with Hindu nationalism and it’s almost spooky the extent to which the same tactics are being deployed. The CCP has long been convinced of the power of cinema as the ultimate propaganda tool, and it looks as if the right-wing factions of the B.J.P. have taken a leaf straight out of the CCP’s playbook.
The big difference between India and China of course is that India is still a democracy. As the National Congress of the CCP comes to a close in Beijing this weekend, with Xi consolidating his power, the Chinese film industry is not expecting any reprieve from the current climate of increasing censorship and uncertainty. India does have a chance to change things in May 2024. But as in most countries, the film industry is ironically a much quieter voice than the rampant nationalism that is being ignited and carefully tended online.
3. Southeast Asia’s Festival Circuit Ramps Up
So after all that doom and pessimism, I’m ending this week’s newsletter with a more positive item. Now that Asia is finally opening up, there’s been a flourishing of film festivals throughout Southeast Asia, a region that is currently among one of the most interesting cinematically. Not that Southeast Asia is any bastion of free speech, in fact it’s quite the opposite, but a combination of feisty young talent, public and private funding, and a growing number of labs and workshops is contributing to an energetic film culture that has been noticed by festivals in Europe and across this region. Kamila Andini’s Before, Now And Then, Woo Ming Jin’s Stone Turtle and Makbul Mubarak’s Autobiography are among the Southeast Asian films that have been winning awards on the European festival circuit this year.
But until recently, there were not many opportunities for Southeast Asian audiences to connect with these films. That’s beginning to change, because while there are still no festivals in Southeast Asia with the budget levels of Busan, an informal circuit of smaller events is starting to emerge. Following Busan, a bunch of industry folk flew down to Jakarta for a showcase of Indonesian and international films at Jakarta Film Week, then on to the island of Bali for the BaliMakarya Film Festival.
Launched last year with a competition for Indonesian shorts, BaliMakarya expanded this year to screen films from across Southeast Asia. He Shuming’s Singapore-Korean co-production Ajoomma won best film in the Southeast Asian competition, which also awarded Before, Now And Then with best director (Andini) and best actor (Arswendy Beningswara), and Stone Turtle with best actress (Asmara Abigail). In the Indonesian competition, winners included Galang, directed by Adriyanto Dewo, Anggi Frisca’s Tegar and Ismail Basbeth’s Portrait Of A Nightmare. Best Southeast Asian doc went to Children Of The Mist from Vietnam’s Ha Le Diem.
Indonesia is hosting another two film events this autumn, while there are also festivals taking place in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Philippines and Vietnam. You could, in fact, spend the next few months hopping from festival to festival without going home (sadly not possible for me, although I did make it to BaliMakarya).
Here’s the full circuit of events, all of which have competition sections:
Sept 2-10: Minikino Film Week (Bali, Indonesia) – short films from Indonesian, other Southeast Asian and international filmmakers.
Sept 21-25: SeaShorts Film Festival (Malaysia) – founded by Malaysian filmmaker Tan Chui Mui to screen Southeast Asian shorts and held in various locations in Malaysia.
Oct 13-16: Jakarta Film Week (Jakarta, Indonesia) – showcase of Indonesian and international features, with a separate competition for series from Indonesia.
Oct 16-21: BaliMakarya Film Festival (Bali, Indonesia) – focus on Southeast Asian films with competition sections for Southeast Asian features, Southeast Asian docs and Indonesian features.
Nov 8-12: Hanoi International Film Festival (Vietnam) – government-run film festival for Vietnamese and international shorts and features.
Nov 14-19: Festival Film Dokumenter (Yogyakarta, Indonesia) – first documentary film festival in Indonesia, held in the city of Yogyakarta, regarded as a centre of culture and education.
Nov 17-26: QCinema International Film Festival (Quezon City, Manila, Philippines) – Asian Next Wave competition for Asian directors with less than three features, world premieres of Filipino shorts and two-day International Film Industry Conference (Nov 19-20).
Nov 24-Dec 4: Singapore International Film Festival (Singapore) – sections including Silver Screen Awards for Asian features and Southeast Asian shorts, Singapore Panorama and sidebars designed to profile films based on content rather than country of origin.
Nov 26-Dec 3: Jogja-Netpac Asian Film Festival (Yogyakarta, Indonesia) – festival focusing on the development of Asian cinema, which works closely with the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC).
Dec 2-11: World Film Festival Bangkok (Thailand) – international film festival that is being revived this year after last being held in 2017. Donsaron Kovitvanitcha, an experienced programmer and independent producer, has been appointed as festival director.
Dec 8-11: Luang Prabang Film Festival (Laos) – another film event revived for the first time in more than three years, held in the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang, and with programming that focuses on Southeast Asian features.
THIS MONTH IN THE TRADES:
By coincidence, because it certainly wasn’t planned that way, I’ve seen several of the Oscars best international feature submissions from Asia, including Ajoomma (Singapore), Decision To Leave (Korea), One For The Road (Thailand), Plan 75 (Japan) and Return To Seoul (Cambodia). I can confirm that it’s looking like a strong year for Asia. October 3 was the deadline for submissions to the category and the shortlist will be announced on December 21.