Brave New Asian arthouse film-makers take on the Box Office, reports Dylan Tan

It's been 13 years since an Asian film has won the prestigious award and its director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who will be in town over the weekend for a charity screening of his movie and to conduct a masterclass, is the first independent filmmaker from his country to receive the honour.

'The indie film-making scene in South-east Asia has been thriving which is evidenced by the strong presence of independent films from the region in the programmes of international film festivals,' notes Karen Chan, acting director of Asian Film Archive, a non-governmental and non-profit organisation founded to preserve the film heritage of Singapore and Asian cinema.
'This is particularly so in the past five years; South-east Asian film-makers have been recognised for pushing the boundaries of film-making, imbuing cinema with refreshingly unique voices and vision,' she says, adding Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia have all made a major impact on the arthouse scene in recent years.

Chan also notes Weerasethakul's win comes hot on the heels of another Asian film-maker, Filipino Brillante Mendoza, who picked up the Best Director award last year for his movie Kinatay.

'Having attended film festivals around the region, I've noticed a lot of new indie film-makers creating good works,' says Thomas Chia, director of Lighthouse Pictures, which has been distributing arthouse films from all over the world here and in the region since 2003.

Like Chan, he too cites Indonesian and Thai indie cinemas as the ones to watch out for. There's a general consensus among industry players that the appeal and following of art films is getting stronger in Singapore.

Local art film buff Norman Loong says, 'Compared to mainstream cinema, indie films are more exciting; no two films are alike, the storylines are always original and th
e makers don't rely on sequels, remakes or gimmicks like 3-D to sell.'

The growth is also evident from the number of screens now dedicated to art films.
From just one venue in 1997 when The Picturehouse launched, there are now other speciality halls of various sizes like Sinema Old School, Cinema Europa and The Arts House that screen indie movies on a regular basis.

'The Picturehouse has always held a special interest in Asian art films especially since we are the first theatre in Asia to dedicate an entire hall to arthouse cinema,' says its spokesman. 'We believe some of the best films in the world do come from Asia.' Among some of The Picturehouse's upcoming attractions are Anh Hung Tran's highly acclaimed big screen adaptation of Haruki Murakami's novel Norwegian Wood and Hindi film Road, Movie.
'Singapore audiences have become more refined and sophisticated in their taste; many regional indie film-makers have premiered their works at the Singapore International Film Festival,' observes Chan.

'Lighthouse has come to be Singapore's 'home' for Takeshi Kitano's films,' says Chia, referring to how well-received the Japanese actor-writer-director's works, including last year's Outrage, have been. Negotiations for its sequel to be screened here later this year are on the cards, he reveals. '(The late Malaysian director) Yasmin Ahmad's Muallaf was also a success in 2009 but it did not come easy as the film-maker and I had to put in a lot of effort to promote the film in the virtual and real worlds,' Chia adds.

Such is the difficulty indie film-makers in general face when trying to make their movies on a shoestring budget, then trying to promote them with little or no money.
The problem is worse for Asian independent directors because the audience base is not big enough to sustain an already niche genre.

Gathering momentum: HK's Derek Tsang co-directed Lover's Discourse (above left, starring Kit Chan and above right, Jackie Heung and Mavis Fan), which earned its stripes premiering at the Pusan Film Festival and travelling the promotions circuit before recently opening on general release in Asia.

'Every time I release a movie, I lose money because of the advertising and promotions, so I'm not sure if it's worth it, even though I would love to show it at home', Unce Boonmee's Weerasethakul tells The Hollywood Reporter.

'The population of Hong Kong is not like the St
ates,' says Derek Tsang, co-director of Lover's Discourse, a low-key Chinese ensemble movie that earned its stripes premiering at the Pusan Film Festival and travelling the circuit before recently opening on general release in Asia.'People who make indie films in Hong Kong do it on a very, very low budget and even then you don't get a lot of your money back,' he adds.

Citing the example of Wong Kar Wai as an exception, Tsang explains, 'There's a misconception people have about Wong; he's an artist first but he's also a very smart businessman. His market is different from a lot of other Chinese directors because his films get released in a lot of different places in Europe and he makes a lot of money from there.'
Others like local underground director Tzang Merwyn Tong says independent film-makers remain at the mercy of the gatekeepers - distributors, exhibitors, censorship regulators and festival programmers.

'Being an independent film-maker is really about a spirit; it can be heartbreaking trying to make your way through a world that will give you more reasons to give up than continue,' he says.

Tzang, however, beat the odds and enjoyed worldwide success with his movie A Wicked Tale, simply by giving it away.

'The movie took a life of its own after I allowed a group of German teenagers to screen my films in their underground film festival. It became a little bit of a surprise hit, with audiences asking for copies to bootleg it. I gave them permission to do whatever they wanted, and before I knew it, different groups of people were screening it to different audiences in pubs, clubs, house parties and venues, in Berlin, Potsdam, Munich and Frankfurt,' reveals Tzang.

'A Wicked Tale then travelled to Canada, with tickets sold out to a full house crowd as the Closing Night Film in Montreal FanTasia - the festival that first introduced (Japanese horror movie) The Ring to western audiences. And then somehow it found its way to Toronto, Lund, Leeds and Tel Aviv through small screenings organied by groups of people I don't even know,' he adds.

ASIAN arthouse cinema found itself in the international spotlight when Thai film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, picked up the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival.

Similarly, Malaysian-born, Singapore-based director Lee Thean-Jeen foresees a changing landscape for indie films in the way they're made, marketed and screened, due to new media as well as former arthouse directors like Michel Gondry and Jiang Wen moving towards commercial films with The Green Hornet and Let The Bullets Fly respectively.

'Film-makers like David Lynch are making movies and posting it on YouTube or their own websites so a lot of people who used to go to cinemas for art films are getting them from other sources instead,' he says. 'The game for film-makers now is not whether you want to be arthouse or commercial anymore; it's how you want to tell a good story and where you want to find that audience.'

'I've learnt that a film with its heart in the right place will somehow find its rightful audience,' says Tzang. 'You just got to be rock 'n' roll about it.'

The Singapore Premiere and charity screening of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (with director Apichatpong Weerasethakul chairing a discussion ) take places tomorrow, 7pm at Cathay Cineplex. For tickets and more information on Asian Film Archive and Weerasethakul's masterclass on Monday, click on Lover's Discourse is now screening exclusively at Cathay's Cineleisure Orchard and AMK Hub. Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

Visit the Site
e'TZAINTES and A WICKED TALE: TM & 2007 INRI studio. All Rights Reserved.