Fresh stories emerge in Asia’s film industry as digital technology brings costs down

The director of In the Absence of the Sun Lucky Kuswandi at the Gala Opening Night of the Asia House Film Festival 2015. Copyright Miles Willis Photography

The director of In the Absence of the Sun Lucky Kuswandi at the Gala Opening Night of the Asia House Film Festival 2015. Copyright Miles Willis Photography

Fresh stories emerge in Asia’s film industry as digital technology brings costs down

07 April 2015

By Naomi Canton

The state of the domestic film industry in Asian countries, the impact of the digital age and the stories that the new generation of filmmakers living there want to tell, were among the topics discussed during the Q&A sessions with directors during the Asia House Film Festival 2015.

Three directors Lucky Kuswandi, Byamba Sakhya and Kulikar Sotho, flew over for the London premieres of their films at this year’s Festival, the theme of which was New Generations.

“Digital filmmaking has made it much easier for us all to make films,” explained Indonesian director Lucky Kuswandi, whose film opened the Film Festival at the Ham Yard Hotel’s cinema in Soho.

“I shot my film In the Absence of the Sun for just US$50,000 over 11 days. There are a lot of young independent filmmakers in Indonesia starting to tell their own stories now without having to be confined to the studio system.  We don’t have that many cinema screens in Indonesia but I think this new government is promoting films and creative industries. It has just created a new body, the Creative Economy Body, to oversee the creative economy and hopefully we will have a film commission soon too,” Kuswandi added.

He then explained how the experiences of one of the characters in his film – 32-year-old Indonesian Gia – who suffers reverse culture shock after returning to Jakarta after living for several years in New York – reflected his own experiences. Kuswandi spent several years in the USA from 2005 onwards studying filmmaking, and then he returned to live in Jakarta.  It is this tribe of urban global Indonesians that he wanted to focus on in this latest flick, which was released in Indonesia in 2014.

The cinema at the Ham Yard Hotel was packed for the Gala Opening Night of the Asia House Film Festival 2015

The cinema at the Ham Yard Hotel was packed for the Gala Opening Night of the Asia House Film Festival 2015. Copyright Miles Willis Photography

“When I returned to Jakarta I did not recognise it anymore,” Kuswandi said. “I was experiencing reverse culture shock and it was very hard for me to adjust. That was when I started to write In the Absence of the Sun. I went to a brand new empty shopping mall and there was this restaurant that sold Chicken Soft Rolls but actually it was the Indonesian dish Lemper but instead of costing 80 cents I had to pay US$8.  And it tasted terrible! I remember asking for a garpu (Bahasa Indonesia for a fork) and the waiter replied not in the local language but in English ‘Sure I will bring you one fork!’

“It was as though there was a lack of confidence in the country and people were trying to keep up with globalisation to be like New York, Seoul etc. so I felt like it had started it lose its essence and identity and become more New York than New York!” he told the audience.

In the film, upper class Indonesians buy empty western branded bags from the street to carry when they go to expensive restaurants. Kuswandi’s film also shows how foreign (often French) names are given to Indonesian dishes and young people spend a night out taking selfies, showing off and messaging on their phones.

“In Jakarta we have a really wide gap between the upper and the lower classes. There is not really a middle class and I feel like because of the media there is this constant attempt to climb up the ladder and to be like all the socialites in the gym in the film. So I decided to reflect on that and portray another side of this obsession with money and to reach the top,” he said.

He explained that he had a love-hate relationship with Jakarta. “Whenever I leave I feel glad, then I get homesick. I guess you always find yourself returning – there is this chaotic energy.” He said he was also fascinated by how people in the bustling materialistic city actually found happiness. “I was very interested in how people use spaces in Jakarta at night time and that gives them happiness such as turning a road into an illegal motorbike track until the sun rises and everything returns to normal,” he said.

So how did the film go down in Indonesia when it was released there last year? “People were laughing at themselves,” he said. “My film did really well in Indonesia because people could really relate to it and they could see themselves on screen and get a chance to reflect,” he added.

“We are a country that was imperialised for more than 300 years so it is very hard for us to be confident about ourselves. We always look up to foreigners and foreign things are always considered to be better. For example a rice cooker has to be made in Japan not Indonesia – this kind of thing is ingrained in people’s minds and that has always been a problem for Indonesian cinema as there is this assumption in the public’s mind that Indonesian films must not be good either,” he said.

A line in the film ‘there is no place for people like us here’ really resonates with him, he said. “People like me were supposed to work in the family business, get married and have 10 kids.  We were not supposed to be filmmakers so we constantly feel there is no place for us but I think it’s very important for people like us to stick together and build a support system. I just hope that we can introduce Indonesian cinema to a wider audience and show a lot of contemporary stuff, show people that Indonesia is not just Bali and bathik – and show people that we all experience the same universal problems,” he added.

CEO of Asia House Michael Lawrence, left, director of In the Absence of the Sun Lucky Kuswandi and Indonesia's Ambassador to London H.E Mr. Teuku Mohammad Hamzah Thayeb

CEO of Asia House Michael Lawrence, left, Lucky Kuswandi, centre and Indonesia’s Ambassador to London H.E Mr. Teuku Mohammad Hamzah Thayeb, right, at the Opening of the Asia House Film Festival 2015. Copyright Miles Willis Photography

The director of Passion Byamba Sakhya flew down for his film and in the Q&A afterwards he spoke about the problems the film industry in Mongolia faced today compared to during the Communist period when it had experienced a golden age.

“We are always asking ourselves ‘Why don’t people go to the movies in Mongolia?’” he said. “The problem is the new media has come and cinemas are less comfortable than in Europe, so people prefer to stay in and watch videos. Only teenagers go to the cinema so you have to make films about them or for them, like comedies.

“Eighty per cent of cinema in Mongolia is comedy, 10 per cent is melodrama and 10 per cent is historical, costume dramas and ghost movies,” he explained. “We never watch Chinese movies – it’s generally American movies,” he added.

Passion, which was screened on the second day of the Festival, portrays the difficulties filmmakers face now, compared to during the golden age of Mongolian cinema in the Communist period, when cinema was nurtured and well-funded.

“Cinema has collapsed in our country because of the economy and lack of state support. The distribution system does not work anymore. We need new ideas too.  There are not enough artists either because of censorship in up to the 1990s [when Mongolia was a Communist Soviet satellite state]. However, on the plus side, technology has made it cheaper so many more people are making films. I would say 15 to 20 films are being made each year,” he explained.

In Cambodia, on the other hand, it was the pre-Khmer Rouge period that was the golden age of Cambodian cinema.

“Before the Khmer Rouge, in the 1960s, more than 300 films were made and that was the golden age. The negatives and prints of all but 30 odd were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge and many actors and directors from the 1960s and 70s killed by them,” said 41-year-old Cambodian Kulikar Sotho, who flew down for the screening of her debut movie The Last Reel.

Asia House Head of Arts and Learning Pamela Kember, left, CEO of Asia House Michael Lawrence, centre and Kulikar Sotho, director of The Last Reel

Asia House Head of Arts and Learning Pamela Kember, left, CEO of Asia House Michael Lawrence, centre and Kulikar Sotho, director of The Last Reel, right, at the drinks reception at the Ham Yard Hotel. Copyright Miles Willis Photography

Sotho explained: “Cambodian filmmaking started in the 1950s when lots of American and French films came to Cambodia (as it was a former French colony.) In the late 50s King Norodom Sihanouk began to make 35 mm films and that was the beginning of the true golden era of Cambodian cinema. During that time the King sent lots of Cambodian students to France for training. They were trained as a lighting designers and so on and came back with lots of technical skills as opposed to storytelling skills.”

She added: “In the 1960s Cambodians loved making films. During that decade our films were on the international stage being screened overseas – in places like Singapore, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Thailand. The stories were generally folk stories. Then in the early 1970s the filmmakers moved away from folk stories and put on more contemporary stories, thanks to the American influence.

“Then 1975 onwards the Khmer Rouge took over and it was all propaganda movies.  After 1979 with the establishment of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea cinemas re-opened but the domestic film-making industry did not get back on its feet straight away. Instead, people watched Russian and Indian films The first film I watched was at a military camp – a Russian film in the 1980s,” she recalled.

She added: “Indian films were also very popular in Phonm Penh before the civil war when here were 30 cinemas in Phonm Penh alone, at least five in each province and four in one street!”

Two well-known producers in Cambodia are working on a project to restore the films destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, she said referring to the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center which collects and restored film archives. “We have nowhere to store the 35mm films so all the films are being remade in digital version but they are not as classic as the original old films,” she said. Even the films that were not destroyed by the Khmer Rouge are not in a good state,” she added.

On the one hand,The Last Reel depicts this golden era of pre-Khmer Rouge cinema. On the other hand, it is a heart-rending movie that looks at the surviving older generation in Cambodia coming to terms with the horrors of the Khmer Rouge that they witnessed.

“I did this film because I needed to find peace for my mother. I grew up in a broken family and I never knew about my past and I did not know my stepfather was my stepfather till I was 14 – my mother did not explain anything and she just handed me a picture when I was 14 and said ‘This is your Dad, he was a pilot.’ I did not ask any more. Most people don’t talk about the Khmer Rouge. Many Cambodians lived through it but they don’t talk about it because it’s too painful as even if we talk about good memories it leads us to bad memories,” the first-time female director, whose film won the Spirit of Asia Award at the Tokyo International Film Festival 2014, said.

Her real father, like the father of the protagonist in the film, was dragged away from her mother in the village when she was two, and killed by the Khmer Rouge. “Many Cambodians they never move on emotionally. My mother saw so much death and my father was taken away in front of her eyes because he was a pilot as they killed all the intellectuals,” she said.

“I have been longing for a father figure ever since, so when the real father smiles at his daughter on stage at the end in my film and admires her work, that means so much to me. I realised I am longing for my father to recognise me. I need my mother to reconcile with her past and forgive whoever she has to as well,” she said.” I need my mother to confront her past. She has never been able to get closure.”

To see a slideshow of the Opening Gala Night of the Asia House Film Festival 2015, which began with a guitar recital by Indonesian guitarist Boo-boo Sianturi, click below:-

All photos are copyright Miles Willis Photography

Sotho is one of only two female film directors operating in Cambodia right now – the other one is Poan Phoung Bopha.

“Lots of films are being made again today but there is no funding, no Arts Council equivalent, no training or film schools. I am totally self-taught. I started working in film in 2001 as a fixer for an international film,” she explained.

The Last Reel was produced by Hanuman Films, her own company. “I have got investors,” she explained. It was shown at various film festivals including Tokyo, Singapore and Cambodian International Film Festivals.  It will have its first commercial release in Cambodia in August.

She is working on a few documentaries right now and wants to make another feature film in the future. “I will shoot it in 2017 – it’s about memories,” she said.

“We have a lot of filmmakers in Cambodia nowadays making about 50 films a year but they are small budget films and generally all ghost films – which are really popular in Cambodia – all made for the local market very cheaply. However it’s beginning to be like the 60s again where they are not making folk tales and legends but the personal stories of filmmakers. I think the films will gradually get more sophisticated,” she added.

The Asia House Film Festival 2015 has two post-Festival screenings. This Friday, 10 April there will be a second screening of Uzbek ‘Red Western’ The Seventh Bullet at The Cinema Museum in Kennington. For more information and to book tickets click here.

Then on Sunday, 19 April there will be a special screening of three Mongolian films.  Historical drama Before Rising Up the Rank / Zereg Nehemiin Omno (1965), made during the golden age of films in the Communist period, is one of the films being shown. This is the first time a film from this era has ever been shown in the UK. Remote Control (2010), directed by the same director that made Passion, Byamba Sakhya, is a more modern story about contemporary Ulaanbataar. Yellow Colt (2013) is about an eight-year-old Mongolian nomad being raised on the Mongolian plains. For more information and to book tickets for the three films click here.