How A New Wave Of Southeast Asian Filmmakers Is Making An Impact In Cannes

While Southeast Asian films have premiered at the Cannes Film Festival many times before, and even won the Palme d’Or, there’s an energy around the region this year that we haven’t felt on the Croisette at previous editions. 

Tiger Stripes, a body horror from Malaysian filmmaker Amanda Nell Eu, about a young Muslim girl going through extreme puberty, premieres Wednesday in Critics Week, while Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell, from Pham Thien An, a young director who is at the forefront of a new wave of Vietnamese filmmakers, has been selected for Directors’ Fortnight. 

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Singaporean director Anthony Chen – who won the Camera d’Or in 2013 for his debut Ilo Ilo – is back in Cannes with a mainland Chinese production The Breaking Ice, which is premiering in Un Certain Regard this weekend. He is also producing an ambitious slate of Southeast Asian and international films through his Singapore-based Giraffe Pictures.

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“What we’re witnessing now is a maturity of filmmaking in the Southeast Asian region, not just in thought, but also craft and production values,” Chen tells Deadline. 

“This is evident in the films coming through at major festivals in the past couple of years. It’s a new wave of thoughtful and perceptive filmmakers accompanied by producers who have garnered experience in co-productions and engaging with the international marketplace.”

In the past, Southeast Asian cinema has been noticeable at A-list festivals but hasn’t had the same kind of profile as cinema from say South Korea, Japan or China. Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul won the Cannes Palme d’Or in 2010 with Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and other Southeast Asian filmmakers, including Brillante Mendoza, Lav Diaz, Rithy Panh and Tran Anh Hung, have regularly appeared on the Croisette (Tran is back this year with French film La Passion De Dodin Bouffant). 

But these are all well-known international filmmaker “brands,” while the Southeast Asian directors at Cannes this year are mostly newcomers, with the exception of Singapore’s Chen, who is shepherding a new generation through his Singapore production outfit. 

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Southeast Asia was hit as hard as anywhere else in the world by the pandemic, so why is cinema from the region now moving into the spotlight while some other regions have become much quieter? Partly, it’s due to the recent rise in labs and workshops across the region, events such as MyLab, Full Circle Lab and the now defunct SEAFIC, which have given young filmmakers and producers the opportunity to network and hone their craft. European labs and co-production markets including Locarno Open Doors, Ties That Bind, TorinoFilmLab and Rotterdam’s Cinemart have also played a part. 

Another factor is the regional funding schemes that have sprung up across Southeast Asia over the past few years, mostly government-backed, although Thailand’s privately-run Purin Pictures has also become a key funding institution. Schemes such as Singapore’s Southeast Asia Co-Production Grant, backed by the Singapore Film Commission and Infocomm Media Development Authority, are enabling producers to make films on bigger budgets with higher production values that can stand shoulder to shoulder with more mature filmmaking regions. 

Both Tiger Stripes and Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell were part-funded by Singapore’s SCPG and have Singapore producers on board (Fran Borgia and Jeremy Chua, respectively).

Taiwan Creative Content Agency and the Film Development Council of the Philippines have also launched funding schemes aimed at supporting their local industries through regional and international co-production. (In terms of geography, Taiwan is part of East Asia, not Southeast Asia, but has become an integral part of the Southeast Asia’s funding network in recent years.) 

FDCP has backed co-productions including In My Mother’s Skin, Kenneth Dagatan’s fantasy horror, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; and Some Nights I Feel Like Walking, directed by Petersen Vargas, which is currently shooting in the Philippines. 

TAICCA’s International Co-Funding Program backed both Tiger Stripes and The Settlers, from Chilean Felipe Gálvez, which is premiering in Un Certain Regard. 

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“A film like ours would be difficult to finance just out of Malaysia due to commercial constraints,” says Foo Fei Ling, the Malaysian producer of Tiger Stripes, which has co-producers and funding from Singapore, Taiwan, Qatar, Germany, Netherlands and France. “I’ve constantly been told by investors that female stories don’t sell. So that’s why we chose to go the international co-production route, even though it takes several years, as it was essential we have the creative freedom to let Amanda to achieve her vision.”

Chua explains that before the rise of these regional funds, Southeast Asian producers only had European funders to turn to, and while these remain important, it’s good to diversify and find sources of finance closer to home. Unlike, Singapore, Vietnam does not have national funds, so films like Inside The Yellow Cocoon Shell only become possible through collaboration with Europe and the rest of Southeast Asia. 

“Production value is becoming more relevant even at smaller festivals nowadays, and historically, that’s been difficult to achieve because of our budget size,” says Chua, who was also a producer on Singaporean filmmaker Jow Zhi Wei’s Tomorrow Is A Long Time, which premiered at this year’s Berlin. “You can’t do much on a budget of $100,000-$300,000, so we had to do a lot in post-production, but with co-production we can go beyond that.” 

Driven by these new funding options, several other Vietnamese films are currently in pre-production – Ash Mayfair’s Skin Of You, Dieu Linh Don’t Cry, Butterfly and Truong Minh Quy’s Viet And Nam – or already wrapped (Pham Ngoc Lan’s Cu Li Never Cries) and expected to appear at festivals in the future. 

Singapore-based producer Si En Tan, who is currently producing Don’t Cry, Butterfly and Thai dark comedy A Useful Ghost, is also developing a slate of series and says this Southeast Asian funding nexus may soon extend to episodic projects as well as films. Singapore’s IMDA recently expanded its Media Enterprise Programme (MEP) to include grants of up to S$100,000 for TV and streaming series that can be co-produced regionally or internationally.

“Most series are in the region are still fully financed by one streamer or broadcaster, but we’re working on a few projects that involve co-financing and soft money – so we’re seeing some quite innovative business models developing,” says Tan.  

Meanwhile, the funding networks are also expanding to other countries in the region as more governments see the advantages for their local content industries. Last year, Hong Kong launched the Hong Kong-Asian Film Collaboration Funding Scheme and is hosting a session in the Hong Kong Pavilion in the International Village on May 20 to explain more about how it works. While details are still under wraps, Indonesia’s government is also expected to announce a new funding programme this evening in Cannes. 

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