ASEAN films make their mark on the global stage

Hakim Hayat

The quality of films from ASEAN member countries has dramatically improved over the last few years with the advent of brilliant film-making talents mushrooming all over the region, giving them the potential to break into the international market.

Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) Director Jay Jeon said this in an interview on the sidelines of the closing ceremony of the 24th BIFF at the port city of Busan, South Korea last October.

The 24th BIFF closed its curtains on October 12, drawing 189,116 people. For 10 days, it showcased 299 films from 85 countries. Of these, 118 had world premieres and 27 had international premieres.

Jeon was speaking to eight Asian journalists who participated in the month-long 2019 Kwanhun-Korean Press Foundation (KPF) Press Fellowship, where the Bulletin had been selected to represent Brunei. Other participating countries included Malaysia, Cambodia, India, Myanmar, Mongolia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Jeon observed that films from the ASEAN region have been more visible as of late and are gaining excellent traction, with more exploring storylines and visuals that depict the rich and preserved multi-cultural heritage.

A woman walks past posters for the international film festival at the Busan Cinema Centre in South Korea. PHOTO: AFP
Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) Director Jay Jeon during the interview. PHOTO: HAKIM HAYAT

He said they have the potential to be exported like Korean films, which have been international hits for decades.

After working for the BIFF in various capacities since 1996, Jeon was forced to step down from his role at the festival in 2016, following two years of controversy surrounding the festival’s decision to screen the film The Truth Will Not Sink With Sewol in 2014 which was critical of the former South Korean President Park Geun-hye government’s handling of the Sewol ferry disaster.

According to Jeon, who worked as a film producer in South Korea for three decades prior to his role of festival director at BIFF, the best films showcased at the festival tended to come from East Asian nations like South Korea and Japan.

That, however, has been changing. Today the festival focusses on stories from various countries around the region.

Jeon said the Korean Film Council is embarking on an ambitious plan to set up the Korean-ASEAN Film Centre, funded by the Busan Metropolitan City. He said the approval would be obtained from member countries soon.

He shared that Busan’s Mayor, at a roundtable discussion on the proposed centre, had said ASEAN cinema had witnessed huge development in recent years and become a pillar of world cinema. Jeon said to make this a reality to solidify the status, there was a need for close and continuous cooperation between industry players to make Busan the Cannes of Asia and raise the profile of ASEAN cinema globally.

Approximately 300 full length feature films are produced in South Korea every year, according to Jeon’s estimates, with 100 feature films from independent filmmakers and 200 from the mainstream and commercial.

He believes the involvement of the government and its investment in film production has made a positive impact on the quality of films being produced in South Korea.

“Korean films are successful because of the government’s investment. Korea is a big country in film production and there are so many ambitious filmmakers who want to make it big. The government supports the industry in every way. They send artistes to many film festivals around the world,” said Jeon.

He pointed to South Korean film Director Bong Joon-ho’s film Parasite as an example. The film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019. “The Busan International Film Festival and the Korean government supported that film,” he said.

Korea’s films are just one part of the cultural production machine churned out by the country.

Korean television dramas that have gained massive recognition and popularity over the past two decades and have a fan following from all over the world and several South Korean television actors also have an established presence on the silver screen.

According to Jeon, Korean dramas are targetting even greater international success than what they presently enjoy. “They could make a big success as they plan to make international productions, not local.”

The realisation that their television dramas were extremely popular came about 20 years ago when audience in Japan and China began rapidly consuming television dramas.

Scholars who have studied the phenomenon of the popularity of Korean popular culture over the decades believe that it was around this time that Hallyu or the ‘Korean Wave’- a phrase used for this global cultural phenomenon originating in South Korea – started and slowly spread from South Korea to Japan and China and then later on to Southeast and South Asia and elsewhere in the world.

“In the past Korean dramas were extremely domestic.” Despite the success that South Korean filmmakers and its entertainment industry has witnessed over the decades, Jeon believes that a “big change” is hovering at the horizon with changing modes of consumption of films and television dramas.

That big change will be the genre of video streaming, challenging filmmakers. Anxieties about alternative models of funding, distributing and watching films have gripped the industry over the last few years, he said, especially with emergence of streaming platforms like Netflix. “The Korean film industry will be threatened by the American giants and not only Netflix, Apple TV, Amazon and Warner Brothers. They are coming to undertake business in Seoul in 2020 and they will be investing in Korean filmmakers. Do you know why? To attract one to two million (Korean) subscribers,” said Jeon.

With regards to female directors, Jeon said that “out of 299 invited from 85 countries, around 28 per cent of films are made by women”, which is about the same as the previous year.