Mainland Southeast Asia

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Mainland Southeast Asia


While the film industries of the countries of mainland Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam) are all distinct, their films and histories do have numerous points of contact, and can be partly understood in regional terms. For example, the films share reference to a common and often tumultuous regional history and a common terrain, and many of them possess themes that bespeak the regional sway of Theravada Buddhism, as well as the former influence of Western colonizers and/or allies. More recently, the industries have all partaken of international financing opportunities and have been influenced by the availability of new, lower-cost video technologies for production and distribution of films.


Within mainland Southeast Asia, the film industry with the most extensive history, as well as with the most activity at present, is that of Thailand. Film screenings put on by traveling foreign exhibitors have been present in Thailand since 1897. A Japanese businessman opened a permanent cinema in Bangkok in 1905, and others followed soon afterwards. Although broadly popular, film was not necessarily seen as a lower-class form of entertainment: not only did its foreign origins endow it with a certain cachet, but members of the royal family also took an interest in it from the time of its arrival. Indeed, it was a member of the royal family, Prince Sanphasat Suphakit, who is credited with being the first Thai filmmaker, shooting footage of royal ceremonies from early as 1900. While a number of filmmakers, both Thai and foreign, shot documentary footage in the silent era, records show only a modest number of fiction films made in Thailand at that time, including the American-produced Suvarna of Siam (1923). Survana was followed in 1927 by the Thai-produced fiction feature Chok Sorng San (Double Luck), followed by sixteen other silent features, none of them extant. In 1932 a Thai-produced sound film, Long Thang (Going Astray), was produced, and in the subsequent decade both films with recorded soundtracks and features with soundtracks performed live, Thai-produced and foreign-made, could be found in Bangkok cinemas.

Perhaps the most remarkable development of the post–World War II era was a turn to shooting feature films in economical 16mm, rather than 35mm, without recorded soundtracks. Just as in earlier decades, these films were presented with live performers offering dialogue and sound effects, and this remained the dominant mode of production through the 1960s. Film viewing took place in traditional film theaters as well as in temporary, open-air cinemas run by traveling exhibitors. Such screenings were commonplace through the 1970s and indeed can still occasionally be found. The most popular movie star in this era was undoubtedly the ever-suave Mitr Chaibancha, who appeared in hundreds of movies between 1956 and 1970 before he died while filming a helicopter stunt. A key director to emerge in this era was Rattana Pestonji, who tried to promote the use of 35mm through his own independent studio. Rattana produced the first Thai film to achieve international festival recognition (Santi Weena, 1954), then went on to direct and photograph a handful of stylish films considered key achievements in Thai cinema, including the comedy drama Rong Raem Narok (Country Hotel, 1957) and the crime film Prae Dum (Black Silk, 1961).

The 1970s were a time of substantial political and social unrest in Thailand: national power changed hands, sometimes violently, on a number of occasions, and the decade ended with a military-backed administration in power and many left-leaning activists forced into hiding. It is in part out of the turmoil of the decade and the resulting raised social consciousness that a significant new tendency toward making social-issue films arose in the Thai industry. One senior figure (who had worked in the industry since the 1950s) exemplifying this trend was director Vichit Kounavudhi (b. 1922), who distinguished himself with films examining the difficulties faced by women in Thai society (for example, in the melodrama Mia Luang [First Wife, 1978]) and the hardships of northern ethnic groups (Luuk Isaan [Son of the Northeast, 1982]). Among the newly emerging directors focusing on social woes at this time were Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol (b. 1942), Euthana Mukdasanit (Thepthida Bar 21 [The Angel of Bar 21, 1978] and Peesua Lae Dokmai [Butterfly and Flowers, 1986]), and Manop Udomdej (Prachachon Nok [On the Fringe of Society, 1981] and Ya Pror Me Chu [The Accusation, 1985]). Though not equally focused on contemporary political issues, Cherd Songsri also distinguished himself at this time as a director concentrating on rural and historical dramas, especially with his highly successful film Plae Kao (The Scar, 1977).

The start of the 1990s was not, on the whole, a good time for Thai cinema (save perhaps for teen films), in part because of competition from both the video market and Hollywood films, which soon achieved even greater domination on the screens of the multiplexes that started to be built in mid-decade. From 1997, however, feature films from a group of new, younger directors, largely with backgrounds in the Thai advertising industry, began to achieve recognition at international festivals and attention from foreign critics. The first new director to appear on the scene was Nonzee Nimibutr, with his highly successful 1950s crime drama, 2499: Anthapan Krong Muang (Dang Bireley and the Young Gangsters, 1997). He followed this with the box-office record-breaking period horror film Nang Nak (1999), which also proved a favorite with festival audiences and achieved some measure of international (especially pan-Asian) distribution. Penek Ratanaruang (b. 1962) made the first in a series of quirky, highly stylized dramas of contemporary Thai life in 1997, Fun Bar Karaoke, following it up with the dark comedy 6ixtynin9 (1999). Both directors have continued to make films on a regular basis, and both have also been able to garner international co-financing for their films.

b. Bangkok, Thailand, 29 November 1942

Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol's work exemplifies a number of trends in modern Thai cinema, such as the interest in social issues in the 1970s, teen-oriented drama in the mid-1990s, and historical drama in the early twenty-first century. At the same time, however, Chatrichalerm is an exception in the attention he has received abroad, his sustained and regular production of films, his films' characteristic use of stylistic flourish, and his willingness to embrace controversial subject matter and imagery (this last made possible in part because of the prince's exceptional social status as the nephew of a former king).

Chatrichalerm's exposure to film began early: his father was a sometime filmmaker, and the prince studied at the University of CaliforniaLos Angeles (UCLA), at which time he also worked as an assistant to Merian C. Cooper, the producer of such film classics as King Kong (1933) and The Searchers (1956). His knowledge of world film history is clear from his films themselves: his first feature, and Thailand's first science-fiction film, Mun Ma Kab Kwam Mued (It Comes with the Darkness, 1971), is clearly informed by the plots of classic 1950s US science-fiction films, while his Thongpoon Khokepho (Citizen, 1977), a feature about a taxi driver in search of his stolen vehicle, is a kind of Thai take on Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thieves, 1948). Issaraparb Kong Thongpoon Khokepho (Citizen II, 1984) thematically recalls the films of John Ford, a favorite director of the prince.

These international inspirations, however, have been put in the service of distinctively Thai concerns—the second of Chatrichalerm's Citizen films, for example, concerns the difficulties of underclass existence in rapidly developing Bangkok, particularly for rural migrants. Before 2001, Prince Chatrichalerm was best known for his social-issue films, dating back to his Khao Cheu Chan (Doctor Kan, 1973), with its then daring theme of an idealistic young physician facing official corruption; his prostitution drama, Thepthida Rong Raem (Angel, 1974), with its memorable montage of an upcountry girl's sex work intercut with construction of the rural family home for which her work is paying; and the more recent, harrowingly graphic drama of teen drug abuse, Sia Dai (Daughter, 1995).

Suriyothai (2001) was unprecedented in both the prince's work and Thai cinema for the massiveness of its budget and scale. Based upon years of research and supported and bankrolled by the royal family, the film goes to great pains to authentically represent the times of the sixteenth-century queen of its title. The film was wildly successful in Thailand, but its international-release version, produced under the supervision of Prince Chatrichalerm's UCLA classmate, Francis Ford Coppola, did not fare as well. The prince subsequently began work on another big-budget historical epic, King Naresuan, scheduled for completion in 2006.


Thepthida Rong Raem (Angel, 1974), Thongpoon Khokepho (Citizen, 1977), Khon Liang Chang (The Elephant Keeper, 1987), Sia Dai (Daughter, 1995), Suriyothai (The Legend of Suriyothai, 2001)


Anchalee Chaiworaporn, "Thai Cinema Since 1970." In Film in South East Asia: Views from the Region, edited by David Hanan. Hanoi: SEAPAVAA, 2001.

Hamilton, Annette, "Cinema and Nation: Dilemmas of Representation in Thailand." In Colonialism and Nationalism in Asian Cinema, edited by Wimal Dissanayake, 141–161. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Kong Rithdee, "Bangkok Journal: Kong Rithdee on Cinematic Renewal in Thailand." Film Comment 38, no. 5 (2002): 12–13.

Adam Knee

As Nonzee and Penek experienced success, producers gradually started investing in more local productions from more new directors. Yongyooth Thongkonthoon's comedy about a (real-life) transvestite volleyball team, Satree Lek (Iron Ladies, 2000), managed the up to then rare feat of garnering a theatrical release (albeit limited) in the United States. The co-writer and cinematographer of that film, Jira Maligool, then had a terrific local success as director of a comedy of rural life, 15 Kham Duen 11 (Mekhong Full Moon Party, 2002), and went on to produce the even more successful comic-nostalgic childhood romance, Fan Chan (My Girl, 2003). Aside from comedy, other popular genres have included crime films, horror films, and historical dramas; most significant among the historical dramas has been Prince Chatrichalerm's Suriyothai (The Legend of Suriyothai, 2001) and Thanit Jitnakul's epic of eighteenth-century Thai-Burmese battles, Bang Rajan (2000). Since 2002, Thai producers have also started to release substantial numbers of new direct-to-video features on video compact disc (VCD) and DVD, primarily for the domestic market.

One recent film that seems to hold the potential to raise international awareness of Thai cinema is the martial-arts film Ong-Bak (Prachiya Pinkaew, 2003), which made substantial money in Asia and Europe and received a modest release in the United States. Some of the international festival and art-house favorites, however, have paradoxically garnered little interest in their home country. Wisit Sasanatieng's nostalgic, spaghetti-western inspired Fah Talai Jone (Tears of the Black Tiger, 2000), for example, while generating much interest at Cannes and getting released in DVDs in several markets, was a financial flop domestically. And the stylistically unconventional (and often sexually frank) feature films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (b. 1970) (Sud Sanaeha [Blissfully Yours, 2002]; Sud Pralad [Tropical Malady, 2004]) received only limited play in Thailand until the director won repeated awards at Cannes.


As a former colony of France—the country often credited with the invention of cinema—Vietnam was host to film screenings early in cinema history: even in 1898, screenings occurred regularly in metropolitan areas. By the 1920s, major Vietnamese cities had movie theaters showing foreign-produced films, among them films featuring Vietnamese actors and/or locales. A handful of feature films and documentaries were made by Vietnamese producers in the period immediately prior to the Japanese occupation of 1940, but this work was halted in the World War II years. In the subsequent years of war against the French occupiers (1945–1954), culminating in the partition of the country, some 16mm documentaries were made by the resistance, but the birth of modern Vietnamese cinema dates from Ho Chi Minh's establishment of a state-run film organization in 1953. In 1959 the first post-colonial Vietnamese feature, Chung Mot Dong Song (On the Same River, Nguyen Hong Nghi and Pham Ky Nam), the story of the hardships of a young couple living on opposite sides of the river separating North Vietnam from South, was completed. In North Vietnam in the decade following, various government-sponsored film groups produced a range of features emphasizing revolutionary themes (for example, the struggles against the French; postwar social and economic development), as well as documentaries and scientific films (on topics such as government, construction, and agriculture), and animated films. As fighting with American forces escalated, this struggle became a major theme, and the balance of production shifted more toward documentary, including some works shot on actual battlefields. Some film production was also carried out in the South at this time; among the films were administration-sponsored, anticommunist documentaries and nonpoliticized features, such as romances and comedies.

Within a few years of reunification in 1975, film production levels were on the rebound and filmmakers were increasingly able to address the hardships of wartime life and postwar readjustment in more complex and nuanced fashion. One of the most successful films of the time was Canh dong hoang (The Wild Field, 1979), a fiction feature by established documentary filmmaker Hong Sen, which closely follows a small family under attack by American soldiers. A key director to emerge during this period and one who has remained active ever since was Dang Nhat Minh, whose Bao gio cho den thang muoi (When the Tenth Month Comes, 1984) and Co gai tren song (The Girl on the River, 1987) detail the sacrifices made by women in the war and its aftermath. The latter film concerns a prostitute who is ultimately betrayed by the communist official she had saved during the war. In 1986 a shift in state policy encouraged development of a market economy, which in the case of film meant bringing an end to state subsidies. Given the dearth of available funding, the films that emerged in this context were commercial genre vehicles, often shot on video. Concern arose about the evident decline in the quality of locally produced films, and as a result, new policies were instituted from 1994 to once again subsidize filmmaking, a move that resulted in an increase in feature production. Among the new directors to gain attention in the 1990s for films dealing with contemporary social problems were Le Hoang, Vuong Duc (b. 1957), and Nguyen Thanh Van. But government concern over the low appeal of Vietnamese films locally led to another shift in policy in 2003, with censorship controls relaxed—preapproval is no longer required for scripts—and privately financed production permitted. That the first product of such policies, Le Hoang's Gai nhay (Bar Girl, 2003), broke all prior box-office records with its depiction of prostitution, drug use, and HIV infection suggests the extent to which earlier films may have lacked appeal for popular audiences.

In spite of the substantial amount of production activity taking place in Vietnam, the name Western audiences would be most likely to associate with Vietnamese cinema is that of expatriate director-screenwriter Tran Anh Hung (b. 1962), whose skillfully crafted films, while starring Vietnamese actors, are French-financed productions filmed by French technicians. Mui du du xanh (The Scent of Green Papaya, 1993) was even shot in French studios standing in for Vietnam.

The most internationally visible exponents of Cambodian cinema are likewise those involved in internationally financed works. The best known, both at home and abroad, is the former king himself, Norodhom Sihanouk (b. 1922), a pivotal figure in Cambodia's mid-to-late twentieth-century history. Sihanouk's preferred modes have been documentary and melodrama, the latter generally based around specific events in contemporary Cambodian history; these films often take a tragic turn (as is the case, for example, in My Village at Sunset, 1992). His films celebrate traditional Khmer culture and heritage and Buddhist values, though Sihanouk also alludes to Western literature, and valorize those who have worked hard for the nation in times of strife. Another Cambodian filmmaker to whom international audiences have been exposed is the award-winning documentarian Rithy Panh (b. 1964), who fled the Khmer Rouge as a teenager and now resides in France. His work, such as the formally accomplished and unsettling S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003), often focuses on the lasting repercussions of the Khmer Rouge rule on Cambodian life.

Records indicate that film screenings first occurred in Cambodia, both in cinemas and in traveling exhibitions, in the 1910s. Sihanouk himself is the first Cambodian filmmaker, having had the means to acquire cinematographic equipment after being placed on the throne by French colonial authorities in 1941. Foreign features were shown in Cambodia with some regularity in the 1950s, in particular contemporary Thai films; these films continued to be a staple until 2003, when the (evidently spurious) reporting of a slight by a Thai actress precipitated anti-Thai riots. By the early 1960s, a few enterprising filmmakers and producers (Ly Bun Yim being one of the first and most successful) found that locally produced films generated much interest among Cambodian audiences; this audience demand, along with government tax incentives, led to a quick rise in local production. However, many of these films were lost and the industry destroyed during the tumult of the early 1970s and the subsequent period of Khmer Rouge rule. An attempt to resurrect the industry was made in 2001 with the Thai co-production Kuon Puos Keng Kang (Snaker, Fai Sam Ang). This was a remake of a popular title from the earlier era of Cambodian feature production and based upon a local snake-woman legend similar to those that have been the source of a number of Asian horror films. The pan-Asian success of that film, along with the attention brought to Cambodian shooting locales by the international Hollywood blockbuster Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in the same year, helped spur a new boom in local production on digital video. While some have bemoaned the quality of these new, low-budget productions, their popularity has fostered the opening of more than a dozen cinemas since 2001.

Little scholarship has been produced on the cinemas of Laos or Myanmar, though in the case of Laos this is clearly in part because the country has seen only limited filmmaking. Information on the early years of cinema in Laos, a French colony until 1949, is sketchy; the oldest partially extant film is a documentary from 1956. In the period from 1960–1975, when there were internal battles between Western (especially American) and communist-backed regimes, various factions produced propagandistic documentaries supporting their causes. Ten features by independent filmmakers were reportedly produced in this period, but these films did not survive and little is known about them. Subsequently, the government of the Lao People's Democratic Republic (PDR), formed in late 1975, has provided minimal funding to support filmmaking. The most important film to emerge from the Lao PDR has been the 1988 35mm feature Buadaeng (Red Lotus), a love story focusing on the hardships of life during the civil war era, which has screened at a number of international festivals. That film's Czechoslovakian-trained director, Som Ock Southiphonh, subsequently worked on a number of independent, foreign-financed video documentaries.

Myanmar (formerly Burma), in contrast, has produced many films, but little is known about them. Films were being screened in what was then British-controlled Burma as early as 1910. The first Burmese-filmed documentary is attributed to U Ohn Maung in the 1910s; he went on to direct the first Burmese feature, Myitta Nit Thuyar (Love and Liquor) in 1920. The first "talkie" by a Burmese director, Toke Kyi's Ngwee Pay Lo Maya (It Can't Be Paid with Money), was made in 1932. During the 1930s, Burma had numerous independent film producers and screening venues; one estimate puts the number of Burmese films prior to 1941 at 600. While subject to British censorship, some of these films did deal with controversial topics or suggest nationalist sentiments opposed to British policy. Though production naturally fell during World War II, it picked up again following independence in 1948, with on the order of 80 films a year being produced during the 1950s. The industry suffered considerably, however, when a coup brought a socialist military government to power in 1962, after which production houses were nationalized and very strict censorship—which still exists—applied to films. Few contemporary Burmese films have been able to make their way to international festivals; a rare, recent exception is Chit Chin Nye Paying (True Love, Kyi Soe Tun, 2005), a Japanese co-production about Burmese expatriates living in Japan. A new phenomenon beginning in 2003 that may give a boost to the local industry is digital video, released to theaters on DVD, which offers both lower production costs and improvement in equipment quality over the aging film cameras generally available in the country.

SEE ALSO National Cinema


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Adam Knee

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