A handful of the most critically acclaimed films of the past few years – 2011’s The Raid, last year’s Mister John, and BIFA-scooping Metro Manila, and now this weekend’s The Rocket – are all set in the beautiful region, including the rapidly approaching The Raid 2: Berandal. Each movie evokes the culture of its setting and its people, is authentically shot in the provincial language, and made by a foreign team – and if a production hasn’t had a fully Asian crew, both the creative and financial driving forces have been alien ones. Every aforementioned production has been English, minus The Rocket which happens to be Australian – but the people behind them have still very much been strangers in a strange land. What are the forces behind this emerging (and to some degree, already established) trend?
Speaking in general, South East Asia is a ‘low cost’ country. Getting a cast and crew together is a relatively inexpensive feat compared to doing the same in a country that’s home to, or heavily influenced by, big studios; not that the filmmakers would choose this lower-cost path if it meant the results would suffer, of course. Just look at the expert choreography in The Raid (and from what we’ve seen from its sequel’s trailer) courtesy of Iko Uwais, or the layered, empathetic performance from Jake Macapagal in Metro Manila. And once you look at the across-the-board quality in every frame of The Rocket, it becomes increasingly clear that you don’t have to make your movie in your own back yard – make it in someone else’s.
Asia in general has been upping their facilities for a number of years now, too; with a fantastic number of new facilities across the continent, not just limited to the South East, millions have been spent in getting brand new soundstages and post-production venues up-and-running across its various countries. And of course, there’s the important factor of tax breaks; Taiwan started it all in 2004, followed by Seoul offering 25% discounts of up to $100,000 per film for international productions – this makes a haven for filmmakers wishing to make the movie of their dreams without suffering the dogma of the ‘mid’-budget project (films, in England and the States, are notoriously hard to push through the studio system if you’re looking to make a film with a budget in the 20 – 30 million region. You either have to go super-low or blockbuster-high, even if you’re an established moviemaking force, if you want to get a project off the ground on home soil). Another dollar bill-shaped factor that has oiled the cogs of such lenience is, naturally, Asia’s rise to prominence as the leading fiscal power in the world.
Asia itself has also always had a healthy film industry, breaking the cultural barrier on several occasions – you only need to look as far as the Jackie Chans and Bruce Lees of the world, though admittedly, Western influences – commercial and creative – helped forge the extended lifespan of such careers. For homegrown, native success, however, you can turn your gaze to the Shaw Brothers Studio; the largest film production company in Hong Kong, established in 1925, they had an output of roughly a thousand movies during their heyday (despite a logo that clearly apes Warner Bros.’ own) in a continent otherwise not especially prolific in cinematic export concerning the rest of its regions.
However, the filmmakers themselves are the real catalysts, proving that the alignment of financial and creative processes is a strenuous one; one simply can’t exist without the other, for we don’t live in an ideal world of experimentation, risk and – to be frank – economic stability in the West. As you watch The Rocket this weekend, the tale of a little boy’s rise from being his community’s bad luck charm to its unexpected saviour, you’ll be witnessing a culture that’s portrayed brilliantly by the Australian director Kim Morduant, whose work up until now has been in documentaries, and who has actually lived in Laos where his film is set, plus time in Vietnam and Thailand – so shooting it in South East Asia would realistically have been a natural decision, where costs may not have been as pivotal as they would be for a complete stranger to the lands. The same could be said of the mastermind behind The Raid, Gareth Evans, who initially hails from Wales, but emigrated to Indonesia a considerable time before his martial arts spectaculars had developed beyond a mere thought. Sean Ellis, the award-winning director of the also award-winning Metro Manila, is the exception; he wanted, defiantly, to make a world cinema film, and the Philippines proved a perfect melting pot for his – and the country’s – talents. There’s evidence of even more Eastern fixation in the form of the near-micro Mister John, and the Nicolas Refn doozy Only God Forgives, both released last year and both transplanting Western stars (Aidan Gillen and Ryan Gosling) to Asian territories.
However you look at it, this cultural cross-pollination is only ever going to be fruitful; while there are still Western faces providing this recent slew of high-class movies, with much luck it could open doors for a host of international stars – in front of and behind the camera – to spread their talent further than their homeland. For instance, Iko Uwais is now considered a bonafide action star; just imagine the possibilities that could follow the movement with not just The Rocket, but every next step that places these beautiful, untapped parts of the world at the forefront of such daring cinematic endeavours.
The Rocket is out in cinemas now, and you can read our review here.