Mainland Southeast Asia


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

Suppakit Tangthatswasd in Prince Chatrichalerm's epic Suriyothai ( The Legend of Suriyothai, 2001 ).
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

Barmé, Scot. Woman, Man, Bangkok: Love, Sex, and Popular Culture in Thailand . Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.

Dissanayake, Wimal, ed. Colonialism and Nationalism in Asian Cinema . Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Dome Sukwong, and Sawasdi Suwannapak. A Century of Thai Cinema . Translated and edited by David Smyth. London: Thames & Hudson, 2001.

Hanan, David, ed. Film in South East Asia: Views from the Region . Hanoi: SEAPAVAA, 2001.

Lent, John A. The Asian Film Industry . Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.

Vasudev, Aruna, Latika Padgaonkar, and Rashmi Doraiswamy, eds. Being and Becoming: The Cinemas of Asia . New Delhi: Macmillan, 2002.

Zaw, Aung. "Celluloid Disillusions." The Irrawaddy 12, no. 3 (March 2004): 22–25.

Zin, Min. "Digital Killed the Celluloid Star." The Irrawaddy 12, no. 3 (March 2004): 26–27.

Adam Knee

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