Thursday, October 22, 2009



Digital cinema in Southeast Asia emerged in the late 1990s and blossomed in 2000-2006. Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand now have a thriving community of filmmakers gaining recognition in their countries and in the international arena.

Several reasons can be cited for the emergence of digital cinema in Southeast Asia. One is the establishment and strengthening of the information and communications technology (ICT) in the region such as through the Multimedia Super Corridor in Malaysia, and the Commission on Information and Communications Technology (CITC) of the Philippines. Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo declared in her State of the Nation Address the establishment of the CyberServices Corridor. The Cyberservices Corridor, which was also part of President Macapagal-Arroyo’s ten-point agenda, is an ICT channel that runs through the archipelago from the north in Baguio City to the south in Zamboanga. The drive towards ICT development in the Philippines stimulated growth in several industries such as the call center, internet gaming, and the recovery of the once robust animation industry in the Philippines. It has also given the young digital filmmakers a venue to circulate and distribute their works on the internet. In the case of Malaysia, part of Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s push for information and communication technology is the development of a Multimedia Super Corridor, a geographically designated area in Malaysia specifically from Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC) to Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) and also includes Putrajaya, Cyberjaya and the Klang Valley. Part of the Multimedia Super Corridor is the Multimedia University where a lot of young Malaysian digital filmmakers were educated. The thrust into ICT also spurred the growth of the Malaysian animation industry which according to Hassan Muthalib, “from 1995 to 2005, an unprecedented 30 local animation TV series, 3 feature animation and 4 telemovies were produced for local consumption, surpassing any other ASEAN country. It also resulted in the rise of mostly young digital video filmmakers beginning in 1999 (Muthalib, 2006).” Gaik Cheng Khoo reiterates this, “Indie filmmaking has burgeoned due to the availability of cheap digital video technology, pirated foreign VCDs, DVDs and software, not to mention the government’s push for IT in its establishment of the Multimedia University and the Multimedia Development Corporation (MDC) (Khoo, 2004).”

The apparent dissatisfaction of young independent filmmakers with the current state of the film industries in their respective countries is driving them to find alternative ways to make films. In Malaysia, Hassan Muthalib elucidates, “Malaysian mainstream cinema is notable for its emphasis on pure entertainment and nothing but…Dishing out clich├ęd, stereotypical and uninnovative narratives and characters, many of these films somehow, attain to box-office success… (Muthalib, 2007)” While Villaluna gives voice to this dissatisfaction, “the expensive 35mm format lends itself into a vicious cycle: to be able to make one, producers need to recoup their investments, resorting to producing crass slapstick comedies, soft-porn moneymakers, formulaic horror films, big-star romances and intrepid melodramas therefore resulting in a creative bankruptcy if not the decline of box-office grosses. (Villaluna, 2007)” The decline is not only in terms of quality, but also in terms quantity of films produced in the local film industries. The Philippine film industry is a prime example of a declining film industry having been repeatedly hailed as dead or dying since the 1990s. From a robust industry that consistently produced around 120 films a year for wide theater release, Philippine cinema has experienced a steady decline in film production since 2001. Records from U.P. Film Institute show that the Philippine film industry only produced 103 films in 2001, 94 in 2002, 80 in 2003, 55 in 2004, 50 in 2005, and 49 in 2006. Several factors are blamed for the decline in film production such as rising cost of raw film stock, exorbitant taxes, and the constant influx of Hollywood movies. It is not surprising then that young Filipino filmmakers choose to make films outside of the mainstream film industry.

The increasing cost of making movies and its concomitant taxes is also one reason for independent filmmakers to find alternative and cheaper ways to make films. The cost of producing a full-length 35mm film could reach up to thousands of dollars making it unaffordable for a lot of filmmakers working outside of a film studio. The film industry is also saddled with taxes. For example, in the Philippines, the local film industry remains one of the most heavily taxed industries with 30% amusement tax, 5% withholding tax on the producers’ film share, 32% corporate income tax, 10% VAT on producers’ film share. As independent filmmakers use the digital technology, the cost of production is drastically lowered and they are not subject to most of these taxes.

The year 1999 was a landmark year when pioneering Filipino filmmaker Jon Red shot the first digital full-length film Still Lives (Jon Red, 1999) which was commercially released in the Philippines. The year 2000 was a historic year in Malaysian cinema with the public screening of Amir Muhammad’s Lips to Lips (2000), Malaysia’s first full-length digital film. According to contemp issue, a publication of the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture (OCAC), Ministry of Culture in Thailand, Punlop Horharin’s Everything will Flow (2000), shown at the Bangkok Film Festival 2000, is the first digital film in Thailand. ( contemp, 2006). In Singapore, a group of undergraduate students from the National University of Singapore made a digital film entitled called Stamford (1999) and the first full-length digital film was Stories about Love (2000) directed by three emerging filmmakers Cheek, James Toh and Abdul Nizam and produced by internationally acclaimed Singaporean filmmaker Eric Khoo (Millet, 2006).


*Research for this article was funded by the SEASREP Foundation. Research conducted in 2005 to 2007.

Khoo, Gaik Cheng. “Just-do-it-yourself: Malaysian independent filmmaking.” Aliran Monthly Vol 24 (2004): Issue 9. Aliran Monthly. Accessed July 18, 2007.
Millet, Raphael. Singapore Cinema. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2006.
Muthalib, Hassan Abd. “Malaysian Cinema 2003 through 2005: Beginning of the Crossover.” E-mail to the author. May 23, 2006.
Thailand. Ministry of Culture. Office of Contemporary Art and Culture. Contemp. Bangkok: OCAC, 2006.
Villaluna, Paolo. “Bagong Agos: New Currents. New Visions. Emerging Cinema.” Bagong Agos: The Current Wave of Philippine Digital Cinema. Manila: Independent Filmmakers Cooperative, 2007.

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