Asian Correspondent » Tianzi Harrison Asian Correspondent Wed, 20 May 2015 11:20:38 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Chinese studio bids to challenge Hollywood with new 3D animated film Mon, 05 Aug 2013 02:16:28 +0000 “Nothing is impossible” is the tagline of the 3D animated feature Bunta (2013) (Chinese Pinyin: Kunta) that opened in theatres throughout China on Friday.

The making of the movie has been a remarkable journey undertaken by Zhejiang Versatile Media for the past three years, mimicking the story it tells:

A young boy named Boca lives on a planet the size of a peanut and populated by little box people hopping on one leg. A hero-worshiper, Boca sets his mind to finding the titular plant, which by legend can save his people from an impending food crisis. Because he is only a child, nobody wants to take him seriously except his buddy, the babbling Neepop. Boca sallies forth with high hopes while being tagged along by Neepop. Their journey begins with meeting an ostrich car and temporarily ends with the two befriending a sassy princess, who joins their cause after a fierce battle with a super villain.

Princess Gaga in Bunta (2013) poster (courtesy of Zhejiang Versatile Media)

Director “Leo” Lian Li, also President of Zhejiang Versatile Media, describes the tension between him and his team at the beginning of the project as “an arm-wrestling game with 200 people.” When he called on them to make a Hollywood-caliber 3D animated film, very few thought that they had the ability to.

It was not until seven months later that the team’s uncertainty dissipated. Leo held an internal screening of the first fully rendered demo reel of the movie. The beautiful, detailed, and pin-sharp graphics (see “Bunta (2013) Chinese Trailer” on YouTube and Vimeo) dazzled everyone.

In fact, that was the day that Leo’s team finally united behind his vision of a world-class picture. The move enabled the company to weather the storm of 2012, when 85% of domestic animation companies, according to Southern Metropolis Daily, suffered losses because broadcast and cable networks were increasingly reluctant to air low-quality works, even for free.

3D animated features are expensive to make and market. The famous ones by Hollywood in the most recent years such as Kungfu Panda (2008), Toy Story 3 (2010), and Brave (2012) often had runaway budgets of $130 to $200 million.

Several sources state that Bunta has cost roughly RMB100 million (US$16.3 million), which is a fraction of the Hollywood budget for the same category of film, but a number unimaginable for the majority of startup studios in China. According to the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television’s estimates, the annual animation budget of Chinese TV companies currently totals only RMB50 million, a surprising 60% of the entire industry’s yearly revenue.

Having worked in advertising for 20 years, Leo’s ties are far and wide. He secured enough capital to start the production as planned, and he garnered other kinds of support. In particular, his long-time friends Wakin Chau and Jonathan Lee volunteered to write the Chinese theme song for the movie. Both men are popular icons and household names in China.

There were other hurdles. To overcome the synchronization issue between physical and virtual cameras, Versatile Media developed a proprietary technology called Kmoke 9-axis Automated Frame-by-Frame Sync Tool, which could measure and produce camera movements down to micrometers.

Scale models were used to create certain scenes that were then shot with miniature effects. This was the fun part for Leo because prior to founding Versatile Media in 1993, he had spent six years as a professional model-ship builder, representing China in international competitions, Sina News Taiwan reports.

Dramatically reducing the amount of time needed to render the final feature film, 6,700 computers running on Alibaba Group’s Aliyun OS were pooled to perform the task. It is estimated that every frame in the climatic fighting scene required seven hours of frenzy calculations.

Since 2010, the year that the project got off the ground, Leo has been keen on capturing an audience beyond China. To do so, he insisted on creating universal characters that were not in any way culturally specific. He went to the Cannes Film Festival for three consecutive years to talk with buyers and distributors, whose feedback was then carefully considered and incorporated into the movie.

It was there that Leo met Tim Werenko from DuArt Film and Video, a time-honored film and recording studio in New York City founded in 1922. DuArt was given the task of adapting the movie for an American (read international) audience by rewriting the dialogue, recording new voices, composing new music, and adding all sound design and effects.

The project drew talents that happily surprised Leo, among them was “The X Factor” runner-up, teenage songstress Carly Rose Sonenclar, who gave her voice to the English theme song of the movie.

All of these are exciting highlights of the movie, but so far, it has yet to attract any major Hollywood studios as potential distributors.

As other major Chinese animation studios have learned in the past few years, the industry’s collective weakness in branding and marketing is preventing good animated works produced by China from entering the international arena (The Diplomat).

Inside China is a different story. The core audience of Bunta, children aged six to 14 and their families, have been well primed for the release.

Versatile Media rolled out its social networking site Hezi World in 2009. The goal was to build a web-based community familiar with Hezi’s products before the company launched its ambitious movie project. It proves to have been a smart move because by May 2013, Hezi had had 40 million registered users, frequenting the website to play computer games, watch animated series, listen to a web radio designed for young mothers and children, and use a voice-supported Twitter-like service for children who could not yet type.

When Leo was visiting DuArt in April, he mentioned that he first came to the U.S. in 1996 as a guest to the 23rd International Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Design also known as SIGGRAPH 96. He described how backward China compared to the U.S. at that point, all the while being unable to understand a single English word.

Today, as he commented, is not yesterday. His company is equipped with some of the same hardware and software as American animation studios. Producing equally impactful visuals as Hollywood is becoming increasingly possible.

However, he also noted, there were still things that his company could not do, and he hired DuArt for exactly this reason.

Bunta (2013) is the first movie of the Bunta Trilogy that Leo plans to make. The characters in it – Boca, Neepop, Pootron the ostrich car, and Princess Gaga – will almost certainly stay with a generation of Chinese children growing up. For now, it is a work in progress; if all goes well, it will be a legend unveiling right before our eyes.

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Growth vs. Innovation: If crowdfunding exists in China Sun, 14 Apr 2013 20:09:16 +0000 Short films were never unheard-of in Mainland China. However, it was not until late 2010 that they suddenly found a large audience. The watershed film is Old Boys, a 42-minute short about unfulfilled dreams and aspirations as people grow old in life. It was produced by China Film Group with Chevrolet as a general production partner and subsequently distributed on the Chinese video-streaming site Youku.

The Bright Eleven: Old Boys / source:

Since Old Boys became an internet sleeper hit, it has inspired a wave of micro-length and micro-budget productions, and general practices of funding, making, and distributing shorts have emerged to accommodate their growing numbers and popularity.

On the financing side, media companies big and small are investing in in-house short film productions. The Chinese Internet company NetEase has not only been holding a short film festival named the “NetEase Micro-Film Festival” but also funding 30 short film productions a year since 2011. Zhang Zhao’s LeTV, a fast growing video portal, set up a RMB20 million ($3.16 million) fund for short films in 2011 too. Just last month, China’s Internet and mobile services giant Tencent Holdings Limited announced the plan to produce 100 short films in 2013, which would become content for its newly launched video channel Tencent Video.

Besides corporate money, funds from other sources for short film productions also exist. China’s Got Talent offered a RMB1 million fund for this category of films at the 15th Shanghai International Film Festival last year. Several other film festivals give monetary awards to winning screenplays to go into production as well. Driven by the need to raise awareness on certain social issues, quite a few NGOs and NPOs now sponsor selected short films with small amounts of capital.

On the distribution side, a wealth of platforms spanning from television to mobile networks has appeared on the market since 2010. Three large video-streaming portals, Tencent, LeTV, and iQiyi, all have a channel for shorts on their websites now. A few television broadcasters, such as Qinghai Satellite TV, have allocated specific slots for short films on their member channels. In June 2012, BesTV, a subsidiary of Shanghai Media Group, made news by contracting with China’s Warner Brothers, Huayi Brothers, to build the biggest TV broadcast platform for short films and mini-dramas.

As we can see, in just two to three years, a previously non-existent sector of China’s film and video industry has taken shape. Such growth excites many, including me.

However, markets saturate. No matter how aggressive it may be, growth will eventually stagnate, leaving innovation to turn over a new leaf. This brings me to the New York City Film and Finance Forum that I attended on Wednesday, April 10. Many topics piqued my interest at the forum, but crowdfunding and audience development in the cloud truly astounded me.

Like most people, I had heard of before. I understand that websites like it provide a safe environment for creative people to put their projects online to gain exposure and gather support in the form of donations. At the forum, creators and representatives of three other such crowdfunding platforms, namely IndieGoGo, Pave, and Seed & Spark, spoke as panelists. They all had something to offer to independent filmmakers.

Pave famously connect young people with dreams with older people who are already successful in their careers for peer support and investment. One of their prospects is a female filmmaker. IndieGoGo supports independent filmmakers worldwide by providing its platform and some counseling services free. Lastly, Seed and Spark builds a virtual film community that mirrors a real-world film industry chain from financing to distribution.

Innovative platforms like these are absent in China. Their existence there could dramatically change the modes of financing and distribution in short film production in China, for crowdfunding lives and breathes in social media.

There are 570 million Chinese web users, 420 million of which use at least one mobile network. We Are Social calculated the total number of years that Chinese spent online in 2012. It was 19 million years! The potential for a large number of crowdfunding projects including short film productions is unmistakable.

Currently, to get funding for a short film project in China, filmmakers collaborate with companies or organizations that act like commissioners. This kind of arrangement may foster creativity to a certain extent, but it ultimately limits the range of topics and subjects for exploration. Branding and celebrity appearances, among other things, inevitably set the tone for such projects. Ideally speaking, if crowdfunding becomes an option, these restrictions will no longer apply; instead, stories will be told with input from a community that cares.

In the U.S., the full Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act is painstakingly being passed and implemented to facilitate and regulate crowdfunding, whose democratic spirit has won over many hearts since its inception. Now it has caught my imagination. I could not wait another moment to share it with the rest of you.

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Beijing Freeport: A gravitational shift in the Asian art market Mon, 08 Apr 2013 21:52:58 +0000 Inspired by the Singapore Freeport that neighbors Singapore Changi Airport, the Chinese state-owned conglomerate Beijing Gehua Cultural Development Group is building the Beijing Freeport of Culture in close proximity to Beijing International Airport, with a planned partial opening date in early 2014.

The Singapore Freeport

The Singapore Freeport / source:

The Beijing Freeport of Culture will probably dwarf the Singapore Freeport, which specializes in secure art storage and trading inside its 323,000-square-foot facility, with another 270,000 square feet of space being added to accommodate growing demand. To match the level of technological sophistication and innovation of the Singapore Freeport, Gehua Group has invited its creator, EuroAsia Investment SA from Switzerland, to design and construct a similar facility with a floor area of 893,000 square feet inside the Beijing Freeport. The Wall Street Journal reports that the negotiation between the two is making significant progress.

Gehua Group currently operates a wide range of businesses in the art and culture sector in China. Its business activities range from animation to large event production. In the blueprint of the Beijing Freeport, Gehua aims to attract international art, culture, and media companies of many different kinds, as well as technology companies that can does research and development. The scope of planned businesses to be opened is so wide that Gehua expects the annual transactions to reach $8 billion by 2016, 10 times the cost of building it.

In 2012, China’s auction sales of fine and decorative art and antiques shrank to three quarters of its size in 2011, the year that China overtook the U.S. as the world’s largest auction sales market. Despite so, the market was still worth over $16 billion, according to The Art Newspaper. The numbers may alleviate some uneasiness associated with Gehua Group’s ambitious undertakings.

In addition, the general belief in China’s growing middle class to become sophisticated consumers in art shall give confidence to Gehua and its potential partners to make long-term investments in China. With the government’s tax incentives, the Beijing Freeport of Culture can hand out tax exemption packages similar to those in other EuroAsia-run Freeports to both domestic and international companies wishing to set up businesses in Beijing.

Although companies in the art sector will be cautious to invest if the global economic climate remains cool over the next few years, the Beijing Freeport, once completed, may still shift the center of gravity of the Asian art auction world. This northward trend first took place when Christie’s and Sotheby’s moved their auction sales from Singapore to Hong Kong in 2002 and 2008 respectively.

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Hong Kong theater chain targets lucrative Chinese market Wed, 03 Apr 2013 02:28:25 +0000 In mid-March 2013, two Hong Kong film companies, UA Cinemas and Emperor Motion Pictures, announced a plan to build and operate movie theaters in Mainland China, marking a new phase of their business expansion.

The decision came largely under the signing of Supplement IX to the Mainland and Hong Kong Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) on June 29, 2012. New provisions of the CEPA came into effect on January 1, 2013.

UA Cinemas in Shenzhen / source:

In the past, film exhibitors from Hong Kong were only allowed to build theaters in China in minority-owned joint ventures with Chinese partners except in Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Nanjing, Shanghai, Wuhan, and Xi’an, where they could hold a 75 percent majority stake.

Under the old rule, the Hong Kong theater chain UA Cinemas established multiplexes in Chongqing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Wuhan. Because Cantonese-language films were allowed play in Guangdong, it benefited from the Cantonese-speaking market in Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

Thanks to new measures in the latest supplement to CEPA, Hong Kong film companies can establish wholly owned movie theaters anywhere in China without being limited to the seven pilot cities. The first batch of Emperor UA Cinemas will be constructed in Chongqing, Dongguan, Foshan, and Shenzhen besides Shanghai and Wuhan.

UA Cinemas was established by the Hong Kong conglomerate Lark Group in 1985. Lark’s sound business relationships with large property companies in Hong Kong such as Hutchison Whampoa, the Wharf (Holdings) Limited, and the Lan Kwai Fong Group have allowed UA Cinemas to construct multiplexes within these big players’ commercial real estate properties in China.

EMP, on the other hand, offers its expertise in film investment, talent management, and film distribution to complement UA Cinemas’ expertise in theater construction and operations. Together, they can develop an integrated entertainment business model and gain a competitive edge over businesses like their own.

More importantly, the alliance puts them forward as a serious contender for Mainland China’s huge box office, predicted to surpass that of the U.S. by 2020 and coveted by both Hollywood and a dozen fast growing Chinese film companies.

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Philippines: Blatantly nationalistic Chinese films dominate Spring Film Fest line-up Wed, 30 Jan 2013 01:45:15 +0000 Six Chinese films have been selected to screen free from February 1 to 10, 2013 in five provinces in the Philippines. They are part of the 7th Spring Film Festival organized by the Ateneo de Manila University’s Ricardo Leong Center for Chinese Studies. This 10-day cultural event is expected to attract 20,000 attendants, up from last year’s 12,000. Despite its growing popularity, the festival’s programming rationale raises a few interesting questions.

Poster for the 7th Spring Film Festival / source:

Because the festival is free, the major screening venue of the festival, the Shang Cinexplex of Shangri-La Plaza in Manila, must collect its dues from sources other than movie ticket sales. Food and beverages on site will obviously bring in some income. Pre-screening advertisements and other forms of advertising inside the Cineplex will probably also contribute against the overhead. However, the bulk of the cost to run the festival must come from magnanimous sponsors and partners, particularly Credit Suisse and the Confucius Institute.

The Embassy of China is one of the partner institutions too. A close look at the films chosen will show us how much power it has had to sway the lineup of the festival. The six films to be shown are 2004 to 2011 releases with mediocre box office performance. None has grossed over 60 million yuan (US$9.6m) during its theatrical run, with half below the 10 million yuan mark. Besides The Storm Warriors II (2011) and 2 Become 1 (2006) from Hong Kong, the rest are produced by state-owned production houses, and they tell wholesome stories of Chinese people overcoming adversity in modern times. Space Dream (2011), a film about Chinese astronauts, is a typical nationalist film that finds no market in China today. Without the cachet of the Embassy of China, it would not have made to the finalists for Filipino audiences.

(READ MORE: China’s multi-billion dollar charm offensive)

Educational institutions in the West often organize film festivals and film screenings too. However, these events have a penchant for independent, alternative, and sometimes underground Chinese cinema. Politically provocative and controversial films are screened to spur in-depth discussions about China, and pressing social issues are presented through them.

The Spring Film Festival in the Philippines, though organized by an educational research institution, differs from such film festivals in the West. It tries to draw more attendees, yet it does not include commercially successful pictures that have proven their merit and appeal. Its line-up does not even have a unifying theme. The series of screenings seem largely like a politically motivated endeavor for China to improve its image and soft power abroad. It makes one question if China invests in about three quarters of its domestic productions for this purpose because these films do not sell in China.

To make up for rental fees, presumably there is a minimum rental fee for each film, Filipino businesses need to pay. In exchange, they can curry favor with the Chinese state for new business opportunities. This model of cash flow may work well for China until Filipinos in Manila, Cebu, Davao, Iloilo, and Cagayan start to ditch these films, like people in China have.

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Lost in Thailand: a win-win picture for Thailand and China Fri, 25 Jan 2013 22:51:33 +0000 The stellar box office success of Chinese chase comedy Lost in Thailand is proving a boon to the regional economy. Its impact is real and measurable. Its success is phenomenal.

More than 38.2 million Chinese have gone to see this movie since its release on December 12, 2012. That is more than the cumulative audience of Avatar, by far the highest grossing film in China with $230 million in ticket sales. Lost in Thailand will run in theaters until January 28, 2013. Its revenue has exceeded 1.24 billion yuan ($200 million) already.

Thailand could not be happier to hear these numbers because they mean a growing number of Chinese tourists in the immediate future. In 2012, 2.3 million out of 22 million visitors to Thailand were from China. This year, the Tourism Authority of Thailand expects to receive 3.3 million Chinese visitors out of a total of 25 million visitors, who will support a massive $38 billion industry from last year’s $25.5 billion one that contributed six percent of its GDP and hired 15 percent of its workforce.

Businesses in Thailand are already preparing for the upsurge of Chinese tourists. The largest Thai retail conglomerate, Central Retail Corporation, opened Central Embassy, a $336 million high-end shopping mall in central Bangkok for luxury consumers last December, according to China Daily. It will treat Chinese tourists as the target client group in the coming years.

Central Embassy in Bangkok / source:

The fourth largest Thai commercial bank, KasikornBank or KBank, also just announced its partnership with China UnionPay to service UnionPay’s 3.23 billion cardholders on January 23, 2013 (KasikornBank press release).

Compared to other countries in the region, which are also seeing an increase of Chinese travelers, Thailand is luckier because its relationship with China is amiable. The relationship is not strained by territory disputes like in the case of the Philippines or Japan. While it deals with internal political conflicts like last year’s insurgency, it manages to run the second largest economy in Southeast Asia smoothly. In the tourism sector, it ranks higher than Singapore and Malaysia in terms of value in money and shopping, according to Bloomberg News. By 2015, it will also complete the transition into an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Economic Community, also known as an ACE, further raising its regional and global stature.

Now, the popular film Lost in Thailand is cementing Thailand’s congenial image. Its story familiarizes Chinese with its streets, its people, and its pace of life, and it presents Thailand in such natural beauty, cultural exoticism, and lush colors, which easily lure middle-class Chinese living in heavily polluted cities. The happy story of Lost in Thailand is bringing real value to Thailand and China. It is moving millions of people across national borders, people who may otherwise not make the decision to travel. It is impressive.

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Record pollution levels reported at Beijing Culture and Tourism City site Mon, 14 Jan 2013 03:26:15 +0000 At 950 micrograms per cubic meter, the PM2.5 level in Tongzhou, Beijing on January 13, 2013 is by far the highest figure ever recorded and reported. The number is as unthinkable to those who understand it as the news exposure of it to those who live in China.

PM2.5 measures airborne particulates of less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. It is considered safe at 25 micrograms by the World Health Organization. Over the past few days, the PM2.5 readings in Beijing stayed dangerously high at 10 to 30 times more than the safe level, with Tongzhou’s reading topping the chart (ifeng News). According to Xinhua News, Tongzhou also had the highest concentration of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide among all of the districts in Beijing in 2011.

These grim facts are a blow to Tongzhou’s reputation because it is billed as Bejing Culture and Tourism City, ready to meet and greet visitors as soon as 2014. An ambitious urban development plan has been drawn for it. Wanda Group, which acquired AMC Entertainment at $2.6 billion last September, won two consecutive bids for two plots of land in Tongzhou in November 2012. It thrashed Baoli Group, a higher bidder at the land aution and also a Chinese conglomerate with a core business in real estate, because the government favored Wanda’s entertainment and cultural tourism arms. The parcels were acquired at RMB3.3 billion ($530 million) with a gross floor area of 400,000 square meters (4.3 million square feet); they are part of the 90-hectare (222-acre) Culture and Tourism City, which has a total building area of 1.2 million square meters.

A man flies a kite near electricity pylons on a hazy day in Beijing Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013. Pic: AP.

Last year, concerns over PM2.5 levels in China reached an all-time high. Although the Chinese government tried to exert tight control over the circulation of such information, for example, it openly criticized the U.S. Embassy in China for self-reporting pollution data in the capital, their plan backfired. More people paid close attention to daily reports on air pollutants in their cities, and the air quality monitor put up by the U.S. Embassy’s website in China received more traffic than ever.

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China: Lost in Thailand breaks RMB1 billion barrier at the box office Tue, 01 Jan 2013 23:52:20 +0000 For the first time in the history of Chinese cinema, a one billion yuan movie has been born. At 15:00 CST on January 1, 2013, Actor Zheng Xu’s directorial debut Lost in Thailand (2012) became the first Chinese movie to gross over 1 billion yuan (US$161 million) in box office receipts. Just 10 years ago, the entire country’s box office revenue totaled 900 million yuan.

Lost in Thailand is a chase comedy of three stooges. When one man (Zheng Xu) sets out to Thailand to find his company’s largest shareholder, who can sponsor a new phase of his research project, his business rival (Bo Huang) pursues vigorously to stop (then to outrun) him. Their grand business objectives and other personal agendas are at times thwarted and at times catalyzed by a meddling rube (Baoqiang Wang).

Lost in Thailand (2012) / source:

Besides the star power of two widely loved comic actors Bo Huang and Baoqiang Wang, and a cameo by Bingbing Fan, the unprecedented box office takings by Lost in Thailand tie closely with the fast growing number of screens in China. In 2012, China added an average of seven new screens a day. By the end of 2012, China had 13,000 screens, in contrast to 1,500 in 2002.

The film was picked up for co-distribution by Huaxia Film Distribution Co, Ltd. and Enlight Pictures, the latter of which produced it with a few other companies. Given the trend that top-notch Chinese filmmakers are producing big historical dramas, such as 1942 by Xiaogang Feng in 2012 and The Flowers of War by Yimou Zhang in 2011, this small-budgeted comedy by Zheng Xu was a maverick bet that paid off in spades for Huaxia and Enlight Pictures.

Since China lacks a mature film distribution system that generates sizable income beyond a picture’s theatrical run, Lost in Thailand may have its earnings capped soon. Its theatrical performance in the greater Chinese-language world including Singapore, Taiwan, and other places may be mediocre because humor, which can work wonders, comes with strings attached – in order to laugh like a local, the audience needs to at least understand the local lingo. Today, Chinese neologisms stupefy even the native speakers who fail to check in with popular social media sites regularly. The Chinese name of this movie is a good example.

However, with the story set in Thailand, the movie is aiming for a market above and beyond the middle kingdom. More on Lost in Thailand on January 26, 2013. Click to read.

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China: World’s largest virtual studio finds home in Tianjin Eco-city Mon, 29 Oct 2012 00:19:31 +0000 Comcast- and GE-owned NBCUniversal is confirmed to build the world’s largest virtual studio in the National Animation Industry Park of Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city, located 95 miles east of Beijing. Phase one of the construction will complete in April 2013, when Bruce Lee’s unfinished film The Silent Flute will be restored and produced at the facility.

NBCUniversal’s Universal Studios opened its own first virtual stage, the 6,800-square-foot Universal Virtual Stage 1 (UVS1), with the help from Zoic Studios in December 2010. It was considered a necessary move by the Hollywood giant to transition into advanced virtual digital production.

UVS1 costs US$4.5 million to build and install. It contrasts sharply with the large sum of US$200 million that NBCUniversal spent in reconstructing the damaged movie sets at Universal Studios in California caused by a big fire in 2008. No longer would filmmakers need to fly their cast and crew all over the world for location shooting, neither would they need to construct large and expensive sets. The virtual stage can handle complex digital production with unprecedented control over the set. It eliminates the boundary between pre-production visualization and post-production by allowing both to happen at the same time on a computer screen.

In February 2012, a delegation from the Tianjin government visited Hollywood and persuaded several studios to set up camp in its low-carbon futuristic eco-city. Universal Studios was on the officials’ list too as a potential investor for a theme park there.

While that did not work, NBCUniversal agreed on something else. It signed a deal with the Tianjin-based film company Mei Hao He Shan Film on Oct. 16, 2012 to build the world’s largest virtual studio inside the 250-acre National Animation Industry Park. Mei Hao He Shan Film has made an initial investment of US$19.99 million for the project. The virtual studio will occupy 71,041 square feet of land, more than 10 times the size of UVS1. Six more virtual stages covering a total area of 33 acres will be built in the phase-two construction too.

For China, the benefits of such a virtual studio complex is more than obvious, given its 12th five-year plan (2011-2015) to develop the domestic animation industry. It will equip Chinese animators and filmmakers alike with state-of-the-art technologies, so that they can make cultural products that meet Hollywood standards, while China counts on them to boost its soft power abroad.

The American partner, on the other hand, may benefit from a strengthened relationship with China for a bigger market share. The money could also be used for further research and development in cutting-edge virtual production technologies, at a time when money is hard to come by within Hollywood.

The National Animation Industry Park in Tianjin / Source: Flickr user Yaohua2k7

The National Animation Industry Park in Tianjin Eco-city / Source: Flickr user Yaohua2k7

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China: Feng Xiaogang ‘Film Commune’ commences construction Sun, 21 Oct 2012 06:39:15 +0000 Harking back to pre-Reform China, a Feng Xiaogang-themed resort and shopping center that has been named “Feng Xiaogang Film Commune (Feng Xiaognag dian ying gong she)” held its groundbreaking ceremony in Haikou, China on October 20, 2012.

Known for his success at making box office hits, Feng is a household name in China. Many of his films, such as The Banquet (2006), If You Are the One (2008), Aftershock (2010), and If You Are the One 2 (2010), have broken box office records for domestic films.

The idea of the film commune came to Feng when he was mourning over the fate of some gorgeous film sets that were torn down after shooting was done.  When he brought it up with his business friends, they immediately saw the potential for a large and lucrative business.

Huayi Brothers, or China’s Warner Brothers, agreed to invest in the film commune with the pioneer sports and leisure enterprise Million Hills Group. The partnership was announced in May 2012, three months after Feng broached the idea with them.

The film commune, whose first phrase costs US$158 m and is due to complete around the Chinese New Year in 2014, will have a total area of 230 acres with a building area of 157 acres (compared to the 800-acre Trump Studio City in Florida still under discussion). It will be China’s first movie-themed resort dedicated to a Chinese filmmaker.

Visitors to the site will find themselves at familiar places with familiar décor. Besides shops, restaurants, and hotels, there will also be a wedding planner that takes care of wedding parties like those in Feng’s movies.

Behind the scenes, five to six soundstages will be built as well. They will co-exist with the larger Mission Hill resort, which boasts world-class golf courses, luxury spas, and a premium shopping center by Lan Kwai Fong.

Huayi Brothers CEO WANG Zhongjun (left), film director FENG Xiaogang (middle), and Mission Hills CEO ZHU Dingjian (right) / source: Mission Hills Facebook gallery

The film commune is also translated as “Feng Xiaogang Movie-themed Town” by Mission Hills China’s Facebook page.

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Cambodia’s King-Father and his Cinema Wed, 17 Oct 2012 06:42:03 +0000 What kind of a story will King-Father Sihanouk tell of his life if he, like everyone else as the Khmer people believe, reincarnates? Is he the privileged royal kid who happens to have an expensive hobby? Is he the fantastical king who reigns by his art? Is he a classic tragic hero brought forth by a paradigm shift? I wonder.

His Majesty Sihanouk has written, produced, and directed over 30 feature films about his country, his people, and himself during his lifetime. He sometimes acted in them with his wife and children, who had to be goaded into doing it by him. He was so devoted to his art that comparisons with his parents, who were both musicians, and his daughter, who was a superb dancer, easily call to mind a family resemblance. It really runs in the family, does it not?

Like its neighbors, Cambodia was in political turmoil through much of the second half of the last century. Gaining independence from France cost Sihanouk eight months of exile in Thailand. When the Vietnam War was waiting on the horizon, Sihanouk almost died from an assassination attempt. The King confessed in Frédéric Mitterrand and Jean-Baptiste Martin’s 1997 documentary that he had never read Marx, but the U.S.-backed Khmer Republic deposed him three years after the Cambodian Civil War broke out in the heat of Communism. After the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge used him briefly as a symbolic leader then spit him out.

This did not matter because Sihanouk wanted Cambodia to be an independent country more than he wanted himself to be the King. He had the Khmer people’s love and support, which were enough for the Khmer Rouge to come back to for a united front against the Vietnamese, who invaded Cambodia in 1978 and set up their government on Cambodia’s soil. Sihanouk’s government in exile eventually settled peacefully with a pro-Vietnam government in 1991. He was welcomed back as the King and as the filmmaker who told authentic Khmer stories.

The magic of His Majesty’s cinema, remembered fondly by the Khmer people even now, is captured by as much historical referencing as the resplendent landscape of Cambodia. King Sihanouk did many location shootings for his films. His Royal Palace is often featured in them. He wrote lines for his wife to extol the beauty of Cambodian pagodas and its architecture. He wanted to inspire his people to love their art, history, and culture.

Romance is another unmistakable element in all of King Sihanouk’s films. King Sihanouk says in Mitterrand and Martin’s documentary that romance is “only a pretext of initiating people to Cambodia.” Perhaps he has stumbled upon the secret of making great war films there. Hopefully, I will have the chance to ask my favorite director Wong Kar-Wai if he had known about King Sihanouk’s film-making career before making In the Mood for Love(2000), because the last sequence in that film is shot in Angkor Wat, the same place that King Sihanouk has set many of his stories.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Pic: AP.

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The surprise winners of the 18th Shanghai TV Festival Mon, 18 Jun 2012 03:52:29 +0000 For the majority of Chinese TV fans who tuned into the award ceremony of the 18th Shanghai TV Festival on June 15, the focus was on the Best Actor and Best Actress of the year more than anything else. They had voted for their favorite celebs on and witnessed the numbers grow in real time. Watching the ceremony live on TV, they anticipated the results with both eagerness and some ideas of who might win. But the announcements for the two awards came to surprise millions. The jury for the TV Series section of STVF 2012 proved to be no crowd-pleaser when it came to anointing the victors.

TV Series

First I want to apologize for mistaking how the winners for Best TV Series, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress are determined. Though votes were taken seriously by both the public and the media, the jury still had the final say on who deserved a prize.

In the case of Best Actor and Actress, Nicky Wu and Shishi Liu, with 221 and 208 million votes respectively, were most popular among the nominees, but the jury chose otherwise.

  • Gold Award: Cliff or Xuan Ya
  • Silver Award: Indelible Designation or Yong Bu Mo Mie De Fan Hao
  • Special Contribution Award: Rural Woman Xiaomai to the Metropolis or Xiaomai Jin Cheng
  • Best Director: Xiaolong ZHENG for Empresses in the Palace or Zhen Huan Zhuan
  • Best Screenplay: Cliff or Xuan Ya
  • Best Actor: Haibo HUANG for Indelible Designation or Yong Bu Mo Mie De Fan Hao
  • Best Actress: Jia SONG for Cliff or Xuan Ya
  • Gold Award for Best Foreign TV Series: Downton Abbey (U.K.)
  • Silver Awards for Best Foreign TV Series: I am Mita, Your Housekeeper (Japan) and The Moon that Embraces the Sun (Korea)
Compare the winners with my predictions.

Apparently, following its unprecedented expansion over the past ten years, the Chinese television industry is facing an impending stagnation. The jurors did what they could to send this message.

China produced 30,000 TV episodes in 2011; 14,942 of them obtained broadcast licences from the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television. Of the 30,000 total, two thirds have not been broadcast and fewer than 10 percent have broken even or made a profit.

Many new series copy successful works of the past and result in unoriginal and low-quality stories that no one wants to buy or to see. At the same time, a booming TV market makes TV actors demand ever higher pay rates.

At the Magnolia Forum of STVF 2012, Jury President Shaohong Li openly expressed her discontent with a second-tier actor who allegedly asked for RMB 440,000 (US$70,000) to act in a single TV episode. Production costs rise as companies rush to produce more series. But TV broadcasters, unable to pay for such expensive productions, turn to cheaper alternative programming such as talent shows and reality TV, leaving a large number of already completed series never to see the light of day.

Stressed producers turn to Internet TV to cover the costs. However, Chinese websites offering Internet TV have slashed last year’s rate for webcast TV series by half to two thirds this year. This means that even the most popular webcast TV series won’t receive more than RMB 500,000 (US$79,000) per episode from Chinese VOD providers this year.

Some jury members of STVF 2012: Chun Yu (TV Series/TV Film), Shaohong Li (TV Series/TV Film), Nicholas Meyer(TV Film), Hiromi Seki(Animation), Nicole Keeb(Animation), and Jianping Li (Animation)/ source: Sina

TV Film

  • Best TV Film: Homevideo (Germany)
  • Best Director: Wolfgang Murnberger for The Kebab Incident (Austria)
  • Best Screenplay: Tac Romey, Don Shubert, and Rupert Henning for The Kebab Incident (Austria)
Compare the winners with my predictions.


  • Best Documentary (60 minutes and above): A Film Unfinished (Israel)
  • Best Documentary (below 60 minutes): Life in Stills (Israel)
  • Best Chinese Documentary: The Surging River (China)
  • Best Director: Yu ZHU for “Cloudy” Mountain (China)
  • Best Photography: “Cloudy” Mountain (China)
  • Jury’s Prize: Generation Kunduz (Afghanistan)
Compare the winners with my predictions.


  • Best Animation: Kioka (Korea)
  • Best Animation (short): Scritch Scratch (Germany)
  • Best Chinese Animation: Dragon on the Way (China)
  • Jury’s Prize: Happy Town (China)
Compare the winners with my predictions.
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Shanghai hotbed of media and creativity in June Sat, 16 Jun 2012 02:24:55 +0000

The 15th Shanghai International Film Festival poster / source:

Following the 18th Shanghai TV Festival, which concluded last night, the 15th Shanghai International Film Festival is opening today with no less zeal from the public. Nearly 150,000 advanced movie tickets were sold in a single day on June 9 after sales began. Tickets for the Japanese films Key of Life (2012) and The Wings of the Kirin (2012), Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows (2012), and the Korean documentary I AM (2012) were sold out so quickly that Chinese labeled them “second kill” or miao sha, a Chinese neologism for extremely popular auction items online.

For Chinese moviegoers, who typically have limited viewing choices at movie theaters due to China’s film quota system, this year’s program offers a true feast on world cinema. The Panorama section alone includes more than 300 films from around the world. They will screen in 28 movie theaters in Shanghai. Along with the nominees of the Golden Goblet Awards and the Asian New Talent Awards, certain micro-budget films from the 2nd Mobile SIFF, which is a new component and a highlight of SIFF, have also been selected to screen during this time.

A staple of SIFF, SIFF Market will run from June 18 to 20 inside the Shanghai Exhibition Center. It is the ultimate meeting place for investors, producers, and distributors intent on doing business together. SIFF Project, on the other hand, combines the former China Film Pitch and Catch and the Co-production Film Pitch and Catch. It is now able to support much more ambitious film projects than before.

Last but not least, SIFFORUM is the venue for more serious movie-goers as well as the movers and shakers of the industry, some of which have been invited to lead discussions.

For example, the jury for the Golden Goblet Award will try to define movies with most international appeal. Mainstream Chinese directors, screenwriters, and producers will brainstorm ways for Chinese cinema to go global. Executives from Raleigh Entertainment, Shanghai Film Group, Wanda Cinema Line Corporation, and other industrial heavyweights will challenge the current Chinese film industry to standardize and upgrade. Seminars and master classes on branded entertainment, professional film-producing, and productive film criticism will be conducted as well.

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The haze that might turn my Wuhan friends into Hulks Mon, 11 Jun 2012 23:34:14 +0000 I was perplexed by a long string of strange comments about the Hulk when I checked into my QQ chat group this morning. To give it some context, they were made by my ex-classmates now living in Wuhan.  A shiver went down my spine when I saw the word “chlorine.” A guy remarked that he might metamorphose into lü ju ren or a chlorine giant, which is a homophone for “the Hulk” in Chinese.

Reading earlier comments further up the chat window, I was able to piece out what might have happened in Wuhan on Monday, June 11, 2012: there was an intense yellow fog that arrived with no warning and then enveloped the entire city; visibility dropped beyond belief; and nobody has ever seen such an unusual weather condition.

Wuhan 6/11 Haze / source:

I then started my own frantic research into this mysterious haze. Apparently, there were rumors of a chlorine gas leak as well as an explosion at a local chemical plant. However, these claims are false. In the most recent official report by Xinhua News, straw burning is called forward as the most probable and plausible cause.

According to analyses by meteorological monitoring agencies, hazy weather occurred in wheat harvest regions in Anhui, Hunan, and a few nearby provinces. Due to northeast winds traveling at 8-12 m/s (28.8 – 43.2 km/h) 1,500-3,000 m (4,900 – 9800 ft) above the middle reaches of the Yangtze River, harmful particulates are blown south. Because Wuhan and its vicinity are in a subsidence area and the air is humid, these harmful particulates descend from the sky and form a thick haze.

Hopefully a comprehensive report will be released to the public soon because many people remain skeptical about the current official explanation.

Additionally, given the overall bad air quality in China, the haze is a wake-up call for the Chinese government to stop focusing on China’s GDP growth at the expense of its environment.

If, however, the burning of stubble and other agricultural residue left out after harvest is found to be the true cause, I hope China will not delay educating its farmers about the adverse environmental effects of this practice and help them acquire the necessary tools and technologies to either compost straw or turn it into biofuel.

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Shanghai TV Festival: And the winners might be… Mon, 11 Jun 2012 00:04:25 +0000 I remember when I was studying at Boston University, the Student Activities Office would hold an Oscar party in the basement of George Sherman Union every March. Anyone could take a crack at the winners. Prizes would go to those who got most of them right.

Perhaps the passion of my college years never left me. Since I wrote a blog post about the 18th Shanghai Television Festival a few days ago, I have had this itch to predict the results of the much coveted Magnolia Awards. Here goes my humble forecast.


Best Chinese TV Series

Claiming over 6.5 million votes as of today, Cliff or Xuan Ya ranks first in this category. It currently beats the first runner-up by nearly nine times. It is more than likely to win.

Best Director

Jizhou Xu, the director of Indelible Designation or Yong Bu Mo Mie De Fan Hao, is leading the race. He outdoes Xiaolong Zheng, the director of Empresses in the Palace or Zhen Huan Zhuan by more than 100,000 votes. Xu is also very likely to win.

Best Actress

The numbers will speak for themselves: Li Sun from Empresses in the Palace or Zhen Huan Zhuan with 52 million votes is competing with Shishi Liu from Treading on Thin Ice or Bu Bu Jing Xin with 146 million votes so far.

Nicky Wu and Shishi Liu in Treading on Thin Ice / source:

Best Actor

Also from Treading on Thin Ice or Bu Bu Jing Xin, Nicky Wu, with over 153 million votes, is going to get the award for sure this year.

Best Screenplay

Rural Woman Xiaomai to Metropolis or Xiaomai Jin Cheng, screenplay by Xueli Ni, seems least stilted among the nominees, three of which deal with extremely patriotic topics whereas the fourth is adapted from the classic Chinese novel Water Margin.

Rural Woman dramatizes many women’s issues in society today. Unlike majority of Chinese films that “propagate violence, trickery and conspiracy,” according to Professor Frank Tian Xie (NTD), it endorses sincerity and honesty as best solutions to complicated interpersonal relationships. Moreover, Rural Woman could have the greatest appeal to a female-dominated jury presided by China’s best-known female director Shaohong Li.


Best TV Film

I guess that the award will go to Camel Caravan, which tells the story of Uighur camel trainers in Xinjiang, because it fits best into the themes of cultural diversity and richness particular to the 18th STVF.

Best Director

Truth be told, I am not familiar with any of the directors’ works except Virginie Wagon’s The Dreamlife of Angels, of which I think very highly. I hope the award will go to Virginie Wagon for Clara s’en va mourir.

Best Screenplay

Without having seen any of the films, I could only judge from their synopses. In my opinion, Homevideo from Germany and The Kebab Incident from Austria are most likely to win.


Best Documentary (under 60 minutes)

After a series of eliminations, I picked Here I Learned to Love from Israel.

Best Documentary (above 60 minutes)

I think the winner is between Generation Kunduz from Afghanistan and The White Elephant from Germany.

Jury Prize

I want to pick A Film Unfinished from Israel because it seems like a great documentary to write a film theory paper on.

Best Chinese Documentary

We have three nominees here. I think if the judges choose to go with the themes of the festival, then The Surging River will have a lot going for it because it is all about cultural diversity in ancient China. However, I am worried that its use of computer generated graphics could also seem hokey. If so, “Cloudy” Mountain will win.

Best Director

Personally I want Yu Zhu, the director of “Cloudy” Mountain, to win because I admire his work. But Zhu is in fact very young and he has a long career ahead of him. Taking that into consideration, I think the award may likely go to Phil Grabsky for The Boy Mir – Ten Years in Afghanistan from Great Britain.

Best Photography

I think five films are likely to compete for this award. They are Frozen Planet from Great Britain, Tears of the Antarctic from Korea, The Hugo Brothers from Germany, and possibly Two Gorillas at Home from France. Out of them, Frozen Planet looks most promising.


Best Animation

I think the winner is between Howie and Landau’s Adventures under the Sea and OYEEO – The Singing Island, both from China.

Best Animation (short)

I think Small Potatoes from the U.S.A. is most likely to win. Weibo Tales from China is popular among Chinese, but it may have its best humor lost in translation for the jury.

Best Chinese Animation

Chinese Animation Happy Town / source: ChinaVisual

A clay animation, Happy Town stands out from the other nominees. I think it’s a likely winner.

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1.2 billion pairs of eyes on Shanghai TV Festival 2012 Fri, 08 Jun 2012 04:14:05 +0000 THE 18th Shanghai Television Festival will be held from June 11 to 15, 2012. With 1.2 billion Chinese TV viewers eager to witness the winners of the prestigious Magnolia Awards and two markets running side by side, the festival is not only an exciting occasion for Chinese TV fans but also an unrivaled networking opportunity for television professionals, investors, and industry executives who want a share in China’s huge TV market.

Poster of The 18th Shanghai TV Festival by Chenyuchen Design/ source: STVF 2012

Four categories will be presented at STVF 2012. They are TV Series, Made-for-television Films, Documentaries, and Animation. Winners in the TV Series unit will be based on the number of votes each nominee receives on Voting will be open until 12 pm on June 14, 2012.

Watch a compilation video of the Best TV Series nominees here.

Joined by renowned artists and experts from both China and abroad, the jury of STVF 2012 will decide on the winners in the remaining three categories. Head of International Co-productions at LIC China Steven Seidenberg and Chinese-Canadian Director Lixin Fan (Last Train Home, 2009) are both jury members in the Documentary section, whereas China’s best-known female director Shaohong Li sits as the jury president in the Made-for-television Film section.

Watch the nominees for Best Animation, Best Documentary, and Best Made-for-television Film.

As a tradition, STVF will hold the International Film & TV Market and the International New Media and Broadcasting Equipment Market as two separate markets. Both will take place from June 12 to 14, 2012 at Shanghai Exhibition Center. Last year, 130 exhibitors signed up for the markets. Projects were broached, and collaborations ensued.

Another highlight of STVF 2012 will be the Asian Animation Project Pitch & Catch (APPC). Cash awards ranging from RMB2, 000 to RMB50, 000 will be given out to excellent Asian animation projects that are still in the development stage.

A screenplay bidding session will also be held by Singapore Media Academy as a special event during Magnolia Forum, which will see industrial heavyweights discuss new trends and developments and other hot topics in today’s TV world. They range from the changing landscape in today’s TV broadcasting to challenges faced by cross-strait collaborations, and to open discussions of the future of China’s animation industry.

Last but not least, STVF 2012 is preceded by one of its own special components, the 5th Shanghai Student Television Festival, which ran from May 23 to 25, 2012 at the Shanghai Institute of Visual Art. Its goal was to encourage creative storytelling using film, video, and animation among contemporary Chinese college students.

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Make your Chinawood dream come true Thu, 07 Jun 2012 00:59:14 +0000 The grand opening ceremony of Wuxi Studio took place on Tuesday, May 29. Nicknamed “Chinawood” or hua lai wu in Chinese, it is a flagship studio complex modeled after Hollywood studios and will be used for advantaged digital production and post-production in film and television.

Located halfway between Shanghai and Nanjing, Wuxi Studio has a planned total area of 600km² and will cost US$1.6bn to develop. The project was initiated by the municipal government of Wuxi, Jiangsu on November 18, 2010 and has the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) as a strategic partner.

Wuxi Studio / source:

At its opening ceremony last week, parts of the complex in its core area, where the old factory buildings of Xuelang Steel Group had once stood, were first opened for visitors. Inside The Digital Film Science and Technology Museum, visitors could try out the green screen technology used in Avatar and Titanic and recreate famous scenes from both movies with themselves in. An architectural model of the completed studio complex was also in display at the visitor’s center.

Wuxi Studio / source:

Although the first phase of Wuxi Studio will only complete in August, some projects have already commenced production in the facility. Among them is Sweetheart Chocolate (2013), a romance drama by Japanese director Tetsuo Shinohara. It stars Taiwanese actress Chi-ling Lin and Japanese actor Hiroyuki Ikeuchi.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Raleigh Studios has agreed to take on a management role at Wuxi Studio whereas former Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences president Sid Ganis will continue to act as an advisor. Both Ganis and President of Raleigh Studios Michael Moore expressed their confidence in bringing international co-productions to Wuxi Studio and making world-class movies there. However, how much influence Raleigh Studios will have alongside SARFT and how well their management will work with the local culture still remain as questions of concern.

To help the studio grow and prosper, the Wuxi government plans to further develop its surrounding areas. Besides attracting small businesses that will offer many different types of supportive services to the studio, the government will continue to bring in talents from other parts of China and beyond by sponsoring various educational and research institutions in the region. In fact, Peking University has a campus adjacent to the studio, so does Wuxi iCarnegie Institute. A blooming number of small- and medium-sized animation studios and software developers have also been setting up shop in Binhu District of Wuxin since 2006.

Famous writer of children’s literature, Yang Peng, who is the first Chinese author to contract with Disney to write about Mickey Mouse’s stories in China, was one of the first writers to sign a work contract with Wuxi Studio in April. His current projects include a cartoon called Pocket Dad: TV Hero and a book series called Young Dragon Master Zhou Chu.

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Malaysian Film Festival favorites break new ground Tue, 06 Dec 2011 03:51:30 +0000 2011 is a year to remember for Malaysian cinema. Clearly the country’s film industry is on the rise. Both its total number of screens and theater attendance have increased steadily from previous years. A new top grossing film was born, and a local blockbuster was sold to more than 60 countries worldwide.

These two films did extremely well at the 24th Malaysian Film Festival or FFM 24 too, which was organized by the Federation of Film Professionals Associations of Malaysia (GAFIM)  and ran from Nov. 16 to 20. They dominated the award ceremony for their outstanding artistic achievements and unprecedented box office takings.

One of them was 27-year-old Syamsul Yusof’s KL Gangster. It is an adrenaline-pumping yet thought-provoking story of the uneasy relationship between two brothers who have conflicting views on a gangster lifestyle. It made over 10 million ringgit (US$3.2m) and topped the list of highest grossing films made domestically. The other was Yusry Abdul Halim’s CGI-packed film The Malay Chronicles: Bloodlines, which tells the epic tale of Malayan warrior Merong Mahawangsa successfully escorting a Roman prince to China to marry his wife-to-be.

The two films took 14 out of the 33 awards up for grabs, with KL Gangster winning in six categories and The Malay Chronicles: Bloodlines in eight. For KL Gangster, the categories were Best Editing, Movie Box Office, Best Supporting Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Sound Setup, and Best Director. For The Malay Chronicles: Bloodlines, they were Best Original Score, Best Costume, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Film, Best Poster, Best Visual Effects, and Best Theme Song.

To note, both directors Syamsul and Yusry come from families that have been established in the film or entertainment industries. Syamsul’s father Yusof Haslam is a renowned producer/actor/director in Malaysia. He worked alongside Syamsul as the producer for KL Gangster. Yusry, on the other hand, received help from his brothers Norman and Edry on producing and music. The three of them used to run a band but have turned it into KRU Studio now.

Edry (first left), Norman (second right), and Yusry (first right) / source: Bernama

FFM has certainly come a long way from its sorrier earlier years. New Straits Times reports that it used to have fewer than 20 nominations in the 1990s. In 2009, the number was 26; in 2010, it increased to 29. This year, there are 42. GAFIM also raised an impressive sum of 6.68 million ringgit to run the festival at the Putrajaya International Convention Center in Putrajaya.

However, despite its accomplishments, there are a few disappointing facts about the festival, which will hopefully get improved in the future. One of them is the festival’s official website, which does not seem updated to reflect this year’s events. Conflicting information about nominated films and winners is found on the website’s different webpages. Besides that, although 33 awards are listed for the festival, information can only be found on 29 of them (see link). The missing ones are Best Documentary, Best Short, Best Animated Feature, and Best Non-Malay Film. The absence of Non-Malay Film stands out especially because it is likely to bring on yet more grudges from non-Malays, who have already been speaking out against the discriminatory treatments by the National Film Development Corporation of Malaysia or FINAS on them. Last but not least, the festival can certainly use more audience members in the future, as this Facebook video will show you why.

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Malaysian cinema chain offers free movie tickets Thu, 24 Nov 2011 20:33:24 +0000 12 days are left to grab a free movie ticket at TGV 1Shamelin Cinema in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur. Opened on November 11, 2011, this brand new multiplex is the latest addition to TGV Cinemas, a rapidly expanding Malaysian movie theater chain. From November 18 to December 9, 2011, TGV 1Shamelin will celebrate its grand opening with ongoing free movie screenings. 8,000 tickets are waiting to be picked up at its ticket counter located on the fifth floor of the newly built 1Shamelin Shopping Mall. See a partial movie schedule here.

TGV 1Shamelin in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur / source: 1Shamelin Shopping Mall's Facebook page

The free screenings are divided nicely between Malaysian and international blockbusters. Of the Malaysian titles are Chinese-Malaysian rapper and first-time filmmaker Namewee Wee Meng Chee’s Nasi Lemak 2.0 (2011), costume drama and the second most expensive Malaysian production ever (8 million ringgit) The Malay Chronicles: Bloodlines (2011) loosely based on The Kedah Annals and directed by Yusry Abd Halim, and crime action flick and top grossing Malay film ever (10 million ringgit) KL Gangster (2011) directed by 27-year-old Syamsul Yusof.

The international category includes 2011 summer blockbusters Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) starring James Franco and X-Men: First Class (2011). Also showing during this promotion period is cantonese romantic comedy Men Suddenly in Love (2011) starring Eric Tsang and Chapman To.

Extended promotion offers are available for residents in Cheras as well. By presenting TGV Cinemas leaflets, which are being distributed in Taman Shamelin Perkasa of Cheras presently, anyone may redeem a maximum of two tickets per day at the multiplex from December 9 to 16, 2011, according to a press release on TGV Cinemas’ website.

With eight new screens and 1,714 seats, TGV 1Shamelin puts TGV Cinemas’ total number of screens to 114 and total number of seats to 23,000. This is a significant share in the nation’s total of roughly 500 screens as of March, 2011 (Film Business Asia). Founded in 1995, the company was the first to open a multiplex in Malaysia. It now boasts 17 multiplexes in all. Not long ago in January, it opened a new-concept beanieplex in Penang, again the first. The beanieplex is characterized by movie theaters with seats shaped like human-sized bean bags. Soon in December, TGV Sunway Pyramid in Selangor, TGV Cinemas’ top performing multiplex, will be the first to operate a digital IMAX theater system in the country too. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011) will be the first film to be played there.

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Asia’s largest children’s film festival reaches out to rural kids Mon, 21 Nov 2011 06:59:36 +0000 The week-long Golden Elephant 17th International Children’s Film Festival India (ICFFI) concluded on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011 in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh. More than 175,000 children showed up for the festival. 154 films from 38 countries were screened in 13 theaters in and near Shilparamam, a traditional arts and crafts village in the city of Madhapur, whose suburb is home to Hyderabad’s famous IT industry and HITEC (Hyderabad Information Technology Engineering Consultancy) City.

The festival was organized by the Children’s Film Society of India (CFSI), one of the world’s five largest children’s content maker and rights holder, and the state government of Andhra Pradesh. A special arrangement was struck this year by the organizers to bring children from various government schools across the state to the festival. Unlike their counterparts in city schools, a good number of these children had never watched international films, let alone those that were made especially for them. It was exciting for them to see great works from around the globe with children from other countries, as well as to be able to attend filmmaking workshops where they were taught how to draw a storyboard and use a camera. The energy at the festival was incredibly high throughout the week.

CFSI produced the opening film of the festival, Gattu (2011). Gattu is a children’s fantasy film that centers on a street boy named Gattu who is determined to bring down an ominous black kite named Kali in his neighborhood. Director Rajan Khosa commented that Gattu was not a pedagogical film. He meant for kids to experience the excitement in the story and simply enjoy it.

There were four competition sections this year. Iranian director Mohammad-Ali Talebi’s Meadow (2011) clenched the Golden Elephant award in the international feature-length section. The second best award in the same category went to Russian director Garri Bardin’s The Ugly Duckling (2010). The best director award went to Danish director Vibeke Muasya for Lost in Africa (2010). And German directors Christian Ditter’s The Crocodiles Strike Back (2010) was voted best film by children’s jury.

Of the 10 films selected for the Indian feature-length section, Nitesh Tiwari and Vikas Bahl’s Chillar Party (2011) won both the best film award and the best film award by children’s jury while Mangesh Hadawale’s Watch Indian Circus (2011) came as the second best. Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni was named the best Indian director for The Well (2010), and I am Kalam (2010) received the best Indian screenplay award.

In the shorts section with 24 titles in total, German director Halina Dyrschka’s Nineandahalf’s Goodbye (2010) won the best short of the year award. It magically captured the hearts of both the children jury members and the festival committee.

Last but not least, Varun Halder and Binita Nayak were this year’s best children directors for their film Our World (2011) in the Little Directors section.

Aside from several world and Asian premiers, a good mix of already well-known big names such as Toy Story 3 (2010), Tangled (2010), Kungfu Panda 2 (2011), and Alice in Wonderland (2010) were shown too. The special section “In Focus: China” also brought six wonderful Chinese children’s films to the festival.

Nandita Das, the chairwoman of CFSI to step down next year, promised that CFSI would continue to bring great films to Indian children living in rural villages and small towns across the country, according to CNN-IBN. Besides that, CFSI is also trying to secure more distribution channels and screening venues for films in its library. For instance, earlier this year it organized “Monsoon Dhamaal” to show children’s films at selected schools in 10 Indian cities.

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Cinemanila 2011 round-up Fri, 18 Nov 2011 08:53:46 +0000 Don’t get confused. Cinemanila and Cinemalaya are two different Filipino film festivals. They are both from Metropolitan Manila, but one is located in Taguig City on the east coast while the other Pasay City on the west coast (I heard that they were both very progressive). Cinemanila is six years older than Cinemalaya. Since its inception in 1999, Cinemanila has developed into a full-blown international film festival. Cinemalaya, on the other hand, is entirely dedicated to independent Filipino cinema. Despite their differences, both are major film fests in the region and are well regarded for their missions and accomplishments.

Cinemanila 2011 / source: Cinemanila

This year, Cinemanila 2011 or the 13th Cinemanila International Film Festival took place from Nov. 11 to 17. It is undoubtedly growing in stature year by year.

Cinemanila 2011 has an official line-up of 102 films from both its competition and exhibition sections. 31 of them are directed by one or more Filipino directors. The festival’s opening film is German documentary filmmaker Wim Wender’s Pina (2011) about deceased German choreography Pina Bausch and her dance troupe. It is the first 3D film ever shown at the festival. The festival’s closing film is British Independent Film Award Winner Life in a Day (2011), a documentary that sources 4,500 hours of footage from YouTube users. These two films give a strong indication that Cinemanila emphasizes cinema that is both sincere and original.

There was a strong presence of South Korean cinema at the festival too, as evidenced by special screenings provided by the Jeonju International Film Festival and by the “Focus on Korea” program. K-horror, K-thriller, and Korean romance dramas were all well represented.

Oberhausen Programmer Herbert Schwarze also brought in high-caliber award-winning shorts from the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, one of the world’s oldest and most respected short film fests. During the festival, he gave a seminar on short films free for the public. It was a great learning opportunity for young Filipino filmmakers.

“The Beautiful Game” was probably the audience highlight of Cinemanila 2011. This new program curated eight sport films, all centered on soccer. They ranged from drama and comedy like Bend it like Beckham (2002) to gripping documentary like Rise & Shine: The Jay DeMerit Story (2011).

Winners of Cinemanila 2011 have been published on the festival’s official website. In contrast to last year, documentaries did not compete for awards in the Young Cinema section, which seemed to have restructured to focus on short films only. As for the lifetime achievement awards, they went to “Italian Hitchcock” Dario Argento (1940-) and Filipino actress Nora Aunor (1952-). You may get a glimpse of young Nora Aunor act in Himala (1982) below.

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Film Review: Nasi Lemak 2.0 Tue, 25 Oct 2011 02:40:06 +0000 Hollywood studios have failed quite a few times in the past decade in their bid to Anglicize their movies so as to appeal to the larger English-speaking world. Viewers and film critics alike have criticized Memoir of a Geisha (2005) and other films like it for betraying their story origins by making the characters speak English. Even today, language differences and regional accents can sometimes be a headache for Hollywood producers because they tarnish the glamor of big-budget movies. Yet, none of these is a problem for Chinese Malaysian rapper Namewee Wee Meng Chee’s Nasi Lemak 2.0. Multilingualism is not only authentic to the story but also its hallmark.

Though predominantly Chinese, a dozen languages and dialects are used in Nasi Lemak 2.0. They go back and forth seamlessly between different characters. Namewee (Chef Huang) and Karen Kong (Xiao K), who play the main characters, also display stunning skills in code-switching between Malay, English, Chinese mandarin, Cantonese, etc.

Nasi Lamak 2.0

Nasi Lamak 2.0.

The story is set in the coastal area of Malaysia, a geographical location where Chef Huang’s master instructs him to settle and promote Chinese cuisine. The film uses typical Kung-Fu movie suspense where an obscure message is passed from a master to an apprentice, who must search for its true meaning by embarking on a journey of self discovery. A secondary plot adds to this suspense by having Chef Huang meet his long-time competitor in a final showdown.

Using Chef Huang’s journey, the film allows a great number of interesting and absurd details about his life in Malaysia to be packed in, such as constant blackouts and incompetent cops, and they act as indirect social commentary. However, some of the jokes are told at the risk of being irrelevancies.

To give an example, one of the digressions in the film has Chef Huang meet with Hui-Chinese explorer and diplomat Zheng He (1371 – 1433) in a dream. Chef Huang asks Zheng mischievously if he goes to a men’s or women’s restroom and if he pees standing up or squatting down. These jokes fly well with the younger generation in the audience, but they are probably too prankish to amuse the adults (not to say they are any dissimilar to Peter Griffin’s humor in Family Guy).

The embedded meaning of Chef Huang’s journey is 1Malaysia. The gradual acceptance and the eventual successful creation of fusion food by him are metaphors for his acculturation into Malaysian society. Sadly, for this part of the film, propagandist images also emerge.

In contrast to the visits to an Indian Malaysian household and a ghost couple’s household, where the film is still firmly lodged in its unique sense of humor consistent with what comes before, the visit to a Malay family’s household seems idealizing. To get the message about blissful polygamy across, four young and pretty housewives who live happily under one roof are shown, accompanied by a somewhat cheesy music soundtrack. This sequence is an odd fit in the film. It seems to try too hard to present something that its creator has problem buying.

For a first film, Nasi Lemak 2.0 is no doubt a success. Many faces in it leave long-lasting impressions, such as Mohamad Nadzif as the dopey security guard and Adibah Noor as the tough but kind-hearted street vendor Kak Noor. Some of the singsong sessions in the film will definitely continue a life off screen for being quirky yet upbeat. My favorite is the one by Chef Huang and Xiao K, the same song that makes Peter Teo’s character lust for Xiao K in the story. It is an old-fashioned love song with an ethnic Chinese melody but sung in broken English. But if I shed my cultural bias, I think “Rasa Sayang 2.0” will trump it.

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Wuhan: Experience the real 1911 Fri, 21 Oct 2011 07:17:23 +0000 My birth city Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province in central China, came under spotlight last week on the 100th anniversary of the 1911 Revolution, also known as the Xinhai Revolution, for being the first city to break apart from the Qing government (1644–1911).

One hundred years ago on October 10th, mutineers from Wuhan and its surrounding counties attacked the provincial headquarters of the Qing government located in Wuchang District of Wuhan, in what is known today as the Wuchang Uprising. They successfully captured key locations in the city, including the Governor-General’s Office, the Chuwangtai Armory, and the Provincial Administration Commission of Hubei, and forced the viceroy in office, who was in charge of both Hubei and Hunan Province at the time, to flee.

In a significant moment during the revolt, a flagman climbed up the Provincial Assembly Hall of Hubei, which is the Memorial Hall for the Wuchang Uprising of the 1911 Revolution today, and put up the Iron-Blood 18-star flag to mark their victory. This flag was declared the official flag of the Military Government of Hubei the next day. It is 130 days older than the Five Races Under One Union flag of Sun Yat-sen’s provisional government of the Republic of China, and 10 years older than the official flag of the Republic of China, which is often described as “Blue Sky, White Sun, and a Wholly Red Earth” in Chinese.

Memorial Hall of the Wuchang Uprising of the 1911 Revolution in Wuhan, Hubei

I am proud to point out that one of the key revolutionaries in the Wuchang Uprising, Cai Jimin (1887-1919), actually came from my native village Caiguantian of Huangpi County of Hubei Province. Technically speaking, he and I are from the same Cai clan, so it is very likely that we were related in the distant past.

Cai Jimin belonged to Sun Yat-sen’s anti-Qing allegiance. He was an active member of the Literary Society, the Progressive Association, as well as the China Revolutionary Alliance at his time. He led one of the troops during the revolt and was later given many different high-ranking military posts within the military government of Hubei. It is well documented that he and his descendants had been the keepers of the original 18-star flag up until 1975, when the flag was handed over to the Hubei Museum as a first-class cultural and historical relic.

The Wuchang Uprising sparked a number of uprisings all across China, known collectively as the Xinhai Revolution, and together they brought down the Qing Dynasty and 2,000 years of Chinese feudal rule. Today, this occasion is recognised in both China and Taiwan, with the latter also declaring October 10th or Double Ten Day its national day.

In Wuhan, a massive brick-red V-shaped structure was opened to the public on October 10th this year. It is the Xinhai Revolution Museum, and it is to commemorate the revolution (another museum of the same name was opened in Guangzhou on the same day). This museum is part of a revolution-themed complex that currently includes 18 attractions in Wuhan.

The Wuhan Xinhai Revolution Museum / source: Alpha Li's photo from Panoramio

Since October 15, the Wuhan Xinhai Revolution Museum has offered free admission to the public. If you happen to be in Wuhan or are curious about the factual history behind Jackie Chan’s 100th movie 1911, be sure to pay a visit!

And if you are like me living thousands of miles away from Wuhan right now, you may choose to download this interesting app on your iPad, iPhone, or iPod, to satisfy your thirst for knowledge about the revolution!

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Curtains close on 16th Busan International Film Festival Sun, 16 Oct 2011 22:27:30 +0000 Busan Cinema Center

Busan International Film Festival / source: The Daily Star

The 16th Busan International Film Festival closed on Friday October 14, 2011.

There were a lot of firsts this year. It was the first year that the festival has officially changed its name from Pusan to Busan; it is the first year that Lee Yong-kwan has worked as the festival director, replacing its founding director Kim Dong-ho; it is the first year that the festival has moved into the newly constructed Busan Cinema Center; it is the first year of the Busan Cinema Forum; and it is also the first year that the Busan Exhibition and Convention Center (BEXCO) has been used to house various festival programs.

Needless to say, to be a BIFF award winner this year, the honor was particularly great.

Below is a breakdown of the victors.

New Currents Award
Considered a main prize of BIFF, this award is set at US $30,000 and is given to an up-and-coming director who shows great potential in becoming a world-class director in his or her first or second film.

Niño by Filipino director Loy Arcenas
Mourning by Iranian director Morteza Farshbag

Flash Forward Award
Another main prize of BIFF, this award is given to a non-Asian film director who show great potential in becoming a world-class director in his or her first or second film. The award is also set at US $30,000.

La-Bas: A Criminal Education by Italian director Guido Lombardi (See trailer here)

Sonje Awards
Set at 10 million won or approximately US $10,000 each, the awards are given to the best Asian short films in the Wide Angle section of BIFF.

Thug Beram by Indian director Venkat Amudhan
See You Tomorrow by Korean director Lee Woo-jung

BIFF Mecenat Awards
Set at 10 million won or approximately US $10,000 each, the awards are given to the best Asian documentaries in the Wide Angle section of BIFF.

Sea of Butterfly by Korean director PARK Bae-il
Shoji & Takao by Japanese director IDE Yoko

KNN Movie Award
Sponsored by the Korea New Network (KNN) Foundation, this is an audience award set at US $20,000 that goes to the most popular film in the New Currents section of BIFF.

Watch Indian Circus by Indian director Mangesh Hadawale

Chosen by the International Federation of Film Critics (or Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique International Federation of Film Critics), this award goes to a progressive film by an up-and-coming Asian director.

Mourning by Iranian director Morteza Farshbaf

Chosen by the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC), this award goes to the best Korean film in either the New Currents or Korean Cinema Today section of BIFF.

The King of Pigs by Korean director YEON Sang-ho

Busan Cinephile Award
Chosen by college student jury members, this award goes to the best short film in the Wide Angle section of BIFF.

The Twin by Swedish director Gustav Danielsson

Citizen Reviewers’ Awards
Chosen by citizen reviewers mainly from the Busan Cinematheque, the awards go to the most loved Korean films in the Korea Cinema Today – Vision section of BIFF, with a small cash prize or equivalent.

Blue Pine Tree: Jesus Hospital by Korean director LEE Sang-chul and SHIN Ah-ka
Red Pine Tree: A Fish by Korean director PARK Hong-min
Yellow Pine Tree: Romance Joe by Korean director LEE Kwang-kuk

DGK Award
Chosen from the Korean Cinema Today – Vision section of BIFF, the awards go to the best Korean director, actor, and actress at US $10,000, US $2,500, and US $2,500 respectively.

Directors Award: YEON Sang-ho for The King of Pigs
Actor: HA Hyun-kwan in Beautiful Miss Jin
Actress: HAN Song-hee and WHANG Jung-min in Jesus Hospital

Movie Collage Award
Co-founded by BIFF and CJ (Cheil Jedang) Entertainment Gold Village (CJ CGV), which is an art-house movie theater chain, this award goes to an independent Korean film in the form of distribution and exhibition aids.

The King of Pigs by Korean director YEON Sang-ho

The Asian Filmmaker of the Year is Tsui Hark.

The Korean Cinema Award, which goes to an individual who have significant contributions in promoting Korean cinema to the world, is given to Julietta Sichel.

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ASEAN film highlights showcase at Busan festival Thu, 13 Oct 2011 22:00:25 +0000 BEXCO

Busan Exhibition and Convention Center / source: Korea IT Times

Four major events at the 16thBusan International Film Festival (BIFF) in South Korea concluded concurrently on Thursday. They were the 4th Asian Film Policy Forum, the 11th Busan International Film Commission & Industry Showcase (BIFCOM), the 6th Asian Film Market, and lastly, the 14th Asian Project Market.

Unlike previous years when separate venues were used for each event, this year the events were held together at the spacious Busan Exhibition and Convention Center (BEXCO). Participating regional film commissions, talent agencies, film distributors, film directors, producers, financiers, and various industry representatives were able to meet each other, exchange information, and discuss and initiate potential projects all in one place.

To highlight some of the events, eight ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries attended the ASEAN session of the Asian Film Policy Forum, organized by BIFCOM. Each country gave a presentation of its past and present film development plans. Film policy makers from Indonesia, for example, said that they would revise the existing film policies and add film incentives with the goal of strengthening local productions. The country is expected to have 350 screens by 2014.

Laos, on the other hand, planned to establish a new film archive and two international film festivals in Luang Prabang and Vientiane. Burma started to offer film studies programs in some of its state universities. And Vietnam announced its new tax exemption for international co-production projects. Because previously some ASEAN countries had been perceived as difficult places to film despite their wealth of diverse filming locations, the forum also provided a good opportunity for these countries to redefine and promote their film industries, including showcasing their less well-known filming locations. In fact, every year at BIFCOM an exhibition on location is held, together with a twin exhibition on industry.

As for the Asian Film Market, whose goal is to help filmmakers find distributors for their completed works, all numbers were up. Market screenings increased from 39 last year to 60 this year; screening sessions from 47 to 64; theater numbers from 4 to 6; total badge members from 789 to 1,100; and American and Japanese sales companies also doubled. To note, the number of signed agreements is not registered because conventionally deals are not sealed at film markets; socializing and networking are expected to take place instead.

The Asian Project Market, previously known as the Pusan Promotion Plan (PPP), had a selection of 30 films this year.

Among the selected films were Distortion by Thai director Nonzee Nimibutr, The Dog Show by Filipino director Ralston Jover, The Hangman’s Breakfast by Singaporean director Glen Goei, Killers by the Mo brothers from Indonesia, SATRA by Filipino director Sheron Dayoc, and Southeast Lovers co-directed by Thai director Aditya Assarat, Sri Lankan director Vimukthi Jayasundara, Vietnamese director Phan Dang Di, Indonesian director Ifa Isfansyah, and Bangladeshi director Ishtiaque Zico. Click here to see this year’s winners.

Workshops and master classes were also conducted as part of APM.

TIES THAT BIND Asia-Europe Producers Workshop, which specializes in assisting Asian and European producers with co-production projects, selected 10 films this year. Among them were Suriya by Thai producer Pran Tadaveerawat, Big father small father and other stories . . . by Vietnamese producer Nguyen Hoang Diep, and The Real Champion by Indonesian producer Rina Harahap. During the workshop, the producers worked with top-level experts on script development, marketing, pitching, etc. and learned most current issues in film financing, sales, legal frameworks, exhibition practices, festivals, etc.

Similarly, 13 documentaries were selected to participate in the Asian Network of Documentary (AND) Programs, which consisted of AND Clinic and AND Project Meeting. Among the AND-selected films were On Mother’s Head by Indonesian director Kusuma Widjaja Putu, Cinema of Terror by Malaysian director Dain Said and Indonesian director Yayan Wiludiharto, and Where Your Boundaries Are by Thai director Nontawat Numbenchapol.

Despite the presence of some American sales companies like Lakeshore Entertainment and Voltage Pictures, no Hollywood studio came to BIFF this year. Some buyers also commented that the change of venue had a thinning effect on the energy that used to run in such events. In addition to them, BIFF’s Asian Film Market seems to face immediate competition from more established film markets like the Content Market at the Tokyo International Film Festival (to be taken place from October 24 to 26 this year) and the American Film Market (to be taken place from November 2 to 9 this year). The road ahead will be challenging. But before we make any conclusive remarks, let’s tune in to BIFF’s closing ceremony tonight!

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