Just last week, I read with interest a report by The Daily Seni on whether size does matter when it comes to the survival of our local films. It was about the results of a recent research carried out by the Film Directors’ Association of Malaysia.
The conclusion was simply: size does not matter, meaning our market is not too small for our films.
The research went a roundabout way to find out this simple truth, which I think anyone can already arrive at using simple logic. South Korea’s population (50 million) and ours (30 million) are not that much different in size. Although it might now seem a little cliched to hold up South Korea as an example, it remains the truth that South Korea is indeed a great example of a domestic cinema successfully coming into its own.
Which means, yes, the same can be done on our shores. The question is, how do we go about it? Is there a particular kind of film that we should make?
What I keep hearing nowadays, especially from Finas (National Film Development Corporation), is that we’re always on the lookout for that Great Malaysian Film, aka The Malaysian Oscar Winner, aka The Film to Represent Malaysian Culture.
My question is: but why?
South Korea, which we look up to all the time, has been submitting its films to the Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film category since 1962. Yes, since 1962. And guess what, they’ve never been nominated at all. Not even once.
And their submissions were not always big-budget blockbusters or even films that “represent Korean culture.” Even small films like Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine (2007), Bong Joon-ho’s Mother (2009) and Kang Yi-kwan’s Juvenile Offender (2012) were submitted. And then there were the controversial ones like Kim Ki-duk’s films.
Having not won, or even been nominated for, the Oscars, South Korean films have still achieved great popularity all over the world. Yes, there was a concerted effort by the South Korean government to popularise and export their cultural products, as I learnt from a recent meeting with several members of the Korean Film Council. But we don’t even have to learn about how they managed to elevate their films and pop music to such heights of popularity. I think we need to look at the kinds of films they made.
The big breakthrough for South Korean cinema was really the 1999 actioner Shiri, recognised as the first blockbuster of its kind in the country. It was stylish, it was slick, and it was also a little overwrought with nationalism. Drawing on the uneasy relationship between the North and the South, and the controversial idea of Korean unification, the film managed to connect with domestic audiences. It became a massive hit locally, and of course piqued international interest from thereon.
Shiri isn’t an entirely original action film. Its style is mostly borrowed from Hollywood and other Asian action cinema. But I guess South Korean audiences were enthralled to see what was unseen before in their local action cinema. And the rest, we can safely say, is history. Later, we had hit films like the melodramatic war movie Taegukgi (2004), and period blockbusters like Chunhyang (2000) that was tailor-made for a global audience. And we’ve had internationally acclaimed directors such as Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, 2003) and Bong (Memories of Murder, 2003).
So, you see, South Korea never set out to make an Oscar-winning film, nor did it set out to make a movie for international audiences, or a movie to showcase “Korean culture.” It simply made a movie that South Koreans wanted to see, one that dealt with an issue close to every single South Korean’s heart. And being a critical and commercial success at home is the most important aspect of a domestic cinema’s boom and to increase its export potential. Shiri broke all box-office records at the time, and went on to more commercial successes in the Asian region. And this is important: it had only limited theatrical releases in the west. But it had made enough of an impact to bring commercial focus to South Korean cinema.
Of course, it helped that Shiri was made in the period after the South Korean economic boom in the 90s, when a new Korean cinema emerged. Shiri was largely funded by corporate giant Samsung. And there was, of course, a single-mindedness, with government assistance, to elevate South Korean cultural products.
But the point here is that we in Malaysia have long been harping on about making that one big Oscar-winning, internationally recognised Malaysian movie that will also be a showcase of our Malaysian culture. But what kind of film is that, really? We’ve had Oscar submission like Puteri Gunung Ledang, Bunohan and now, Lelaki Harapan Dunia. None of them made a big dent at the local box-office, and for PGL and Bunohan, nor at the Oscars. This is not saying that a film like Bunohan isn’t good; in fact, Bunohan is an important Malaysian film and an excellent one, too.
I guess what I’m saying is, why the obsession with the Oscars and with being international and cultural?
Shiri isn’t particularly “cultural” (unless Korean culture is about people shooting each other and engaging in high-octane car chases on the highway). Nor was it submitted to the Oscars. And what’s so international about it? It didn’t even make a big impact in the west theatrically.
But it was the impetus that started the new Korean cinema boom. Because it resonated with local audiences first and foremost.
I’ve also heard the excuse that we are not a homogenous society, but are made up of different cultures, that it’s easier for a country of a single culture like South Korea. But don’t we have issues and subjects that touch every Malaysian soul? Sports is one. And yes, corruption is another (!).
More than just Oscars and international recognition and cultural showcasing, I think we need to find that one subject that would interest every single Malaysian, that could be turned into a movie that would become both a critical and a commercial success.
I hope Finas is reading.