Surprises galore at Asian Film Awards


The recent seventh Asian Film Awards, which were as usual part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival and during which 30 movies from nine countries competed for 14 prizes, yielded at least three big surprises. The most obvious was an apparent shift in the jury’s preferences. While South Korean productions in the past clearly dominated the awards, the country won not one single prize this year and they were instead distributed across the region, with China taking home four, Japan three, and India and the Philippines two each. This interesting development also might indicate that the film industries in other Asian countries finally have managed to step out of South Korea’s gigantic shadow.

The second surprise materialized in the form of Iran/Turkey co-production Rhino Season, a drama set against the backdrop of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. The film cleaned up the technical awards, winning the prizes for best visual effects, best production design and best cinematography. It also was the first production from Turkey and/or Iran to ever be nominated.

The biggest winner of the awards ceremony was without doubt the mainland Chinese drama Mystery, which pocketed the prizes for best film, best screenplay and best newcomer (actress Qi Xi) to thundering applause. The triple triumph slapped China’s zealous movie censors in the face for a variety of reasons. The censorship authorities reportedly had been upset because the drama allegedly touches on a slew of politically sensitive topics, including the often obscene behavior of (communist) China’s newly rich and widespread corruption among the country’s police and government officials. They also demanded from director Lou Ye the removal of the film’s violent ending, during which one of the male leads uses a hammer to bludgeon a garbage collector to death. Lou Ye stubbornly resisted until a compromise was reached and he agreed to darken the scene. Mystery also was Lou Ye’s first movie after a five-year ban from filmmaking for entering his politically charged romantic drama Summer Palace at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival without prior government approval. Although Lou Ye narrowly lost the best director award to Japan’s Takeshi Kitano (for Outrage Beyond), he seemed content. “I am very happy, because this project has encountered some troubles before, so this is recognition for us,” he said during his acceptance speech for the best film award, adding that he is determined to continue addressing social issues in his movies.

'Thailand' Lost in Translation Overseas?
While director Xu Zheng’s slapstick comedy Lost in Thailand turned out to be China’s highest-grossing film ever with domestic total box-office takings of more than 1.26 billion yuan ($210 million), its performance in foreign markets—even those with sizeable overseas Chinese communities—proved nothing short of disappointing.

During its U.S. cinema release, the flick earned just a little over $57,000, although it was ironically screened in AMC theatres, a chain that was only recently purchased by China’s Dalian Wanda Group. In Hong Kong, Lost in Thailand generated a paltry $85,000, an amount so insignificant that the movie was thrown out after just one week. Takings in Malaysia, which has a very large ethnic Chinese population, were even more miserable at just under $25,000. In Thailand, where some 80% of the movie was shot on location, box office started out quite promising, but dropped sharply after a few days, capping out at roughly $165,000 during its third and final screening week. Critics attributed Lost in Thailand’s failure to the possibility that its crude slapstick antics simply didn’t match the humor of foreign audiences, not even regional ones.

New Festival Showcases Foreign Filmmaking in Thailand

Thailand, with its natural beauty and diverse landscapes, has for many years been a favorite shooting location for all sorts of foreign movie productions, from documentaries to feature films. According to the Thailand Film Office, which governs foreign shoots, in 2012 the country hosted a total of 636 foreign productions (+4.95% compared to 2011), earning revenues of 1.78 billion baht ($61 million) and supporting an estimated 86,600 industry jobs locally. In 2013, the country has so far welcomed 154 productions, representing an estimated revenue value of 351 million baht ($12.1 million), with the influx of foreign crews usually picking up in the later quarters of each year and particularly towards the end when the climate is less hot and humid.

In recognition of this development, Thailand’s Ministry of Tourism and Sports rolled out the inaugural installment of the Thailand International Film Destination Festival, which ran April 1–10, exclusively screening movies that were primarily shot in the country. The emphasis (much to the chagrin of film buffs) was on recent productions rather than vintage offerings (e.g., The Killing Fields, The Man with the Golden Gun, etc.). Besides mainstream releases like The Impossible (2012) and The Hangover Part II (2011), the program also comprised films that had never before been shown in Thailand, like Elephant White (2011), an action movie starring Kevin Bacon; Teddy Bear (2012), a Danish production about a bodybuilder searching for “easy love” in Thailand’s notorious beach-and-nightlife resort town of Pattaya; and Mammoth (2009), a Swedish drama starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Michelle Williams.

As an unusual spin, the festival also incorporated the “Amazing Thailand Film Challenge” short film competition, which invited filmmakers through various media channels including social media to submit their as-yet-unfinished short film projects, which had to be Thailand-related. More than 800 entries from 87 countries were received before the deadline, according to festival organizer Paul Spurrier, the lure being a chance of winning cash prizes totaling one million baht (approx. $30,000), as well as an opportunity to be invited to Thailand to make their film, with the Ministry shouldering expenses like return flights, hotel accommodations and a production budget. From all submissions, the jury selected 48 international filmmakers and their crews, as well as two local ones, who were required to complete their films within six days in order to be considered for one of the trophies and prize monies announced during an awards ceremony on April 10. If this inaugural Thailand International Film Destination Festival proves successful, the Ministry plans to make it into a recurring annual event.

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