Cinema of East and Southeast Asia

Explore the very best movies from East and Southeast Asia, based on a selection of over 8,500 films.

Join us in shifting the world’s focus on American cinema back to the many other equally rich, yet underappreciated film industries around the world. In this article series, we highlight several hidden gems produced within a certain geographical region, one film per country, from the riches of Europe to the remote island nations of Polynesia.

As a bonus, we will make a donation to the welfare of wild cats, and the preservation of their habitats, for every film purchased through this site.

The History of East and Southeast Asian Cinema

South Asia and Southeast Asia’s pop culture landscape is largely dominated by South Korea and Japan. From manga novels and anime films to Rilakkuma bears, J-pop, and Disney’s Japanese version of Lilo & Stitch, Japan is a dominant force in the entire region. South Korea’s rich pop culture adds fuel to the fire, and together with Japan, easily fights off both Hollywood and Bollywood.

Only recently has American cinema grown in popularity throughout both South Asia and Southeast Asia, namely due to the success of monster hits franchises such as Harry Potter and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but local productions, as well as Japanese, Korean and Chinese films, still stand tall.

East and Southeast Asian Cinema (Kiki's Delivery Service)
(Credit: Kiki’s Delivery Service / Majo no takkyûbin, Japan)

Aside from Japan and South Korea, China also strongly influences the cinematic nations in both geographical regions. China’s influence on its neighboring countries is of a more social, cultural, and economic nature. Throughout history, China has been an important trade partner in the eastern regions of the Asian continent. Though most of South Asia and Southeast Asia was left in peace by the various Chinese empires that came and went, parts of Vietnam, Laos, and Mongolia once belonged to various Chinese dynasties.

Southeast Asian Cinema (Good Morning, Luang Prabang)
(Credit: Good Morning, Luang Prabang / Sabaidee Luang Prabang, Laos)

Table of Contents

Pick a Country

CambodiaChinaHong KongIndonesiaJapanLaosMongoliaMyanmarNepalNorth KoreaThe PhilippinesSouth KoreaThailandVietnam

The Best Films from East Asia

In East Asia, we scale the deserts of Mongolia and traverse the vast landscape of China towards the small nation of Hong Kong, before visiting both politicized North Korea as well as K-Pop nation South Korea. Crossing the Sea of Japan, we then touch shore in both prosperous Japan and on the island of Taiwan.

Mongolia: The Cave of the Yellow Dog

Directed by: Byambasuren Davaa, 2005.

World Cinema 067 - Mongolia (The Cave of the Yellow Dog)
(Credit: The Cave of the Yellow Dog / Die Höhle des Gelben Hundes)

Due to the country’s geographical positioning, Mongolian cinema has been primarily influenced by Russia, separating the industry thematically from the rest of South Asia. After the Mongolian socialist revolution of 1921, film became a tool for education. Heavily influenced by the Soviet Union, Mongolia’s educational films mainly took shape as Soviet-style propaganda films. Both documentaries and films narrated the stories of revolutionaries and focused on the heroics displayed in Mongolia’s ancient legends.

Until the 1990s many Mongolian films were co-produced with the Soviet Union. Additionally, these films were often directed by Soviet directors. When socialism came to an end in the 1990s the country’s ties with Russia weakened. Though there are still films being co-produced with Russia, such as the historical epic Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan, the Mongolian film industry sought out new partners to help produce films. Several examples can be found in the career of director Byambasuren Davaa. Davaa chose to follow up on her film studies in Ulaanbaatar with a degree in documentary film and communication sciences in Germany, which led to the production of two German-Mongolian documentaries and the feature film The Cave of the Yellow Dog (original title: Die Höhle des Gelben Hundes, 2005).

The Cave of the Yellow Dog was filmed on location in Mongolia and tells the story of Nansal, a young girl who, against her father’s wishes, befriends a black and white dog. Nansal is part of a nomadic family living on the Mongolian steppe. Her family leads a relatively simple life, migrating across the country and living off of their livestock. The Cave of the Yellow Dog is comparable to Kazakhstan’s slow-paced drama Tulpan, which similarly followed the rhythms of everyday life within a remote countryside setting. The Cave of the Yellow Dog combines beautiful imagery with a simple yet charming family-centered narrative, making the film a fulfilling experience counteracting the bombastic films of modern-day pop culture.

The Cave of the Yellow Dog tells the story of Nansal, a young girl part of a nomad family living on the Mongolian steppe. Conflict arises within the family when Nansal befriends a young dog, whom her father believes is responsible for attacking their livestock.

Find The Cave of the Yellow Dog on Amazon.com.

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China: Aftershock

Directed by: Xiaogang Feng, 2010.

World Cinema 068 - China (Aftershock)
(Credit: Aftershock / Tang shan da di zhen)

The Chinese box-office is one of the most influential in the world. Hollywood often awaits the returns from China to greenlight sequels to their more out-there blockbusters, offering China significant power within the industry. Both Pacific Rim (2013) and Ant-Man (2015) received the sequel-nod after China’s warm reception and, staying within the Marvel Cinematic Universe for a moment, both Iron Man 3 (2013) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) included scenes shot in South Asia just to tailor to Asian audiences.

China’s own film industry dawned in the early 1900s. After the violent Boxer Rebellion managed to overthrow the Qing dynasty and ended foreign influence within the country, film found its place in the newly formed Republic of China in 1912. China’s domestic industry slowly grew bigger, leading to a golden age in the 1930s. The Japanese invasion of China in 1937 halted progress within the industry, but after the end of World War II, China’s cinematic landscape once again flourished. Like in the Soviet Union and Mongolia, film became a tool for propaganda. During this time, films such as Guerrilla on the Railroad (1956) glorified the country’s Communist Party.

Film production in China came to a near stand-still between 1966 and 1976, when Chairman of the Communist Party of China Mao Zedong’s initiated the Cultural Revolution, a movement aiming to preserve the country’s Communist ideology by purging all remnants of capitalism from the nation. Following Mao’s death in 1976, economic reforms led to a revitalization of the country’s domestic film industry. During the 1980s and 1990s, many Chinese films reflected on the distress caused by the Cultural Revolution. Great examples of these so-called “scar dramas” are the films Hibiscus Town (1986) and Coming Home (2014).

Film became a form of liberation as well as a source of entertainment. The rise of China’s so-called Fifth and Sixth Generation of directors drew worldwide attention to the Chinese film industry. Dramas such as Farewell My Concubine (1993) and The Road Home (1999), as well as martial arts films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and historical epics such as Red Cliff (2008), became famous around the world. Influential director Xiaogang Feng made his mark on the industry with The Dream Factory (1997) and went on to direct the box office hit Aftershock (original title: Tang shan da di zhen, 2010).

Heart-breaking from start to finish, Aftershock depicts the devastation of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake and its aftermath. Modern-day Chinese films such as Aftershock easily fight off foreign competition, indicating the steady growth the industry has seen since Mao’s death: in 2018, China set an all-time box office record following the release of domestic hits Operation Red Sea (2018) and Detective Chinatown 2 (2018).

Set over the course of 40 years, Aftershock tells the story of a family separated by the devastating earthquake that levelled the city of Tangshan in 1976.

Find Aftershock on Amazon.com.

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Hong Kong: Internal Affairs

Directed by: Andrew Wai-Keung Lau & Alan Mak, 2002.

World Cinema 069 - Hong Kong (Internal Affairs)
(Credit: Infernal Affairs / Mou Gaan Dou)

Up until 1997, Hong Kong was under British control. Starting out as a rural area inhabited by farmers and fishermen, the colony developed into one of the most significant financial centers in the world. After World War II, Hong Kong’s film industry flourished along with its trade industry, but split up into two different branches: a Cantonese branch producing films for the natives of Hong Kong and a Mandarin branch aimed at mainland China. Due to its enormous export market in China, the Mandarin film industry was able to work with bigger budgets than its Cantonese sibling. This led to the production of many low-budget, but wildly successful Cantonese martial arts films.

During the 1970s, the “wuxia” martial arts genre grew in scope and popularity. Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973) sparked the kung fu-craze overseas and the actor played a major role in opening the world to Hong Kong films. Following in Lee’s footsteps, kung fu comedy actor Jackie Chan soon became Asia’s biggest box office star, further spreading Hong Kong films across South and Southeast Asia.

Despite not receiving any government backing, the Hong Kong film industry easily fended of the dominant force of Hollywood’s film industry during the late 20th century. This was perhaps due to the industry’s highly commercial nature, which combined the tone and style of Hollywood films with more surrealistic elements borrowed from the Chinese industry. After the 1990s, however, the country’s once-prosperous industry went into a decline and successful films became more sparse. Some films still gained international success, such as the martial arts series Ip Man (2008-2019) and the police thriller Infernal Affairs (original title: Mou Gaan Dou, 2002). Often quoted as being “The ‘Godfather’ of Hong Kong”, the latter film was remade into the Academy Award-winning The Departed (2006).

In Infernal Affairs, an undercover police officer spends a decade working from within a triad to gain intelligence, while one of the criminal gang’s members in turn works as a mole within the police department, doing the same.

Find Infernal Affairs on Amazon.com.

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Taiwan: Eat Drink Man Woman

Directed by: Ang Lee, 1994.

World Cinema 070 - Taiwan (Eat Drink Man Woman)
(Credit: Eat Drink Man Woman / Yin Shi Nan Nu)

Film was introduced into Taiwan by the Japanese, who took control of the island in 1895. The island had been previously colonized by the Netherlands and both Chinese and Spanish immigrants had set foot on its soil. The Japanese lost control of the island at the end of World War II when China took over. Following the Chinese Civil War, China’s communist leaders expelled the nation’s ROC government, who re-established themselves in Taiwan, claiming Taipei to be their new capital. The status of Taiwan as an independent country remains disputed until today.

China’s claim on the island after World War II ushered in a time of growth for the local film industry. Japanese film had influenced the nation’s film industry for decades and many conventions from Japanese films were adopted by Taiwan’s filmmakers, who were able to produce films free of mainland China’s censorship laws. The import of films from Hong Kong and the arrival of television, however, threatened the country’s national film industry in the mid-20th century.

During the 1980s, a group of young directors managed to rejuvenate the island’s film industry. By moving away from the clichéd melodramas and action flicks of the past and focusing on the realistic portrayal of Taiwanese life, Taiwan’s new wave of directors obtained success with films such as In Our Time (1982) and A City of Sadness (1989). Following the revival of Taiwan’s film industry, a series of more fantastical films were produced, such as Ang Lee’s wuxia-revival film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the absurdist The Wayward Cloud, in which a water shortage in Taipei makes the sales of watermelons skyrocket.

Ang Lee is perhaps one of Taiwan’s most successful directors. His down-to-earth family drama Eat Drink Man Woman (original title: Yin Shi Nan Nu, 1994) closely matched the industry’s renewed focus on social issues. Eat Drink Man Woman is a contemporary Taiwanese film, portraying the generational and cultural conflicts plaguing many modern Taiwanese families.

Each Sunday, master chef Chu ritually prepares an elaborate family dinner for his three daughters. As his daughters start to move away from their father’s traditional values, conflicts arise at the family dinner table.

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North Korea: The Flower Girl

Directed by: Ik-gyu Choe & Hak Pak, 1972.

World Cinema 071 - North Korea (The Flower Girl)
(Credit: The Flower Girl / Kotpanum chonio)

Japan’s unconditional surrender to the Allied forces following World War II also meant the surrender of the Korean peninsula, which had been under Japanese control. Korea was divided into two occupation zones, with the United States administering the southern half of the peninsula and the Soviet Union taking control of the north. Though the country was to be unified after the formation of a united government, negotiations fell through, and in 1948 civil war engulfed the peninsula. Neither the north nor the south was able to gain full control of the peninsula, which led to a restoration of the status quo set after WWII.

North Korea isolated itself from the world, shrouding the development of its national film industry in mystery. Official North Korean sources claim their cinematic output to be an “unprecedented sensation”, with Kim Jong-il having stated that the film industry’s role was to help people develop themselves as “true communists”.

North Korea isolated itself from the world, shrouding the development of its national film industry in mystery. Official North Korean sources claim their cinematic output to be an “unprecedented sensation”, with Kim Jong-il having stated that the film industry’s role was to help people develop themselves as “true communists”.

North Korea’s first film My Home Village (1949) shows the nation’s strong communist ideals, glorifying the revolution of the country’s peasants against the oppression of Japanese imperialists. Later North Korean films, such as The People Sing and The Flower Girl (original title: Kotpanum chonio, 1972) embraced a similar ideology. Like many communist films, The Flower Girl was a heavy melodrama. The film focused on a peasant girl trying to make due selling flowers to take care of her sick mother during the Japanese occupation of Korea.

Despite Kim Jong-il’s claims of cinematic prosperity in North Korea, other events tell a different story. During the 1980s, Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee, two prominent South Korean directors, were kidnapped. They were taken to North Korea and instructed to make films that would help the country “obtain global acclaim” with its film industry. It would take several decades more before North and South Korea would finally be able to peacefully produce a film together: the animated film Empress Chung (2005).

Set during the Japanese occupation of Korea, The Flower Girl follows Koppun, a young woman who, after the death of her father and the imprisonment of her brother, hopes to earn enough money selling flowers to be able to buy medicine for her sick mother.

Not available on Amazon.com.

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South Korea: My Sassy Girl

Directed by: Jae-young Kwak, 2001.

World Cinema 072 - South Korea (My Sassy Girl)
(Credit: My Sassy Girl / Yeopgijeogin Geunyeo)

After the division of the Korean peninsula following World War II, film directors in the Northern and Southern half of the nation competed to be the first to release a new film. South Korea “won” with the release of Hurrah! For Freedom (1946), which, much like North Korea’s first film, portrayed the resistance of the nation’s people against the Japanese.

Over the course of the 20th century, South Korea grew from being one of the world’s poorest nations to one of the world’s wealthiest. The South Korean film industry grew along with the country’s economy and South Korean films soon found their way into cinemas worldwide. Though government censorship held back the industry until the 1980s, South Korean films managed to earn worldwide acclaim with early highlights such as crime-drama The Housemaid (1960) and The Aimless Bullet (1961), which focused on the post-war Korean society.

Overcoming the Asian financial crisis, the 2000s saw a resurgence in the popularity of South Korean cinema abroad. In 2001, Kwak Jae-yong’s My Sassy Girl (original title: Yeopgijeogin Geunyeo, 2001) paved the way for Korean cinema at an international level. The film drew a large cult following in South and Southeast Asia and opened the world to Korean films. Acclaimed successes such as Oldboy (2003), The Host (2006), and Train to Busan (2016) were praised worldwide. In 2020, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019), the first Korean film out of over 30 entries to be nominated, won both the Academy Award for both Best International Feature Film as well as Best Picture, becoming both the first film to do so.

My Sassy Girl was based on a series of autobiographical blog posts written by Kim Ho-sik, in which he described his odd relationship with his girlfriend. In the film, engineering college student Kyun-woo is shamed into assisting a drunk girl on his way home in the train. His encounter with the girl leads to one of cinema’s most quirky, off-beat romances. The film was remade in the United States, India, China, and Nepal, but none of the remakes was able to capture the odd relationship Kim Ho-sik spoke about in his blogs in such an effective way.

While commuting home by train, student Kyun-woo is shamed into assisting a drunk girl when his fellow passengers mistake her to be his girlfriend. Following the incident, Kyun-woo develops a deep sense of responsibility towards the odd – and often abusive – girl.

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Japan: Your Name

Directed by: Makoto Shinkai, 2016.

World Cinema 073 - Japan (Your Name)
(Credit: Your Name / Kimi no na wa.

Japan’s film industry is not only one of the oldest in the world, it is also one of the largest. Producing over 600 films per year, more than half of the country’s box office income hails from national film productions. In 1896 and 1897, Thomas Edison and the Lumière Brothers showcased their work in Japan. Moving pictures, however, were nothing for the Japanese. The country already had a rich tradition of using magic lanterns to create animated stories.

During the early days of cinema, the Japanese came up with a unique way of storytelling: Japanese theatres hired so-called “benshi” (storytellers), who narrated silent films while they played. People would often return to see the same film multiple times, to listen to a different beshi’s interpretation of the tale. Depending on who was narrating, a film could either turn out to be a comedy or a drama. Though the advent of sound in the early 1930s slowly pushed out the benshi, Japan kept the tradition alive well into the 1930s by continuing to produce silent films.

During World War II, film became a tool for propaganda. Though the industry suffered during the war, Japan’s national cinema quickly restored itself afterward, leading the country into a “golden age of cinema” with films such as the period pieces Seven Samurai (1954), Rashomon (1950), and Chushingura (1962), as well as the family drama such as Tokyo Story (1953) and the anti-nuclear monster-drama Godzilla (1954), which sparked an entire subgenre of kaiju (monster) films.

To fight declining box office numbers Japanese cinema continuously reinvented itself, producing increasingly violent and sexual films in the 1970s, such as In the Realm of the Senses (1976), and moving into the realms of horror with acclaimed films such as Dark Water (2002) and The Grudge (2002) in the 2000s.

Though Japan produced a score of highly acclaimed films and the country won the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film more often than any other Asian country, it was the development of the anime-genre between the 1960s and 1980s that truly allowed Japanese cinema to make its mark on the world. The cinematic adaptations of manga series such as Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind (1984) and Akira (1988) cemented the genre in the world’s mind and from the 1980s onwards, anime films easily fought off competition from American juggernauts imported into the country. One of Japan’s most recent animated gems was the innovative fantasy-romance Your Name (original title: Kimi no na wa., 2016), a film in which the lives of a young girl from a small mountain town and a high school boy from Tokyo become intertwined when they wake up in each other’s body.

One morning, Tokyo-based high school student Taki is surprised to wake up within the body of Mitsuha, a high school girl living in a small mountain town. After realizing he is continuously switching places with Mitsuha, the two form an unusual bond.

Find Your Name. on Amazon.com.

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The Best Films from Southeast Asia

It’s time to explore mesmerizing Southeast Asia, traversing the jungles of Myanmar, fighting our way through Thailand, and visiting the rural tribes of Laos, before touring the ancient temples of Cambodia, taking in the beauty of Vietnam and Indonesia, and sailing towards the island nation of the Philippines.

Myanmar: Kayan Beauties (2012)

Directed by: Aung Ko Latt, 2012.

World Cinema 074 - Myanmar (Kayan Beauties)
(Credit: Kayan Beauties)

The first film from Myanmar (or Burma) was screened at the Royal Cinema in Yangon. The film was recorded in the 1910s by director Ohn Maung during the funeral of politician Tun Shein. In 1932, the first sound film followed: produced in India, director Tot Gyi shot the film Money Can’t Buy It (1932) based on a novel by the popular writer Dagon Nat Shin. Both before and after World War II, Burmese films covered a variety of social and political issues. Though, as the films were censored by the British colonial government and were mostly produced by the British Burma Film Company, not everything could be freely discussed through cinema. The country gained independence in 1948, which led to the formation of a socialist military dictatorship.

After the violent suppression of the nationwide protests against the country’s totalitarian government in 1988, the film industry became increasingly controlled by the country’s leading party. The government enforced strict rules: film stars who were politically active during the 1980s and 1990s were banned from appearing in films, directors were picked by the country’s leaders, and even the winners of the nation’s film awards were pre-decided. Nowadays, most Burmese films are produced as direct-to-video films, and very few of them tackle political subjects.

Still, Kayan Beauties (2012) was a wonderful exception to that rule: Aung Ko Latt’s film focuses on three Kayan women, and deals with themes of human trafficking and cultural exploitation. The Kayan Lahwi are a sub-group of Red Karen, and are famous for wearing a series of brass neck rings. Between 2017 and 2019, Myanmar finally saw a revival of its national film industry with international successes, such as the horror film The Only Mom (2019) and the romantic-drama Now and Ever (2019).

Three Kayan women and a young girl from a remote village in Myanmar travel to the city to sell their handicrafts, where the girl is kidnapped by human traffickers after straying from her friends at the market.

Not available on Amazon.com.

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Thailand: Chocolate

Directed by: Prachya Pinkaew, 2008.

World Cinema 075 - Thailand (Chocolate)
(Credit: Chocolate)

Not long after the Lumière brothers had exhibited their films in Siam (later Thailand) in 1897, King Chulalongkorn visited Bern, Switzerland. The royal visit was recorded by early French filmmaker François-Henri Lavancy-Clarke. Thai Prince Thongthaem Sambassatra brought the documentary back to Bangkok, along with his own camera equipment. The film sparked interest in the medium by the Thai Royal Family, and the prince himself became known as “the father of Thai cinema” due to his many cinematic exploits. Several years later Thailand produced its first feature film, Miss Suwanna of Siam (1923).

Many of the early films shown in Thailand originated in Japan, as Japanese businessmen had opened the country’s first permanent cinema in 1905. In the tradition of the Japanese benshi, silent films were narrated by entertainers and orchestras. Like in Japan, this all ended with the dawn of the “talkies” in 1928. From the country’s first color film, Sri Krung’s Grandpa Som’s Treasure (1933), up until 1942, the Thai film industry experienced its first “Golden Age of Cinema”.

After the Thai government imposed a heavy tax on imported films in 1977, Hollywood films and other foreign movies were pushed out of the cinema, leading to a second surge in locally produced films. Most of these films were low-quality, hard-hitting action films, which eventually gave rise to the production of martial arts films. The film Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (2003) and its sequels, starring Tony Jaa, put Thai action films on the international map. One of the country’s more successful accomplishments within the martial arts genre is Prachya Pinkaew’s Chocolate (2008), which featured JeeJa Yanin as an autistic girl with powerful martial art skills, slashing her way through the loan sharks who owe her family money.

Another popular Thai genre is comedy. Thai comedies often feature Kathoey (transsexuals/transvestites) or gays as comic relief or villains. In some films, such as Iron Ladies (1996), Kathoey played the main characters. Iron Ladies is based on the true story of the Thai transsexual/transvestite gay men’s volleyball team that won the national championship in 1996.

Though the heavy taxes on foreign cinema were eventually loosened, Thai film had become a strong medium on its own. Though fewer films were produced, many international blockbusters remained relatively unknown in Thailand during the last few decades. The dawn of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and other bigger-than-life event films eventually broke open the interest of the Thai public into foreign films.

An autistic girl with uncanny martial art skills attempts to make money to pay for her mother’s medical bills, which puts her in the path of a powerful criminal gang.

Find Chocolate on Amazon.com.

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Laos: The Rocket

Directed by: Kim Mordaunt, 2013.

World Cinema 076 - Laos (The Rocket)
(Credit: The Rocket)

Unlike in its surrounding countries, cinema never really found its footing in Laos. Films were made neither during nor after colonialism, and the Laotian Civil War (1959–1975) further halted any development. The communist Laotian Ministry of Culture had a monopoly on film production; they were solely responsible for the production of feature-length films after the monarchy dissolved in 1975. Still, the first Laotian film wasn’t made until 1983. The film, Gun Voice from the Plain of Jars (1983) directed by Somchith Pholsena, was never publicly released due to censorship issues.

The first commercial film shot in Laos was Good Morning, Luang Prabang (2008). The romantic drama was directed by a Thai director, with the help of Anousone Sirisackda, a former employee of the Laotian governmental cinema department. In the film, a Thai photographer is sent to Laos by his employer for an assignment, when he falls in love with a Laotian tour guide. The success of Good Morning, Luang Prabang allowed Sirisackda – and other Laotian directors – to slowly start the production of films without the need for foreign support.

While national cinema slowly began to develop, the foreign collaboration also became more frequent. Whereas Good Morning, Luang Prabang aimed to show foreigners the beauty of Laos, Kim Mordaunt’s The Rocket (2013) chose to depict a more authentic version of Laos. The film is both uplifting and dark, offering viewers a look into the lives of the ethnic tribes residing in Northern Laos – the most heavily bombed area of Laos during the Vietnam War. Vast quantities of unexploded ordnance still remain in the countryside, maiming and killing civilians every year.

To prove he isn’t the bad luck charm everyone around him believes he is, a young Laotian boy hopes to earn his family some money by entering the most exciting and dangerous competition of the year: a local rocket-building competition.

Find The Rocket on Amazon.com.

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Cambodia: First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers

Directed by: Angelina Jolie, 2017.

World Cinema 077 - Cambodia (First They Killed My Father)
(Credit: First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers)

Cinema entered Cambodia in the 1920s when foreign filmmakers visited the country to shoot several documentary films. The Cambodian King, Norodom Sihanouk, had a great interest in films. Following his coronation in 1941, he started producing and directing films. Sihanouk completed around 50 movies between his coronation and his retirement from film in 2006. One of his most well-known films is the romantic drama Apsara (1966), which starred Cambodian Princess Buppha Devi and Prince Sisowath Chivan Monirak. At times, Sihanouk would star in his films himself as well.

Though Sihanouk’s films were considered to be of low quality, they did open up the country to cinema. During the 1950s, the film industry began to grow after several new local films were screened throughout the country. The first Cambodian-made feature films were shot by directors who had been able to study overseas due to the country’s colonial connections. The 1960s became known as the Cambodian “Golden Age of Cinema”, in which popular films such as the horror film The Snake King’s Wife (1972) were made.

Starting with the fall of Phnom Penh, the regime of the Khmer Rouge put a violent stop to cinema. Though the Khmer Rouge produced some propaganda films to screen at collective meetings, no domestic film industry was left once Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. Cities had been depopulated, many directors and actors had been killed, and old films were destroyed.

My Mother is Arb (1980), a horror movie based on Khmer folklore, was the first post-regime film to come out. In the decades that followed, Cambodian cinema once again found its footing, producing films about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge era, as well as life under the new Vietnam-backed regime. A beautiful example of such films is the clay-animated documentary The Missing Picture (2013).

Both before and after the Khmer Rouge’s regime, Cambodia’s majestic, ancient temples, had managed to attract the attention of foreign filmmakers. The Angkor Wat temple complex was used as the backdrop of Lord Jim (1965), an adventure film starring Peter O’Toole, and the historical drama The Killing Fields (1984) became the best-known depiction of the Khmer Rouge era. Additionally, the temple of Ta Prohm was used as a filming location in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), which starred Angelina Jolie.

Jolie was captivated by the country and adopted a Cambodian boy named Maddox. She would go on to adapt Khmer Rouge-survivor Lung Ung’s book on her memory of the Khmer Rouge Era into the film First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (2016). The film was made in collaboration with Cambodian director Rithy Panh, and most shot entirely in Cambodia.

In the 1970s, a Cambodian middle-class girl and her family are subjected to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, the country’s new totalitarian regime.

Not available on Amazon.com.

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Vietnam: The Scent of Green Papaya

Directed by: Tran Anh Hung, 1993.

World Cinema 078 - Vietnam (The Scent of Green Papaya)
(Credit: The Scent of the Green Papaya / Mùi Du Du Xanh)

Vietnam’s local film industry dawned in the 1920s, when a group of Vietnamese intellectuals formed the Huong Ky Film Company in Hanoi. Though the studio mostly produced documentaries, they also shot Vietnam’s first silent film, ‎A Penny for a Horse (1924). Sound films followed in 1937. The wars fought in the country from the 1940s to the 1970s slowed down film production, and most of the local films that were screened were war documentaries, such as Việt Nam on the Road to Victory (1953). While North Vietnam focused mainly on documentary and drama films, South Vietnam focused on war films and comedies.

After reunification following the Second Indochina War, film production increased significantly. Many of these films focused on the war and its heroes and the social problems of post-war reconstruction, such as the war film Season of the Whirlwind (1978). The communist suppression of all capitalist ideas led to the collapse of the economy during the 1980s, while cinema faced competition from video and television.

In the 1990s, co-productions with European countries and films directed by Việt Kiều (Vietnamese living overseas), started to revitalize local production with international hits such as The Scent of the Green Papaya (original title: Mùi Du Du Xanh, 1995) and Cyclo (1995). While the country still claims to be communist in nature, most industries nowadays adhere to capitalist strategies, including the film industry. By creating commercial drama films such as Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000), Bar Girls (2003) and The White Silk Dress (2006), local cinema once again grew in popularity.

Mùi, a young Vietnamese peasant girl living in the 1940s, is hired to work for a family in Saigon, where she meets Khuyen, an aspiring classical musician.

Find The Scent of the Green Papaya on Amazon.com.

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Indonesia: The Raid: Redemption

Directed by: Gareth Evans, 2011.

World Cinema 079 - Indonesia (The Raid - Redemption)
(Credit: The Raid: Redemption / Serbuan Maut)

Before Indonesia gained independence, the country was known as the Dutch East Indies. The first film in the Dutch colony was shown in 1900. Several years later, in 1911, the first locally produced film – a documentary – was released. Most films shown in the Dutch East Indies were foreign films, and many of them came from the United States. The silent fantasy film Loetoeng Kasaroeng (1926), based on a Sundanese legend, was the first local production able to compete with foreign output.

The Japanese occupation of Indonesia saw a change in the local film industry. The Japanese halted all productions and consolidated all film studios into one corporation focused on making propaganda films. After gaining independence, the trend of creating propaganda was continued by producing nationalistic, anti-Imperialist films, while the government banned all foreign movies.

After 22 years in office, the Indonesian president Sukarno was overthrown by one of his generals, Suharto. This led to more changes in the Indonesian film industry. By the 1990s foreign films were allowed back into the country, which led to growing competition for local studios. Films became regulated through a system of censorship, which still holds up today: the country’s current government has each film edited to remove scenes deemed indecent. Any display of homosexuality or sexuality is edited out before the film is screened, including the mid-battle kiss Arthur and Mera share in Aquaman (2018).

More recently, the Indonesian film industry has once again stepped up its game. The country started producing colorful romantic dramas similar to Thai films, such as What’s Up with Love? (2002), popular action movies such as The Raid: Redemption (original title: Serbuan Maut, 2011) and controversial dramas such as Lovely Man (2011), a story about a gay prostitute. Meanwhile, foreign co-production also thrived, including a successful documentary film series by Dutch director Leonard Retel Helmrich. Retel Helmrich’s Position Among the Stars (2010) follows a family of three generations living in the slums of Jakarta, and would certainly be our recommended pick for watching a Southeast Asian documentary.

A S.W.A.T. team becomes dangerously trapped in a high-rise building, after being tasked to infiltrate a derelict apartment building in the slums of Jakarta to capture a notorious drug lord.

Find The Raid: Redemption on Amazon.com.

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The Philippines: The Woman Who Left

Directed by: Lav Diaz, 2016.

World Cinema 080 - The Philippines(The Woman Who Left)
(Credit: The Woman Who Left / Ang Babaeng Humayo)

The Philippines was one of the first countries in Southeast Asia to embrace the medium of film. In early 1897, the first moving pictures were screened in Manila under Spanish occupation, and the following year, local scenes were filmed by a Spanish director. That same year, following the Spanish-American War, the Philippines became a territory of the United States. Most films screened in the Philippines after the war were produced and imported by the United States. The medium was used as a vehicle for information, education, and propaganda, as well as entertainment.

When the Japanese invaded and occupied the country, they halted film production as they had done in other occupied territories. The Japanese used local Filipino studios and theaters to show their own films and create government propaganda.

Gaining independence after World War II, Filipino cinema became a mix of genres and cultures: from cheap knock offs of popular American films and genres to soft porn films and splashy musicals, commercial films dominated the local box office. Some films, such as the colonization-drama Touch me Not (1961) and the dark Subversion (1962), stood out among the many box office hits. Following the trends of the west, teenagers became infatuated with pop music, rock and roll, and the Beatles in the 1960s, leading to a slur of teen-centered romantic comedy-dramas. Additionally, films criticizing the local political situation became quite popular.

New censorship rules invoked under President Ferdinand Marcos sought to regulate films, which meant political films and soft porn films were banned. Commercial films remained successful, but became increasingly unimaginative and predictable. Television grew in popularity, budgets were shrinking, and eventually, the post-war “Golden Age” of Filipino cinema came to an end in the 1990s. Due to the changes in the industry, the 2000s saw a rise in the production of low-cost, high-quality independent films, such as the 8-hour-long adventure-drama A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (2016) and Lav Diaz’s revenge drama The Woman Who Left (original title: Ang Babaeng Humayo, 2016).

In 1997, after 30 years of wrongful imprisonment, a woman plans to take revenge on her former lover, while reuniting with her daughter.

Find The Woman Who Left on Amazon.com.

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