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South-East Asian Cinema Thrives as Local Films Shatter Box Office Records

South-East Asian Cinema Thrives as Local Films Shatter Box Office Records
A scene from hit Thai film How to Make Millions Before Grandma Dies. Photograph: handout

In social media videos, cinema audiences are seen tossing packs of tissues around and emerging from theaters teary-eyed. This phenomenon is occurring across Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore. The latest Thai film sensation, How to Make Millions Before Grandma Dies, has touched viewers deeply and shattered box office records throughout South-East Asia.

The plot centers on a university dropout who decides to care for his terminally ill grandmother, hoping to inherit her house. This emotional story has generated 334 million Thai baht (around $9.1 million) at the Thai box office, making it the most successful Thai film in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.

This film is another triumph for the South-East Asian cinema industry, which has been thriving while Hollywood faces strikes and production challenges. This surge in regional films has reinvigorated the local cinema scene.

“Covid, and industry issues that impacted Hollywood product flow, have ushered [in] a period of growth for local and regional films, in some cases with record-breaking results,” remarked Rance Pow of Artisan Gateway, a film consultancy.

In Indonesia, for instance, the horror film KKN di Desa Penari sold over 10 million tickets in 2022, becoming the highest-grossing locally made film. In Vietnam, the romance Mai, released in February, became the highest-grossing Vietnamese-produced film both locally and internationally.

While cinema screens are closing in the US, Indonesia’s main cinema chain, Cinema XXI, has listed on the Indonesian stock exchange, and new cinemas are opening in Thailand.

Dr. Unaloam Chanrungmaneekul, an associate professor at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, noted that recent Thai film successes were not due to large production budgets or government support. Instead, these films resonated with audiences through local culture and contemporary societal issues, including generational gaps.

“They present a mix between comedy, fantasy and social realism …. They show satirical scenes about Thai culture, politics, belief, and challenge Thai norms,” she said.

How to Make Millions Before Grandma Dies delves into the dynamics within a Thai Chinese family, tackling issues such as unequal treatment of sons and daughters, generational gaps, and fading traditions.

“That’s why they [achieved] huge success in Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines, and also maybe other countries [with Chinese populations] … The cultural identity [of the films] is very deep and very clear,” Unaloam explained.

Waritsara Panacharoensawad, 30, who reviews films on social media as Aquabbiew, was among the many who shared their emotional reactions to the movie.

She related to the film’s portrayal of familial care, having watched over her grandmother with her mother, and was moved by its nostalgic setting. Scenes like a grandmother’s home full of memories and the experience of sleeping next to older family members struck a chord with her.

“The movie is like a middleman, to talk between the young generation and the old generation,” Waritsara stated.

She also pointed out the film’s reflection of social issues in Thailand. One scene, where relatives place their shoes in a long line to mark their spot in an endless hospital queue, resonated with her. “It shows [the state of] the medical welfare here. If the grandma had been rich, I think she could have stayed [alive] longer.”

Narute Jiensnong, Chief Marketing Officer at Major Cineplex Group (Thailand’s largest cinema chain), emphasized the growing importance of local films to Thailand’s cinema sector.

Before the pandemic, Thai movies accounted for 20-35% of the market share, but in 2023, this figure surged to more than 60%. Between January and June 2024, the share rose to 69%. “This dramatic increase is primarily due to the success of blockbuster hits,” Narute said.

Last year was considered a golden year for Thai movies, thanks to successful releases like the comedy horror The Undertaker and the supernatural horror Death Whisperer.

Though the sector hasn’t fully recovered to pre-pandemic levels, Narute noted it was on “a positive trajectory,” with plans to open 15 new Major Cineplex branches by the end of next year.

Unaloam welcomed government efforts to support filmmakers by helping them enter international award competitions but called for more detailed plans.

Waritsara expressed her belief that there is a significant appetite for cinema among the Thai public. “It’s another experience – in the horror movie with a jump scare … Or with the action, it has a big screen with sound effects,” she said.

The collective experience of cinema, sharing fears or tears, is something that brings audiences together, as seen with How to Make Millions Before Grandma Dies.

Source: The Guardian