Why Is Southeast Asian Cinema Still Lagging Internationally?

Why Is Southeast Asian Cinema Still Lagging Internationally?

In Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries, it is common to find Hollywood blockbusters dominating our movie conversations. Even if we were to exclude the major film exports from the West, the Asian film landscape is still greatly dominated by the likes of India, China, Japan, and South Korea.

However, since the 1970s, Southeast Asian filmmakers have been trying to enhance and expand the reach of their media products, often to little success. During the 1990s, the region experienced a brief renaissance – interest in Southeast Asian cinema grew thanks to a new wave of independent filmmakers, like Thailand’s Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, the Philippine’s Erik Matti, and Singapore’s Eric Khoo, who shaped their local film scenes with distinct directorial visions and provocative works.

While these films have experienced a steady growth in recognition within Southeast Asia, the region’s filmmakers have yet to achieve the same level of global recognition as their South and East Asian counterparts, with these films often falling short of prominence and popularity on the international stage.

As an art critic fascinated with Southeast Asian cinema, I find the lack of recognition for the masterpieces produced by some of the best talents in the region disappointing. There have been many arts and culture articles and discussions on this very topic but allow me to share my own thoughts on the matter as well.


1. Language and cultural barriers

Films are widely considered a universal language – a language of images – and each of them can be traced to a particular place or culture. However, a film’s origin can be a boon and a bane to its wider acceptance. As Indonesian filmmaker Mouly Surya notes[1] when a film is in English, there is a greater mass appeal compared to a movie that is in a foreign language.

While producing a film in a native language is often crucial in preserving the filmmaker’s intention, a “foreign” language can be a barrier of entry for many movie-goers. However, this can also be beneficial for films from countries such as South Korea, France, and China, as the existence of a robust film culture within these local markets has given their movies great cultural cachet.

And it is not just the language that plays a crucial factor, but the film’s place of origin as well. After all, there are plenty of non-English movies out there that have gained global prominence, such as Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy, and Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite.

However, these films come from countries whose cultures have been successfully marketed on a global scale, unlike the films from Southeast Asia. As Singaporean filmmaker, Kristen Tan noted[2], different films carry different capital depending on their production history.

There still exists entrenched cultural imperialism within the global film industry that is working against multiple Southeast Asian films. Kirsten shared[3] an excellent example, noting that if two equally lauded films – one is Burmese and the other is French – debuted at an international film festival simultaneously, the French film will gain more traction simply because it originates from France. This makes it especially challenging for Southeast Asian filmmakers to experience a breakthrough.


2. Lack of adequate funding

However, the lack of international recognition for Southeast Asian films cannot solely be attributed to external factors. Changes need to happen locally as well for the region’s films to gain more traction – starting with addressing the lack of adequate funding.

There is no greater example than the modern Hollywood blockbusters that have captured many an audience’s imagination. These movies typically have a production budget that exceeds UDS$100 million. While it is unrealistic to expect funding on this level, even smaller productions in the West have budgets that range in the couple of millions, which is a far cry from the modest budget Southeast Asian filmmakers have to work with.

Funding has always been an issue for many non-mainstream film sectors, but this issue is especially prevalent in Southeast Asia. The region’s filmmakers believe that their local governments need to increase the budget for the films produced within their respective film industries and relax their international investment restrictions.

The success of the “Korean Wave” in South Korea, where its government set aside millions of dollars for the expansion of Hallyu, leading to K-pop and K-drama dominating the global entertainment industry, has been cited by many as a prime example of what their local governments can do to help Southeast Asian cinema.

In contrast to South Korea’s active approach, many Southeast Asian countries still fail or refuse to give much attention to their creative industries. For example, in Indonesia, there are only less than 2,000 cinema screens available in the whole country for a population of almost 270 million people. The limited cinema screens greatly restrict the exposure and success of the nation’s local films. Without adequate funding and attention, the local film industries in Southeast Asia will always remain at a disadvantage despite many filmmakers’ best efforts.


3. Prevalence of censorship

Creative freedom is probably the most crucial element in creating an authentic and high-quality film. It enables filmmakers to make bold films that don’t just attract people’s attention but also provoke their thoughts. Without it, movies run the risk of becoming dull, monotonous, and formulaic.

However, in particular Southeast Asian countries, like Singapore, many filmmakers are still subjected to strict classification guidelines imposed by the state’s media authority. With less room to manoeuvre, these restrictions often hamper the filmmakers from telling their intended stories, which has the unfortunate side effect of hindering the growth of the local film industry as well.

More clear-cut situations are happening in Thailand, where the government has cultivated a culture of censorship to suppress any form of dissent, including its lese-majeste law. In the Philippines, the government has gone as far as shutting down an entire company –  the ABS-CBN broadcasting network – to curb any media output critical of the local establishment.

As long as these kinds of censorship exist, Southeast Asian cinema will remain restricted when it comes to the stories it puts out and the films it produces. Such restriction is one of the major stumbling blocks to many aspiring Southeast Asian filmmakers looking to make a name for themselves.


There are no doubt many phenomenal talents in the Southeast Asian film industry. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the Southeast Asian arts and culture scene, which has showcased the many diverse talents our region has to offer to the world.

However, factors such as language and cultural barriers, the lack of funding, and media censorship have to be eliminated for these artists to truly showcase their talents to the world. Only then can Southeast Asian cinema attain the same level of success as its South and East Asian counterparts in the future.

[1] Chong, S. (2020). Southeast Asian Cinema Is Still Lagging Behind. Why?. Retrieved 12 January 2022, from https://generationt.asia/ideas/the-state-of-southeast-asian-cinema

[2] Chong, S. (2020). Southeast Asian Cinema Is Still Lagging Behind. Why?. Retrieved 12 January 2022, from https://generationt.asia/ideas/the-state-of-southeast-asian-cinema

[3] Chong, S. (2020). Southeast Asian Cinema Is Still Lagging Behind. Why?. Retrieved 12 January 2022, from https://generationt.asia/ideas/the-state-of-southeast-asian-cinema

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