Saturday, February 28, 2009

DEATH KNELL FOR MALAY LANGUAGE MOVIES? I being a little be pessimistic or am I just being an alarmist? world cinema, Malaysian movies that are making waves (at festival overseas) are not Malay language movies, mostly Mandarin, showing and telling stories from a non-Malay point of view. And yes, they are genuine Malaysian movies. The few Malay movies that get shown overseas would of course be those of Yasmin Ahmad - her films like Muallaf and Talentime get to be viewed overseas, because she is already a known factor.
But names like Ju Han, James Lee, Tan Chui Mui and Ji Min are in the forefront of Malaysian cinema. You do not hear, at these festivals, of names like Adflin Shauki, Razak Maidin, Yusof Haslam, Ahmad Idham and Pierre Andre. We don't exist.
The reasons being? It really doesn't matter because if I was to talk about why, I would rather write a full dissertation or thesis about this phenomena and obtain my Phd. Why do it for nothing right?
Anyway, to make things a little bit more exciting, a group of filmmakers came a calling to Malaysia. This filmmakers, more than 30 of them, young bright and eager directors, were brought here by the Hong Kong Trade Council and the Hong Kong Film Development Council (FDC) to look for new investment (from Malaysians) and to reignite the Malaysian cinemagoer's love affair with Hong Kong movies.
In the plan which is called the New Action initiative, the FDC creates a new plan to develop the Hong Kong film market in mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia. They are using this opportunity to promote their new generations of directors who will be the drivers for the long term development of Hong Kong films.

The initiative seeks to enhance closer collaboration amongst the five major market aforementioned. This is in order to develop their films and for the directors to establish network with film investors, distributors and producers in these markets, and also to seek new business opportunities.
The Chairman of FDC, Jack So (who did not get to meet his counterpart at Finas or even the Director General during their short visit to Finas HQ), said that they believe Malaysia to be an important market for Chinese language movies, and they are seeking to jumpstart their initiative by meeting producers and investors in Malaysia. He said, there are potentially 5 million Chinese speaking cinemagoers in Malaysia and therefore they feel it is important to show their willingness to explore and exploit this market.
Too bad the Malay film producers keep pandering to the whims and fancies of the 300,000 cinemagoers who regularly watch Malay movies instead of the 5 million Chinese speaking audience right here at their doorstep.
As it is, Malay film producers are quite hard up trying to find willing investors to fund Malay movies, yet, these Hong Kong producers came all the way here and are dangling a very potentially lucrative business opportunity to both Malay and non-Malay producers to invest in Chinese language films. These films plays to a massive market which includes mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia (not including breakthrough markets like Korea, Japan and Chinese speaking Americans).
One of the delegates, Wellington Fung, the Secretary-General of the FDC, eloquently laid out the tempting scenario. They have just returned from a successful meeting with the Guangdong authorities. Guangdong, according to him is the largest Cantonese speaking region in mainland China, and therefore an important market to Hong Kong filmmakers who make their films in Cantonese.
The market is huge - Guangdong has a population of just over 100 million.
The FDC initiative caps production costs at US1.5 million (around RM5 million) and the scenario is that, profitability is nearly guaranteed.
They invite Malaysian producers to invest in this programme - for example the cost of a Malaysian made movie i.e Rm1.5 million is about a 20% investment in a film under the said initiative. But instead of risking the movie to a small 300,000 Malay speaking audience, why not invest your money for a project that caters to more than 100 million regional viewers? Sounds tempting doesn't it. That's just hte Cantonese audience. Imagine if you make a movie in Mandarin!
Firstly, with the investment, you'd have a Film Development Council that pushes the film to a wider audience. They would of course want to make sure the movies make money anyhow because the balance of the investment for the movies is covered by them - yes, unlike Finas which only loans money to producers, FDC Hong Kong invests in film projects that they believe can make money or at the least promote the standard of Hong Kong films.
The only catch is that the director, screenwriter and the producer of the film MUST be permanent residents of Hong Kong. Unless the director is a Malaysian-born Hong Kong resident, it is unlikely that the movie would be 'malaysian in flavor at all' except for the money that we put in.
So the dilemma of the Malaysian film investor - to invest money in a Malay film which is very risky or to invest in a Chinese-language film managed by a powerful FDC based in Hong Kong that gives you a better scenario for a return of investment.
As it is, Malaysian money has already filtered out of the country from producers who don't believe in the viability of Malaysian made movies. There's one who have been pumping money into Singapore's film industry - albeit successfully. The film was actually pre-sold and profits already confirmed before a single frame was shot. These are all done through pre-sales and the confirmation of a known film director and marquee cast from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.
A few producers are also trying out investing in Indonesian film industry - an industry that is booming.
Unfortunately through these movies, the Malaysian film industry per se does not gain any advantage. Hardly any crew members are Malaysians or Malay, the cast is nearly 90 percent local (Indonesian) with token appearances from Malaysian artistes.
Yet, these films makes money from the Malaysian cinema circuits.
Meanwhile, what does Finas do to counteract this or even strategize to develop our film industry? I really don't know. I know they have announced the increase of funding (through loans) and a grant system for movies with 'national' aspirations.
They have also launched a RM40 million digital sound system facility and finance documentaries through Discovery Channel. And yet, before we know it, the Hong Kong film industry and maybe the advent of Chinese language movies in Malaysia may yet spell the death knell for Malay movies.
I just hope the Malay captains of the Malaysian corporate world see the seriousness of what is happening in the film industry. If we cannot depend on Finas, we need the corporate world to become our saviors, but injecting new thinking, new strategies, new blood and new funding mechanisms and opportunities for the Malay language films. Unless, of course, they worship the all-mighty ringgit and find that the Hong Kong New Action initiative is viable and tempting, and they too start investing in Chinese language films. Why not? Shareholders of multi-national companies are always interested only in the bottom line, and much nothing else.

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