Asian cinema sizes up Hollywood giant

CannesCannes, France - As any good entrepreneur will tell you, there is always an opportunity in any business downturn.

This is how the Asian motion picture business appears to be sizing up its prospects, a result of the economic storm that has swept through the world film industry over the last 18 months, hitting Hollywood particularly hard.

With signs of a strong domestic movie market driven by a home-grown product, the Asian movie business continues to grow in international stature spurred on by the digital revolution and Hollywood remakes of Asian film hits.

"Now we have the confidence to compete with Hollywood," said Jennifer Jao, director of the Taipei Film Commission.

"The popularity of US movies has declined," said Kenta Fudesaka from Japan's film industry group Unijapan. "Maybe we are waiting for a new star like Julia Roberts or Tom Cruise to emerge."

The big batch of films from Asian directors that have been included in Cannes' main lineup, including Taiwan-born Ang Lee's homage to the 1969 US music festival Woodstock and Taiwan-based arthouse moviemaker Tsai Ming-liang's film Face about making a movie about Salome, helped to underpin that confidence.

Also in the 20-movie race for the festival's prestigious Palme d'Or award are Chinese director Lou Ye's tale of desire in Chun Feng Zui De Ye Wan (Spring Fever) and Filipino director Brillante Mendoza's gangland story in Kinatay.

In addition there is legendary Hong Kong director Johnnie To's revenge thriller Vengeance, that also helped to mark 100 years of Hong Kong cinema.

Buoyant national film markets and international film festival recognition means that large parts of the Asian movie business have managed to escape the fall-out from the current economic downturn, unlike Hollywood, which emerged from a major industrial showdown with scriptwriters only to be engulfed by the global financial crisis.

"It is a good chance for us," Jao said, as Taiwan's movie business slowly gains ground and the nation's film companies have so far avoided making big job cuts.

In 2005, Taiwan-made films accounted for less than 2 per cent of the national box office. But by last year their hold on the market had grown to more than 12 per cent.

The same is true of Japan. Despite the global recession having sent the Japanese economy spiralling downward, the nation's movie business still appears in relatively good shape.

A strong domestic box office, film festival success and a big move by Japanese television companies into movie production helped to underpin the Japanese movie industry.

"They want to make commercial films," Fudesaka said.

One exception to the upbeat mood in the Asian cinema industry appears to be the Korean film sector, which is still battling to emerge from a crisis, which came in the wake of too many films being produced, ballooning movie budgets, piracy and illegal downloads combined with concerns about the falling quality of the nation's movies.

In the meantime, the percentage of Korean movies in the Korean market slipped to 42.1 per cent last year.

"It is still not in good shape," said Han Sang-hee from the Korean Film Council (KOFIC).

But progress is being made. About 113 movies were made last year compared to 124 in 2007.

Nevertheless, underscoring Korea's emergence in recent years as a major new Asian movie powerhouse, the nation has a raft of films screening in this year's Cannes.

The line-up includes veteran Korean director Park Chan-Wook, whose tale about a priest-turned-vampire, Bak-Jiwi (Breath), is in the race for the festival's top honour, the Palme d'Or.

At the same time, the crisis has meant that low-budget independent moviemaking appears to have come to life in Korea with a documentary about an aging farmer's relationship with his ox becoming a surprise hit.

To be sure, it can take just one film hit to give the national box office a big push. In Taiwan it was the success of Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, which was set in 1930s Shanghai.

"Lust, Caution brought film back to Taiwan," Jao said. This success was followed up by Cab Number 7 last year. A sentimental movie, Cab Number 7 scored a box-office record.

Taiwan is also keen to ensure that the potential of the vast Chinese-language film market encompassing mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore is fully realized.

"Co-productions could be another way to make people come back to the movies," said Jao, as Taiwan plans to increase the number co-productions with mainland China to 10 a year.

In the meantime, a special Chinese-backed 150-million-dollar fund to promote Chinese movies was announced in Cannes on Monday.(dpa)