When Indonesian author “Jesse Q Sutanto” landed a book deal for her novel, Dial A for Aunties, she hadn’t anticipated the film rights immediately being snapped up by Netflix. The Jakarta-based author describes her debut as ‘Crazy Rich Asians meets Weekend at Bernies. She said about the outline of film that, “the tale about a wedding photographer who accidentally kills off her blind date and then hides the body during an Indonesian society wedding came along at just the right time.”
Jesse Q Sutanto said, “Everyone was in need to cheering up, because of lockdown. The over the top plot and the ridiculousness of a dead body and a big wedding is such great escapism. Chinese-Indonesian weddings are amazing, they can have an average of 2,000 guests – my heroine has to hide the body with the help of her mum and aunties.”
Sutanto will executive produce the film, which is directed by Nahnatchka Khan, who made fresh off the Boat, a TV series about Taiwanese immigrants adjusting to life in the US. But she believes the film deal would not have happened without the success of Crazy Rich Asians.
Crazy Rich Asians, based on a novel by Kevin Kwan, was the first US blockbuster with an all-Asian cast. It made just under £200m worldwide. Hot on its heels come the historic win for South Korean film Parasite, which was named best picture at the Oscars earlier this year.
Mike Goodridge, artistic director of Macao’sInternational Film Festival and Awards, shares his thought said, “Lots of issues are coming together in a perfect storm in 2020. China is now officially the biggest film market in the world – there are 1.3 billion people there and that wipes out the US market by comparison. You’re looking at gigantic-sized hits coming out of China – films coming close to making $1bn in China alone.”
But there’s also a sea change. In the past, film industry has been at the mercy of what “American cultural imperialism”. Everybody had to wait for the next Hollywood blockbuster. They made the movies and showed them throughout the world. But streaming services like Netflix and Amazon are about getting subscribers in each country. It can’t be like to just throw Marvel movies at the audience. Industry has to make local films and TV. They want their own stories. And so, the US companies are putting money into content creation all over Asia, including a hub in Singapore. The chances are high that there will be another crossover hit from Asia after “Parasite”.
This shift has coincided with the pandemic. Film industry is not seeing many Hollywood movies, as they have been delayed, so viewers who are at home are focused on a lot of TV or interesting foreign language stuff that have never been looked at before. The global film industry and viewers are more open to subtitles.
South Korea, whose music industry has already successfully exported K-Pop artists to a worldwide fan base, is in the epicenter and the pole position to take advantage of current situation of the pandemic, following the success of Parasite, the first non-English language film to take top prize at the Academy Awards.
Parasite’s global success means two short films which made director “Bong Joon-ho” famous in his native Korea. The 1994’s Incoherence and 2004’s Influenza have received top-billing at the event. Of course, everything Bong Joon-ho makes will now get worldwide attention. Paquet predicts. “It’s Bong’s style that allowed him to access such a huge audience – but other Korean directors, like Park Chan-wook, have a growing international following.”
Korea has the highest cinema attendance in the world, per capita. It is a society that really loves film and their storytelling is sophisticated. We can expect other impressive Korean films to make an impact and now Western audiences might be more willing to take a chance on them. Such films are bringing into focus cultural values that may be unfamiliar to Western audiences. There’s a strong emphasis on the family and an individual’s part within the family is a key part on how to relate to the character. In Korea as well as in Japan and China education, science and technology are really prized, and that’s expressed in the films.
But it is not always straightforward to export cultural values successfully to a Western audience. In China, there’s a great sense of storylines. They follow rules in society: in a story, if you commit a murder no matter what the scenario, you’ll have to serve your time. If you’re used to the beats of Hollywood storytelling, you watch it thinking otherwise. Their moral values are more reflective.
Nevertheless, given the success of Crazy Rich Asians elsewhere, as well as the popular appeal of films such as Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell”, Hollywood seems convinced that Asian American stories have potential for a wider audience.
It was recently announced that Killing Eve’s Sandra Oh will star in a Netflix comedy about warring sisters, while the co-author of the Crazy Rich Asians will work with the Japanese producer director Hikari on the Richard Curtis romantic drama “Lost for Words.”
But does Asia even need Hollywood films anymore?
Vietnam, for example, has 100 million people, and like South Korea, Taiwan and New Zealand, they’ve handled the Covid-19 crisis well. Half the population is under the age of 40. The cinemas are open, ticket sales are good and increasing on every film release, and because there are no competing films coming from Hollywood, audiences are watching some really good local films.
But the area where Asia does want to make an impression, Le agrees, is at the Oscars. To seize the cultural cachet, that a Hollywood award gives a homegrown film. And in 2021, as long as the Academy Awards actually take place, Asia will once again have a significant stake. More quality films coming in the theatres and no competition from the Hollywood movies.
The author is doing M. Phil in Public Policy and Governance. He is working as a freelancer. Previously worked with HubPages and Washington Post.