Iron Man towers over us. A six-foot, un-battled-scarred replica, with arms outstretched, can be seen in this glass office of Adrian Teh, the CEO of production company Asia Tropical Films. Next to Tony Stark’s cherry red tux-with-guns is a detailed miniature version of a Batmobile, as you would have seen in The Dark Knight. Rare mementoes these are, superhero apparatus that both stand and admire the gallant work done inside this building.
At the opposite end of this floor, film editing suites split and polish numerous movies, commercials and television dramas. When staff members are hungry, they walk two flights down to Asia Tropical Films’ cafe, passing through their in-house make-up and changing rooms. Having spent nearly a million ringgit to renovate this building, the premise is a two-storey ode to the company’s budding success. “Well, we’re very new,” says Teh. “I guess we’re trying to make a living here.”
A 29-year-old film producer and director, Teh parts his hair sideways, has a boyish exuberance and owns a wide grin, one he flashes liberally during our interview. No wonder too, because the company he helped start in 2008 has become one of the region’s fastest growing film organisations. They’ve co-produced at least seven Chinese-language television dramas—most of them with Mediacorp Singapore—and can count among their film credits Hong Kong blockbusters like The Viral Factor (which starred luminaries like Jay Chou and Nicholas Tse, and was mostly shot in Malaysia) and Conspirators (an Aaron Kwok vehicle).
Teh himself went on to direct The Wedding Diary and its sequel, each again reaping more than RM4 million in cinemas
But here in Malaysia, it is their local offerings that have made a name for the company. In 2010, Asia Tropical Films produced the seminal Ice Kacang Puppy Love, a romantic comedy directed by the popular local singer Ah Niu. A simple story of a young man trying to win his long-time crush, the film wooed audiences and earned around RM4 million in Malaysian movie ticket sales, a salient number in an industry where an above-RM2 million gross would be considered a win. Buoyed by this, Teh himself went on to direct The Wedding Diary and its sequel, each again reaping more than RM4 million in cinemas. “We were surprised in terms of the feedback from the critics, the reviews and the box office,” says Teh. “It has exceeded our expectations.”
Big vs Little
A local film exceeding expectations in our box office environment, of course, is akin to pulling out your teeth with your own bare hands: it’s bloody difficult. For comparison’s sake: KL Gangster is the highest grossing Malaysian film of all-time, taking in RM11.74 million. That figure wouldn’t even crack a list of the top 35 highest grossing films in the country, a group dominated by Hollywood and Hong Kong offerings, and topped by Iron Man 3 this year with RM45 million.
It’s not just the numbers; a glut of movie producers, directors and investors chasing a quick buck have resulted in a plethora of generic, low-quality offerings. “The state of Malaysian cinema has gone down the drain, especially if you look at mainstream cinema,” says Hassan Muthalib, a film historian and theorist who has been involved in the industry for almost 50 years, and recently published Malaysian Cinema in a Bottle, a journey through local cinema from its origins to present day.
In his book, Hassan chronicles the rise of three major studios in the country during the first decade of the millennium: Tayangan Unggul, Primeworks and Metrowealth Pictures. These three studios are responsible for at least 22 of the 50 films released this year. These studio’s box office successes from 2009 onwards mostly existed within the genres of comedy, horror and action-gangster, Hassan writes, resulting in “more and more producers jumping on the bandwagon,” and a plethora of similar-looking films hitting the market over the last few years.
2012 saw around 20 local Chinese titles hit the market – in 2011, there had been just four.
Then there’s the competition with glossy Hollywood offerings. While you choose to see films like Skyfall, the careers of idealistic filmmakers are in freefall. “It’s not worth my time [to make films for cinema screening] anymore,” says James Lee, an independent filmmaker who is considered one of the pioneers of “The Little Cinema of Malaysia” (a phrase coined by Dr Nor Arai to describe alternative cinema that arose in the nineties).
“When my films are up in the cinema, they get lost amongst the Hollywood films,” Lee says. “Or they get cramped up together with loads of local films that people already think are quite trashy, no matter how much effort I put into it.”
Climbing the Great Wall of China
But if the Malaysian film industry is regarded by some filmmakers and critics as a weedy wasteland, there seems to be a flowering of hope in Malaysian Chinese films. 2012 saw around 20 local Chinese titles hit the market – in 2011, there had been just four. Last year, Ah Beng the Movie: 3 Wishes became the first non-Malay language film to finish as the highest grossing local movie of the year, recouping an impressive RM7.6 million.
“At first, I thought, maybe these films are quite special cases, but it’s a good try. Then, people started to notice that we have local Chinese movies,” says Chiu Keng Guan, a director many point to as one of the leaders of the Chinese film industry revival. In 2010, Chiu—the head of Chinese productions and marketing in Astro—released Tiger Woohoo, a story about the art of a traditional tiger dance in a small village in Kuantan.
For Tiger Woohoo, Chiu cobbled together one million ringgit from a combination of bank loans, friends and family to make the film. (His initial investor pulled out three weeks before shooting on the advice that “local movies wouldn’t work”). When he pitched the film to cineplexes, only six premises offered to pick it up. “We went door to door until about 20-something cinemas agreed to give us a try. A small hall, during a low season, but maybe because of connections, okay la, they give face.” An experienced cinema distribution head told him if the film made over RM500,000, he would buy Chiu drinks. It made RM4.2 million.
“Crazy. We couldn’t believe it,” Chiu remembers. “People were telling us it was the first time we felt like we had a local [Chinese] movie with our own local style. Last time, local Chinese movies would just copy Hong Kong, China… This time, they felt close to the characters. All the people in the movie were like our friends, like family.”
He went on to helm Great Day—a feel-good portrait of two uncles in an old folks home—that grossed RM6.5 million at the box office in 2011, earning plaudits from peers in the industry and causing many to sit up. “Great Day is a remarkable movie, one of the best local ones I’ve seen,” says Amir Muhammad, filmmaker and critic. “It’s not mushy, and so beautifully made in terms of how it was shot.” Muthalib goes even further, suggesting Great Day’s use of the hills in Perlis resembled similar vistas in China, and was a commentary on the concerns of the Chinese community in Malaysia.
What’s tantalising about the growth of the local Chinese film industry, however, is its potential beyond Malaysia. Some of these films have found critical acclaim beyond their dreams. Woo Ming Jin, who recently directed the Primeworks blockbuster KL Zombi, also screened The Tiger Factory at Cannes Film Festival in 2010, while his earlier film Woman On Fire Looks For Water screened at Venice Film Festival. Both films partnered with other countries for production: Japan and South Korea respectively.
Beyond film festivals, the Chinese language market has great potential. Simply by using the Chinese language, local movies have the opportunity to explore bigger audiences in China, Singapore and Taiwan, and consequently can reel in bigger bucks.
“If you want to do a big budget movie, you need to go out. You can’t cover [costs] here,” says Chiu. “Even if you can reach nine million [in box office revenue] here, which is quite impossible, nine million can only cover a three million cost to make the film. Anything more, and you have to go out of the country. Then only will you break even.”
Both of Chiu’s films, Tiger Woohoo and Great Day, were picked up for release in Taiwan. Ice Kacang Puppy Love and The Wedding Diary became the first Malaysian films to be screened in China, the world’s second biggest film market with revenues of RM8.8 billion last year. Each film had showings at around 1,500 screens, a moderate amount compared to the estimated 15,000 screens available in China, but still a breakthrough for Malaysian-made films.
“I’m not saying I have already found the way to do this in China. I was lucky, it is very difficult to screen in China, but at least I tried my luck, and thankfully I made it,” says Teh. “It’s difficult to get in, but if you can, it can make your dreams. It’s the jackpot.”