The Birth Of Asiawood

It is 6 a.m. on a scorching March day in the hills of central Thailand, but the cast of "Jan Dara" is already hard at work. Forty sweltering extras, dressed in 1930s costumes, are pretending to have a good time at a wedding reception in a grand French-style villa amid the towering trees of Kao Yai National Park. Between takes, Thailand's most acclaimed film director, 39-year-old Nonzee Nimibutr, chain-smokes Marlboro Lights while he studies storyboards mapping out the erotic period drama. As Nonzee visualizes the next shoot, the director of photography and several assist-ants yank their only camera from a cherry picker and position it for a close-up. Amid the hum of cicadas, the film's star, Chinese-Vietnamese actress Christy Chung, rehearses her lines in a language she barely speaks. "Her intonation isn't exactly Thai," says Nonzee. "But her lip movement is good enough to sound-sync later."

"Jan Dara" is breaking new cinematic ground: it is the first Thai-Hong Kong co-production ever made. As producer Peter Ho-Sun Chan from Hong Kong's Applause Pictures sees it, the venture can't miss. For less than it costs to make a commercial in the United States, Chan has hired an award-winning director, a Hollywood-quality crew and Chung, a well-known Hong Kong actress. His goal is to make a film that is marketable from Bangkok to Tokyo--and beyond. All over Asia, directors, producers and actors are buying into this dream. The reason: lower costs and wider play. At least four Pan-Asian movies are currently in production in Hong Kong alone, including "2046," Wong Kar-wai's vision of Hong Kong 50 years after the handover from Britain, which will feature Thai, Korean, Japanese and Chinese stars and will be shot in Hong Kong, Thailand and South Korea. Coming soon is "Musa" (The Warrior), a Korean-Chinese coproduction shot in China and featuring Chinese star Zhang Ziyi and Korean hunk Jung Woo Sung. And that's just the start. "Three years ago there weren't any [Pan-Asian films]," says Catherine Park, director of sales and acquisition for Korea's CJ Entertainment, which is collaborating on "Musa." "Now everybody is doing them."

These films reflect the new willingness of Asians to look beyond their own borders for everything from jobs to food and entertainment. "Chinese or Japanese or Korean, nobody cares," says Hong Kong director Fruit Chan. "Young people just want to watch good movies." A Japanese film of bizarre suspense, "Tales of the Unusual," recently reached No. 3 on Hong Kong box-office charts. "Il Mare," a Korean love story, hit the ninth spot in Singapore. Last month two Japanese films, "Shikoku" and "Fancy Dance," broke the top 10 in South Korea. Films like "Jan Dara" merely take the trend one step farther, making the ventures cross-cultural from the outset.

The advantages are clear. Coproductions can bomb in one place, sell out in another and still be in the black. "If you acquire just local distribution rights you are taking all the risks for a film's release," says Yoshito Hayashi, overseas manager for Tokyo's Suncent CinemaWorks. "But if you are an investor, you can diversify the risk." For directors, foreign stars can attract au-diences and financing from abroad. And talent can be found cheaply in places like Malaysia, China and Thailand; on the set of "Jan Dara," the director of photography charges $5,000 for two months' work, 15 times less than the going rate in Hong Kong. Postproduction work can now be done for less in state-of-the-art facilities outside Hong Kong or Tokyo; in Malaysia, the government is planning to develop a 10,000-acre "entertainment" village with sound stages and production facilities.

It wasn't always that way. Until a few years ago, Asia was a jumble of provincial film markets. Works from Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Thailand were made largely for domestic markets or European art houses. Other than Hong Kong kung-fu and mobster flicks, local movies rarely crossed borders within Asia and local filmmakers never collaborated out of their country. By the early 1990s, when Asia's economies were booming, its film industry was shrinking. In Japan, audiences yearned for blockbusters that local film companies couldn't deliver. And with audiences paying as much as $18 a ticket, annual attendance dropped from 146 million in 1990 to 135 million in 2000. Even Hong Kong action films lost their box-office punch. Asian filmmakers complained that video pirates and American giants were stealing their audience.

As the climate soured, big-name talents like John Woo, Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun-Fat and Ang Lee took off for Hollywood, leaving a gaping hole in the industry. "The local markets in Asia became too fragile," says Wouter Barendrecht, chairman of Fortissimo, a film-sales group based in Hong Kong. "And film as a medium became too expensive to be made for only one territory." Only India retained a market big enough to sustain a local film industry, but the appeal of Bollywood was and is confined largely to its Indian fans around the world.

By the end of the decade Hollywood was pushing its way through protectionist barriers in East Asia. In 1998 the Motion Picture Association of America urged South Korea to drop barriers that reserve more than one third of theater screen time for Korean films, even though those films account for only a quarter of box-office receipts. Seoul not only rejected that plea, but fought back by pouring money into improving standards in its film industry. The following year, Samsung released "Shiri," a $5 million spy thriller starring Yunjin Kim that broke the local box-office record held by "Titanic." "Shiri" went on to become a hit in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan as well. Korean investors began pouring money into movie production, and other Asians are now following. "People complained about Hollywood and pirating, but the truth was that our movies just weren't good enough," says Chan of Applause Pictures.

Asian filmmakers began pooling resources to compete with Hollywood, producing more cross-cultural hits. The 1998 Japanese suspense thriller "Ring" became a blockbuster in Hong Kong, Taiwan and even South Korea, where it was reshot with Korean actors to circumvent protectionist rules. That success led to others. Last year the Taiwan-Japan coproduction of "Yi Yi" earned Edward Yang the best-director award at Cannes. Yunjin Kim, "Shiri's" Korean star, was invited to work on the Japanese production of "Rush," a quirky black comedy about a romance between a Japanese man and the daughter of a Korean restaurant owner in Tokyo. Kim plays the daughter, who hates her father so much that she decides to get herself kidnapped to rip off his money. Kim speaks English and Korean throughout the movie. "Whenever I get pissed off I start speaking in English," she says of her role.

The Pan-Asian movement is attracting notice in America and Europe. Nearly a dozen Asian films are currently on show in Cannes, and U.S. theaters are reviving films like Tsui Hark's "Once Upon a Time in China." Now the Western success of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (by a Hong Kong studio, a Taiwan-born director and an American coproducer) seems likely to become a model for films in Chinese, despite its mediocre reception among Asian audiences. Mainland director Zhang Yang, who has had two films produced by Taiwan's Imar Film Studio (the 1998 box-office smash "Spicy Love Soup" and "Shower"), sees "Crouching Tiger" as a harbinger of "how successful greater China culture and film can be on the world stage."

The lure of "greater China" is growing among mainland filmmakers who are increasingly fed up with the censors, theater "warlords" and video pirates who prowl their home market. It's more and more difficult to get a movie into mainland theaters, much less make any money on it. The state film authorities funded only 30 movie productions last year, down from more than 100 a few years ago. One reason "Crouching Tiger" made less than $2 million in China is that authorities declined to grant it a wide release. With money and expertise from Taiwan and Hong Kong, predicts young filmmaker Wang Yuelun (best known for music videos by pop diva Faye Wong), Chinese film could undergo a "renaissance." "When Hong Kong or Taiwanese financiers scout out mainland films, they're going to be looking for innovation or box-office potential rather than political correctness," says Wang. Already, the Hong Kong-based Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia, the major producer for "Crouching Tiger," is filming a new movie in China--a comedy called "Big Shot's Funeral," directed by mainlander Geng Xiaoguang with an international cast including Donald Sutherland, China's Ge You and Hong Kong actress Rosamund Kwan.

In some cases, Pan-Asian films take on uniquely Asian subjects. Take "Musa," the Korean-Chinese epic due for release in Asia this summer. Set in the 14th century, it is about Korean soldiers who must travel to China to pay the emperor his annual tribute. Along the way, they get beaten up by Mongol troops and are forced to head home in disgrace. Their fate turns when they discover that a Chinese princess has been abducted by the Mongols. Only by getting the princess back can they save their lives and honor. "I wanted to describe the relationship between people in Korea and China, the human connections between the two countries," says director Kim Sung Su. "I wanted people to know that the countries could treat each other in a way that is warmhearted."

Pan-Asian film probably wouldn't have taken off without the help of another medium: television. Before reaching Hong Kong's big screen, many Japanese and Korean actors were small-screen heartthrobs. Japanese actor Takuya Kimura developed a cult following in Hong Kong based on pirated tapes of his TV drama, "Long Vacation," which finally appeared on regular Hong Kong TV last year. "Love Generation," another Kimura hit, was immediately gobbled up in Hong Kong. Two other Kimura dramas, "Beautiful Life" and "Concerto," became hits on Malaysian television last year. And award-winning Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai plans to star Kimura in his forthcoming film "2046"--largely because he came to admire the actor on Japanese TV.

Filming across borders doesn't always go smoothly. Often there is an improvisational quality to the projects; during the filming in Japan of the Hong Kong movie "Final Romance," Korean star Kim Min was horrified to learn that her lines were still being written moments before she was supposed to deliver them. And "Final Romance" director Alan Mak, of Hong Kong, found his creative style cramped by niggling questions from his meticulous Japanese crew last winter. "You have to tell them every detail," he says. "But some details I can't."

Then there's the language barrier. To get around it--and broaden appeal--directors are experimenting more with the use of language. The screenplay for Japanese director Masato Harada's next film, a drama called "Battling Angels," is in three languages--Japanese, Thai and English--with subtitles in two of the three. "It won't take 20 years for Pan-Asian film to go mainstream," he says. "It is already happening."

Nobody enjoys it more than the film stars. Being worshiped outside Korea gives 27-year-old Yunjin Kim the giggles. The first day of filming "Rush" in Tokyo, she says, the crew surprised her by saying "hello" and "thank you" in Korean--and even offering her kimchi for lunch. "They understood that if I felt at home and comfortable, I would do my best work." She knows that her success is largely due to the regional interest in Korean cinema. But that doesn't detract from the thrill of having teenagers ask her for an autograph in Tokyo's Aoyama district. "I still can't believe that I'm recognized in Japan," she says. Before long, she may have fans in the rest of Asia as well.