Thursday, February 6, 2014

Southeast Asians demand to be heard and seen

Southeast Asia isn't just a low-cost labor pool anymore. While it continues to climb the economic ladder, it is also joining the creative class.

That means the world is about to get eyefuls and earfuls of Southeast Asian movies and music.

     Let's join the crowd in a darkened room of an anime production company in Bangkok, where a short cartoon telling a story of a black cat that lives nine lives by selling its soul to the devil is screening.

     The word "FIN" appears, indicating the end of the seven-minute film, and shouts of joy erupt.

     We're at The Monk Studios, which made the short, "Nine." The animators are proud of the result and confident about the toon's ability to wow film festival audiences.

     Juck Somsaman, the Thai founder of the studio predicts the film will win more than 20 prizes around the world.

     Somsaman went to the U.S. at the age of 20 to carve out a career in animation. While chasing his dream, he refused to be discouraged by Hollywood's outsider bias and gradually developed a reputation as a computer graphics whiz.

     But Somsaman decided to abandon his star status in the moving picture capital of the world and launch a film production company in his home country.

     The decision came, he said, when he realized Thais, many of whom are great craftsmen, are well cut out for making cartoons and capable of becoming world-class anime creators.

     He named his new company The Monk Studios, hoping the homage of sorts to Thai Buddhist monks would help him attain his ambition of building a world-beating anime studio in Thailand.

     Somsaman is not just talking big. Another of The Monk Studios animated shorts won the top prize at 18 film festivals all over the world.

     And his company did the CG work for "Rango," which won the 2012 Academy Award for best animated feature.

     Southeast Asian nations have long developed their economies by combining money and technology from industrial nations with their own low-cost labor.

     Some countries in the region are now becoming pessimistic about this recipe. They fear that rising wages could prompt foreign businesses to leave and that the result will be a hollowing out of their industries.

     But there are some encouraging signs that the region has the potential to become a hub of artistic creativity.

     In January, Cambodia's Srey Thy enchanted an audience at a Berlin theater with an electrifying Khmer rock performance. The audience went wild with excitement as she belted out powerful rock songs in her mother tongue.

     In that moment, Cambodian music proved its potential to be a commercial success.

     Khmer rock was born in the 1960's as a fusion between modern Western music and traditional Cambodian music. Cambodian musicians created unique new tunes as they heard rock aired by a radio station for American soldiers in neighboring Vietnam.

     But Cambodia's authoritarian Pol Pot regime cracked down on Khmer rock in the 1970s, killing singers one after another and destroying their recordings.

     While working as a housemaid, though, Srey Thy grew up singing Khmer rock songs she heard her mother chant.

     After her songs hit the Internet, some of them went viral. She has already staged performances in some 20 foreign countries, and plans are progressing to bring her to Japan.

     Let's look in on Malaysia. There, the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra was created in 1998 by Petronas, the Malaysian state-run oil and gas company, under the initiative of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

     The orchestra has improved by recruiting musicians and conductors from 25 other countries and staging performances in Australia, Japan, China and elsewhere.

     To develop local performers, in 2006 it founded the Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. The average age of its members is 18; they are trained by members of the parent orchestra.

     Southeast Asia has been climbing the ladder of industrial development, shifting from importing foreign products to domestic production to exporting domestically made products.

     The challenge for the countries in the region now is to maintain their strong economic performances as the main engine of growth shifts from the manufacturing to the service sector.