Malaysians Fall for Art Films
Feb. 16, 2000
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) _ Standing in the lobby of Asia's largest multiplex theater, Leong Miau Luan points excitedly at a poster for ``Not One Less,'' a critically acclaimed film from China.
``I've watched that one,'' says the teen-ager. ``It was so refreshing compared to all the big-budget blockbusters like 'Star Wars,' James Bond and 'Godzilla.'''
Last year, Leong would have been unable to see ``Not One Less'' _ which won awards at film festivals in Venice and Sao Paulo, Brazil _ because most theaters in Kuala Lumpur shun offbeat, hard-to-sell movies.
But now, movie aficionados in the Southeast Asian capital have begun flocking to the city's newest multiplex, where shrewd marketing has turned art films into an attraction for crowds fed up with Hollywood fare.
Although Malaysia's strict censorship laws still apply, the films have included award-winners like Hong Kong's ``Ordinary Heroes,'' Australia's ``The Castle'' and Iran's ``Children of Heaven.'' And there's more ahead, says Yvonne Tan, the marketing officer who selects the films for Golden Screen Cinema, Malaysia's leading multiplex operator.
Some observers were skeptical, predicting that such films would not appeal to a generation of moviegoers brought up on sharks, alien attacks and Jackie Chan.
``It was hard work promoting these films,'' admits Irving Chee, assistant general manager of GSC. The company devised an extensive mailing list to reach out to filmgoers and even roped in foreign embassies to generate word-of-mouth.
Chee got the idea of playing art films at the 18-screen multiplex in Kuala Lumpur's Mid Valley Megamall, Asia's largest shopping mall, after speaking to movie-goers, many of them working professionals.
So far, his hunch is proving right. Positive buzz has helped the independent foreign-language films achieve per-screen earnings that rival mainstream crowd-pleasers such as ``Toy Story 2'' and ``Stuart Little.''
Within one month after the $6.6 million multiplex opened in December, some 100,000 tickets had been snapped up, a new national record.
Local critics are optimistic that art films aren't just a fad in Malaysia.
``Art films are ready to take off in a big way,'' says Francis Dass, a movie reviewer for the New Straits Times daily. ``They won't break any major box-office records, but people will definitely go for these smaller movies.''
So far, the art films screened here include movies from the United States, Canada, China, Japan and Vietnam. They play at four so-called International Screens at the multiplex theater.
GSC's Tan said the films, such as ``Next Stop Wonderland,'' a favorite at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, will play for at least a month so that cinema buffs won't feel pressured by time.
The selection of art movies, however, is likely to stay conservative because of rigid censorship laws. Many European and Latin American films can't be screened because censors are sure to hack away huge portions of celluloid for even a hint of nudity. Even passionate kissing is near-taboo on Malaysian screens.
One of the first victims at Mid Valley was Canada's ``The Red Violin,'' which had several nude scenes chopped out, leaving a jerky screenplay. The film swept Quebec's prestigious Jutra awards last year, taking home trophies for best picture and director.
``It's not that we're so desperate to see any sex scenes,'' says copywriter Teng Wai Poon. ``We're mad because these cuts spoil the movie's flow and our overall enjoyment.''
GSC says they're helpless to stop the censors, who've banned many highly lauded films such as ``Saving Private Ryan'' and ``Schindler's List.''