‘What film can do more than what film can say’

‘What film can do more than what film can say’

What’s on the world cinema landscape this year? The prevailing temperament, style and substance of filmmakers and markets in the Asian capitals, including Manila?

Writer-producer Roger Garcia, who was born in Hong Kong but grew up in England, is one of the best resource persons to talk about movies. He is the executive director and the artistic director of the Hong Kong International Film Festival and the Hainan International Film Festival, respectively.

Garcia has been working on films and TV in Asia, Europe and Hollywood. In 2022, he presented at the Singapore International Film Festival his latest work, an expanded cinema piece with film, live performance and laser; it was featured at the New Vision Arts Festival in Hong Kong in 2023.

A film critic whose books and articles have been published by the British Film Institute, he is also a member of the European Film Academy and an advisor to the London East Asia Film Festival and Udine Far East Film Festival.

Here are excerpts of my online interview with Garcia:

Boy Villasanta (BV): As an experienced film producer, festival director, etc., please discuss the market trends in world cinema in 2024.

Roger Garcia (RG): In 2023 we saw the film industry trying to get back to “normal.” However, “normal” has changed, as we can see from the actors’ and writers’ strikes in Hollywood. I think the trend of facing what AI (artificial intelligence) actually means to the media industry—and in other industries as well, of course—that began in 2023 will continue in 2024 and become a significant factor. 

I think AI will bring about challenges and innovation to creativity. The general idea at the moment is that AI is a kind of aggregator, a pseudo copycat, we might say, that draws from a vast reservoir of knowledge whether real or fake. This synthesis of existing knowledge from all over the place is pitted against humans who are currently the only generators of original and creative works. 

When you apply this to cinema it can be a bumpy ride because cinema itself is a kind of aggregation of different things. Filmmakers draw on a variety of experiences, knowledge, and narratives to produce original works. AI is not in this league yet but I think everyone is anticipating that this day may come at some point in the future. Even if it does not, the anticipation, I think, will push creators to be more conscious of originality.

I think the bigger change really lies with AI and how we relate to it. Many people think that AI can be a kind of companion—a “writing companion,” for example, which might make suggestions when you hit a kind of writer’s block. AI can create storyboards—somehow a lot of them seem to be sci-fi inspired!—and shots that can help a filmmaker if the filmmaker is open to it.

For market trends in the US, I have some faith in the strength of black cinema, more so than Asian American cinema. “The Color Purple” and “American Fiction” have got the new year off to a good start. We are seeing another wave of young black filmmakers that really deal with the issues of America, its racism, its class struggle, and the growing gap between the privileged and dispossessed. Black cinema is one of the few forms in American culture that actually address some of these issues. For the art and commerce of cinema in 2024, the black film trend is something to watch.

I am not so interested in other more populist trends other than to say that the films from Hollywood now still reflect the political situation of contemporary America—politically divided, preferring shouting to discussing, wide exposure to right-wing extremists playing to the basest prejudices and conspiracy theories. One film that reflects this well is “Killers of the Flower Moon,” with Robert de Niro as a Trumpian cynical manipulator, and Leonardo DiCaprio as the mass of people who are psychologically injured (in this case by the First World War) and manipulable. I think we will continue to see this subtext in the 2024 output.

Given the popularity and profitability of “Barbie” and “Super Mario Brothers” in 2023, I think we can expect more films based on toys and games. It remains to be seen how sustainable films based on this type of source material can continue. Hasbro, which owns Barbie doll, for example, has exited the production side with its sale of e-One to Lionsgate. As a toy manufacturer, it’s better for the stock that Hasbro license its properties instead of getting more involved in production. Like the Marvel comic universe, when you scratch the surface and drill down to less known properties, and continue to extend the better known names, then there is audience saturation and decline in the box office. This could happen to toy film franchises.

And then, of course, there are the productions built around the release of Mickey Mouse into the public domain. It could constitute a sub-genre in 2024.

Cannes winner Raymond Red, Isabelle Huppert and Garcia during the 2019 Hainan International Film Festival

BVIn terms of genres, what do you think is commercially viable in the Asian market in 2024?

RG: I don’t see any change: It’s still horror and action and special effects, with the latter being led by Japan, Korea and China. As these are the important markets and major industries in Asia, that will continue. “Godzilla Minus One” was encouraging and one of my favorite films of 2023. I think its success, both at home and internationally, will maintain the SFX momentum.

There is a lot of attention at the moment on China and Korea, but internationally and regionally we have to give credit to Japan. The common perception is that Japanese films do not travel that well overseas but, of course, we saw in 2023 the likes of Hamaguchi, Kore-eda and Godzilla doing well in different market segments. This trend will continue, but more important is the enduring influence of Japanese pop culture on American pop culture. It goes way back to the acquisition, marketing and popularity of “Speed Racer” in the late 1950s, a Japanese cartoon that, with dubbing, did very well on American TV, and “The Ring,” which set off J Horror earlier this century. 

Today we see, of course, the influence of Pokemon in everything from video games to augmented reality technology, and in 2023 the success of the “Super Mario Brothers” movie. It must be one of the most successful collaborations and co-productions of recent times.

Nintendo is such a household name that I wonder if the audience sees it as a Japanese brand anyway. For cinephiles there’s always Miyazaki and “The Boy and the Heron,” if you like that sort of thing.

Korean actress Moon Soon, Best Supporting Actress at the 2017 Asian Film Awards for “The Handmaiden”, and the writer-producer.

BVWhat do you think are the chances this year of Asian filmmaking countries—e.g., the Philippines and other so-called Third World nations—in the more competitive international movie business?

RG: The chances are slim. The common perception of Philippine cinema, whether you like it or not, is still poverty porn (though that is less pronounced now); gay films; and now, novelty or quirky pictures such as “Leonor” (which I liked) and marathon-length Lav Diaz films (which I also like). The perspective from the Philippines, of course, would dispute these perceptions since you still have a star-driven cinema, and some good action films by Erik Matti and Richard Somes. 

In terms of the “competitive international movie business,” it should be generally clear that theatrical release is not going to work for most films. So being scooped up by American streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon, which both have offices and activities in Asia, is probably the best one can hope for. These platforms need volume and can be quite indiscriminate. They remind me of TV aggregators, buying in volume and owning all rights. 

So when we talk about the “competitive international movie business,” it’s a term that needs redefining. It’s a global business with regional emphases, and more to do with volume of material in order to boost viewership numbers. It means you can have a great movie but few viewers on a streaming platform. The success of the model is instead to have a lot of movies, good and bad, so many viewers will click around.

BVWhat are your impressions and objective observations, general and otherwise, about Filipino films you’ve seen? Or what kind of Filipino films do you think would interest you?

RG: I did not watch a lot of Filipino films in 2023, so I cannot comment in depth. However, I liked the action films of Erik Matti, Richard Somes, and I am looking forward to Pedring Lopez’s new work. These are the sort of films that interest me as a viewer because it’s difficult to be really creative and original in a long-established genre. Good action films, like great comedy, is the mark of a real filmmaker who understands rhythm, shock, movement, and audience reaction as artistic decisions.

BVWhat are your standards for successful films?
RG: As always, I look for films that add to the vocabulary of cinema, that broaden my horizons on what film can do more than what film can say. Subject matter is less important to me than an understanding, conscious or unconscious, of the aesthetics and possibilities of film. In this regard, in the Philippines I have always been impressed by the comedies of Joyce Bernal.

Read more: An Emmy nomination for a film all Filipinos should watch

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