The South East Asian Film Industry Is Booming

On social media videos, audiences throw packs of tissues around the cinema halls. Tearful TikToks from across Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore show friends leaving the cinema weeping. Thailand’s latest hit film, How to Make Millions Before Grandma Dies, has reduced audiences across south-east Asia to tears – and broken box office records.

The film, about a university dropout who offers to care for his terminally ill grandma, hoping to inherit her house, has reportedly earned 334m Thai baht ($9.1m) at the Thai box office and become the most successful Thai film ever in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

It is the latest success story for films made in Thailand and south-east Asia, which, while Hollywood has grappled with strikes and production delays, have captured audiences across the region and boosted the cinema industry.

“Covid, and industry issues that impacted Hollywood product flow, have ushered [in] a period of growth for local and regional films, in some cases with record-breaking results,” said Rance Pow, of Artisan Gateway, a film consultancy.

In Indonesia, the horror film KKN di Desa Penari (KKN in Dancer’s Village) sold more than 10m tickets in 2022, according to local media, becoming the country’s highest-grossing locally made film. The Vietnamese romance Mai, released in February, has become the highest-grossing Vietnam-produced film of all time at home and in North America and Europe, according to Deadline.

A scene from KKN di Desa Penari
A scene from KKN di Desa Penari, which became Indonesia’s highest-grossing locally made film. Photograph: handout

While screens are being closed down in the US, Indonesia’s biggest chain, Cinema XXI, listed on the Indonesian stock exchange last year, while in Thailand new cinemas are being opened.

Recent Thai successes were not necessarily made with large production budgets, nor did they receive government help prior to their release, said Dr Unaloam Chanrungmaneekul, an associate professor at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University. But they resonated with audiences because they were rooted in local culture and dealt with contemporary social issues, including the gap between generations.

“They present a mix between comedy, fantasy and social realism …. They show satirical scenes about Thai culture, politics, belief, and challenge Thai norms,” she said.

How to Make Millions Before Grandma Dies explores the dynamics within a Thai Chinese family: the unequal treatment of sons and daughters, the gulf between young and old, the fading away of traditions and language.

“That’s why they [achieved] huge success in Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines, and also maybe other countries [with Chinese populations] … The cultural identity [of the films] is very deep and very clear,” Unaloam said.

Waritsara Panacharoensawad, 30, who reviews films on her social media channels as Aquabbiew, was among many who shared their tearful response to the movie online.

She saw parallels between the film and the experience in her own family, where her grandmother was cared for by her and her mother, and was moved by its nostalgic setting – scenes of grandma’s home, piled full of things, and the memories of sleeping next to her grandmother or parents.

“The movie is like a middleman, to talk between the young generation and the old generation,” Waritsara said.

It also reflected social problems in the country, she added. A scene in which relatives take off their shoes and place them in a long line to mark their place in a never-ending hospital queue resonated. “It shows [the state of] the medical welfare here. If the grandma had been rich, I think she could have stayed [alive] longer.”

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Narute Jiensnong, the chief marketing officer at Major Cineplex Group, Thailand’s largest cinema chain, said local films had become increasingly important to the cinema sector in Thailand.

In the decade prior to the pandemic, Thai movies normally accounted for 20-35% of the market share, but in 2023 this soared to more than 60%, and between January and June 2024 the figure stood at 69%. “This dramatic increase is primarily due to the success of blockbuster hits,” Narute said.

A scene from the Thai film Death Whisperer. Photograph: handout

Last year was described as a golden year for Thai movies with the release of the comedy horror The Undertaker and the supernatural horror Death Whisperer, both of which proved box office hits.

The country’s cinema sector is yet to fully recover to pre-pandemic levels, though Narute said it was on “a positive trajectory”, with Major Cineplex planning to open 15 new branches before the end of next year.

Unaloam said government moves to offer more support to film-makers to sustain such success, including helping them to enter the running for international awards, was welcome but that more details were needed.

Waritsara said she believed there was an appetite for cinema among the Thai public. “It’s another experience – in the horror movie with a jump scare … Or with the action, it has a big screen with sound effects,” she said.

The audience can scream together or, in the case of How to Make Millions Before Grandma Dies, cry together.

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