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Lao Cinema Steps Forward on International Stage at Locarno, Venice

Naman Ramachandran

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The fledgling film industry of Laos is poised to take further steps forward on the international stage after pioneering filmmaker Anysay Keola’s project “Red Mekong” was chosen to participate in Locarno Festival’s Open Doors program, which wraps Tuesday, and path breaker Mattie Do’s “The Long Walk” was selected to premiere at next month’s Venice Film Festival.

In thriller-drama “Red Mekong,” the journeys of two men on diverse quests – one in search of his sister who has crossed the Mekong river into Thailand to work in a karaoke bar, and the other on a drug-smuggling mission to fund his daughter’s heart transplant – collide, and they must learn to trust each other.

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All film projects in Laos have to be cleared by the country’s Department of Cinema, and “Red Mekong” was on hold for a while, pending clearance. If the Department does not approve the script, Keola plans to shoot the entire film in Thailand.

After the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party assumed power in 1975, local cinema was decimated. It had to start again from scratch and is now making modest progress. Working with a group of like-minded compatriots, Keola made his feature debut in 2011 with thriller “At the Horizon” that played at the country’s Luang Prabang film festival. They galvanised the industry when they set up Lao New Wave Cinema Productions in 2012.

2015 saw the release of omnibus film “Vientiane in Love,” with segments directed by Keola, Phanumad Disattha, Xaisongkham Induangchanthy and Vannaphone Sitthirath, who is producing “Red Mekong” for Lao New Wave Cinema Productions. The same year Keola also directed drama “Above It All.”

“After seven years, Lao cinema has improved a lot, considering the condition of poor cinema history in Laos, the small scale of economic and limited skilled filmmakers that we have,” Keola told Variety. “Domestically, we have new directors that emerged into the scene, with box-office success locally. And internationally, we have Mattie Do, a female director who’s bringing Lao cinema to world-class film festival screenings, and Xaisongkham who has a promising project [“Raising a Beast”] that had been developed in world-class festival programs and labs as well.”

However, Laos only has four cinemas across the country, making it difficult to attract investors, or for filmmakers to sustain a career. There is also huge competition from neighbouring Thailand. “Since Lao audience can understand Thai language and culture, it has big influences on media consumption among Lao people,” says Keola. “And this has put pressure on the local film, which is a lot younger and smaller, it could not match the film quality, production value and star power.”

Mattie Do debuted in 2012 with the horror film “Chanthaly.” In 2017, Laos selected her horror-thriller “Dearest Sister” as its first submission in the Academy Awards foreign-language category. Her latest, the sci-fi thriller “The Long Walk” will have its world premiere at the Venice Days competition.

“The most amazing part of making a film in a place like Laos is just how little restriction we have for creating completely new genres and stories, films that aren’t necessarily based on anything else pre-existing, because cinema here is so new that there’s no one trying to restrict us by saying, ‘You have to make a film like this or like that because it’s marketable’,” Do told Variety. “Our audiences are so tiny and unaccustomed to cinema in general, that there isn’t any kind of expectation or pressure for me to make something that imitates anyone else, in fact, the most fantastic opportunity here is to be able to mold and create Lao cinema from scratch, and to be able to sculpt something completely stand alone for stories coming out of this culture and country.”

Keola plans to pass on the learning gleaned at Locarno to aspiring Lao filmmakers. “Since Lao cinema is still very rare on the world stage, there’s the privilege of many more talent waiting to be discovered,” he says.

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