TOKYO -- Asian short films are coming into their own as strategic vehicles for sophisticated advertising, thanks largely to digitalization, creating a thriving ecosystem for new filmmakers to grow in the region.
At one of the largest short film festivals in Asia, Tokyo's annual Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia, held on June 4 -24 this year, Asian filmmakers stood out among the more than 10,000 films from around 130 countries. All films were 25 minutes or shorter.
This year marked festival's 20th year, and came on a wave of technological change as indicated by the inclusion of a virtual reality category for the first time.
Since 2016, the festival has included a "branded shorts" category for films sponsored by companies for marketing purposes. Such films are distinct from TV commercials in that they do not directly promote products.
Nino Remiendos, a Mexican tourist who attended the screening of 10 branded films for companies such as Japanese convenience store chain FamilyMart, Swedish liquor company Absolut, and Francis Ford Coppola Winery, said some of the films were effective at reaching his emotions and came across as stories, while others were just "good commercials."
The award for best non-Japanese branded film went to a Chinese film called "Three Minutes," made for the U.S. tech giant Apple.
The story line focuses on a mother who works on a train during the Chinese New Year holiday, meeting her child for only three minutes when the train stops. It does not directly mention Apple products, but was filmed entirely using Apple's iPhone X.
Festival-goer Marina Pico Rgas, also from Mexico, agreed that the film was her favorite, saying it was not like watching an advertisement at all, and made her feel Apple was "different" from other companies.
Stephen Kong, executive creative director of Media Arts Lab, a dedicated Apple advertising agency, said people no longer pay attention to hard-sell commercials.
"Storytelling becomes a crucial tool to connect to the audience," he said, adding that people are more likely to talk about an ad campaign if it taps into their emotions and curiosity.
The film was directed by the renowned Hong Kong director Peter Chan, who has made such films as "The Warlords," and "Comrades, Almost a Love Story."
The aim of "Three Minutes" was to convey the importance of "human connection," Kong said. It originally premiered in a Beijing screening like a major theatrical film, with billboards and trailers directing people to watch the film on Chinese streaming websites, where it attracted record numbers of views. The company posted videos of tips on using the iPhone X together with the film.
The festival's grand prize, which qualifies a film to be nominated for an Academy Award, went to Singaporean filmmaker Yee Wei Chai, 42, who directed "Benjamin's Last Day At Katong Swimming Complex."
He said the Singapore government had supported him with funding and paid for his trip to the festival. Chai used to shoot wedding videos to cover his other business that was not going well. He recalled that filmmaking education was just starting in Singapore when he went abroad to study in 1997.
The Tokyo short film festival started in 1999 showing mostly western productions, and set up an office in Los Angeles, which has a long history of short films. In 2003, then Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara led an initiative and mandated funding to show more Asian films.
At first, few Asian films were entered in the festival. But the number has grown steadily in recent years, particularly that of entries from Southeast Asia. The region accounted for 233 films this year, almost double the number of three years ago, reflecting both the growth of the Asian film industry and the success of the festival.
The range of outlets for short films has also expanded greatly over the past two decades, according to festival director Seigo Tono. When the festival was first held, it was just becoming possible to watch videos online.
Originally, the main outlets for short films were festivals and other events. But there is now much more demand for content that can be presented online.
The Tokyo-based company that coordinates the festival, Pacific Voice, manages the rights of more than a thousand short films, selling them to companies that want to use their contents. The festival is sponsored by companies who want an association with short films and their creators.
One such company is Nestle Japan, which buys the rights from Pacific Voice to show films on its website. Viewers must log in to the website, allowing Nestle to collect customer information.
Another sponsor, Japanese video streaming service Hikari-TV, operated by internet service provider NTT Plala, collaborated with the festival to create films with advanced 4K resolution.
Tan Ce Ding a 27-year-old Malaysian whose film "The Masseuse" was sponsored by BMW, said there were increasing opportunities for young filmmakers to show their work using social media. Similarly, more companies want to make commercial films for social media, rather than for television.
Ding pointed out that digital tools have made filmmaking cheaper for young filmmakers and students in recent years.
But Singaporean grand prize winner Chai said there were still many challenges to making longer feature films in Southeast Asia, since major Hollywood productions attract most of the box office sales. The situation is different in China, however, as the government there protects local films by capping the number of foreign films.