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Laos movie industry begins to flower after decades of neglect

Local directors are creating critically acclaimed films despite limited resources

Filming in progress on "Say Nam Lai" (The River Flows), the first Lao-Japanese film, released in 2017

VIENTIANE -- In Laos, one of the poorest nations in the world, the local film industry is beginning to flower after decades of being virtually non-existent.

For years, the only films produced in this impoverished socialist country were government propaganda movies.

Recently, however, a new breed of young directors has emerged in the Southeast Asian country to make movies that are attracting international attention. Many of them have returned home after learning film-making abroad.

Vientiane, the capital of Laos, has only two movie theaters, both located in a shopping center.

On a recent weekday afternoon, the two cinemas were crowded with students who were apparently cutting classes. Most of the films being screened were foreign, imported from the U.S., neighboring Thailand and other countries.

Laos has long been a motion picture wasteland. Reng, a 24-year-old graduate student who was at one of the cinemas, said he watched movies at least once a month, mostly Thai or Hollywood films, but had never seen a Laotian picture.

Laotian film director Mattie Do, left, with an actress in her film

A small landlocked country on the Indochina Peninsula, Laos borders the Mekong River and is surrounded by mountains. It is one of the world's least developed countries, defined by the U.N. as "low-income countries confronting severe structural impediments to sustainable development." The country's per-capita gross domestic product is only about one-20th of Japan's.

The development of the country's film industry was long hindered by a bloody civil war. The First Indochina War, which began in 1946, pushed Laos into a morass of internal armed conflict. The country became trapped in a proxy war between the global Cold War superpowers, and remained mired deep in chaos for decades.

Under the socialist regime of the Lao People's Democratic Republic, established in 1975, the nation's economy stagnated. It is estimated that nearly 10% of the population fled the country as refugees to escape the economic hardship.

The Marxist-Leninist regime restricted the domestic film production to propaganda stuff, stifling the growth of the business of producing entertainment movies.

The reclusive nation's barren filmmaking landscape, however, started to change after an international film festival in 2009. Initially, overseas films constituted most of the works shown at the Vientianale International Film Festival.

Gradually, however, young Laotian directors started entering their ambitious films in the festival.

In 2017, the Laotian film "Dearest Sister," directed by Mattie Do, was selected as the country's first-ever submission to the Academy Awards.

Born in Los Angeles, Do is the daughter of immigrant parents who left their country during the communist revolution in the 1970s. After working as a makeup artist at Western film production companies, she returned to Laos in 2010 and started making movies only with equipment at hand.

Her debut film was produced on a shoestring budget of $5,000. But she managed to raise some $40,000 through crowdfunding for her sophomore feature, "Dearest Sister."

Mattie Do's "Dearest Sister" is a horror-thriller, which she says has universal appeal across cultures.

The common image of Laos among Westerners is as a country of poor people living simple, bucolic lives in farming villages populated by meek, innocent women with black hair, Do said. "Foreigners created this image of Laos, [but] it's not real."

Do tries to depict this reality in her films. She views horror movies as effective media to communicate her message to a global audience, regardless of their cultural background. "I like horror because it's universal," she said. "You're afraid of ghosts following you at night or a murderer who comes after you. I'm afraid of that too."

"Dearest Sister" is a horror-thriller in which a girl from a farming village takes care of her rich cousin in Vientiane who is gradually going blind. The plot thickens as the village girl discovers that her cousin has the ability to get winning lottery numbers from the dead.

The film was screened at more than 36 film festivals around the world and proved a hit in Thailand, a major supplier of movies for Laos.

Do says she is quite excited about her next film, which she plans to start shooting as early as September.

In 2017, "Say Nam Lai" (The River Flows), the first Lao-Japanese co-production, was released. The film, directed by Makoto Kumazawa, is a fantasy in which an urban Laotian woman accidentally travels via a time warp to Laos in the 1960s and meets a Japanese man doing research for a dam project in the country.

A scene from "Say Nam Lai" (The River Flows)

The Laotian film industry has to contend with a lack of filmmaking know-how and equipment.

Most of the lighting and other equipment used in Laotian films is rented from Thai companies. With the country lacking a well-developed theatrical culture, characters in Laotian movies are usually played by singers and fashion models.

Taku Mori, the producer of "Say Nam Lai," said the country's film industry is facing an acute shortage of resources -- funds, equipment and people.

Due to strict state censorship, freedom of expression is limited in Laos. Still, local directors are creating films by applying their ingenuity.

Saisamon, an 18-year-old Laotian girl working at a movie theater in Vientiane, said the number of domestic films is growing. The theater screens a Laotian film every two to three months, she said. She said she especially likes comedies made in her country.

The country's film industry is still in an embryonic stage, but could take wing before long if more talent like Do appears to foster it.

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