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Wei Leng Tay for Asiaweek.
A digital debut movie has helped Hong Kong's Kenneth Bi secure funds for other projects.

Digital Pioneers
Young filmmakers are plugging into new opportunities that digital movies offer

Shooting, the Guerrilla Way
:Unless you know where the market is headed — try aromatherapy
The Pixelated

In the world of cut-price moviemaking, you sometimes have to take what you can get. But a cast member so drunk he can't deliver his lines? That's one of the problems Hong Kong director Kenneth Bi faced when he put together his debut production on a shoestring and a prayer. The tipsy actor, like most of the people Bi rounded up for A Small Miracle, was a friend, with no experience in front of the camera. A tipple or two, the newcomer thought, would help him remember his lines and sharpen his delivery. Cut!

Bi, 33, is one of Asia's pioneers of digital-video (DV) movies, in which all the assumptions about what it costs and takes to make a feature film go right out the window. At the center of this mini-revolution is the digital video camera, which was designed for amateurs but which is now also in the hands of would-be filmmakers having trouble raising funds in a region where purse-strings are double-knotted.

The camera costs about $2,000. After that, overheads are pared to the bone. Some DV films are made with no soundman, no lighting expert and none of the other odd-jobbers (key grip, best boy, assistant gaffer) who show up in the closing credits of big productions. Bi's A Small Miracle cost just $7,700, which he raised out of his own pocket. The graduate in theater studies says: "I wanted to make a movie and the DV format offered two main advantages: It was cheap and it was immediate."

Ditto for Singapore's Ong Lay Jinn, 32, who checked his bank balance, gulped and then concluded he would have to make his debut feature film, Return to Pontianak, with about $11,400. "We put the cart before the horse," says Ong, winner of the 1998 Singapore Film Festival Short Film Award. "Finance was hard to raise. It was difficult to get people to trust a first-time filmmaker with only the script to look at. With DV, at least we could make the film first and have something to show people."

No prizes for guessing what inspires Bi, Ong and the others now experimenting with digital video. Yes, it was last year's The Blair Witch Project, which cost $22,000 to produce and went on to make $240 million worldwide. (The sequel, Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows, has just been released in the U.S., for Halloween. The new version — reported budget: $10 million — uses the original writers/directors, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, as consultants, but has received poor reviews.)

Digital video got its biggest Hollywood endorsement when the master himself, George Lucas, used it extensively for special effects in his 1999 Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace. The next one in the series, Star Wars: Episode II, currently in post-production, will be fully digitized, though shot on sophisticated Sony cameras that Bi and Ong will have seen only in movie magazines (if they have any money left over to buy one).

Besides the DV format, Miracle and Pontianak share other similarities with The Blair Witch Project — a horror movie about three film students who disappear while shooting a documentary in secluded woods. All three feature young directors eager to break into the film industry, a highly mobile skeleton crew and a cast of virtual unknowns or close friends prepared to work for little or no money. Ong relied on his girlfriend, Vietnam-born actress Hiep The Le (Heaven and Earth) for some stellar attraction. Award-winning Hong Kong actor Sam Lee Chan-sam (Made in Hong Kong) took a role in Bi's Miracle, which deals with how a meek accountant's life is changed when he mysteriously receives a package in the mail containing Ecstasy pills.

Generally, working with inexperienced actors can be a drain on budgets, as re-takes using 35 mm film are expensive. Less so with the DV format. With a 60-minute digital tape costing a mere $5, Ong says he could shoot again and again until he got it right. Another advantage is that one person moving around with a relatively lightweight camera seldom attracts attention in public. One scene in Miracle features the accountant and his girlfriend eating in a fast-food restaurant. No props or set carpenters were needed. Bi put the pair in a Hong Kong restaurant and then shot them in midst of the workday bustle. The wireless mics picked up plenty of sound. "No one bothered us," he says. "In fact, no one seemed to notice anything at all." Even triad hoodlums, notorious for shaking down film companies when they stray into their patch, seemed to pay Bi and his almost invisible crew no heed.

But there was the problem that nearly everyone in Miracle had a day job — leaving the director with the predicament of filming after they got off work in the evening, while trying to avoid spending money on lights. Bi didn't always succeed. One scene, forced into a second night because of rain, soaked up $1,280 of his budget.

The making of Return to Pontianak was a bit like guerrilla warfare, says Ong. Shot in about a month in the jungles of Malaysia, it is based on the local legend of the pontianak, malevolent spirits of women who die at the hands of abusive men and subsequently return to exact supernatural revenge. Ong picked the cast of mostly first-timers as much for their temerity as for their ability in front of the camera. "We knew we would be shooting in some very uncomfortable circumstances," he says, "so acting talent wasn't the only consideration." From battling lizards to foraging for cow's stomach (a vital prop) to ensuring a steady supply of coffee and bananas for a mutinous crew, the experience was a tough test for everyone. "It was a complete mess," says Ong. "I would liken it to negotiating a mud-soaked minefield in a small-budget car without its wheels."

Things began to look particularly dire when one of the actors tired of the mosquitoes, heat and other hardships and walked out. Ong pushed on. "I'm a Sagittarius," he says, "so I have an optimistic outlook. I think you need that in films." One of the special challenges was that there was no money for lights. "It was a big test to shoot a horror film purely in daylight," says the director. There was also no money for a soundman — so Ong turned to an old university friend, Hong Kong lawyer Duncan Jepson, on the grounds that he used to be a bass player and so probably had a good ear. Jepson also served as producer, and marketing man and public-relations person.

Not all directors are drawn to the DV format because of the low entry costs. For some, the wizardry of computer editing is reason enough to try the new technology. Hong Kong independent filmmaker Fruit Chan Kwo is using it in Beijing on his latest production, Public Toilet W.C., which has $1 million in backing from the South Korean entertainment group DigitalNEGA. The experimental film is not as salacious as it might sound. Shot in several Asian cities, it takes a look at the culture of those places through links with their public toilets. "There has to be a good reason for using this medium to make a movie," says Chan. (He produced his hit Made in Hong Kong on 35 mm film for just $100,000, with a donation of leftover film stock from pop star Andy Lau's production company.) "If it was just to make a cheap film, then I really don't need to do that. I've been through that before. But this is such a new format, and I wanted to learn how to make a movie with it. There would be no point in making a digital film if you didn't use the functions [for ease of editing and adding simple effects]."

Ann Hui On-wah, director of the Golden Bear-nominated Ordinary Heroes, went partly digital for a special she produced for Radio Television Hong Kong on Chinese pro-democracy activist Hou Dejian. "I used it mainly for the interviews," she says. "It's a great medium for that. You can tape on DV as a trial first and then re-shoot on film if you need to. The format is also useful when you want to add a lot of simple effects to your movie. For instance, if you need blue-screen shots, you can just do the editing on the computer and not have to set up a blue-screen studio."

For undiscovered talents, DV offers a much more accessible way to show potential backers what they can do. Bi is one beneficiary. Thanks to his success with the digital film, he is close to securing funds for his next project. Tentatively titled Hainan Chicken Rice, the movie will focus on a mother struggling to come to terms with the idea that all her three sons may be gay. Ong, too, has won partial financing for another production. Digital video "makes a great launch pad for young filmmakers," says Singapore director Eric Khoo (12 Storeys, Mee Pok Man). He served as producer on Stories About Love, a recently released digital movie by three novices.

One drawback: Digital movies are still viewed primarily on television monitors. In Asia, there are only a handful of cinemas equipped to screen in the DV format, most of them in Japan. But that may change. Korea's DigitalNEGA, which is also financing two other DV films — Last Scene by Japan's Nakata Hideo and Temptation by Korean director Park Ki Hyung — is looking at developing a chain. But until the situation improves, digital movies aiming for general release have to be converted into 35 mm at extra cost, usually another $50,000 to $70,000 for a feature. In most cases, this means a loss in picture quality.

Bi has still to sell A Small Miracle, and, until a buyer comes along, he won't consider spending money to transfer the movie to 35 mm stock. "I made the film for the sake of making it. I had no big plans. It was just to get the experience," he says. Ong is further ahead. With financial help from young IT entrepreneurs, Pontianak is going through post-production and conversion to 35 mm. It is set for release in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong, through Shaw Brothers, before Christmas.

Even Ong and Bi agree that the digital video is not right for every kind of movie. Sweeping epics, for example. Digital video just can't deliver the kind of contrast and depth achieved in conventional film. Says Bi: "If I had made Miracle with 35mm film, it would have been different. But, using DV, it had to be very raw." Bi plans to shoot his next film on 35 mm. Ong's upcoming project about a Singapore taxi driver will be in 16 mm. At its best, the unobtrusive digital camera allows directors to quickly establish intimacy in character-driven films. But purists often feel that video encourages lazy filming. In Hong Kong, the bottom line forces industry professionals to be much more disciplined about how they frame each shot. With cheap videos, directors can be more slipshod. "Some film pros think those who shoot on video develop bad habits," says Bi. But it's a great way to get a start.

With reporting by Maria Cheng

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