Opinion: Uncovering the hidden gems that lie beyond Korea & Japan

Korea and Japan might hog the headlines when it comes to Asian creativity but Min Lim, head of production at Malaysia’s Double Vision, urges Western producers to explore further afield to uncover new gems.

“Ah salaam and good evening to you, my dear friend. Welcome to Agrabah, city of mystery… of enchantment… and the finest merchandise this side of the River Jordan, on sale today!”

Thus go the opening lines of Aladdin, one of my favourite childhood movies. The merchant continues: “Come on down, look at this… yes… combination hooka and coffee maker, also makes julienne fries! It will not break! Oh… It broke.”

As we enter 2023 (30 years after the film was first released) I can’t help but feel those words still characterise much of how the western world still sees Asia (South East Asia in particular) today, especially when looking for original ideas – both to consume or adapt. Many will deny it of course. “Look at the Asian wave”, they will say. “We’ve been adapting Asian IP since The Magnificent Seven!”

Yes. From Japan and Korea. But what about South East Asia?

Cue the crickets.

There is no doubt that our North Asian brethren lead the way. Missing out on a Korean format, as some western television executives will tell you, is a career faux pas that will give you worse nightmares than Donald Trump’s NFTs. But Asia is so much more than Korea and Japan. And if there’s one thing that we can learn from my favourite Disney animation is that when it comes to South East Asia, it’s all about finding the diamond in the rough.

If western producers only knew where to look, there are some hidden gems (both original IP and formats) in markets across the region that are often overlooked. We’re talking about shows that have rated through the roof in their respective countries and beyond – only they’re just not as “sexy” or have failed to grab western headlines like those from Korea and Japan.

Case in point, a little-known Malaysian drama – Beautiful World – was the highest rated Chinese-language show in the year that it was launched on Malaysia’s biggest FTA, Media Prima.

It was so successful that it became the one of the most watched shows on Bilibili in China (no mean feat for a show made on a shoestring budget that had no known stars) until it came to the attention of the producers who asked for it to be taken down as it had been illegally uploaded. It is a format that can work across the world, evidenced by discussions with HBO (and subsequently MGM) to remake it before it suffered from the restructures of 2020 and 2022 respectively. But nevertheless, it is an example that good South East Asian IP exists.

“If western producers only knew where to look, there are some hidden gems in markets across the region”

For sure, finding that diamond isn’t easy. South East Asian shows are relatively cheaply made, characters are generally underdeveloped and the acting – well let’s just say that it gives new meaning to the term “drama queen”. (I mean, when you make scripted shows for less than $15,000 an hour all in, shoot an episode in four days and deal with censorship guidelines that will make you question the meaning of life, something’s got to give!).

But, if someone were to look beyond the miniscule Asian budgets and the resulting lowered production values to the core idea, what they would find are compelling plots and storytelling that can travel – if given the chance.

And then, it’s a question of how you make that diamond shine. Look at Infernal Affairs from Hong Kong. Ask any South East Asian kid growing up in the noughties and they will tell you that it was one of the greatest films of the decade.

And for a movie made purely for the Asian market, its adaptation went on to earn Martin Scorsese his first Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Director along with another three Oscars, including Best Picture. Scorsese famously joked that he won the Oscar after losing out on it five times previously because, “this is the first movie I’ve done with a plot!”

So for territories interested in unique and under-exploited Asian IP, come and engage us. Don’t sit back and make Asia come to you. Unlike much of the western world, many of us are still in recovery mode and might forego expensive markets like MIPCOM.

But come to the Asian markets (from Busan to Hong Kong to Bangkok) and you will find a thriving ecosystem that is just dying to show the rest of the world that Asia has a lot more to give than Japan and Korea. You might find a dusty old lamp. But then again, look where that got Aladdin.

Min Lim is head of production at Malaysia’s Double Vision. She is executive producer & showrunner on dramas including the Asian adaptation of The Bridge, Beautiful World and Liar Malaysia

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