There’s no better way to get a taste for a place before you visit than to experience it through the words and pictures of someone who has been there. From explosive action to twisted comedy to heart-breaking drama, Southeast Asia’s rich history and diverse cultures provide a perfect backdrop for stories of any genre of film.
Before diving in, take into consideration the lens through which each of these movies sees its locations through. For instance, The Ugly American was filmed during the height of the Cold War and provides a different perspective to, say, The Killing Fields when it comes to providing historical insight. Each film is a unique glimpse into a complex, multi-faceted part of the world.
The Killing Fields (1984)
A striking, Oscar-winning war film that’s vital to understanding the long and difficult road that Cambodia has traveled down. The story follows a reporter from the New York Times and his Cambodian assistant as they’re caught up in the takeover of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge in 1975, a regime which oversaw the execution of around 2 million Cambodians. Not a “fun” watch, but an important one.
Anna and the King (1999)
A dramatization of the true story of Anna Leonowens who was hired to give a modern education to the family of Thailand’s King Rama IV in 1862. The film is entertaining enough, with Jodi Foster and Chow Yun Fat in the lead roles, but the controversy surrounding the film is where your research should really begin. It’s banned in Thailand – as is its progenitor, The King and I, from 1956 – because of historical inaccuracies and perceived disrespect it shows to the monarchy.
The Quiet American (2002)
Based on Graham Greene’s 1955 book which predicted the morass that American involvement in Vietnam would lead to in the 1970s, it follows undercover CIA agent Brendan Fraser as he tangles with local politics in the early 1950s and competes for the affection of the mistress of connected British journalist Michael Caine (bad move, Brendan). Most of us have seen enough Vietnam War movies to get an idea of what went on during that time, but this is an interesting and well-told tale of the previous generation.
The Ugly American (1963)
This entertaining and well directed film starring Marlon Brando takes place in a fictional Southeast Asian country and dramatises the pitfalls and perils a well-meaning but naive American ambassador gets caught up in while juggling American cold war policies and local sensitivities. Some of the cultural crisis portrayed in the film still manifest themselves today. Ironically, in a “life imitating art” scenario, Kukrit Pramoj, the Thai actor who played the Prime Minister of the fictional country became Prime Minister of Thailand in 1975.
Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten (2014)
This 2014 documentary is highly recommended by Smiling Albino – not only is it superbly entertaining, but it tells a story that not many know about. In the early 1970s Phnom Penh was bursting with bands cranking out a splendidly original blend of American rock n’ roll and traditional Khmer melodies. But when the Khmer Rouge rolled in – executing anyone who was deemed artistic or creative – the culture was nearly lost. Musicians and performers had to hide their talents and lie about their jobs simply to survive. Made up of archival footage and interviews with surviving musicians, it’s a superb look into a piece of history that many thought would be lost forever.
Ong Bak (2003)
If you’re a fan of martial arts movies, this is the must-see of must-sees. Released in 2003 and starring then-little known Muay Thai practitioner Tony Jaa, it’s the tale of a rural boy who travels to big, bad Bangkok to track down the thieves who stole an important Buddha image from his village temple. The movie was a massive hit, and a perfect showcase for the incredible creativity and flexibility that Muay Thai allows. Mirroring Jackie Chan in his heyday, it’s hard not to gasp as Jaa slides under moving cars, bounces off of buildings and tuk-tuks like they were made of rubber, and dispatches bad guys in astoundingly creative (and painful) ways. No stunt doubles or special effects! What you see is what you get.
City of Ghosts (2002)
This underrated little flick packs a punch. Matt Dillon plays a conman who decides to track down the mastermind behind the scam once it’s busted by the Feds. He follows clues that lead him to Bangkok and then Phnom Penh, guided by characters who live on the fringe and work in the shadows. Great use of local actors, music, and locations without any slick Hollywood over-production, it’s a simple tale well told, a great exploration of the both the dark and light sides of two cities that Smiling Albino loves getting lost in.
The Lady (2011)
A glimpse into the personal life and struggles of Burma’s Democratic Party leader Aung San Suu Kyi – played by Michelle Yeoh – from her early life to her relationship with her British husband and family to her political career. This dramatic film provides some good insight into the recent history and politics of Burma (renamed Myanmar in 1989).
The Railway Man (2013)
This movie addresses the haunting memories of one of the thousands of Allied prisoners of war forced to work on the construction of the Thai-Burma railway during WW2. A contemporary story with flashbacks to the war days, a British veteran discovers his young Japanese tormentor is still alive and he sets off to confront him with a few plot twists and turns along the way.
The Rocket (2013)
This is a great film to get a feel for authentic rural Laos and her people. The story follows a boy on his calamitous journey around the war-torn country trying to find himself after being ostracized by his village for their belief he brought bad luck. The film culminates with him building a giant rocket to enter the insane annual the Rocket Festival. A feel-good, grass roots film with some great local first-time actors.
We recommend you watch these films and leave them at home before traveling as several of them are banned in the countries they portray.