Southeast Asia is a filmmaker’s dream: pulsating cities, rich cultures, and jaw-dropping landscapes of thick forests and untouched beaches. It’s little wonder why so many great films have been shot here. From backpackers to history buffs, the movies on this list will appeal to anyone interested in travelling around this diverse region.
Here’s our top five selection of films shot in Southeast Asia.
The Beach (2000)
This firm is directed by Danny Boyle (of Trainspotting fame) and is an adaptation of Alex Garland’s 1996 novel of the same name. It stars a fresh-faced Leonardo DiCaprio as backpacker Richard, who travels to Thailand in search of an ‘authentic’ experience. (Something all too familiar for us travellers, right?) After hearing word of an unspoilt, utopian island, he quickly becomes obsessed with finding it.
With hoards of backpackers travelling to Thailand each year, the real-life parallels are clear. However, because it’s a film, utopia gives way to anarchy and things start getting ultra-weird. The irony of it is, The Beach catapulted the Thai islands to fame with the promise of untouched, authentic, utopia. In effect, it attracts so many visitors now that the beach is anything but.
Still, it is pretty cool to visit the location of such a great film and book that captures the fire in every true traveller’s heart. Wander a little further to surrounding islands and you can still get a slice of paradise Garland depicts so well.
From Bangkok’s Khao San Road to Maya Bay on Koh Phi Phi Leh (just a two-hour ferry from Phuket), The Beach manages to capture the beauty of Thailand, while also questioning the reasons why we choose to travel in the first place.
The Killing Fields (1984)
The Killing Fields is a distinctive and evocative film. Directed by Roland Joffé, it covers the atrocities of Pol Pot’s horrific reign in Cambodia during the 1970s. The film centres on the true friendship of Sydney Schanberg – the New York Times Cambodian correspondent during the seventies – and his interpreter Dith Pran, who is a Cambodian journalist.
This film will absolutely test your tear ducts – It’s a sad one but it’s also an important one. It manages to expose the brutalities of war in a very real way. Though the outdoor scenes were shot in Thailand, The Killing Fields remains essential viewing for all history buffs travelling to Cambodia.
The Quiet American (2002)
Set in Saigon in 1952, Michael Caine plays Thomas Fowler, a British journalist living in Southeast Asia, where he is reporting on the First Indochina War. A love triangle develops between himself, a young American idealist named Alden Pyle (played by Brendan Fraser) and Phuong (played by Do Thi Hai Yen), who is a beautiful Vietnamese woman.
This complicated relationship is set against the backdrop of America’s growing military involvement in Vietnam. It’s a tense and worthy adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1955 novel.
Michael Caine is excellent and Brendan Fraser triumphantly sheds his George of the Jungle skin. See if you can recognise some of the filming locations in and around the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An and Hanoi.
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
This is quintessential Robin Williams: motor-mouthed, manic, and brilliant at improvisation. He stars as Adrian Cronauer, a disc jockey during the Vietnam War, who has been tasked with breathing a little life into the Armed Forces Radio in Saigon during 1965. Becoming an instant hit with troops and locals alike, Cronauer starts using his popularity to reveal brutal truths about the war.
As poignant as it is funny, Good Morning, Vietnam is a significant film, and one of Williams’s best on-screen performances. Although it’s not shot in Vietnam, the film still retains a Southeast Asian feel, with most scenes shot in and around Bangkok and Phuket Province.
Rescue Dawn (2006)
Like a lot of the films on this list, Rescue Dawn also deals with conflict. Directed by acclaimed German auteur Werner Herzog, the film details the true story of Dieter Dengler, an American-German pilot who was detained in, but escaped from a Laotian prisoner of war camp during the Vietnam War.
Much of the film was shot in remote pockets of Thailand’s northern jungles, where actors Christian Bale and Steve Zahn literally battled against rapids and machete-swiped their way through thick vegetation, and experienced the full weight of Thailand’s wet season. It’s a powerful and thrilling film.
This is a fun fact: Bale was so immersed in his role that he supposedly ate maggots, snacked on snake, and dropped 25 kilograms of weigh.
Images: Tourism Media, Shutterstock