Here’s a news flash for content creators all across the globe: the pandemic is a great opportunity to get your stories told to an international audience.
In an audio essay broadcast on June 23 over BBC Sounds, a streaming media and audio download service from the British Broadcasting Corporation, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said, “Throughout the pandemic we’ve seen our members watching more content from other countries or cultures. In part that’s because people have had more time to explore our service, in part it is because we’re discovering that the more global we become the more important it is that we work with local, diverse creators, to tell local, authentic stories that speak to us all.”
It doesn’t take a genius to observe that being cooped up indoors and, indeed, still being wary of stepping out even though most strict quarantines have been lifted have found us wedded to our gadgets. But just in case you need actual figures, the website Statista, which bills itself as “the internet’s leading statistics database,” declared in a June 18 report which focuses on the increase in in-house media consumption that “The coronavirus outbreak has caused media consumption to increase in countries across the globe, with book reading and audiobook listening up by 14 percent, social media usage seeing an increase of 21 percent, and news consumption rising by 36 percent.”
The report also mentioned that “time spent on social media and video streaming services grew substantially in some countries, particularly the Philippines.”
It’s no secret that we Filipinos love foreign entertainment. But long before Hollywood started ceding its hegemony over global content by recognizing a non-English language film as the best picture of 2019–that would be South Korea’s Parasite for all of you who have been living under a rock for the past year—we as a people have long been aware that compelling stories could be found outside the boundaries of Tinseltown: first with our brief, mid-‘90s fling with Mexican soap operas (which bequeathed the term telenovela to local jargon), then our introduction to the Far Eastern soap via the Taiwanese light drama Meteor Garden in the early 2000s, which has led directly to our longtime love affair with Korean culture, thanks to its effective export of K-pop and K-dramas.
But beyond being consumers of foreign content, when do we get to tell our stories to the world at large? At the very least, as a member of the Southeast Asian bloc, when does our region get its time to shine in the international spotlight?
Of course, it isn’t strictly a one-way street. We’ve been exporting our brand of entertainment to our closest neighbors, even handing out licenses to have them adapted when the interest arises. And subscription channels like The Filipino Channel have been broadcasting our content to Filipino expat communities all around the world.
But these efforts have always felt a bit niche, lacking the support and firepower of globally recognized name brands to propel them onto the global spotlight.
Which is why the Malaysian adaptation of the Nordic crime drama series The Bridge feels like such an exciting development.
First brought to life as a Swedish-Denmark collaboration in 2011, The Bridge opened its first season with an intriguing premise: a corpse made of two halves of two victims is deliberately placed on a bridge straddling Malmö and Copenhagen, sparking a cross-border investigation. The concept proved to be an instant hit, with adaptations cropping up all around Europe. It finally made its way to the Americas in 2013, with an adaptation set at the U.S.-Mexico border.
In 2018, Malaysia’s Double Vision produced its own version, transplanting the action to the Tuas Bridge linking Malaysia and Singapore and earning the distinction of being the only adaptation of the noir series to be set outside the West so far. What’s more, the production outfit’s adaptation earned the backing of HBO Asia and Hong Kong-based streaming service Viu, thereby assuring that it would reach those brands’ nearly 30 markets all throughout Asia.
Last June 15, the Asian iteration of The Bridge inaugurated its second season with an even more ambitious mandate: involve more Southeast Asian talent. And so the creative team hit upon the idea of widening the scope of the crime which serves as the catalyst for the international investigation. As executive producer Min Lim puts it, "We have a yacht that's registered in Singapore, but is found floating aimlessly in the coast of Malaysia, and on board they find a dead Indonesian family."
Apart from bringing back series regulars like Singaporean actress Rebecca Lim as by-the-book investigator Serena Teo and Malaysia-based actor Bront Palarae as her laid-back ex-partner Megat Jamil, the writers introduced a new co-lead, Indonesian actor Ario Bayu, to play an International Crimes Division operative from Jakarta with a personal stake in solving the murders. And to seal its Southeast Asian bonafides, the team brought in our own Joseph Marco to serve as a Filipino-Singaporean love interest for Serena Teo.
Lim, who is head of production for Double Vision, had originally only thought of casting a Filipino actor who lived in Malaysia. A dinner function she attended in Singapore in 2019 changed all that, however: Also in attendance was ABS-CBN Head of International Productions and Co-Productions Ruel S. Bayani. While the two were discussing possible collaborations, Lim happened to mention that they were looking to cast a Filipino in the second season of The Bridge. Bayani made the point of saying that they didn’t have to settle for casting their net only in Malaysia when he could give them access to a deep well of Filipino talent, and promptly had reels of ABS-CBN actors sent over.
The audition tapes were winnowed down from five potential actors, and once Marco was chosen, he had to negotiate a busy schedule that also had him juggling a series shoot for iWant and a horror project for Regal Films, as well as a hurried flight to Malaysia on New Year’s Day.
But the actor knew opportunities like this don’t come along often: "It's such a big thing for us actors to get an international gig. That, in itself, I was blown away, I was so excited. I'm super thankful that I'm able to be part of this."
Apart from reflecting universal truths about human frailty and systemic corruption, projects like The Bridge also highlight the individual quirks of the cultures they portray.
In the first season, Malaysian agents marvel at the efficiency of the Singaporeans’ database on their citizens, while the pilot episode of the second season has the Indonesians making fun of their Singaporean counterparts’ reputation for being anal-retentive. Just watching the actors recite their lines while barefoot inside a private residence feels like an exhilarating exercise in cultural exchange.
But on a broader scale, shows like The Bridge represent a strengthening of ties among Asian content creators—a salvo in the shared cause of highlighting pan-Asian talent on the global stage—at a time when countries all over the world are forced to isolate.
Entertainment, whether producing it or consuming it, has the power to unite. As Bayani noted in a conference call with the press last June 17: “It's a whole world of possibilities! We're all content creators, we're all artists, we're all leaders of sorts in the region. We're all working hard together. We need teamwork to succeed."
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“With daily life at a standstill there has been an unusually captive audience, hungry for distraction, for entertainment, for a connection with the outside world,” Hastings said in his audio essay for BBC Sounds. “For all the trauma and pain COVID-19 has caused—and will continue to cause—this collective experience has also the potential to help us reevaluate how much we have in common.”
The Bridge is currently streaming on Viu. New episodes of season 2 drop every Monday.
Photographs courtesy of Viu