We take a look at Hollywood blockbusters that have put Southeast Asia on the world map.
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Art & Culture
Hollywood Films Set in Southeast Asia
We take a look at Hollywood blockbusters that have put Southeast Asia on the world map.
Southeast Asia has long been a favourite setting of Hollywood filmmakers, thanks to its distinctive features both natural and man-made. You can just imagine the breathtaking landscapes, stunning urban architecture and cultural exoticism all adding up to a spectacular on-screen experience. Blackhat and Hitman: Agent 47 are just the latest in a long list of Hollywood blockbusters to have been filmed in Southeast Asia. Several others have left an indelible mark on popular culture over the years—some more well-known than others. In this article, we’ll take a look at must-watch Hollywood movies shot on location in Southeast Asia that will inspire wanderlust in you. Got your popcorn ready? Then sit down, lean back and read on.
1. Blackhat (2015)
The search for a cyber terrorist who caused a nuclear meltdown in China leads our heroes—played by Chris Hemsworth and Tang Wei—across several countries, including Malaysia and Indonesia. By the end of the movie, the wealth of exotic destinations shown will surely give you a bad case of itchy feet. A few locations stand out (we’ll forgive you if you lost track), such as when our heroes stumble upon the villain’s plan at a massive complex of tin mines in the Malaysian state of Perak. Another notable scene is the showdown with the film’s villain that takes place during an elaborate recreation of the Balinese Nyepi Day Parade at Papua Square in Jakarta.
Did you know: Director Michael Mann lives up to his reputation for grand dramatic scenes as a staggering 3,000 locals were hired as extras for the movie’s massive climax at Papua Square.
2. The Beach (2000)
Many have called this cult classic starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the reason that kick-started Thailand’s popularity as a backpackers paradise. The film was shot on Hat Maya—the main beach on the island of Koh Phi Phi and 15 years on from the release of the movie, Thailand’s paradise islands have never been more popular. A few of the scenes in the film were breathtaking at times but not all of it was as untouched as the movie would like you to believe. Several native trees and vegetation were bulldozed to make way for non-native palm trees to make the beach even more picturesque for the movie screen. Needless to say, environmentalists were furious. Legal action against the parties responsible saw them ordered to repair all environmental damage done to Hat Maya Beach.
Did you know: The film is based on the novel of the same name by author Alex Garland, who drew inspiration for the novel’s setting from his six-month stay in the Philippines, rumored to be Palawan’s Secret Beach.
3. Anna and the King (1999)
Anna and the King is a fictionalised retelling of the diaries of Anna Leonowens, an English school teacher who arrived in Thailand in 1862 (then Siam) to give a modern Western education to the wives and children of King Mongkut. Though set in Thailand, the film was mostly shot on location in the Malaysian states of Penang, Kedah, Perak and Selangor as it was banned by the Thai Film Board due to historical inaccuracies about King Mongkut and the time period depicted in the film. The King’s Grand Palace was recreated at a secret location but it was partly filmed in Rumah Besar, a Mandailing mansion in the sleepy town of Papan, Perak.
Did you know: Several locations in Penang were used for key scenes. For example, the scene where the concubine Tuptim (played by Bai Ling) is captured by palace guards takes place in Penang’s Khoo Kongsi temple which is famous for being the grandest Chinese clan temple in Malaysia. Olden day Bangkok street scenes were filmed at Armenian Street.
4. Entrapment (1999)
Catherine Zeta-Jones and Sean Connery stage an elaborate heist at the Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia’s capital city of Kuala Lumpur on New Year’s Eve to steal billions of dollars. The film was a box office success, earning over US$87 million in the US and over US$212 million worldwide. Some scenes of Kuala Lumpur were in fact shot in the neighbouring city of Melaka with the famous Twin Towers digitally inserted into the background.
Did you know: The train station where the film’s protagonists meet at the end was not Pudu station as all the signs indicated, but actually Bukit Jalil station. The producers didn’t want to film at the actual Pudu station as the one in Bukit Jalil offered a more attractive setting. But then there was also the rumour that Pudu was the only station name Sean Connery could pronounce properly…
5. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)
Angelina Jolie stars as Lara Croft, a beautiful archaeologist-adventurer who’s searching for a mythical object in Cambodia’s Siem Reap province in the first movie based on the popular Tomb Raider video game series. Angkor—the last capital city of the ancient Khmer empire—and its many sacred sites are can be seen in the movie, including Angkor Wat (the largest religious monument in the world), Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm. Take note of the scene where Lara Croft arrives in Siem Reap; this takes place at Phnom Bakheng—a Hindu hilltop temple that predates the Angkor Wat by more than two centuries.
Did you know: This was the first Hollywood production to be filmed in Cambodia in over three decades since the previous film, Lord Jim was shot there in 1965.
6. Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
This 1987 American war-comedy starring the late Robin Williams as a radio DJ in the Armed Forces Radio Service was set in Saigon, Vietnam in 1965 but filming actually took place in Thailand. It was Williams’ breakout role and saw him nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor and winning the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy.
Did you know: The film was mostly shot in Bangkok and several hundred students from the International School Bangkok (ISB) were hired as extras to perform as American GIs in several scenes throughout the film. Robin Williams even performed a stand-up routine for all students in the 10th grade and above as a courtesy to those extras involved in the film.
7. The Hangover Part II (2011)
The second installment in The Hangover trilogy sees the wolf-pack retrace their steps through the streets of Bangkok to find a soon-to-be-married groom who went missing after a wild night of partying. The movie opens on the island of Krabi that’s famous for its white sandy beaches and limestone cliffs. It then moves on to Bangkok with key scenes shot in Chinatown, the Thonburi canals, the Chao Phraya River and the Ancient City in Samut Prakan province. We should also point out the factual inaccuracy of the monastery scene where the monks wore robes of a different colour than what Thai monks wear.
Did you know: Former USA President, Bill Clinton visited the set of the film in Bangkok when he was in Thailand. This led to rumours that he had a cameo appearance in the film.
8. Eat Pray Love (2010)
This movie starring Julia Roberts is based on the book of the same name. She plays Elizabeth Gilbert, a woman who goes on a journey around the world on her quest for self-discovery, with a key stop in the beautiful island of Bali, Indonesia along the way. Most of the Bali scenes were filmed in the Ubud area that’s famous for its paddy fields, lush greenery, and art market. The beach scene was filmed at Padang Padang Beach located near the famous Uluwatu Temple.
Did you know: Julia Roberts only agreed to film her Bali scenes on location on the condition that her family was allowed over during the shoot.
9. The Bourne Legacy (2012)
The fourth movie in the Jason Bourne series sees the film’s protagonists—Black Ops operative, Aaron Cross (played by Jason Renner) and research scientist, Marta Shearing (played by Rachel Weisz)—travel to a chemical factory in Manila to retain his enhanced capabilities. The movie culminates in a lengthy and action-packed car chase through the streets and markets of Manila, but not before our heroes make a run from both the local authorities and an assassin through the city’s infamous urban sprawl, from rooftops to street alleys. The crew spent 10 weeks filming in Manila at a few locations, the main ones being Remedios Circle (where Shearing gets trapped in a narrow alleyway), Jones Bridge, Marikina Public Market and Navotas Fish Port (where Cross and Shearing crash their motorbike at the end of the chase). The boat scene at the end of the movie was filmed in the protected El Nido area in Palawan province—home to some of the world’s most beautiful islands.
Did you know: James Bond actor, Daniel Craig visited his wife, Rachel Weisz (who plays the female lead) on set during their shoot in Manila.
10. The Lady (2011)
This biographical movie on the life of Burmese Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi (played by Malaysia’s Dato’ Michelle Yeoh) was set in Myanmar but filmed mostly on location in neighbouring Thailand. The Burmese landmarks shown in the film were shot by the movie director, Luc Besson himself, including the Uppatasanti Pagoda in Nay Pyi Taw—Myanmar’s new capital city. He filmed over 17 hours worth of footage with a Canon 5D in secret due to severe restrictions on entry visas at that time. He got into the country on a closely guarded group photography tour with an armed military guard always close by. Aung San Suu Kyi’s lakeside mansion was carefully reconstructed by the crew in Thailand in a setting that matches the real house.
Did you know: In December 2010, Dato’ Michelle Yeoh managed to enter Myanmar and visit Aung San Suu Kyi at her lakeside home in Yangon. She spent a day with the famed pro-democracy activist and her son just weeks after she was released from a seven-year period of house arrest.
11. Hitman: Agent 47 (2015)
The second movie based on the popular Hitman video games stars Rupert Friend as a mysterious assassin known only as Agent 47 who travels to Singapore to take down a terrorist group. This is the first major Hollywood film to be shot in Singapore. Several Singaporean landmarks are featured in the movie, including Gardens by the Bay, the ArtScience Museum, the Singapore Flyer Ferris wheel and Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, which is Singapore’s national performing arts centre. A major action sequence was shot in front of MPH Bookstores on Robinson Road which was closed for four days to accommodate the filming. The flight hangar scene in Berlin was also filmed in Singapore at ITE Central College’s own aerospace hangar.
Did you know: Though the movie featured popular landmarks such as Marina Bay Sands and the ArtScience Museum, most of the buzz among Singaporeans was due to the familiar sight of MPH Bookstores and blue Comfort taxis.