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My Short Films

Monday, March 31, 2014

Making sense of the Malaysian Chinese experience

Recent circumstances, especially constant questions from my comrades from China, had caused me to evaluate my place as a Malaysian Chinese.

In case you can't read the Facebook post, or in case the above embedded post will disappear a few years from now, I'll copy and paste it here.

2 weeks ago, I finally returned to Tokyo after being away for 10 months.

I'm staying at the same dorm that I had been staying since 2008, Wakeijuku. I always liked telling people that this was the exact same place Haruki Murakami lived in during his university years, and this was the "dorm" in Norwegian Woods.

Before I went back to Malaysia last year, a tall and muscular China dude had just moved into the room opposite mine. He had the mannerisms of someone who was in the army (he was). He told me that he had spent a few years growing up in Japan, but instead of conforming and trying to please everyone around him, he had maintained his sense of self. There was no assimilation, just "conquer" (he stamped his foot on the ground with authority).

I nodded and pretended to look impressed by his nationalistic spirit. (because it was the polite thing to do, really)

On the night that I returned, the guy appeared and greeted me enthusiastically. As if one would greet an old friend.

We started chatting. Naturally, the topic veered to MH370, to Malaysia, to the administration. I didn't say much to defend my government, since there really wasn't anything there to defend.

The discussion veered to the Malay Chinese experience. Of our place in politics and economy. He seemed genuinely outraged that we were given unequal treatment. He mentioned that long ago, Chairman Mao had wanted to unite the Chinese around the world.

"Uh huh." I said, trying not to look indifferent.

"Do you all speak the Malay language?" The guy asked.

"Yeah. It's the national language. We all have to speak it." I replied.

I assumed that the guy interpreted my reply as another act of oppression being forced upon us. He started laughing heartily. "When I hear the Malay language, it sounded like monkey shrieking. So undeveloped."

Struck by these words, I was suddenly overwhelmed with anger.

"You can criticize the government. But stay away from the people." I snapped at him.

I think he was surprised by my response, so I continued.

"Malaysia is a multicultural country. We grow up understanding and accepting everyone's different cultures and traditions. My Malay brethren, or rather, the Malays in general, they have always been nicer and friendlier, I've always trusted them more. When it comes to filming, I could easily ask to borrow a boat, or a house, for my film shoot, while our fellow Chinese, your fellow Chinese, would only look at me with disdain, ask me for money, renege on previous promises. Being judgemental, being manipulative, being untrustworthy." I said, calmly and slowly.

"I'm not like you. All nationalistic, all Chinese supremacy. You don't need to be tolerant of other people's ways and methods. You love everything about your country, your skin colour, good for you. Great. Hooray. Hey, I wish we Malaysians have that much pride too. But really, what makes you think you can disrespect us?"

What followed was a little awkward, as he tried changing the subject. And I allowed him to, because, seriously, the daily 'patriotism' quota of mine was used up by then.

I would like to reiterate the fact that I wasn't necessarily doing it for Malaysia. I was merely taking a stand against bigotry and ignorance, against racism, against generalizations. National barrier is an illusion. I don't believe in "racial superiority" like the Big Comrade did. And i find it classless and distasteful already, that our very first conversation veered towards him "coming to Japan, using their resources, conquering this place like a male Khaleesi!" (with stamping of foot? Oh wow.)

Is being respectful of other cultures such a foreign concept to (young) people now?

So, my fundamental philosophy is "equality".

The government's racist politics in the last few decades go against everything I believe in. But I don't have much sympathy for the "opposition" either. Those outspoken folks who went online to whine about the government for every single thing and condemn WOLF OF WALL STREET as "pornography invested by Rosmah's son, BOYCOTTTTTT!!" annoy me just as much.

In this crazy country in this crazy world, we deserve each other.

Equality. I also hated some of my high schoolmates/ teachers for paying more attention and giving more love, exclusively, to those jocks with great academic results, and ignoring, trivialising those with artistic aspirations. Hated those who had the gall to say "this girl is out of your league, she too pretty, you too ugly". Hated those who measured success by monthly salary etc etc. That's why I started skipping high school reunions and gatherings. Because I hate feeling miserable. Or being reminded of what made me feel miserable.

Yes, despite my cheery demeanour, there's really a lot of righteous anger burning within my soul.

It's just that I don't like to, you know, whine about these stuff on Facebook just to fish for "likes" and cyberhugs.)

Enough with my angst. If you can read Chinese, the following article, by a Malaysian Chinese student studying in a university in China, sums up really well what is it like to exist as a Malaysian Chinese.

I'll try to summarize the article: Basically, the following three are main characteristics of our existence.

1) An awkward existence.

Often, people from China would ask why we could speak Mandarin so well. For the last few decades, the people of Chinese ethnicity in Malaysia have fought hard to preserve our tradition, our culture, our language, in spite of our government. Yet these efforts are mostly unknown to people outside the country either. Therefore even though we are Chinese, we are not "Chinese enough" to our comrades of Mainland China, and are constantly reminded that we are minorities or "outsiders" by the hardliners of Malaysia. Thus we are "outsiders" no matter where we are.

2) A lonely, solitary existence.

The fact that we are "outsiders" no matter what. Malaysian Chinese are generally more religious compared to the folks in China. Be it Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, they all play a bigger role in our everyday life.

We live in a multicultural society, therefore we grew up in a heterogenous environment where it's essential to accept and understand the different cultures and different beliefs of our Malay and Indian brethren who make up the majority of the country's population.

Therefore, despite our similar outer appearances and the ability to speak the common language, we are rather different from our Mainland Chinese comrades.

3) A sad and melancholic existence. (initially, the author was going to say that it's a "proud existence" or an existence with "pride", but he corrected himself)

No, the politics of my nation don't really favour those of Chinese ethnicity. We still struggle to preserve and protect our Chinese tradition. Malaysian Chinese actors, singers or others in the entertainment industry usually have to go to Hong Kong or Taiwan to ensure a proper career (and people end up not knowing that they are actually Malaysian Chinese. Look at Michelle Yeoh, Tsai Ming Liang, Fish Leong, Gary Chaw, Lee Sinjie etc.)

Nonetheless, we continue to exist.

"Yes, they will trample me underfoot, the numbers marching one two three, four hundred million five
hundred six, reducing me to specks of voiceless dust, just as, all in good time, they will trample my son who
is not my son, and his son who will not be his, and his who will not be his, until the thousand and first
generation, until a thousand and one midnights have bestowed their terrible gifts and a thousand and one
children have died, because it is the privilege and the curse of midnight's children to be both masters and
victims of their times, to forsake privacy and be sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes, and
to be unable to live or die in peace."

- Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie

Friday, March 28, 2014

REUNION 我們都是這樣長大的 (1986), a Taiwanese film that haunted my memories since I was 12

When I was 12, I caught a film on TV.

The film follows the lives of a group of elementary school students and their teacher. I was initially interested because the children were my age, and the teacher in the film was dedicated, like the teacher I was having then, Teacher Thor (that's her family name, yeah, but we all call her "Tu Lao Shi", which means Teacher Thor in Chinese).

But I was slightly surprised when there were a few time skips in the film. The children suddenly became teenagers, and there was a class reunion with their teacher (that led to tragedy).

They then became adults, and had another reunion, this time for a wedding. I remember that one of the main boys was in love with the bride.

I didn't exactly finish the film, but a few of these scenes remained vivid until this very day (the teacher's fiancee sacrificing himself to save a drowning student during one of the class reunions, and also the aforementioned wedding). Perhaps the film was mesmerizing to me because it seemed to suggest what things are like in this journey of life, when I were to move to my teens, and then my adulthood.

When I returned to school the next day, I was surprised that my teacher, Tu Lao Shi, was talking excitedly about the film too, along with a few classmates of mine.

Yet I never knew what the film title was. It was possibly my very first exposure to a Taiwanese film.

Until 18 years later, after I've made the journey through my teens and to adulthood, after I myself got to experience some things that were not dissimilar from the scenes of the film.

Today, I was at the Hong Kong Film Archive library, reading the book "NO MAN AN ISLAND: THE CINEMA OF HOU HSIAO HSIEN" by James Udden.

A 1986 film called REUNION 我們都是這樣長大的 was mentioned as another (great) example of Taiwanese New Cinema (it came out the same year as HHH's DUST IN THE WIND and a year after Edward Yang's TAIPEI STORY). A few scenes were described, and I realized, with excitement, that this might be the very same film that I watched on TV all these years ago!!

(I never got to finish the film then, but now I can finish it!)

I was also pleasantly surprised that James Udden's book mentioned James Lee's THE BEAUTIFUL WASHING MACHINE as a film and filmmaker indirectly influenced by Hou Hsiao Hsien!!!!!! I wish James Udden would get the opportunity to watch James Lee's new short film SECOND LIFE, which came out on Youtube yesterday. He'll be excited that James and HHH are both doing... martial arts films?)

(BTW: The director of this film, Ko I-Chen 柯一正, is the father of actor Lawrence Ko 柯宇綸, whom I had the pleasure to meet two years ago. Lawrence Ko is an important actor in Taiwanese cinema. He got to play the sympathetic protagonist and Virginie Ledoyen's love interest in Edward Yang's MAHJONG, and, er, the guy who took Tang Wei's virginity in Ang Lee's LUST CAUTION.)

An 18-year-old mystery. Solved!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

RIVER OF EXPLODING DURIANS postproduction adventures

No, the process of postproduction, so far, had not been an adventure.

But it's been a week since I came back to Tokyo, just so I could work on this film with utmost concentration, and solitude.

I missed the place more than I imagined, having been gone for more than 10 months.

Since then, I had been spending endless nights in McDonald's, doing my editing, sound mixing, subtitling and color correction.

Days merged together, the week was a blur.

It was intense, trying to finish all these things. And suffering through the 9-hour exporting time.

Having used Final Cut Pro 7 since early 2007, I'm starting to wonder whether it's time for me to shift back to Adobe Premiere Pro (which I kept on using until two years ago when I changed to using a Macbook Pro laptop instead)

Nonetheless, despite some bumps, everything ended rather nicely.

After one week of intense work, which I didn't really get to sleep much (drank lots of coffees, had occasional 2-hour naps), I finally had a cut of my film.

Just hours before I headed off to Okinawa.

During the 3-hour flight to Okinawa, I had the best sleep I ever had in days!

Friday, March 07, 2014

Turning 30

So, I turned 30 yesterday. A while ago, I looked at it with slight trepidation, I don't think I was prepared to say goodbye to my twenties just like that.

After all, the past decade had been unbelievable.

Was it already ten years ago that I first went to Perth?

That was 2004.

That was also the year when I discovered that it was highly possible for me to chase after my lifelong dream of filmmaking.

All my years in secondary school taught me that I was surrounded by cynical people, that I had been growing up in an environment where conformity is celebrated, where arts and culture are often overlooked. Supportive friends were cautiously optimistic about my chances of becoming a filmmaker, but most of the time I was described as an impractical "dreamer" (not a compliment!)

So I went to Perth, got myself my very first camcorder, taught myself how to edit and was making video diaries in Perth (and Malaysia) or... er, experimental videos.

(The fact these happened ten years ago blew my mind. Sure, it felt like an eternity ago, yet when you associate something with numbers, the feeling is reinforced, or perhaps, magnified.)

Since then, I have been very blessed to be able to make films and meet many people who share the same passion. I also managed to fly to more places than I could ever imagine in my dreams (Chile? Estonia? Wow)

The move to Tokyo in 2008 was beautiful because I was allowed to do even more to serve cinema. The opportunity to be able to make Japanese films, the very same Japanese films I grew up watching, the opportunity to work with people that I knew about since my childhood, everything was a blur, but I loved every single second of it. KINGYO was my very first Japanese-language short film. The invitation to Venice Film Festival in 2009 remain surreal to me until today. Did it really happen?

Before I could even recover from it, a film I co-wrote and produced ended up in Cannes.

After that, it's been one surprise after another.

I sure didn't expect to get a PHD out of all these last year!

Better to stop before this post becomes too self-congratulatory.

The whole point was to look at the past decade that I can refer to in the future as my "twenties", just so I can remember the journey that I've taken.

And also to prepare myself for the decade to come.

Aside from that, I have spent years developing a feature-length film project. Because, naturally, that's what I've always wanted to go for. It took me much longer than expected, and perhaps, the wait was worth it. The more I had to wait, the more desperate I became, yet at the same time, the more I got to work on other projects, sharpen my craft, meet more people, know more about myself, understand more about the world.

Isn't that how things work? Connecting the dots, right?

So I ended up finishing the shoot of my debut feature RIVER OF EXPLODING DURIANS in March 1, just a few days before I turn 30.

Right now, I'm just editing.

There's no birthday presents, the birthday present given to me is this belief that I have made a film that I wanted to make, in spite of all the obstacles that I faced. I was surrounded by good people.

And so, the 30-year-old me looked at a photo of the 3-year-old me. The difference is non-existent.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The final days of the RIVER OF EXPLODING DURIANS shoot (Cameron Highlands, protesters etc.)

Today's the last day of my twenties. I'm just doing what I like best, going through the post-production of my film, RIVER OF EXPLODING DURIANS.

So, while I have to wait patiently for the tedious process of syncing the audio and video before I start editing, I'm just going to revisit the final days of the shoot.

We went to Cameron Highlands because I wanted to capture the sunrise.

I was absolutely pumped during the shoot.

One of the main reasons why I was in Cameron Highlands was because I wanted to shoot at its iconic tea fields.

I had to shoot a scene with baby. I was offered a ridiculously cute baby with chubby cheeks. Unfortunately, I ended up not using him because he was too... big :(

I had to use a smaller baby. Like this one.

We took a group photo after we left Cameron Highlands. Joey, our actress, has essentially completed the shoot by then.

After Cameron Highlands, there was another day of shoot in March 1. By then, we were reduced to a skeletal crew.

But they were just a few simple scenes in the school.

It was finally over after that.

This is what I wrote that night.

After 17 days of film shoot (stretched out in a span of 2 months), I've finally finished shooting my debut feature, RIVER OF EXPLODING DURIANS. Entering the last few days in my twenties, I feel only relief and gratitude.

Having started this since January 2, 2014, making this film had been a very beautiful adventure. I recently read in an Alexander Payne interview that the job of a director is basically to direct the creativity of others (like a conductor in an orchestra). I agree. Throughout my shoot I've been surrounded by people whose expertise and skills I'm in awe of:

From my tremendously dedicated cast members, every single one of them. From the leads to the extras. The characters came alive because of them, and I could only stand aside and admire their craft.

And then, my wonderful team members, so resourceful, so brilliant.
My camera team had a fantastic eye for beauty.
My sound guy was committed to perfection.
My wardrobe/ make-up artist who could not be stopped by illness and has special effects make-up skills too!
My production designer who could create everything like a magician.
My production team who could held all of us together, like a glue.
The production assistants who were able to do so much more than I could ever do. They carried the team.

I only feel alive when I make films because I am surrounded by wonderful people. It's a feeling I can never ever describe to anyone. Thank you, all of you, who had been part of this adventure.

This project had existed in many different incarnations, through the ashes of previous unrealized screenplays, everything I did in the past, everything I tried to write, I guess they all led to RIVER OF EXPLODING DURIANS, and so this is the film that I've waited my entire life to make.

I will continue editing this film now. (been editing during the filming)

我的第一部长片《榴莲河》(暂名?)终于杀青了! 从一月二日开始, 我就一直为这部电影忙了。 拍摄17天, 认识了很多很棒的新朋友, 也很开心跟很多老友们再次合作。 29岁的最后几天终于实现了自己拍长片的童年梦想, 我觉得自己很荣幸很感恩, 能有那么强的演员们以及那么厉害的工作人员们参与小弟的电影拍摄。

有你们这些同伴陪我走这一条路, 实在是太好了。

现在开始剪片(其实拍摄开始已经开始了), 好兴奋啊!
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