Yup, went to this Q & A session at a film academy today with my dad, and I had the fortune to meet James Lee (top photo), a famous local independant filmmaker who is considered as one of the pioneers of the current Malaysian independant filmmaking movement, and Chan Jin Quan (that's what his name sounds like in Mandarin, I'm not too sure what his actual English name is, bottom pic), a veteran TV actor who had been around from the glory days of Chinese Malaysian television to its fall, and he had managed to stay tough and continued the career he had loved... despite this, he looks really young though.
The local Malaysian filmmaking scene is being discussed today, the industry, the regular cinemagoers, the numerous obstacles and restrictions preventing filmmakers from succeeding, many things, therefore, I'll try to speak out about the numerous things that caught my attention today. There had been many issues in our local film industry that makes aspiring filmmaker like me want to stay overseas instead of here, because I knew that there are more opportunities in, say, Australia, than here. So, enough talk, here are the crucial flaws of our system that leaves me rather apprehensive about pursuing my passion here.
1) Malaysia lacks a true film culture
A regular Malaysian cinemagoer just ain't THAT into movies, even when compared with our neighbour, Singapore. Mega-budget blockbusters and Jackie Chan films (I am embarrassed to say that Malaysia was the ONLY place in the world where his crap 'The Tuxedo' didn't flop) are embraced, while non-mainstream films are COMPLETELY shunned. There are rarely any arthouse theaters in Malaysia, unlike Singapore, where people would go for the likes of 'Lost In Translation', 'Sideways' and 'Million Dollar Baby', over here? All the aforementioned Oscar-nominated (and winning) films were not brought over by the local film distributors because they KNEW that no one in Malaysia would flock into the theaters to see such films.
Nope, people just prefer Jackie Chan MUCH more.
Therefore, a film labelled by a 'thinking person's film' is unlikely to arrive at Malaysian theaters. This is sad, because it shows that most cinemagoers aren't really thinking people. And because film is more like a mindless entertainment for them, and not exactly a culture, they never go too deeply into it.
Personal experience? Among the fourteen cast members in my previous short film, 'Forced Labour', only ONE person was Malaysian (heya, Johan!). The rest thought that I was nuts for trying to make a movie, they giggled, excused themselves and ran off. If I can get myself TWO enthusiastic cast members from Singapore, I have no idea why was it THAT difficult to get myself one from Malaysia. Film enthusiasts in Malaysia is just one in a million.
If I hadn't gone to Perth, I doubt I would've actually made two short films by now. Before I went to Perth, I vowed to make a film by the age of 25. At that time, I thought it was a pretty difficult thing to achieve... little did I know that things would turn out so differently few months later. I managed to achieve my goal five years younger than my targeted age.
I'm not blaming the regular cinemagoers for being like that. I guess that's just part of something that's difficult to change. Therefore, if foreign indie films are ignored, how the hell can local ones stand a chance now?
2) A messed up star system
Idol-worshipping and stargazing are a common habit among moviegoers. Star power can be such an important tool for commercial filmmakers. When big stars are attached, producers dare to greenlight a project, investors have the confidence in funding it, because they knew that the film has the potential to be profitable.
That happens in Hollywood, Bollywood, Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Korea, Singapore and various other countries with a strong film industry.
You see, we don't really have a huge acting star in Malaysia. Hell, we rarely have stars... period. 90% of the biggest Chinese singers from Malaysia made it big in Taiwan first before they came back as celebrities. James Lee
had mentioned that back in the early 90s, there was a famous Malaysian singer (I presume he's Eric Mok) who gotten a lot of heat because denied that he was Malaysian when asked. He can't be blamed. Despite trying his best to make it big in Malaysia, he was SHUNNED AND IGNORED. Yet when he was in Singapore and Taiwan, he indeed managed to make it big. How can he not feel pissed off when he was treated thus in his own country when it was his own countrymen who turned their backs to him first?
Oh, did I mention that Michelle Yeoh became such a huge star because she was in HONG KONG films and not Malaysian ones? I could've sworn that she could have never been an internationally-known actress she is now if she had remained in Malaysia.
Hell, James Lee became known to people here because he won awards in FOREIGN film festivals. He was barely noticed when he was here. Tsai Min Liang became internationally-renowned... after he went to Taiwan to make Taiwanese movies. There are dozens of filmmakers who would never be known here at all if they never made the move to overseas first.
Do local people give Malaysian filmmakers and films a chance? Although subjectively speaking, the quality of these movies may not rival those of our more illustrious luminaries like Singapore, Korea and Thailand, let alone Hollywood. But people shouldn't attempt to compare local films with those at first. How can our industry grow when it isn't even nurtured?
Stargazing and idol-worshipping are indeed common in Malaysia, but only for celebrities of Hollywood, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. There's no place left for local artistes.
Of course, the public isn't entirely to blame. Even during its glory days, film studios and tv studios never really tried to develop a star system, to create film or TV stars that the general public are aware of so that their released products can be commercially viable. Once a local TV artiste became famous, he or she would ask for a raise, they are immediately shelved and put aside, and REPLACED by younger stars. That explains why many TV actors and actresses who were rather famous back then disappeared abruptly right after their meteoric rise. Because these companies and studios were concentrating so much on cutting costs and gaining profits, our country ended up not having a star system at all. Perhaps the price named by the artiste was outrageous, but a compromise would've been reached.
Thus, even the commercial filmmakers have to suffer because of this.
Singapore had their own stars. They worship their locally-grown artistes (Fann Wong, Stephanie Sun), they appreciate their local commercial fillmakers (Jack Neo). Why can't the same thing be developed in our country? Because a regular Malaysian has long decided that local talents can't compare with foreign ones. This is unfortunately, is a stupid belief I used to have in the past.
And because of this, said my dad, the media shifts their attention solely on foreign celebrities and not local talents, knowing that the general public are more interested in reading, say, gossip of some Taiwanese starlet, than the news of a local filmmaker winning an award in a foreign film festival.
3) Restrictions imposed by the Government.
Kissing scenes that last longer than 3 seconds are snipped off, non-graphic sex scenes are snipped off.
Oh, in the 90s, female actresses aren't allowed to wear sleeveless shirts, guys aren't allowed to be topless (even if the character is swimming!). Blue jeans and caps are banned too.
Great place for creative minds huh?
4)Don't expect to make a living through films in Malaysia.
The actor, Chan, said that during the heyday of HVN (a now-dissolved television studio) in 1993-1996, he had fans mobbing him for autographs, he was recognized whenever he went out. Then the Asian financial crisis came in 1997, and not too long after, HVN fell apart and he was left jobless. It was a difficult period for him. Almost instantly, and he was forgotten.
Many of his colleagues, former actors and actresses, tried to get a normal job, but ended up suffering. Because they were once artistes, they were discriminated by others in the company, and given extra work. It was sad.
Although he managed to revive an acting career these days, he was aware of the fact that he wouldn't really make a living off it. It was just him doing something he loved to do, fulfilling his passion. I can understand and totally respect that.
The same goes with James Lee, who did suffer some difficult periods as well in the past. Although he had made his own indie films, he had lots of trouble trying to get a stint in local advertising firms because he was pigeonholed as a 'non-mainstream/non-commercial/purely arthouse' director, thus being unable to direct an advertisement. In the end, making movies became merely something for him to achieve his dreams and passions, while other projects like shooting music videos were to support himself.
I feel the same as well. I am not naive, I do not dream of myself becoming a Hollywood filmmaker who is given tens of millions to make a blockbuster. To me, filmmaking is also a childhood dream and a passion. I love telling stories, thus I write, and in the end, filmmaking is merely another medium for me to tell a story. If I can ever make it big as a filmmaker, then it's fine, but for now, I purely enjoy the entire process of planning and making a film. The exhilaration and excitement of all these make everything worth it for me, that's why I never felt tired at all.
Nothing beats the feeling of trying to make a zero-budget film rival a more expensive feature film in terms of looks, or coming up with all kinds of methods to deal with your budget limitations. What other methods are better to improve your filmmaking skills and increase your confidence when you are capable of triumphing over such adversity. The finest filmmakers in the world started small, so that they could gain the necessary skills to create something bigger.
For me, it's never a matter of making bigger and more expensive films, I don't necessarily want each film to become bigger than the one before. All I want to do is to tell my audiences a good story, that's all.
And damn it, I love the feeling of saying the following line.
"I am Edmund Yeo. Writer and filmmaker."
It just gives me a tingling feeling inside. So yeah, I'll end this insanely long entry with a MSN conversation I had hours ago with Sebastian, who is also an aspiring filmmaker.
Sebastian: What sort of film projects would you do, assuming you have the talent and the clout, say 20 yrs from now, as in, what kind of stories/films do you fantasise about doing?
Me: Hm. Anything that's close to my heart and soul
Sebastian: so you've never actually daydreamed about stories?
Me: There are tons of stories playing within my mind, too many. Stories about people, stories of things i see. It's been like that since i was a child, that's why i write. To me, filmmaking is another method of telling a story.
Sebastian: I know what you mean
Me: So there's nothing i specifically want to make into a movie since the stories within my mind evolve ceaselessly.
Sebastian: That's where we differ i suppose ... i tend to have a few stories in mind and for years my mind would be working on it, either replaying it over and over, or changing bits here and there.
Me: I don't replay things. If i have to make something now, I’ll just pluck something out from within my mind and develop it. But i seldom look into the future, about what i want to make in the future because i know that by then, i'll have different stories in my mind.