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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Burn after reading... Salman Rushdie's MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN

Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children

I got myself this book two years ago in Perth. Not through purchase, but by forcing Justin to swap his MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN with my THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN (by John Fowles). It was a fair trade. He didn't like magical realism, while I do, and he ended up enjoying the latter immensely anyway.

But this isn't exactly a book review, just a quick note on how I felt after finishing Salman Rushdie's MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN yesterday afternoon. It didn't really take me that long to finish the book, really. I picked it up during my two weeks in Malaysia earlier this month, read through chunks of it on certain days in the LRT, then more as I flew back to Tokyo. Because the in-flight entertainment was down throughout half of my journey and I couldn't watch any films on the plane except THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM, I spent most of the time reading instead.

A pretty flight attendant saw the book beside me when she was serving me food and asked, in curiosity, whether it was good. I adopted an enthusiastic tone (not that I really need to fake one anyway) and gave my seal of approval. She was rather skeptical, telling me that her previous Rushdie experience was with THE SATANIC VERSES, which she found it hard to sit through because it was so slow (by then, she was starting to speak in hushed tones, as if I were a co-conspirator, as if she was letting me, only me, know that she had purchased this controversial banned book through adventurous means).

I feigned my Rushdie expertise (MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN is really the only Rushdie book I've ever read) and assured her that this was definitely Rushdie's magnum opus (it's sort of a common knowledge anyway). I pointed out the two BEST OF THE BOOKER prizes it had won (in 1993 and 2008), which makes the book (arguably) the greatest novel to ever win the Booker Prize. I also explained a bit about the plot, how it follows the history of India, albeit in a very mythical manner thanks to its magical realism technique (I was on Cathay Pacific, but the flight attendant was of Indian ethnicity).

As she walked off, the young guy sitting next to me probably hoped he had read more so that he would have pretty flight attendants speaking to him too. (kidding)

Today, I found myself drained after completing the book (it's a heavy read, and it doesn't have the happiest of endings either), and just like how I felt after experiencing or witnessing a great work of creativity, I was inspired to do something... creative. I'm on the verge of suffering from 'post-creativity depression' again now that the editing for my new short film, LOVE SUICIDES had come nearly to an end (just waiting for Ming Jin's feedback before I do my final adjustments, slap in end credits and declare its completion). And normally when I finish a film, I would end up feeling somewhat melancholic, because the process of filmmaking is such an emotional roller-coaster that finishing it would feel like a damning anticlimax. (it's a little like how many people in China felt after the Beijing Olympics ended) It's a common occurrence for me ever since my days in Perth. (and I've made some mentions of my 'depression' over the years on this blog)

Magical realism (in films) is actually a subject I'll be researching for my Masters in film, and by proposing this research, I've also made a mention to my professor that most films I try to do now will contain some elements of magical realism (like LOVE SUICIDES). It is also very likely that my soon-to-be-made debut feature-length (thesis?) film will belong to the magical realism genre. I still intend to make a few more short films before moving to feature because I care more about sharpening my own skills and experimenting with my own styles first.

And not being a guy with a long-term plan, I really never gave my soon-to-be-made debut feature-length (thesis?) film any thoughts.

Back in Malaysia, my friend Peng Shien had asked that if I were given the money and the crew, would I make something 'cool and badass' like Johnnie To's PTU, or an arthouse film 'that could bore everyone to death' like Wong Kar Wai's CHUNGKING EXPRESS? (Note: WKW isn't really well-loved in Malaysia, he is the poster-boy for boring films regular filmgoers in the country don't really wanna give a crap about. Hell, even my dad, a film critic, seems to like only AS TEARS GOES BY.) I told Peng Shien that I seriously had no idea. It's just a matter of mood, of waiting for the right inspiration to strike me, or (I added loftily) the right time to 'draw from the limitless ideas that float within my ocean of creativity'.

I've made 3 short films in the past 9 months (4, if you count FROM BHOL LE WITH LOVE, the opening video I made for the PC.com's Awards Night in January), each vastly different from one another. (I hope) CHICKEN RICE MYSTERY is a crowd-pleasing whimsical comedy, FLEETING IMAGES is a non-narrative experimental attempt at visual poetry, LOVE SUICIDES is a minimalistic drama of isolation and disconnection with some understated attempts at horror. And I don't find any one of the three being any less personal than the others.

Each of my short films this year had taken less than 2 months to develop. A month ago, I would never expect myself to return to Malaysia and do a loose adaptation of a Yasunari Kawabata short story, just like in early June, I would never thought of combining 18-month-old travel videos of India, leftover footage from a canceled video advertorial to craft FLEETING IMAGES just because I was inspired after watching a DVD of Chris Marker's SANS SOLEIL.


Hence, I've assumed the same for my upcoming feature film. I know I'll be struck by inspiration when the time is right, so why force myself to develop something now, and spend many years on it? The passing years would cause the rapid increase of expectations and hopes one normally reserves for most passion projects, and in the end feeling disappointed that it never happened, or it never turned out to be as great as imagined, or worth the many years it had consumed. (one who tries to run a psychoanalysis on what I've said will start to liken my approach to a possible fear of commitment, and thus all kinds of conclusions will be drawn about my perpetually woeful love life)

Yet for the first time ever, MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN caused me to think a little about what my first feature film would be like. For some brief moments, I mentally made vague outlines about its possibilities, like a lovesick man imagining how his son would look like.

Whether I were to shoot it in Tokyo, or in Malaysia...

"My first film would be something epic." I said solemnly to my little sister on MSN, earning a confused '0_0' from her in return. And by typing out my sudden pronouncement, the ghostly apparition of an idea faded away, just as expected.

Of course, it was just a spur of a moment thing. Just a person suddenly feeling very inspired because he had just read a great book. Understanding my own situation, I added, in equal solemnity, to my sister (over the MSN):

"Yup. Finishing a great work of literature can be so inspiring at times."

And thus I was suddenly reminded me past conversations with Linora and Mei Fen (she who served as my assistant and was also the 3rd 'uncle' in CHICKEN RICE MYSTERY.) Mei Fen has ambitions of becoming a filmmaker herself. Aside from her part-time job in acting and modeling, she helps me with my film shoots because it's a nice opportunity to learn and soak in the experience (of course, I'm honest enough to admit that she really isn't learning from me, but more like observing the numerous screw ups I go through so she'll know what to avoid in the future :D).

There was once, sometime in March, before I first moved to Tokyo, (during the post-production of CHICKEN RICE MYSTERY) when I asked Mei Fen whether she liked reading novels. It was a question that threw her off-guard.

"Eh? Why?" She didn't seem to understand why I've asked her that question. And from her reaction I knew it was a no.

I was thoughtful for a moment before I answered her. "Because, I think, many (aspiring filmmakers) might overlook the importance of literature. Confining their influences and inspiration only to other films and TV. And not exposing themselves to the many and many storytelling possibilities one can get from literature."

(I also added) Unfortunately, we were born and bred in a culture and an education system where the mere act of reading literature had often been trivialized and even ridiculed. To many in Malaysia, the act of reading is a chore associated only with the painfully tedious textbooks one have to endure during classes for the sake of passing exams. Many times, I've heard different people making the same remark: "Ah, I have no time for novels, I've suffered enough already reading our textbooks!"

This, unfortunately, leads me to a vivid memory I have during my secondary school years. (which I didn't share with Mei Fen then) During recess, I was sitting quietly under a tree, reading a book (it was probably a fantasy novel, the fantasy genre dominated most of my teens, long before everyone jumped into the Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings bandwagons thanks to the films).

Drizzt Do'Urden
As a teen, I used to read books about Drizzt Do'Urden with a straight face

Suddenly, a snot-faced prefect came over and snatched my book away.

"I have to confiscate this." His voice croaked with a pathetic parody of imposing authority. I remember his face but not his name, he was actually one year my junior.

"Why? I'm reading quietly. It's just a book." I felt anger rising within me.

"But it's fiction. If you want it back, you will have to write a letter." He declared haughtily. I noted disdain in his voice when he said 'fiction', as if he had just caught me rubbing myself against the pages of a magazine about bestiality and necrophilia.

(To be fair, this wasn't a personal vendetta from the prefect. I do remember vaguely that there was some stupid rule in Catholic High where novels were banned. But I thought that was limited only to Harlequin romances)

Harlequin Romance

There was a brief argument between me and he, which I think I prevailed, because I remembered him finally walking off, and there wasn't any need to write some stupid letter begging the prefects to return me my book. But even so, I still simmer a little in annoyance when I think of this long-ago incident and that prefect's audacity to damn the very action of reading fiction. ("There!" I would say later to friends. "That's why the survey showed that an average Malaysian reads only a novel a year! With this kind of support showed by secondary schools, who would want to read anymore?" Of course, that was an admittedly unfair and sweeping generalization I made, since there's a possibility my school was the only one afflicted by this irrational antagonism towards 'works of fiction')

And thus, as a long-delayed act of defiance against my old school and also my middle-finger salute to the prefect who foolishly tried to confiscate my book 7 years ago, I advised Mei Fen to read more novels and other works of literature so it can help with her filmmaking.

Yet by encouraging someone to, you know, read, I became a pariah.