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Monday, September 29, 2008

DAYS OF THE TURQUOISE SKY (KURUS) wins award at Bangkok International Film Festival

Miss Carol (Carmen Soo) tries to pick up books from the pond


Just got an email from Ming Jin early this morning (around 3am). Our film, DAYS OF THE TURQUOISE SKY (known to Malaysian audiences as KURUS) had won the Special Jury Prize at the Bangkok International Film Festival's Golden Kinnaree Awards last night, under the South-East Asian Competition.

Prior to Bangkok, this telemovie was screened at the Hong Kong, Taipei, Brisbane and the Cinema Digital Seoul Film Festivals. You can check out the full list of award winners here.

Father and son bonding


In case you haven't been following this blog earlier this year, here's a summary of the film:

Ali (newcomer Arshad Zamir), a 15-year-old boy living in rural Malaysia, is enduring the usual growing pains: —smart-arse bullies, teenage boredom, and a single-parent household. But the arrival of the new English teacher, Miss Liew (Carmen Soo), unleashes in Ali one serious schoolboy crush. On top of his father's complicated love life and his own yearnings for Miss Liew, Ali also witnesses his best friend's mixed-up feelings towards the posh new girl in class transform from loathing to love.



DAYS OF THE TURQUOISE SKY Trailer 1


DAYS OF THE TURQUOISE SKY Trailer 2


Malaysians can catch the film occasionally on NTV7. It had been aired 3 times this year.

(Go here for more DAYS OF THE TURQUOISE SKY-related posts.)

Sunday, September 28, 2008

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

Salman Rushdie's Midnight's ChildrenI 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.


FLEETING IMAGES trailer


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.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Mom force-feeds little girl (a scene from Love Suicides)

Kimmy forcefeeds Li Hui
p0wnzed!


Heya folks, as I've promised, I'm posting up the following scene to give everyone a sneak peek of my new short film LOVE SUICIDES.

(Note: This is ONE scene from the film. And NOT the entire film. I've been pretty mortified lately when a few people thought that the trailers of my two short films I posted few weeks ago were actually the entire films! WTF??)


Shout-out to the cast and crew of my film LOVE SUICIDES

Heya all, in case you don't know, I've gotten back to Tokyo last Friday night. Sorry for my lack of updates recently, been busy finishing up the editing of my new film, LOVE SUICIDES.

Yes, I've decided to call it LOVE SUICIDES, sticking with the title of the short story by Yasunari Kawabata which this film is loosely based on. For days I've tried to come up with better titles, ranging from the creatively titled 'SUICIDAL LOVE', to the more plot-revealing ones like 'MOM VS DAUGHTER', 'MOTHERLY LOVE', 'MOM 4 DAUGHTER 0', then I wanted to go for something more pretentiously poetic, like 'SOUNDLESS SEAWAVES', or 'THE BALLOON AND THE SEA', 'MOTHERLY ABUSE CONQUERS ALL' or 'BALLOON IN THE POCKET' etc.

None worked. I seriously suck at titles.

The funny thing about film shoots is that, once it's done, it seems like something that happened really long ago, like a distant dream. It was only a bit more than a week since the 2-day LOVE SUICIDES shoot, but somehow, it doesn't feel like that!

So let me share some thoughts about my new short film, LOVE SUICIDES.

LOVE SUICIDES has only two main locations and two cast members (Kimmy and Erica) and is a much more simplistic film than CHICKEN RICE MYSTERY. I decided to minimize the margin of error by eliminating dialogue for Erica's character. (Meanwhile, Kimmy herself only has two lines in the entire film too.)

Mending fishing nets
(Location 1= the wooden house behind Kimmy, and the area around it)

Erica sits by the sea
(Location 2= The beach)


Based on previous experience, I think child actors tend to have more problems handling dialogue and memorizing their lines. When doing CHICKEN RICE MYSTERY back in March, my main actor Ming Wei suffered a lot when he had to do his dialogue scenes, and his occasional stiff line-readings were picked up by quite a few of my audience members (who really understood Mandarin). Of course, it was also my own fault that I didn't direct him properly enough during the shoot.

An introspective scene of the little girl pondering


Erica generally doesn't like to talk. Having known her since she was born, and even though she had visited my place during Chinese New Years with her parents, that girl had never uttered a single word to me. Even during the shoot! So she was definitely perfect for her role. (or maybe she's really a method actor)

Although the story is smaller in scale, I actually have a bigger team than CHICKEN RICE MYSTERY... thus making this my biggest short film production ever! Aside from reuniting with my core CHICKEN RICE MYSTERY team from before (seriously, after my heartfelt shoutout to my CRM cast and crew back in March, I definitely didn't expect such a quick reunion!), I have Ming Jin the mentor (he's the producer for this film) and the three Greenlight interns helping me out.

The shoot was quite smooth, the traveling took a while, and because both Ming Jin and I (and even Lesly) had legendary horrible sense of direction, the traveling took up longer time than expected because we were perpetually lost, or took the wrong turns, and etc. Quite a bummer, but desperation led to creativity, and by racing against time, we often finish the shoot ahead of schedule. (Kimmy's scenes were done in a day instead of two days as I originally predicted)

Besides, there were some happy accidents, like how we stumbled into this beautiful paddy fields while trying to find the original locations, and decided to quickly film some scenes that weren't originally scripted.

Crossing the paddy field
(this scene ain't in the script)


Some mishaps with my external hard drive had slowed down my editing progress, but I managed to complete the editing much quicker than my previous works because I opted for longer takes and less coverage for this film. In terms of editing, I don't need to experiment that much compared to CHICKEN RICE MYSTERY or FLEETING IMAGES (the latter was seriously taxing), no more hip hop montage, no more rapid-fire cuts, it allows me the chance to experiment with a different sort of filmmaking, which is great. More about rhythm, more about establishing mood and atmosphere and most of all, the focus on performances. (which I often consider the weakest aspect of my filmmaking, though I'm normally blessed with good actors in my films, or people who just happened to be cast right)

Now that the film's near completion (have just sent the film off to Ming Jin for some final feedback, after that I'll do some final tuning, slap in the end credits and I'm done) I'll give a quick shout-out to my cast and crew.

KIMMY (as the mother): I think her performance here is definitely more intense than her award-winning performance in CHICKEN RICE MYSTERY. Will look forward to working with her again in my upcoming 3rd installment of my 'Crummy Mummy Trilogy' (a trilogy of short films about flawed moms that started with CHICKEN RICE MYSTERY and continued with LOVE SUICIDES) next year, once I can come up with new script!

ERICA (as the girl): She is Malaysia's Dakota Fanning or Abigail Breslin. Just that she doesn't talk, nor smile that much.

MING JIN the mentor: For the mentoring. Without him, I would never thought of doing the film in a place as awesome as Kuala Selangor. And damn, the seafood there is so delicious and cheap!

LESLY the cinematographer: Yup, cinematography here has improved much since CHICKEN RICE MYSTERY. (which was his rookie assignment, and yeah, there were some focusing errors that still make him wince every time he watches it) He will soon become the Emmanuel Lubezki to my Cuaron, the Prieto to my Ang Lee (... why are Mexican cinematographers so awesome?)

MIHARU the art director: Having her around sure lessens my worries. She's almost like the Miss Everything in the production. Buying and preparing props for me, cleaning up the mess, talking to the house owners etc. It was a mistake letting her carry the boom mic in CHICKEN RICE MYSTERY when she can do so much more! Part 1 and Part 2 of the photos were taken by her as well.

HAN the assistant editor: Aside from driving some of us to Kuala Selangor during the first day of the shoot, he also helped me digitize the video we shot using his computer because I left my important stuff (firewire cable, firewire card etc.) in Tokyo!

MEI FEN: She helped out during the second day of the shoot, and was the first person to visit me when I was editing it. Invaluable assistance. Part 3 of the production photos were taken by her. Amusingly, when we went to this Kuala Selangor seafood restaurant for dinner after the shoot was over, the people there recognized her from the Brand's Bird's Nest advertisement she was in. Too bad they still didn't let us eat for free though.

THE 3 GREENLIGHT INTERNS, KENNY, BENNY and WOON SIANG: Thanks for providing the muscle!

AUNTIE MEI LING and UNCLE RAYMOND: Erica's parents and really dear family friends of mine. Auntie Mei Ling accompanied Erica throughout the shoot and the film would never have been so smooth if she weren't around to communicate with Erica. And Uncle Raymond joined in the fun during the second day of the shoot too. They're really very supportive. Definitely on top of my special thanks section in film's end credits.

THE MALAY FAMILY WHO LENT ME THEIR HOUSE: Not everyone will so easily allow others to shoot in their house, so I have to say that I was immensely moved by how easygoing they were throughout the shoot. Heck, if someone wanted to shoot in my house, I probably wouldn't even allow it!

Yup, definitely looking forward to working with you all again. Next January, hopefully.

Oh yeah, and of course, I also have to give props to YASUNARI KAWABATA too, for writing the wonderful short story, 'LOVE SUICIDES'. Seriously, if you guys are that crazy over Murakami, you seriously should read Kawabata's works.

Well, that's all. To the rest, I'm probably going to upload a scene from the film one of these days. Gonna update this more often, lots of pending film reviews.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Film shoot at Kuala Selangor 3

The following photos are taken during the same day as my previous post, but this time, with Mei Fen's camera.

I'm going back to Tokyo tomorrow and will do the finishing touches for my new short film when I'm back there. However, I've already completed a rough cut of the film yesterday. Didn't really take such a long time, actually. I started yesterday 4ish in the morning, slept a little, then got most of it done by afternoon. And then worked on it a little more when Ming Jin, Han and the rest came over at night for some feedback.

Now I understand why most indie filmmakers here like doing minimalistic films with long quiet takes. My new film is like this, and it's just so much easier to edit compared to my previous ones like CHICKEN RICE MYSTERY and FLEETING IMAGES! There are some long lingering shots to help establish rhythm and atmosphere, but I seriously don't think it's as slow-paced as a Tsai Ming Liang film. Going for long takes and having minimal dialogue (Kimmy only has two lines in the film, the little girl Erica never talks) really doesn't mean that the film has to be slow, things do constantly happen onscreen (look at Wall-E).

P.S. Erica is a Malaysian Dakota Fanning.

Anyway, here are the photos:

Setting up a scene at the paddy fields

I examine the paddy fields

Leading Erica past the paddy field

Crossing the paddy field as I watch

Shooting the paddy field scenery

Getting close-ups of the rice plants

Beautiful paddy field of Sekinjang

Erica and her mom

Erica waiting for us to shoot a scene

Preparing to shoot a scene with Erica

Setting up at a wooden house by the sea

Instructing Erica what to do

An introspective scene of the little girl pondering

Preparing to shoot the sunset

Playing the balloon by the sea

Erica sits by the sea

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Film shoot at Kuala Selangor 2

Went back to Kuala Selangor to finish up my new (but still untitled) short film yesterday. Kimmy's scenes were done on Saturday (photos here), so I only needed to do the little girl, Erica/ Li Hui's scenes.

The shoot was much more relaxing because we only had to leave in the afternoon. We were about to return to the Malay house, but went the wrong way and found some really beautiful paddy fields instead. We decided that the place is so beautiful that we have to shoot a scene there. I wanted to pull off a Terence Malick DAYS OF HEAVEN-type shots.

(note: All these photos are taken by Miharu with her cellphone)

Paddy field at Kuala Selangor

Leading Erica past the paddy field
I decided to let Erica carry an orange balloon because that was the colour of my shirt. Well, not really, just that red balloons were overused in films (I used a lot of them in my student film GIRL DISCONNECTED too).

Lesly and Mei Fen
Lesly the cinematographer and Mei Fen. Mei Fen was my assistant director for CHICKEN RICE MYSTERY (she also had a cameo as a tranny), and some may recognize her as a model from DEAL OR NO DEAL or the BRAND'S Bird's Nest advertisement. She's less involved in the production this time (couldn't make it on Saturday), but came to help out on Monday.

Crossing the paddy field

Watching the paddy field

Getting some cutaway shots of the paddy field

Paddy field at Kuala Selangor is beautiful


After that, we went back to the wooden house to shoot a few scenes.

Demonstrating to Erica how to play with trash

Setting up a scene of Erica rummaging through trash

Erica doesn't want to rummage the trash


Done with the few scenes, we hurried off to the beach where a scene from THE ELEPHANT AND THE SEA was shot. Ming Jin was lost, we got off the car and I asked a secondary school kid on a bicycle for directions, he wasn't too sure, then a guy sped by in a motorbike and the school kid asked him for help, turned out that the guy was the kid's dad. The guy was awesome and led us to the place.

Erica and parents
Erica with her parents

Broken buildings by the sea

Broken buildings by the sea 2

Preparing another scene on the broken building

Erica at an abandoned wooden building

Mei Fen and Erica

Me giving instructions to Erica

Miharu gropes Mei Fen's head
Miharu grabs hold of Mei Fen's head

Demonstrating a scene to Erica and the crew
Me demonstrating to Erica and the crew

Lying at the beach

Lying at the beach 2

Shooting the sleeping scene

Magic hour at the beach

Mei Fen
Mei Fen showing Erica where to sit

Erica watching the setting sun


Gonna start editing now. Think I can get a rough cut done before I return to Tokyo on Friday.
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