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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Tokyo sure felt pretty... normal.

I'm now leaving for Narita Airport in an empty shuttle.


Returning to Malaysia again after a whirlwind 4 days in Tokyo.

I genuinely expected the worst when I flew here, imagining every single scenario I've seen in post-apocalyptic films and novels, wondering in fear how the city of Tokyo would shrivel or crumble under the aftermath of the quake, or the looming shadow of the nuclear reactor situation in Fukushima. I expected people to hide at homes, or walked around in rubber suits and oxygen masks.

I even brought to boxes of mineral water with me to Tokyo, since most people are telling me that the radiated water in the country would cause instant death etc.


Friends who have said things like "I'm sure people in Tokyo are now too worried about the nuclear situation to really care about anything else!!"

In their minds, they imagined everyday life in Japan disrupted, chaos throughout the city, scavengers, cannibals, cults everywhere etc. Yep, I was thinking of THE ROAD and AKIRA.

I'm almost surprised by how NORMAL things are in Tokyo. I went to Shinjuku and it remained bustling as usual, people were shopping, hanging around, laughing, going for movies. Schoolkids and children ran about. Entirely devoid of doom and gloom.

Far from the imagined doomsday scenario I had in mind. In my attempt to return, where, in my delusional mind, I could show heroic solidarity with my Japanese brethren, I noticed that almost everyone had continued life as normal, how anticlimactic!

Doesn't seem at all like what I've seen from the (foreign) media... Perhaps having people get over the disaster so soon, and going through their lives just as before don't really fit the narrative woven outside for the Japanese folks. I'm a little amused, feeling some sort of admiration.

There are some attempts at power conservation, the trains have lessened, the Don Quixote shop near my lab now closes at 1am instead of the usual 5am (I was unamused), but the food and drinks supply in convenience stores seemed enough (I checked and saw some mineral water still waiting at the shelf)

Well, at least I can tell people I know that the city of Tokyo seemed pretty okay, although I'm sure most people I meet back at home are more worried about how badly exposed I am to the utterly fatal radiation.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Receiving the Ono Azusa Memorial Award in Waseda University

So, you may know already that I arrived in Tokyo yesterday morning after taking the midnight flight. At first there was some suspense to know the fate of my room after the massive quake, to my relief, only my anime girl figurines suffered.

After that, I immediately changed and headed off to the Ono Azusa Memorial Award ceremony in Waseda University.

Here's an info from the Waseda website what this award is about.

In memory of the late Azusa Ono, who is long remembered with reverence as a co-founder of Waseda University and for the specific purpose of elevating the Waseda Spirit, the special fund for Azusa Ono Memorial Awards was created in 1959. Awards are presented during graduation ceremonies to individual students (or student groups) who have distinguished themselves or have made outstanding contributions in the fields of academic studies, art, and sports during the previous year. Azusa Ono Memorial Awards for Academic Studies are given to students whose dissertations, graduation theses or seminar reports have been recognized as outstanding in quality. Azusa Ono Memorial Awards for Art are given to students whose art productions have been recognized as outstanding in quality. Azusa Ono Memorial Awards for Sports are given to students who have established a world record or the equivalent in various athletic events.

I was given the 2010 Azusa Ono Memorial Award for Art based on writing and directing my short film KINGYO (went to Venice Film Festival 2009), producing and co-writing Ming Jin's THE TIGER FACTORY (premiered at Director's Fortnight in Cannes 2010, received a special mention at Tokyo International Film Fest 2010), and then writing and directing the short film INHALATION (Best Asian Short Film winner in Pusan International Film Festival 2010, also shown in Clermont-Ferrand, Vancouver, Tokyo film fests, among others)

It's quite an honour because I'm the first ever foreigner recipient in the award's 52 year history (as in, to receive the award for contribution to Art, I believe a foreigner received an Azusa Ono Memorial Award for Academic Studies back in the 60s or 70s) Awesome.

Many of my friends and family back in Malaysia concern about my well-being had questioned my decision to return to Tokyo. The graduation ceremony in the university got cancelled due to the recent events, but the award ceremony went on as usual, if the Japanese were willing to show such resilience and determination in light of such a massive national tragedy, it would be wrong of me to not be around for the award presentation, and also to share their courage.

Hence, I returned to Tokyo.

Here's me, receiving the award from the president of Waseda University, Mr Kaoru Kamata.

Receiving the award from Kaoru Kamata, president of Waseda University


This duo are this year's only other Azusa Ono Memorial Award for Art recipients. I believe it had something to do with some nice architectural work.

This year's only other Azusa Ono Memorial Award for Art recipients


The award ceremony was held privately in this room, non-award recipients had to wait outside until all awards were handed out. Notice the wall is lined with photos of previous Waseda presidents.

Room where the award ceremony was held

Waseda presidents of the past


Here's me with Mr Shuji Hashimoto, vice president of Waseda University.

With Shuji Hashimoto, the vice-president of Waseda University


Ando-sensei joined in the fun too. Obviously, he was the one who nominated me for this award, so I would never have gotten it without him, thanks, Ando-sensei.

With Ando-sensei, Hashimoto-san etc.


This is Nana Takeda, she is a figure skater. She received the Azusa Ono Memorial Award for sports. Her smile nearly blinded me. Ouch.

With Nana Takeda, figure skater and recipient of Azusa Ono Memorial Award for Sports


Video of her in action


Unlike the Arts folks, there were LOTS of Azusa Ono Memorial Award for sports recipients. Some were sports teams.

All recipients of Azusa Ono Memorial Award for Sports


The award came with a medal, my name is engraved on its back.

With my Azusa Ono Memorial Award certificate and medal

Front of Azusa Ono Memorial Award medal

Back of Azusa Ono Memorial Award medal

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The earthquake didn't make my messy room messier

When I reached my room and was about to open it, I feared the worst. So when I finally saw that my messy room was only slightly messier than when I left it 18 days ago, I felt relieved, and even incredulous. I expected to see my glass figurines, or plates, or books, or CDs on the floor, but nothing. Even my two bottles of half empty mineral water and green tea left on the floor were still standing upright.

The only casualties were, er, four of my anime figurines that I placed on my book shelf for decoration.



One of them fell onto the floor, that was it.

Anyway, I have an award ceremony to attend later.

Location:2丁目,Bunkyo,Japan

Finding the truth in Tokyo

I'm now in Tokyo. In a bus from Narita Airport to my place.


Having been in Malaysia since March 7, I have yet to return after the massive quake.

I dread to see what my room has become. The worst case scenario I conjured in my mind is to see my TV flying off from where it was and crashing into the numerous external hard disks I placed on the floor, thus destroying many years' worth of invaluable data. I'm sure my books and CDs have fallen off their racks over my bed, and that some of my tiny glass figurines are probably gone.

My room had always been messy, will it be even messier? Another one hour left in my bus journey, gonna know soon.

The window seat




As a child, whenever I was flying, I would, of course, always pick the window seat. My dad was then working in both Malaysia and Singapore, so he had to fly off every other week, and sometimes my mom and I would follow.

I loved those moments when we were taking off, or before we were landing, where I would see everything spread out like miniatures beneath me. Cars, buildings, the land, becoming smaller as I fly, or seeing them reemerging into view as I was to reach my destination.

However, in recent years after I became a filmmaker, as I became flying with regularity, the aisle seat became my first choice. I've been taking 10+ hour flights almost every month nowadays. It's more practical to sit on a spot where it's easier for me to head to the toilet.

That's what growing up is like, the simple little pleasures in life replaced by practicality, hence they end up being forgotten, neglected, scoffed at as childish whims.

As I am writing this, I'm on a midnight flight to Tokyo. A trip I didn't really want to divulge much for the sake of quelling the worries of friends and family who are bothered by the situation in Japan now. I've been hearing enough of the word 'radiation' to last me a lifetime. Nor do I want to hear people who questioned the sanity of my parents who allowed me to fly.

Only 24 hours have passed since I flew back from Hong Kong, and I'm already flying again. As usual, I chose the aisle seat. The flight is somewhat empty, most passengers around me are Japanese returning to their own country.




The window seat beside me was empty, and as the plane took off, I glanced out at the window and noticed the night scenery below me, gradually becoming smaller, I looked at the surprisingly complex network of roads lit up by beautiful street lights, the moving dots of lights that are cars. It felt like an impressionistic painting that moves, and I found myself somehow remembering the child who once loved the window seat and its view.






Friday, March 25, 2011

Shooting the rest of my short 'LAST FRAGMENTS OF WINTER'

So, in the 11 days since I last updated the blog, I've gone through the grueling shoot for the rest of my short film LAST FRAGMENTS OF WINTER (March 15-18), and then rushed off to the Hong Kong International Film Festival on March 20 for the HAF (HK - Asia Film Financing Forum), and came back last night (March 24).

This blog post is about the grueling shoot.

On March 15, I announced to the world that I was going to shoot the Malaysian segment of the short film. (I finished the stunningly beautiful Japanese segment earlier in Shirakawa-go)

Announcing the film shoot for LAST FRAGMENTS OF WINTER


The first day was meant to be an easy shoot, just a few scenes in a KTM train... it turned out to be much more complicated than I thought...

My second Facebook status and my exchange with the others summarize everything.

What I learnt while shooting in the KTM


I'm always baffled by how horribly bad the KTM service is, but I guess it's probably naive of me to expect any improvements.

Let's just say that I spent most of the day screaming and cursing. I got REALLY annoyed when some dude stood like a hero at the entrance of the crowded train without having the courtesy to push himself in and allow some space for me to get in. Hence causing me to miss the train and having to wait for another half an hour to shoot it. Thanks a lot, dude who stood at the train door and would not allow me to get in. I hope you're proud of your life.

On the 16th of March, dad's birthday, I headed off to Kuala Selangor for the shoot. Kuala Selangor was the location for Ming Jin's films, THE ELEPHANT AND THE SEA, WOMAN ON FIRE LOOKS FOR WATER, and my own short film, LOVE SUICIDES. I showed most of the films to Teck Zee the cinematographer days before the shoot, telling him that I didn't want my new film to look ANYTHING like the old one.

Here are two of my leads, Tan Ley Teng (woman in white) and Foo Kang Chen (the kid). Ley Teng's a newscaster for NTV7, the kid's the nephew of one of my producers, Fei Ling.

Tan Ley Teng and Foo Kang Chen at the set of 'LAST FRAGMENTS OF WINTER'


This is Teck Zee the cinematographer, after I asked him to climb onto the car to shoot a breathtaking vista shot. Yes, the car was moving.

Me: "Teck Zee! Don't fall! Well, you CAN fall, but not MY camera!!!!"

Teck Zee the Cinematographer undertaking a difficult shot


The shoot in Kuala Selangor was pretty smooth.

Shooting a boat scene for LAST FRAGMENTS OF WINTER

LAST FRAGMENTS OF WINTER was shot with a 7D

A boat scene in LAST FRAGMENTS OF WINTER


March 17, I shot my scenes in a temple.

They were mindblowing scenes of sheer awesomeness.

Unfortunately, I forgot to take any photos on that day.

So, we'll move on.

March 18, last day of the shoot. A marathon shoot that began in the afternoon and ended at around 2pm.

This is Fei Ling the producer giving Ley Teng a facial mole, for the sake of continuity, a laptop showing an earlier scene shot in two days earlier in Kuala Selangor was placed next to them.

Fei Ling the producer doing make-up for Ley Teng

Fei Ling the producer doing make-up for Ley Teng 2


We then shot in the LRT (monorail), which was MUCH easier to shoot in. People were gathered around us to watch the shoot. I liked the attention.

Shooting a train scene for LAST FRAGMENTS OF WINTER


We then moved to Wangsa Maju (KL) for the last leg of the shoot. We waited a while, because most of the scenes were night scenes. Lead actor Berg Lee was nice enough to lend me his apartment for the shoot.

This is Kang Shen with his dad, chillin'.

Kang Shen hanging out with his dad between shots


This is Ley Teng, in front of an LRT station. I didn't know that iPhone is that weak with night photos, hmm.

Ley Teng at Wangsa Maju LRT station

Ley Teng at Wangsa Maju LRT station 2


After that we returned to Berg's apartment and finished the rest of the shoot.

Shooting an apartment scene with Ley Teng and Berg Lee

Shooting an apartment scene with Ley Teng and Berg Lee 2


You'll notice that in the end, especially during the last day, we were a 4-men crew, Fei Ling the producer, Teck Zee the cinematographer, Kenny the Mr Everything who did sound and was also more or less the production manager as well.

Things went well, had been editing the film every night after the shoot, and brought the entire thing over to Hong Kong to edit. You'll be hearing more about this short film in near future.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Thoughts on the Sendai earthquake and tsunami in Japan

Friends and family on Facebook regarding the 2011 Japan Earthquake


Since the devastating Sendai earthquake and tsunami in Japan last Friday, I've been receiving numerous text messages, emails, phone calls, Facebook posts etc. from friends, family, online acquaintances worried about my well-being. (most people didn't know that I returned to Malaysia a few days earlier)

I'm very grateful for their concern, and I thank them from my heart.

However, my being safe in Malaysia should not diminish the fact that a great tragedy has occurred in Japan, which had more or less became another home of mine in the past three years. I don't feel relieved, nor lucky, that I'm not in Japan when it all happened, since many of my friends and loved ones are still there. I also can't explain why a part of me felt a little uncomfortable, guilty even, that I'm here.

I'm returning to Tokyo in ten days. The Malaysian part of the shoot for my new short, LAST FRAGMENTS OF WINTER will begin tomorrow. Perhaps the most I can do now is just concentrate and finish what I started in Japan.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

6th of March 2011. An uneventful birthday suddenly turned suspenseful.

I'm back in Malaysia since yesterday morning.

Had a nice belated birthday celebration dinner with parents + sister + 'Ah Gou' (aunt in Teochew, dad's elder sister) and Kai Fai and cute fat Wai Kong (unofficially my mom's two godsons).

Belated birthday celebration dinner (March 7, 2011)


But I'll chronicle what happened on the actual day of my birthday instead, 6th of March, 2011.

As I was supposed to catch the midnight flight back to Malaysia, I was already packing early in the morning, and by afternoon, I had brought all my luggages to my editing lab. Quickly I was doing some additional editing for my new short film LAST FRAGMENTS OF WINTER (mentioned in my previous post).

Not one who throws parties or lavish birthday bashes (I can only remember two birthday parties in my lifetime, one in McDonald's when I was 6, another in Perth, when I was 21, thrown by my friend, former guestblogger and current novelist, Justin), I knew it was going to be a rather quiet, and uneventful birthday. But then, to be doing what I love is fruitful enough.

Kong dropped by at the lab, then he went off. After shooting the Japanese segment of LAST FRAGMENTS OF WINTER, he was going to help KINGYO actress Luchino Fujisaki do a promotional video for her newly-released photobook.

After that, Teng Fei dropped by to pass me a gift (chocolates from Hokkaido), and then we had lunch at a ramen shop nearby. Then she went off too, as she had a photography assignment.

I headed back to the lab. Yuiko the producer had already arrived. She passed me a gift (Big Thunder chocolate bars), I showed her the stuff that I've edited. It was a brief meeting, I was returning to Malaysia, so she had to do some administrative duties plus paperwork for the production while I'm not around.

Yuiko left at 7pm.

I left the lab half an hour later, catching the train to Haneda Airport. Taking the Air Asia flight home, it was the first time I've been to Haneda since December 2008 (first ever trip to Dubai Film Fest) I took the Tozai Line from Waseda to Nihombashi, then I switched to the Toei Asakusa from Nihombashi to Sengakuji, and from Sengakuji, I took the Keikyu Main Line that went directly to Haneda.

The entire ride took less than an hour (felt shorter since I was answering nearly 200 birthday wishes on Facebook via iPhone). I reached Haneda really quickly. Rushed out of the train, headed to the elevator, pressed the button...

THEN i realized my notebook bag wasn't with me.

My notebook bag with my laptop computer.

My notebook bag with my laptop computer AND my passport.

"Oh noooooooooooooooooooooooooooo" I screamed in my head.

I went back to the station, to the station manager, telling him about plight. As I was doing that, many things floated in my mind.

What if I lose my computer?

What if I lose my passport?

What if I cannot return to Malaysia?

The station manager made a phone call.

While more thoughts of sheer bleakness and angst filled up my mind.

Does that mean that I will not be able to complete my short film?

Could it be possible? That my lifelong absent-mindedness had finally gotten the best of my creative brilliance?

Which train did I leave the bag at? Was the one to Haneda? Or was it the train to Sengakuji? Or was it the train to Nihombashi?

The station manager told me that my bag was at the next station, and I could just pick it up from the station manager over there.

Phew. I sighed in relief, all dark despairing thoughts vanished instantly from my mind.

I ended up going there and picking up the bag from the manager at the other station.

"Ah, what a happy birthday!" I said when I finally got hold of my bag again. An uneventful little birthday that suddenly turned suspenseful, it was good to inject a little bit of drama in life, even though I almost had a heart attack.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

My film shoot at Shirakawa-go

Yes, I've been busy the past few days shooting my new short film LAST FRAGMENTS OF WINTER. If you follow me on Twitter, you might have seen me tweeting some production stills.

It's now my birthday, and I find it rather fitting that I'm spending it in my editing room.

Anyway, I shot my film at the mythical Shirakawa village, which is one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites. It displays a style of building called the Gassho-zukuri. I was there from the 2nd to 4th of March.

I was in Shirawa-go once, ten years ago, in a family trip. It was autumn, I was so captivated by its coziness and distinctive beauty that I knew I would want to return again. When I was there, I saw a poster of the village during winter, where it is covered in thick snow, that was what compounded my desire to go to the place. Of course, I never expected that I would need to wait for 10 years to return, but it's worth it.

So, here's my recap.

On the 2nd of March, I left with Kong the cinematographer, Yuiko the producer and Arisa the actress.

Here are photos of Yuiko and Arisa in the train.

Arisa, Yuiko, and my head

Me, Yuiko and Arisa


The following photo summed up eloquently our perilous train ride from Tokyo to Nagoya, then from Nagoya to Takayama, where I stopped briefly for soba, and then finally, reaching Shirakawa-go.

The journey to Shirakawa-go


The order is a little jumbled up because I didn't plan the montage properly, but you get a rough idea.

Yuiko the producer also took a photo of us at the soba restaurant in Takayama.

I enjoyed the soba in Takayama


Immediately after reaching Shirakawa village, we started our film shoot with Arisa. You can see from the picture below, which poignantly summed up the first day of our film shoot, to our first dinner at the inn in Shirakawa village (we lived in a place called the Yamamotto Inn), the manageress' kids, and the next morning, when the entire village was coated with snow.

Day 1 of the shoot


When we first arrived at Shirakawa-go, I was slightly worried.

"Hmm." Kong said. "I remember seeing more snow when I came here last year." (Kong visited Shirakawa-go by himself exactly a year ago, so he was our guide)

I looked around. The sky was blue, the sunlight was strong... the snow was scarce. Not like what I saw in photos.

For a while I have feared that the 6 hour journey we took was for naught, that finally, nature decided to toy with me, to punish me for my cockiness, to let me know what is it like to have an entire production fall apart.

"Could this be possible? This is my end???" I angsted.

Good thing that everything changed in the following morning.

Shirakawa-go in the morning

Shirakawa-go in the morning 2

Shirakawa-go in the morning 3

Shirakawa-go in the morning 4

Shirakawa-go in the morning 5

Deai bridge at Shirakawa-go

Shirakawa-go


Thus, despite the intense cold, the shoot was smooth. It was arduous, exhausting, tiring. But I was getting what I wanted, I was joyous like the girl in high school who made fun of the eccentric nerd with an artistic soul by gleefully trampling over his heart.

LAST FRAGMENTS OF WINTER Film shoot Day 2


Some photos from Yuiko the Producer.

Checking cameras with Kong

Walking through the snow for the film shoot

Shooting the sunrise at Shirakawa-go


(yes, Rotterdam Film Festival, I am still carrying your bag!)

I like this particularly heroic shot from Yuiko of me brooding.

Me, deep in thought.


On the day we were about to leave, I made the decision to start our shoot at 6am. Before the sunrises, when the village remained in shadows, it seemed to glisten in a silvery light.

I was already awake at 4am, contemplating the shots, planning them mentally, just so that when we were to shoot, I knew the perfect locations, the perfect pictures to craft.

LAST FRAGMENTS OF WINTER Film shoot Day 3


And finally it ended. It was 8:30am. We had our joyous breakfast at the inn, and then caught the 10:45am bus to Takayama. (it reached its destination an hour later than planned, but that's a different journey), then we hopped onto the train back to Tokyo.

A great shoot, an adventure, it's good to feel alive again.

I will be returning to Malaysia on tonight's midnight flight and resume the Malaysian part of the shoot.
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