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Friday, October 28, 2011


Was at the KIKI SUGINO: MUSE OF THE ASIAN INDIE CINEMA press conference yesterday. I'm part of the session with Kiki and BREATHLESS filmmaker Yang Ik June (who acted in Lim Kah Wai's MAGIC AND LOSS and was involved in the omnibus film where Kiki made her acting debut)

The entire video is here.

Video streaming by Ustream

Here's us after the press conference, we looked like a hip hop group.

Kiki Sugino, me and Yang Ik June after the press conference

An edited 6-min version of the video is here.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Introducing EXHALATION with actress/producer Kiki Sugino before its Tokyo International Film Fest screening

Kiki and I, after the EXHALATION screening at Tokyo International Film Festival

My short film EXHALATION was screened on the 23rd of October, Sunday at the Tokyo International Film Festival. I was considered an 'opening act' for Lim Kah Wai's feature film MAGIC AND LOSS. This is me, trying to act like a rock star.

"I'm a rock star!!!"

I failed.

So here's a 13-min video of Kiki and I, doing our best to introduce the short film before the screening.

The screening went well.

Here's another photo of us after the screening, outside the cinema.

Kiki and I, after the screening

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Jackie Chan and Japanese PM

After walking the lengthy green carpet, we finally entered the Roppongi Hills cinema for the opening ceremony. (the green carpet event lasted for 2 hours, a blessing, actually, without the delay from the rain, it would have been 4 hours! So after walking the carpet, I still had time to head off to a quickie lunch nearby before attending the ceremony)

I was surprised that Jackie Chan was here!

Even more surprised when even the Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda came out for a speech! You don't see a country's political leader appearing at a film festival opening ceremony everyday. Noda is also the 6th Prime Minister in my 3 years in Japan, and the first Prime Minister I got to see in the flesh! So I was even more excited, haha. (before this, the closest thing to something like this was meeting and taking a photo with the former First Lady Miyuki Hatoyama at Busan)

With Former First Lady of Japan, Miyuki Hatoyama

My iPhone was running low on battery towards the end of the ceremony, so I had to switch it off when Paul WS Anderson, Milla Jovovich, and company came onto the stage to introduce THE THREE MUSKETEERS.

The screening of EXHALATION is beginning in a few hours (it's 9:40am while I'm writing this, the screening is 4:35pm), time to prepare!

Walking the green carpet at Tokyo International Film Festival 2011

Yesterday afternoon was the opening of the Tokyo International Film Festival 2011.

Like last year, I got to walk the green carpet again. Awesome!

Walking the green carpet at Tokyo International Film Festival 2011

Last year, I was at the festival for Woo Ming Jin's THE TIGER FACTORY (which I co-wrote, produced and edited), and my own short film INHALATION, a spin-off of THE TIGER FACTORY. THE TIGER FACTORY ended up receiving a special jury mention.

This year, my short film EXHALATION was part of the SUGINO KIKI: MUSE OF THE ASIAN INDIE CINEMA program アジアの風-女優=プロデューサー杉野希妃 アジア・インディーズのミューズ (Kiki was both the producer and star of EXHALATION).

EXHALATION is played before fellow Malaysian filmmaker Lim Kah Wai's feature film MAGIC AND LOSS. (disclosure: I edited the trailer.)

Kiki, Lim Kah Wai, Ono-san (he's one of the executive producers for both our films) and I were supposed to walk the green carpet together. But it was raining heavily from the day before to the afternoon, so the event got postponed.

We were in the waiting room for a while.

At the waiting room with Kiki, Kah Wai, Ono before the Green Carpet event

The rain stopped, miraculously! So we began the green carpet event.

Here's me getting out of the car, being greeted by the film festival heads! (video)

We then started walking. (video)

And then, many started asking for Kiki's autographs.

Kiki signing autographs at the green carpet

Kiki's autograph

The green carpet was really long!

Narcissist that I am, I cannot help but start taking a video of myself.

Actually, I got to sign a lot of autographs too. But because I cannot take photos of myself WHILE signing autographs, there weren't any photos of me signing autographs. It was a highly bizarre experience, being asked by the people to sign autographs, I almost forgot that I was an obscure, nobody filmmaker! I was so moved that I gave everyone different variations, writing my name in Chinese, Japanese or English under my signature.

I think it was almost 15 minutes before we reached the end of the green carpet.

Or was it half an hour?

Kiki Sugino at the Green Carpet

Me at the Green Carpet

You can see the sort of exhaustion on Kiki's face.

Kiki Sugino at the end of the Green Carpet

Kah Wai had a horde of autograph seekers too!

Lim Kah Wai signing autographs

We entered the Roppongil Hills cinema after that for the opening ceremony, where, to my surprise, Jackie Chan (his film 1911 was a 'special opening film' of the festival), the prime minister of Japan, Milla Jovovich and her husband Paul WS Anderson (their film THE THREE MUSKETEERS was the official opening film) would make their appearances. But that's a story for the following post.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Death of an old classmate

A few days ago, I noticed a Facebook status of an ex-secondary school classmate.

He wrote (in Chinese):
'Missing a good friend, Yan Chee Seong'

I suddenly realized that it's exactly been ten years since a classmate of mine died in a horrendous car accident when I was in Form 5. That was my last year in secondary school. It was just a month before SPM (to non-Malaysian readers: that's the final government exams we had to take to finish secondary school).

For some people, ten years can feel like yesterday, but for me, more and more, time is turning into something more languid, even ten months ago felt like years, thus ten years felt like an entire lifetime ago. Yet I remembered some details.

It was evening when I received a phone call from my good buddy Wai Kong, telling me about the accident. I was incredulous, disbelieving, when you were 17, you thought you were invincible, with an infinity amount of decades stretched out before you.

"How could this be possible?" I yelled in anger. I never understood why I was angry then, but thinking of it again, perhaps I was angry at the sudden reminder of mortality, or human frailty.

"He was speeding, and then he crashed onto the divider."

It was a simple explanation. Wai Kong then added that a female classmate of ours was crying hysterically, his death had hit her hard.

Since when did she ever care that much about him? I thought bitterly, spitefully. But I said nothing.

For the next few days, I was left in a daze. My parents had gone off to Singapore. Instead of sadness, I was more consumed by anger. I was angry that I had to deal with this alone. Angry that this happened.

Wai Kong came over and drove us around. We went to shopping mall, we went to see a movie called BULLETS OF LOVE, starring Leon Lai and the Japanese actress Asako Seto, we passed by the accident site, we went to have meals.

"I felt as if a person had just disappeared." Wai Kong said. "I cannot even imagine what the last few seconds of his life were like."

His body was placed in a hall for two days before his funeral. Those who went told me that his skull was misshapen after the crash, but it was repaired by the time of the funeral. Religious complications prevented me from attending the funeral. I cannot remember what the reason was, perhaps it had something to do with me being in a Buddhist praying ceremony a few days earlier before his death. Or visiting a hospital before. I cannot remember what it was, but I was outraged. Typing the words 'religious complications' made me shake my head. But sometimes, things like that can be true.

A few years later, when a very dear family friend of ours passed away after a long fight with brain cancer, Wai Kong, who adored her, was unable to attend the funeral because he had just visited his grandmother in the hospital. Too much yin. One could transfer to another.

Maybe I'm writing all these now, to try to lessen the guilt I had back then, for not attending his funeral.

I cannot say that I was very close to the deceased. But we were in the same class together for 4 years. We chat sometimes, about the latest TVB serials we had just seen.

If you see a person almost on a daily basis, it's almost hard not to get affected by his death.

I remember him. Bespectacled, really plump, a year older than most of us (he attended something called the Remove Class for a year before he started Form 1). He will always be 18, while time passes us by.

Perhaps that opened a floodgate. I finished secondary school and swiftly moved to college. I fell into depression. There were constant thoughts of mortality, of death, of the afterlife, of the meaning of life, of reincarnation, of memories.

There was a girl I used to have a crush on, I called her to tell me of my sorrow, of the melancholic thoughts that had been plaguing me.

"You're too young to be thinking of such things!" She exclaimed.

Yes, I wondered why either.

8 years after his death, I would write the screenplay of EXHALATION which more or less chronicled how I felt during the whole situation. The loneliness of grieving, the desperation for contact, and the overwhelming desire to find meaning in what had happened. Of course, EXHALATION was more dramatized, with elements of unrequited love thrown in, with myself being replaced by Kiki Sugino. With Wai Kong being replaced by Tomoe Shinohara. Half of the dialogue in the film were things we said to each other in the car, ten years ago. Although the plot of the film veered off to somewhere less... autobiographical.

Shooting EXHALATION then was a slightly surreal experience, to hear Tomoe utter Wai Kong's words, albeit in Japanese. To see Kiki embody the bitter anger I felt then, albeit in Japanese too.

Last December when I was interviewed at the Dubai International Film Festival for the world premiere of EXHALATION. A reporter asked whether making the film had a therapeutic effect on me.

"I guess." I answered, even though I wasn't that sure of my answer. In the ten years since my classmate's passing, I was forced to deal with a number of losses: dear family friends whom I've known since my childhood, since my teens, relatives like my aunt's husband, like my uncle, the mother of a dear friend, acquaintances and the like. My grandmother's been fading away from me in these few years due to the ravages of Alzheimer's, she doesn't really recognize me any more. I felt that I've lost her too, or maybe I grieved the fact that she had already lost her memories of me.

I hate it when people tell me that life sucks. (especially when it came from the mouths of beautiful women lamenting over boy problems)

Life is just what it is. So is death.

Maybe the therapeutic effect I felt was possibly having this comforting knowledge that for some crazy reason, I'm capable of making films that preserve these little pieces of my own life (albeit fictionalized), and knowing that sometimes, these little endeavours that I indulge upon, with the help of many others in the film team, could occasionally connect with some people.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

EXHALATION screening at Malaysian Shorts (Oct 19, Help University)

Yep, Malaysian audiences can finally check out my short film, EXHALATION, exactly a week before its screening at the Tokyo International Film Festival.

EXHALATION will be one of the ten short films screened on the Oct 17th edition of Malaysian Shorts in Help University.

More info about the line-up:

Kelab Seni Filem Malaysia

Entrance: FREE

10 new narrative Malaysian short films/videos will be shown, with most of the directors present.

1. EXHALATION/ Edmund Yeo/ Japan-Malaysia/21 min
The death of a former classmate, Yosuke, brings Naoko back to her hometown. Arriving the day before his funeral, Naoko embarks upon a road trip with her friend Sayuri. They visit the site of Yosuke's fatal car accident, and gradually, their journey turns into a surrealistic experience of bittersweet remembrances, tender secrets and unspoken regrets. Dreams become increasingly vivid, memories come in the form of ghosts. They lost themselves in melancholy.

2. SUDU GAN GARPU/ Faiq Khalifa/ 14.5 minutes
ANAK MUDA adalah seorang pemuda yang sedang meningkat matang, dan masih mencari pendirian hidup. Dia merupakan anak angkat kepada TOK PENGGAWA yang telah memeliharanya sejak kecil lagi. TOK PENGGAWA adalah ketua masyarakat yang berharta dan berpengaruh di dalam kawasan mukim beliau. Di rumah TOK PENGGAWA juga tinggal seorang hamba perempuan bernama PUSPA GEMALA. Walaupun sekadar seorang hamba sahaya, PUSPA GEMALA merupakan seorang gadis yang pintar juga mempunyai rupa paras yang cantik. Filem pendek ini mengisahkan tentang hubungan tiga watak ini berkenaan pemikiran, perasaan serta pegangan hidup mereka, bilamana ANAK MUDA mula mempertikaikan ‘hagemoni’ kekuasaan serta peraturan TOK PENGGAWA di dalam rumah.

3. MOVEMENT IN C/ Ali Lee/ 37 seconds
The shortest short we have ever shown?

4. MARIA/ Afiq Deen/ 11 minutes
Maria is fictional thriller film inspired by the record-breaking cases of baby dumping and abandonment by Malaysian muslim women.

5. SIX REVISITED/ Timo/ 1 minute
The second-shortest short we have ever shown?

6. MEMORIA/ Yihwen Chen/ 9 minutes
A girl. A bicycle. And a memory.

7. JEMPUT NAIK/ Ng Ken Kin/5.5 minutes
In conjunction with this year's KL 48 Hours Film Project, we present one of last year's entries by a stalwart of Malaysian Shorts. Caution: there will be blood.

8. BROGA RENDEZVOUS/ Ridhwan Saidi/ 8.5 minutes
Teman lelaki mahu ke Broga, tempat mereka pertama kali bercumbu; tetapi teman wanita tidak ingat malah sesat ketika dalam perjalanan. Dalam masa yang sama seorang guru merindui pemergian pelajar cemerlang sekolah mereka di Broga. Sebuah filpen yang melankolik, dengan sedikit unsur jenaka.

9. LE ONION DE NOIR/ Brad Liew/ 11 min
Over a telephone call, a man can be heard justifying his actions in what he sees as a sign from the divine. As he re-accounts his actions, the lines between his reality and ours blur into a mesh of primal violence. Do we question his psychotic cruelty? Or is it truly his higher calling?

10. EPAL HIJAU DI LUAR PAGAR/ Syahrul Musa/ 26 minutes
Mamat (12 tahun) mengambil upah menjaga kambing di sebuah kawasan perkuburan Cina. Satu petang, hujan lebat. Dia membawa kambing-kambing jagaannya berteduh di tokong Cina berdekatan. Kelaparan membuatkan dia mengambil sebiji epal hijau dari tokong tersebut dan berjanji akan membayarnya semula.

You have probably seen the EXHALATION trailer before...

As for the rest. Let me try to dig it out via Youtube...

Afiq Deen's entire MARIA is online.

Can't find anything on 2010 BMW Shorties winner Chen Yih Wen's MEMORIA(which was shot in Sekinchan, the same place where I shot LOVE SUICIDES and my latest, LAST FRAGMENTS OF WINTER). But you can check out her award-winning film LIKE TOY DOLLS.

Like Toy Dolls by Chen Yih Wen from W.H. Shinajii on Vimeo.

Ng Ken Kin's JEMPUT NAIK is here, in its entirety.


Le Onion De Noir from Brad Liew on Vimeo.

Trailer for Syahrul Musa EPAL HIJAU DI LUAR PAGAR.

Catch these films on the big screen!

UPDATED: I managed to speak to Memoria director Chen Yih Wen. She pointed me to the Memoria trailer.

Looks very nice, no?

Memoria Trailer from yihwen chen on Vimeo.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Karayuki-san: The forgotten Japanese prostitution era


Been in seclusion the past week to write my screenplay. It's not an easy one to write, so it's been taking a lot of my energies. I have kinda cut myself away from the rest of the world, spending almost every night in McDonald's.

There's no point telling you all that much about it since it's still in its infancy.

Sometimes, I do some heavy researches while I prepare a script (or a shoot). Do a film marathon that could help inspire me, go through books, scour through the net, do some email interviews etc. A lot of excavation is needed.

Back in July, when I started developing the idea for my screenplay, I suddenly stumbled upon a piece of information that actually rocked my world.

All the while, the only historical connection I could draw between Malaysia and Japan was the Japanese Occupation during World War 2.

I never knew that the two countries actually had an earlier relationship... apparently during the end of the Meiji Era, around 1870s to 1930s, Japanese prostitution existed in places like Penang, Sandakan, Kucing etc. Poor young women from impoverished agricultural and fishing families were sold off for prostitution in East Asia and South East Asia. They were known as the Karayuki-san (唐行きさん), many times their minds were enslaved into believing that they were serving the nation, being part of a female army. Despite being sold abroad, they continued to send money back to Japan, to their family, and also for the cause of the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). The Karayuki-san contributed much to the economy.

Until 1921, when the internationalization of Japan caused its government to consider the karayuki-san shameful, so they worked hard to bring these girls back to the country. Where they were treated with discrimination due to their previous work (and suffering) in the flesh trade, the very family members who sold them off became ashamed of them. It's a tremendous tragedy that many have forgotten.

Since they weren't talked about in public, or in scholarly discussions, this part of Japanese history was almost forgotten... until the 1972 book Sandakan Brothel No. 8: An Episode in the History of Lower-Class by Yamazaki Tomoko came out. Yamazaki managed to interview one of the last surviving karayuki-san (who happened to work in Sandakan, hence the book title), their sufferings were made aware to people again. Two years later, Director Kei Kumai's film adaptation was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (he lost to countryman Akira Kurosawa's Russian film Dersu Uzala).

【予告篇】サンダカン八番娼館 望郷 投稿者 Rui_555

(Ironically, 27 years later, Kei Kumai's very last film THE SEA IS WATCHING (2002) would be from Kurosawa's final screenplay. I watched it last year, highly recommended.)

But I digress.

I was fascinated by the history of the Karayuki-san, so I went through numerous articles about them. They had a huge presence in Singapore back then, but remnants of them had mostly disappeared. This 2005 Japan Times article by Takehiko Kajita Singapore's Japanese prostitute era paved over is a must-read. An excerpt:

The existence of Karayuki-san in Singapore dates back to 1877, when there were two Japanese-owned brothels on Malay Street with 14 Japanese prostitutes, official Japanese data show.

Malay Street and the nearby streets of Malabar, Hylam and Bugis later grew into a big red-light district.

Singapore's official records suggest 633 Japanese women were operating in 109 brothels in 1905. The number is believed to have been well over 1,000, if unlicensed prostitutes are included.

Combined with the far larger Chinese-dominated red-light district and other similar districts catering to different ethnic groups, Singapore was known as one of the centers of the sex industry in Asia in those days.

As Singapore started to develop around the 1870s, immigrants — mostly men — rushed in from China and India to toil at rubber plantations and tin mines or as rickshaw pullers. To maintain social order, British colonial rulers tolerated prostitution at designated brothels, bringing in Chinese and Japanese women in droves.

As Japan's international profile rose with victories in the Sino-Japanese War in 1894, the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 and its having sided with the victors of World War I, Japan began to view Japanese prostitutes working overseas as a national shame.

In addition, successful Japanese business operations in British-ruled Malaya, now Malaysia, lessened the need for foreign currency earned by Karayuki-san. So the then Japanese Consulate General in Singapore banned Japanese brothels in 1920.

Consequently, many Karayuki-san were forcefully repatriated to Japan. But many others managed to stay in Singapore or move to other parts of Malaya, illegally selling themselves.

Gone with the Karayuki-san is the Japanese red-light district. Ironically, the entire district is now a giant commercial complex that houses a department store run by Seiyu Ltd. and a shopping center operated by Parco Co., both Japanese companies.

Malay, Malabar and Hylam streets remain, but they are now merely passages under the roof of a structure called Bugis Junction, a popular spot with young Singaporeans that also houses movie theaters and the Hotel Inter-Continental.

Traces of Karayuki-san are more evident at Japanese Cemetery Park, where countless — and largely nameless — Karayuki-san are buried along with other Japanese.

Yesterday, I borrowed the book, AH KU AND KARAYUKI-SAN by James Francis Warren, which provided a study on women who travelled from China (they're the Ah Ku) and Japan to work in Singapore as prostitutes.

AH KU AND KARAYUKI-SAN Prostitution in Singapore 1870-1940 by James Francis Warren

It was an engrossing read which I managed to finish (speed reading) in a day. Reading through their sufferings, their daily lives, the optimism they had, the tragedies they faced, where their lives were in constant danger (many died at the hands of their clients in crimes of passion), some were driven to commit suicide (for falling in love with a client, for losing customers after ageing, for being driven too much by their handlers...). It was a dizzying read.

I was surprised to see that the book provided some photos of the Karayuki-san, captured during that moment. Most of the time they took the photos in groups, just so they could share the cost, the photos were often sent back to their families. There is just this indescribably tranquil beauty about these photos. The book had said that these photos probably meant more to us now than it meant to them then. These were attempts to outwit time, and allow us to catch a glimpse of a disappeared, forgotten era.

Old photos of Karayuki-san

Old photos of Karayuki-san 2

Old photos of Karayuki-san 3

Old photos of Karayuki-san 4

Shohei Imamura had two films related to the Karayuki-san. One is a documentary called Karayuki-san, the Making of a Prostitute (1975), the other is Zegen (1985). It's hard to acquire these two films, I'm going to try to look for them.

A quote at the beginning of the book filled my heart with a faint wistful sense of melancholy.

The sound of Kikuyo Zendo's words echoed through the Japanese cemetery,
in the early morning air of a warm Singapore day, as pointing to
the deteriorating gravestone of a long-deceased karayuki-san,
she told the celebrated film-maker Imamura Shohei:
'People like this are never written up in history.'

And also, when Sandakan Brothel No. 8 writer Yamazaki Tomoko visited the cemetery of the Karayuki-san in Borneo, she noticed that the graves all faced one direction - away from Japan.

UPDATED (May 12, 2014):

Thanks to one of the commenters, Bryan Ho, I learnt that a Singaporean theatre company, TheatreWorks, had done a stage adaptation of Ah Ku and Karayuki-san called Broken Birds.

Having visited the National Museum of Singapore late last year, I also saw a section devoted entirely to the Karayuki-san, and a video that was a reenactment of one of their most well-known photos.

Karayuki-san from M'GO Films on Vimeo.

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