Yesterday, I found out with sadness that the veteran actress Mak Fong 麦楓 had passed away after a brief battle with lung cancer. She was 77.
I've known Mak Fong, or rather, "Fong Yee" (Aunty Fong) which she is fondly known to most of the people in the Malaysian entertainment industry, since I was very young, through the TV series that she acted in, and also in a few events that I attended with my mother when I was a child. My mother and "Fong Yee" both acted in a TV series called EMPAT SEKAWAN long ago before I was born.
It was quite surprising to meet her again in 2009 when we collaborated on a film that I produced, Woo Ming Jin's WOMAN ON FIRE LOOKS FOR WATER 遗情.
Woman On Fire Looks For Water trailer
She actually lived only a few blocks away from my house, so Ming Jin and I met her in a vegetarian restaurant just opposite her place to discuss about the film. I was quite excited to work with her.
Our shoot lasted for a day and a half. She played Ai Ling, the long lost lover of the protagonist Ah Kan (Chung Kok Keong).
I remember it rather well. It was meant to be rather simplistic, but outside factors made it very difficult for us. The harbor behind us being too noisy, or there was then a sudden rain. So we had a lot of rest between takes, she would marvel about new technology when she saw Ming Jin and Chun the cinematographer going through footages on the computer, regaled me with stories of her experiences in the many production shoots she participated in (both local and foreign productions). And then, the fun part was when she started gossiping with me about other actors and actresses.
In this scene, the dying Ah Kan was returning Ai Ling's old photos to her. These old photos were indeed photos of Aunty Mak Fong during her younger days, which she kindly allowed us to use. :)
("When I was young, they always said that I look like a Japanese girl!" Aunty Fong said.
"Oh yeah! You do!" I agreed.)
Towards the end, when we were about to do a night scene, and I was going through her lines with her. I remarked how impeccable her Mandarin sounded (she had done a lot of radio dramas) compared to a normal Malaysian. She asked whether she could speak like that in her upcomng scene, and I was like "yes!! That will add layers to your character!! (in previous scenes her dialogue was in Cantonese).
Since then, her car scene in Mandarin had became a rather talked-about scene among locals who understood Mandarin. Fellow filmmakers questioned why she would sound so educated and sophisticated when she spoke Mandarin, which was in contrary to her supposedly small-village character. So yes I got a lot of flak for that scene.
Why would I be foolish enough to let her talk like that? I don't know, I just really liked the way she spoke Mandarin. And until this very day, even if I do grimace a little when watching that scene, I don't think I would change anything.
We finished the film after midnight, and we drove her home. At that time, it was 2am. Aunty Mak Fong had only a few hours to rest as she had to go for a commercial shoot at 6am. That was how hard she worked. That was something many would have probably overlooked.
A few months later, WOMAN ON FIRE LOOKS FOR WATER made its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival 2009 (together with my short film, KINGYO). It was a glorious moment, and one of the highlights of both Ming Jin and my filmmaking careers.
I was so swept up with this that I realized I didn't really get to share the news with Aunty Mak Fong, nor did she ever get to see WOMAN ON FIRE LOOKS FOR WATER. Sometimes, I blamed it on the nature of the film industry, everything moving so fast, with one project coming after another, it is hard to slow down, it is hard to keep track of things. Sometimes, I blame it on the fact that I was mostly in Tokyo, so it was hard for me to really look after things that I was supposed to look after in Malaysia. In the end, they were really just excuses, I have always been bad at keeping in touch with people.
Three years after WOMAN ON FIRE LOOKS FOR WATER. In February 2012, which is actually earlier this month, Ming Jin and I were preparing for a new short film that we were both co-directing. Aunty Mak Fong was the first person who come to mind for a particular role.
So I called her. She answered.
I wished her a happy Chinese New Year and asked how she was.
She told me she was fine.
I asked whether she had time to act in our new short film.
"Unfortunately, I'm a little ill. I don't think I can help." She said.
"Oh I see, get well soon!" I said, oblivious to the severity of her ailment. She sounded well enough, I assumed it was a flu.
That was the last conversation I had with her. Less than a month before she passed away.
It is often easy to overlook some of the dear treasures of our local entertainment scene, this is perhaps an ailment suffered by many of us Malaysians. But nevertheless, we had lost a cherished and much loved figure of the Malaysian entertainment industry, someone who had spent more than half of a century creating many memories for many different people.
Rest in peace, Aunty Mak Fong.