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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Rest In Peace, Aunty Mak Fong 楓姨,一路好走



Mak Fong


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).



Mak Fong and Chung Kok Keong played long lost lovers in WOMAN ON FIRE LOOKS FOR WATER


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. :)



Young photos of Aunty Mak Fong in WOMAN ON FIRE LOOKS FOR WATER

Young photos of Aunty Mak Fong in WOMAN ON FIRE LOOKS FOR WATER 2


("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).



Mak Fong contemplates quietly in a scene from WOMAN ON FIRE LOOKS FOR WATER


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.



A scene of Mak Fong in WOMAN ON FIRE LOOKS FOR WATER

Monday, February 27, 2012

Regarding the Oscars...

The Oscars is just a few hours away, and if I don't oversleep until the afternoon, I might be able to catch its live stream on my computer.

As some of you may know already, my father is a film buff (and film critic/ commentator), so it's inevitable that I have been following the Oscars ever since I was a child. The earliest ones I could remember were the ones in 1991, when films like DANCES WITH WOLVES, GHOST or THE GODFATHER 3 were the ones that dominated the ceremony. My father was, like most sane film lovers, a fan of THE GODFATHER films, so he cared.

Surprisingly, that was one of those rare years when my mother cared too. Like most people back then, she cared a lot about GHOST (in my vague memories, GHOST was like the biggest thing then, there were all sorts of references about it, and "Unchained Melody" was playing everywhere I went), she was probably happy that she was taking pottery classes then because of the pottery scene.



Somehow towards the weeks leading up to the Oscars, and before it, my parents would be going through the nominated films on video tapes or laser discs, I could remember being traumatized by MISERY.

In the end, Kevin Costner swept the awards for DANCES WITH WOLVES, my mom didn't mind then, since she liked Kevin Costner too. (Her Kevin Costner fandom peaked with THE BODYGUARD, and then plummeted after WATERWORLD) DANCES WITH WOLVES stood out to me because of its title, and when footage of the film were shown during announcements of nominees, I was always looking to see whether there were really people dancing with wolves, I ended up disappointed.

Watching Billy Crystal host the show would always make me laugh, because even though we had never seen the nominated films, his opening song and dance routine or monologue would pretty much brief us what we are going to be seeing. I still remember his 1991 opening very vividly. Especially his HOME ALONE impression. (I was six, I loved HOME ALONE)

When you grew up with films playing such a huge role in your life, you sort of expect this to be the same with everyone else around you. Only, gradually, to your disappointment, you realize most of your friends in school had no idea what the hell were you babbling about. (of course, thinking that a 7-8 year old kid trying to tell his friends about "The Godfather", or "Misery", would have been quite an odd sight then.)

That was the earliest Oscar that I could remember.

And since then, from childhood to adulthood, watching the Oscars with my father was like an annual religious experience, sort of like the Super Bowl. We used to watch delayed telecast at night, and watching the Oscars at night is a much more different experience than watching its live telecast during the day. I felt closer to the people in the ceremony, more impressed by the glitz and glamour of the stars. As a child, you cannot really fathom what other events would bring THAT many stars together in one venue.

It was exciting then, to predict and guess which film would win, which actor and actress would win the acting awards, I would root for the films I loved, the performances that moved my heart, and either feel happy that the greatness of those I rooted for were reinforced by their Oscar wins, knowing that they would end up deservingly in film history. That was how big I thought the Oscars were back then.

I remember my shock when Tom Hanks didn't win for SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN losing out to SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE. I remember the horror I endured when the mind-blowingly awesome FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING lost out to A BEAUTIFUL MIND (which I liked too).

Occasionally the people of Malaysia would care a bit more about the Oscars. Usually when Ang Lee was involved. Or the year of the TITANIC. Or the three years of LORD OF THE RINGS.

Even when I moved to Perth (2004-2006), I made a point to catch the delayed telecast of the Oscars at night (making sure that I wouldn't go online that day and know about the results). The year MILLION DOLLAR BABY won, I felt a little bad for Martin Scorsese. And I thought that my favorite SIDEWAYS was "robbed" too, probably because it was funny.

And then, the following year, by accident I found out in advance that CRASH won over BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. I was devastated that a yellow brother got robbed...

With Ang Lee after Joe Dante's The Hole screening (Venice Film Festival 2009)


... so I chose not to watch the Oscars that night! I was indignant. (even though I did enjoy CRASH when I first saw the film at the cinemas!)

But once you stumble into the film industry, and start making the sort of stuff that you think are films, and as you travel around film festivals meeting all kinds of industry insiders, becoming increasingly aware of the machinations of show business, the unpredictability and mythic quality of the Oscars begin to fade. The magic it held over me almost all my life felt a little... different. Perhaps instead of it being a faraway myth as it was to me, it became more grounded, more realistic.

Following all kinds of Oscar pundits on their blogs, websites and tweeter doesn't help much either. The surprise element is gone, I "knew too much", so most times I knew who was going to win weeks before the actual ceremony. I became aware of the precursor awards, and the history and the patterns, so I could actually see the slow inevitable march towards the Oscars for a film that had long been favored to win.

(Of course there are still surprises, but they are rare.)

So yes, I know it is most probably that in a few hours, THE ARTIST is going to win almost everything. (It's such an immensely likable film. I watched it just a few weeks ago and I definitely had a lot of good time.) There's probably only a bit of suspense with Best Actor and Best Actress.

I still root for films that I loved and hoped to see them being rewarded for their greatness. After all, I'm a film lover as much as a filmmaker, and the years I spent as a film lover dwarfed my years as a filmmaker. But I do miss the magic and the mystery of the Oscars that captivated me so very much when I was growing up. Sometimes, too much knowledge does ruin the beauty of ambiguity, and when faced with reality, there's a part of me wanting to cling on to whatever shreds of illusion I could find. Or maybe it's really just my way of reconnecting with feeling of wonder I had as a child.

Maybe it's just nostalgia.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Creative Spotlight: Episode #96 – Edmund Yeo (JAPAN CINEMA interviews me)

The awesome Japan Cinema had posted a very in-depth interview I recently did with its editor-in-chief Marcello as part of their "Creative Spotlight" series.

In this interview, I spoke about filmmaking, my own storytelling approaches, my interest in adapting the works of Yasunari Kawabata (my short films LOVE SUICIDES and KINGYO were loose adaptations), the creative processes of my short films, EXHALATION and INHALATION, the state of Malaysian and other Asian cinema, and also, Hayao Miyazaki's LAPUTA.

On whether I feel Malaysian writers and filmmakers aren’t getting enough credit in the Asian film society...

"Not really, our industry is quite young, so I think we’re getting the sort of credit that we deserve. It’s only in the past decade, beginning from the early 00s that Malaysian writers and filmmakers were getting their films shown beyond our own country thanks to a movement that is called by some as the ‘Malaysian New Wave’. (The Tokyo International Film Festival was one of the first few prestigious international film festivals to support these films.) Many of these filmmakers are relatively young and have only 3-4 films in their filmography, so there are still much more for us to work around with, and much more for audiences to discover in the future."

And on Hayao Miyazaki's LAPUTA.

" I will name a film by a filmmaker whom I’ve often neglect to mention as an important influences to me. I first discovered Laputa by Hayao Miyazaki when I was eight, I was already watching anime by then (Doraemon, Dragon Ball Z etc.), but I was so blown away by Laputa, the fact that the film was so rich and had so many things in it, romance, steampunk, adventure, a melancholic meditation in loss, I ended up rewatching my VHS for three straight nights. First, with my little sister, the second day, with my grandma, and then, finally, by myself. It was through Laputa that I discovered the rest of Studio Ghibli. But you can never forget the first, and that was Laputa."

I think it was the opening song that did me in. I was 8, the song was so beautiful to me then that I was stunned. It's good to know now that even as a child, I had some appreciation for music then.

Here's a video of Joe Hisaishi performing a Laputa medley with an orchestra.



Monday, February 13, 2012

It's hard to direct a series of interviews with legendary Japanese directors when you are ill.

I came back to Tokyo on the 8th, arriving early in the morning.

As the day went on, I knew something was wrong.

When night came, and I woke up repeatedly for trips to the loo, it was obvious what went wrong.

My annual bout of food-poisoning!




Which sucked, considering that I was supposed to direct a series of interviews with a number of notable Japanese directors, actors and actresses the following day for the Asian Film Awards (which is part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival).

But I managed to drag myself out of the room the next morning (not as easy as it sounds, really) and headed to Shinjuku to meet up with my crew in Hong Kong. (a month earlier, I was in Taipei to film interviews for the same program)




My first interviewee was filmmaking legend Yoji Yamada.




Interestingly, I first saw a Yoji Yamada film 4 years ago at the Hong Kong International Film Festival 2008. KABEI - OUR MOTHER was its opening film. I even managed to speak briefly with its star Asano Tadanobu.

I attended that film festival just a few days before I moved to Tokyo.

During the interview, Yamada-san spoke about his experiences with his long-running TORA-san series, where he described the set as being at home, while the cast and crew were like family members, because they had managed to work so many years together (the 48 Tora-san films were released from 1969 to 1995). Which made a lot of sense, over the few short years as a filmmaker myself, I have had a number of regular collaborators, and they sometimes feel the most familiar to me, especially nowadays.

Here's a photo of Yoji Yamada, me and my crew!


With legendary director Yoji Yamada, along with my crew


We immediately followed that with an interview with actor Tsuyoshi Ihara, from 13 ASSASSINS and LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA.





With actor Tsuyoshi Ihara ("Letters from Iwo Jima", "13 Assassins") and my crew. Ihara wants to participate in productions around the world I


As an actor, he wanted to participate in so many productions from different countries around the world that in the end, no one would ever keep track of him. That is an awesome thought. That's the beauty of the film industry, that we can transcend national and cultural boundaries just like that, if we put our hearts to it. Having done Malaysian and Japanese productions, I started realizing that these interview segments were the first ever Hong Kong productions I've participated in!

I was getting gravely ill. The toilet visits were frequent. It was great that I didn't pass out nor, er, vomit, during the shoots.

Finally, at night, we interviewed the actress Satomi Ishihara.




Her latest film is Sadako 3D, which will come out in May 2012. But no, she's not playing Sadako.

I think Ishihara's a very talented actress with a unique screen presence who occasionally elevates the material that she's given to work with (based on my memories of the H2 J-dorama), so I'm intrigued to see what other films will she be working on in the near future. (... if you make a search for her with the search bar on your right, you might notice that I have mentioned her in less measured, and, er, irrational blog posts written years ago, before I am the relatively respected filmmaker that I am now)


With actress Satomi Ishihara and my crew.


So I survived the first day of the shoot. Not entirely in great shape. Half-dead, actually. But I bought myself some medicine that could hopefully make things better on the second day.

The second day of the shoot began with another important filmmaker, Kiyoshi Kurosawa. I remembered him most for a brief encounter I had with him two years ago (Jan 2010) at Tokyo University of Arts, where he teaches. I was doing some sound work for my short film, EXHALATION, and then I bumped into him.




I loved BRIGHT FUTURE. The images of those guys in Che Guevara T-shirts remain in my mind.

This BRIGHT FUTURE excerpt begins with a scene of these Che Guevara guys from the film.




Finally, at night, we interviewed Hirokazu Kore-eda, a brilliant filmmaker whose works have influenced me immensely.


With director Hirokazu Koreeda and my crew. I'm influenced by his works!


Oshiro Maeda, the child actor of his latest film I WISH, was nominated for Best Newcomer in the Asian Film Awards.




These interviews are now in post-production, I'll be curious to see how they look like when they come out end of the month. You'll be hearing from me, of course.

Two years have gone by since the shoot ended, I'm still going through some lingering effects of the food poisoning. Trying to eat simpler food, trying to rest a little more, my physical condition isn't entirely 100%. I don't think I've ever gone through a shoot while being ill, it's a little tough.

Just a few hours, I wanted to tempt fate and see whether I had gone healthy, so I had a large bowl of ramen. A few spoons of it knocked me out. I guess I'll just stick to cookies and yogurts until I'm very sure I'm fine!

(UPDATED)
Watch the interview videos here!!!

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Jeppe Ronde and Woo Ming Jin's GIRL IN THE WATER (which I helped produce and edit) wins Best Short Film at Danish Oscars

Last night, I received this very unexpected and wonderful news that Jeppe Ronde and Woo Ming Jin's GIRL IN THE WATER, a 20-minute short that I helped to produce and edit, had won the BEST SHORT FILM Award at the Robert Awards (the Danish Oscars)!

Girl in the water
Sajee Apiwong in GIRL IN THE WATER


So I'm one of the proud recipients of the Danish Oscars. :D

(Meanwhile, Lars Von Trier's MELANCHOLIA won 10 awards, including Best Film, Director, Screenplay, Actress and Supporting Actress)

The GIRL IN THE WATER shoot back in June 2011 was a very tiring and arduous one where we have to work under insane weather conditions and other crazy circumstances beyond our control. It was probably one of the most challenging shoots I've ever endured, I was even the boom operator! (because our audio guy pulled out just days before the shoot)

After the foley session

Foley session


(It was stressful for me in a personal level too as I had to deal with the risk of becoming the black sheep in my family after I had to miss a cousin's wedding, a matter taken much more seriously than I can convey)

But in the end, it was a highly illuminating experience that was worth all of the blood and tears that we've shed. Many thanks to the cast and crew of GIRL IN THE WATER for making all these happen. And also to the kind folks of Sungai Ular for helping us so much during the shoot.

Group photo of the film crew and villagers who helped us

Friday, February 03, 2012

Directing Life - article about me on Style: Magazine (Jan 2012)

I never imagined myself ever appearing on Style: Magazine. Ever. Not in my wildest dreams. Life is pretty insane. But here's Nicole Foo Bihzhu's feature on me at Style: Magazine.

I have to thank my old secondary school classmate Jesly Hieng once again, for scanning this. I was unable to find the magazine anywhere since I got back!

Directing Life (Style magazine, Jan 2012)


Wednesday, February 01, 2012

2nd Q&A session. LAST FRAGMENTS OF WINTER/ GIRL IN THE WATER @ International Film Festival Rotterdam 2012

On the 27th of January, after being much better-rested, I did the second Q and A session for LAST FRAGMENTS OF WINTER and GIRL IN THE WATER moderated by Paolo Bertolin. This one's pretty long since a kindly audience member was willing to help me film the entire session!

The entire thing lasted for more than half an hour... which was, er, actually longer than the running time of LAST FRAGMENTS OF WINTER (23 minutes), but I trimmed it down to spare your eyes and ears. I talked quite a bit about both short films, anecdotes during the film shoot and many others.

Here's the video.




When it ended, an elderly gentleman approached me and told me that an image from LAST FRAGMENTS OF WINTER, the one with the girl standing alone on a bridge covered in snow, would stay in his mind for a very long time. It was quite humbling.

[LAST FRAGMENTS OF WINTER] A girl alone on a bridge

Talking about the short films LAST FRAGMENTS OF WINTER and GIRL IN THE WATER @ International Film Festival Rotterdam 2012

I got back from Rotterdam yesterday after spending three nights at the festival. Everything was like a blur, my stay there was so brief (last year, I spent a week in Rotterdam before heading off to Clermont-Ferrand for another week). Already, I'm prepping for a short film shoot in the next few days.

Arriving at Rotterdam in the early morning of Jan 26th, I immediately had to prepare myself for the first festival screening in the afternoon. Not a lot of rest there.

Like I've mentioned in this post. Two short films I was involved in last year, LAST FRAGMENTS OF WINTER (which I directed, and making its European premiere)

[LAST FRAGMENTS OF WINTER] A girl alone on a bridge


And the Danish-Malaysian co-production, GIRL IN THE WATER (co-directed by Jeppe Ronde and Woo Ming Jin, produced and edited by me)

Fern searching for stuff in the Mangrove tree


Were both part of this WAITING FOR SNOW IN MY KAMPONG program, along with an anthology of shorts by other leading Malaysian filmmakers.

Jeppe and I stuck around for the post-screening Q and A session, moderated by programmer Gertjan Zuilhof, where we each talked about our experiences with filming in a foreign country, and also how our ideas came about.

Here's the video. It's pretty brief.


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