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Sunday, April 07, 2013

Discussing the short film medium

Back in January, I was on Kenneth Chaw's The Star article "Short Films starting to appeal to a bigger audience", discussing about my thoughts on short films. Filmmaker James Lee and Youtube sensation Jinnyboy were interviewed too.

Prior to that, Kenneth had actually done a very lengthy email interview with me in preparation for his article. While a number of my quotes were in the final article, I thought I would like to share our entire discussion with everyone. I'm doing it now, with Kenneth's permission. (In truth, I have wanted to do this since January, but, ah, I never had the time.)

So, here we go.

Kenneth's questions are in bold.
My answers will just be... normal text.

Tell me about how you got your start in making short films. I read somewhere you started by video blogging at first? Is that true? How did you transition from that to short films? Did you learn to make short films on your own or enrolled in a course / diploma / degree?

Being a filmmaker is a lifelong dream, so even though I was pursuing a marketing degree in Perth back then, I was filming everything around me with a camcorder, and teaching myself how to edit them. Those videos were posted on my blog, so that was how I started "videoblogging", and these were my first lessons in the technical aspects of filmmaking.

After getting my degree, I did a one year course in filmmaking in Perth, came back to Malaysia in 2007, got into an assistant director job for a telemovie, met the director Woo Ming Jin after that. We began a creative partnership that lasted until now.

(By the way: I don't just direct short films, I am also the producer, co-writer and editor of some feature films and TV works by Woo Ming Jin)

You're currently based in Japan now. Are you freelancing there, working in a company, or you're running your own business?

I freelance. But I do come back to Malaysia a few times a year to work together on projects with Ming Jin (both of us run a production company called Greenlight Pictures)

Any particular reason as to why you chose to pursue making short films there instead of Malaysia?

I didn't. I alternated between doing short films in Malaysia ("Love Suicides" and "Inhalation") or Japan ("kingyo" and "Exhalation"), or even shot some in both countries (like my recent short film "Last Fragments of Winter"). Many of my films are considered Japanese-Malaysian co-productions, so no, I didn't exactly turn my back to Malaysia at all, just that ironically, Malaysia is the country that knows the least about my works.

How often do you produce short films?

2-3 times a year, I think. (I don't necessarily direct all these short films, being a producer as well)

What is it about making short films that attracts you so much to it?

I like the fact that short films demand the discipline to tell a story within a limited running time, so you must be precise and do as much as you can. I also don't have to commit too much of my time or money to make a short film, therefore my creativity is not limited by commercial considerations or any other desperate attempts to please the masses. There are more opportunities to explore the content and form of filmmaking.

Do you pursue making short films in the hopes of becoming a full-length feature films one day or are you making shorts just for the satisfaction you gain out of it?

I never treated short films as a stepping stone to making a feature-length film because such a mentality would have been insulting to short films as a medium. There is a lot of joy and passion in making short films because some stories are more suitable to be told in such a manner, however, and once I find the right story to be presented as a feature-length film, I will make it. As a filmmaker, my main priority is really just to tell a good story and immerse myself in this exciting world of filmmaking that I am passionate about. The rest is secondary.

James Lee, Tan Chui Mui, Amir Muhammad and a few others were some of the pioneers of the independent filmmaking movement back in early 2000s. I believe you came into the scene around 2007. Were you close to them? Did you learn from them?

Yes, I knew all of them rather well (Woo Ming Jin is actually part of this group of filmmakers involved in what foreign film academics have called "The Malaysian New Wave") as I attended some of the public screenings and seminars that they gave back in those days.

In fact, James acted in my very first short film, "Chicken Rice Mystery", while I got the idea for the film itself when I was hanging out at Tan Chui Mui and Liew Seng Tat's office and forcing them to listen to my list of my silly film ideas.

The idea for Chicken Rice Mystery was the only one that they didn't react negatively to. So I decided to make the film.

I think my current career would never have happened without them.

Sound Girl Miharu readying the boom mic

When you began making shorts, were there many of your friends who were doing the same? If not, how did it feel like then?

No. It was a rather lonely experience. Which makes those who were willing to work with me in my films so much more invaluable to me. Maybe that is why I cannot stop making films, because only in those moments would I get myself surrounded by people who share my passion.

Today, it seems there are short films all over. Why do you think people are attracted to watching short films?

Youtube and all kinds of social networking websites have a lot to do with it, in my opinion. Since many short films can be easily accessed by many people, it became a more communal experience to watch them and have discussions over them over the internet. That's probably one of my speculations.

What kind of target audience are your shorts catered to?

To tell you the truth, I don't really think of this that much. I don't approach the making of short films like a businessman. I just want to tell a story, or express my certain fascination with certain themes, and see whether what I do can connect or resonate with anyone. It's a difficult concept to explain. But I don't think I am being self-indulgent.

For some reason, a lot of short films we see are very abstract and often times, difficult to understand. Why do you think there is such a fascination for these kinds of shorts?

What is abstract or difficult to understand by some, is touching and emotional to others.

Films, if you look at it more than just a mere form of entertainment, but also as works of art like literature, can be interpreted differently by different people based on their own backgrounds. So I don't think people are attracted to some films merely because they are "abstract" or "difficult to understand". These are merely some terms that people throw at films that they cannot connect with. I find myself emotionally captivated by the works of Wong Kar Wai because its depiction of heartbreak and yearning resonate greatly with me,

I am also in love with the works of Andrei Tarkovsky because his works are complex and poetic.

Some people make dirty faces and accuse the names that I mentioned as pretentious bores, I cannot really do anything about that. I thought the beauty of film is the fact that they can be unique to different people, but perhaps i am wrong.

I realise you tend to explore a lot on abstract themes like these as well in your work. How did you come to decide that this was the kind of short films you wanted to do?

I didn't think my themes are abstract. Are stories of people overwhelmed by the feeling of loneliness really that abstract? Are these yearnings of connection really that abstract? All I can admit is that I don't necessarily go with the formula that directors go with if they solely want to entertain their audiences. Because I would rather make films that are closer to my own sensibilities and emotions. It's depressing then, that what means so much to me are considered "abstract" by some, but it is not up to me to tell people what to think.

Coincidentally, abstract short films are the ones that usually garner awards. Is that a motivation for you to make them too?

No. my main reward is being able to do what I love to do, while constantly improving the craft that I am dedicated to.

To make a film solely to chase awards is the most depressing thing that I can think of. I just want to make a good film. That is all. If the awards come, then they are bonuses, and I accept with gratitude, knowing that what my personal works were able to find audiences that they can connect with. But we live in a cynical society, so of course award-winning works are generally belittled as "abstract. emotionally obscure" works. It's just the way it is.

Would you say that short films are also used as a platform to raise controversial issues (i.e. things like homosexuality, corruption, etc)? Is this something you do in your shorts as well? Any examples from your shorts?

I'm not an overtly political filmmaker, there are certain sociopolitical issues that I explore, but only if they are in service of the plot. Kingyo was a meditation on grief that revolves around a college professor who has an adulterous affair with his student, it also shows the difficulty of communication and connection between modern urban folks.

Inhalation is about a Malaysian girl who smuggles herself to work in Japan, only to get deported again, and she goes through numerous reasons on why she wanted to leave Malaysia, listing out numerous violent and controversial episodes from our history that have affected our psyche.

I realise you don't post much of your shorts on Youtube. Is there a reason for this?

Maybe I'm a little reclusive. Or maybe I just like to keep an air of mystery.

(My Youtube channel contains mostly video diaries)

How then do viewers usually watch your short films? Through screenings?

Yes. Or they can just ask me.

Do you get comments from viewers on your short films? Also, do your viewers comment via online or during live Q & A sessions?

Yes. Yes and yes.

Are there boundaries on subjects that personally would not touch? I.e. sex, nudity, etc?

Hm, well, there are some that I'm not that interested in exploring now, but I might explore them in a different stage of my life, so I wouldn't like to shoot myself in the foot by listing them out now. Haha

On average, how much does it cost you to shoot a short film?

There's no average. I have made zero budget short films where I did everything by myself, or small short films with a crew of three to four people (including myself. And then, there are some bigger ones where I have a crew of 15-20 people. It varies. I don't like to limit myself.

Where do you get the funding to shoot these short films or are they self-funded?

It varies too. Some are commissioned works, some are self-funded, yeah.

Do your short films generate any profit at all?

Yup. (since some of them are... commissioned works) I know this is not the type of answer you want, or it might smack you as self-consciously pretentious, but sometimes they just open other opportunities. That's all I can say, I guess?

What are some projects you are currently working on?

Oh, just juggling a few projects. Am in the middle of a video shoot while replying to this email. Producing a feature film, just finished writing another film that I'm directing, there are also two other short film projects that I may be setting up for myself. It's quite a lot for a guy who is as disorganized as I am.

Where do you see yourself in the future as a filmmaker?

Hopefully, I'll just continue making films. As long as I can continue doing that, it's really enough.

The short film phenomena is at an all time high now. But what about the future? Do you think it's just a hype that will die down soon? Or do you think it has a potential to take over / compete with mainstream entertainment mediums? What do you think is the future for short films?

Short films had always been around throughout the history of cinema, just that they were available in different platforms. There will always be appreciation for this particular medium. Just that with the internet, there are more people who are exposed to short films, which make things great.