Official report symposium

New Horizons of Malaysian Cinema

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On Thursday afternoon, during the Osaka Asian Film Festival, Kyoto University professor YAMAMOTO "Hiro" Hiroyuki hosted a symposium with Malaysian film directors HO Yuhang and Dain ISKANDAR SAID at The National Museum of Art, Osaka. Entitled "Hardboiled Detective and Lady Kung Fu" it explored the similarities and differences between HO’s opening film, MRS K, and Said's competition entry, INTERCHANGE.

# Why did you cast - and kill - each other in each other's films?

Said: Because I really hate him! But, as they say, love is very close to hate. Underneath the hate is a lot of love. No. Seriously. We have been friends for many years. But we hadn't seen each other for some time. So I thought it would be fun to have HO Yuhang play a small role in my movie. And I really like his films, and think he is one of the best Malaysian filmmakers. And it's not because he's here that I'm saying that! Even when he's not next to me, I've written articles praising his films. I just think he's a good filmmaker, that's all.

# What about you, Yuhang?

Yuhang: In MRS K, I felt that I could kill him better than he kills me in his film. And I gave [Said] some of the best lines!

Said: I also gave you lines that people remember, because it's in a very different accent, one they don't expect a Chinese person to be able to speak.

Yuhang: Since we love each other's films so much, we killed each other.

# You've previously made films about sons and mothers. Why is MRS K about a mother and her daughter?

Yuhang: While writing the script, the world I created only consisted of men, except for "Mrs K". The only other man who is close to her is her husband. Because there were already all these bad men, I decided that her kid should be a girl. Possibly the only good man in the film is the husband. That's how I wrote the script.

# The location is ambiguous. Was that deliberate?

Yuhang: Yes, even while writing the script. It's like a western, a genre among my earliest film memories. So there was no specific location when I wrote the script. And nobody has a name in the film, just like in Clint EASTWOOD films. People just had nicknames in the script, not real names. Another reason is that many Malaysian films purposefully show the landscape. Particularly in Kuala Lumpur with, for example, the Twin Towers. They would be very specific, to tell the world: "This is Malaysia. This is Asia." so I resisted that. If a house is a house and a street is a street, it doesn't have to be specifically anywhere. But the street must look interesting. And the house must look lived in. But it doesn't have to be in Kuala Lumpur! That's why you see no establishing shots in the film of the city, or of any landscape. So I tried to do it this way. Every frame, when I put the characters in their environment, they must also reflect the characters' internal landscape, with the colour and the rhythm.

# There's no sense of authority, like the police.

Yuhang: Yes, it's a kind of drifting life [that's depicted].

# It's interesting that the main character is known only as "Mrs K".

Said: I want to say something. It's important because maybe you don't know the context within my country. We have many tribal people and various races. But the main ones are Indian, Chinese and Malay, and everything goes along those lines. They tend to vote in the same way, for example. And Chinese go to Chinese films; Malays go to Malay cinema. It's slowly begun to change with the film JAGAT, for example, and we also had a certain number of Chinese audience members for BUNOHAN.

# About "Mrs K" having no name. Do you have anything to add?

Yuhang: When I write, it's always very difficult for me to come up with names [for my characters]. And for many years, I couldn't even come up with decent Chinese titles that I liked. They all sounded too complicated. So I decided to make it very simple, and just call her "Mrs K". And the character "K" looks very interesting to me; the design of it. It looks very "hot"! It's also a bit of a joke, because the writer KAFKA also had a character called K. So, it's more like the image of this K stuck with me. "Mrs M" sounds very funny. "Mr and Mrs B" would be very silly.

# What attracted you to cast Kara WAI?

Yuhang: After I shot AT THE END OF DAYBREAK with Kara, I wanted to make another film with her. When I spoke to my producer, we had the thought of making an action film. And getting her to do action again. Of course, she's not as young as before, so we asked her if it's a good idea. She said, yes, she'd do it for us. But quickly because she's getting old and it's getting more difficult for her. When she shot the film she was 56. She told everyone that this would be her last action film.

# INTERCHANGE uses pictures of locals taken from a hundred-year-old book titled ‘Through Central Borneo’, including women washing themselves by the river. Did you always intend to set the film in Borneo?

Said: It's not set in Borneo. It's set in a city "somewhere". Like Yuhang, I prefer not to be specific about where that city is, but for different reasons. From BUNOHAN to INTERCHANGE, there are overlapping concerns. In Malaysia, we have a belief in spirits and ghosts but we deny it. Mainly because it can be seen - as in BUNOHAN - to be anti-Islamic. So I purposefully pulled back. It's the same in Borneo. We have many tribal people, but we ignore them and treat them as less then human. We are very proud of the Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, which show our country's Islamic devotedness. If you use a real [place] name, you [create a divide] between Malaysians and tribal people. But if you don't give it a name, then you don't create that comparison. One last point. It's a concern for both my producer and I. In Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and even the Philippines, we are surrounded by tribal people but we don't bring them into our stories.

# I felt that you were trying to integrate Malaysian and Borneo people and culture...

Said: Yes and no. I'm not really concerned about bringing indigenous people to the attention of Malaysian people. But I do care about their stories. And I cannot tell their stories as if I am one of them. So I took a point from history, of what had really happened. Tribal people always believe that when you take their picture, you take their soul. I thought they are washing themselves by the river [in the photo], because they are washing away the bad spirits. But I also imagine another river that meets this one downstream, one that comes from the West. The idea that the camera steals your soul [is universal]. In the West, image is the reality, and reality has also become the image. Behind every image is another image, and another image; so that is also [now] concerned with losing one's soul. I like the idea that the very first machine that the tribal people encountered was the camera. Before that, they'd never seen a 20th century machine, not even a gun. It was the camera. That's why I brought the story to the city, rather than shoot it in the jungle. I feel that Iva and her people are trapped IN the photograph, but Adam is trapped BY the photograph. Both have to break it to be free. Even the camera is an obstacle for Adam, because the camera makes you blind.

# In INTERCHANGE, there are no Islamic elements except for the drag queen singer in the club at the beginning. Is that intentional?

Said: Of course not! It's very funny! I have another friend that made a film with a lot of transgender people that got banned. It wasn't my intention. [The actor] came with a different thing, a hood. That was the [costume] design. But on set, it looked flat like a Muslim [headdress]. I thought, that's okay, and I left it. It's not easy to make films in Malaysia. Yuhang asked me to act as a priest in one of his films. I thought, "Great, a Catholic priest!" But I didn't really know what was in his mind. I asked his producers, but one said "No way!" Yuhang told me that of course it was meant to be a Catholic priest, but it's not allowed because I'm Malay and a Muslim. So it would be a scandal, even if it is only acting!

Yuhang: If you leave the religion [it may be possible]!

# I lived in Sabah for six years, and the use of its dialect by Adam made me nostalgic. Did your actors have to study hard?

Said: Yes, some did, including the Indonesians. But Hiro's Malay is better than mine. If you put him behind a screen, and he speaks, you wouldn't know he was Japanese. The language everyone speaks, in different accents, that's how Malaysia is. By doing that, I hope I did not give it a [geographic/cultural] centre.

# In the dialogue between characters, I felt you were making comments about politics, about how the central government is taking greater and greater control. Is that deliberate?

Said: Hiro, I must appologize. Don't take it wrong, but some things you create that you are conscious of, and some things that you create are unconscious but they still make sense. I always believe that we are not [creating films] in a vacuum. But at least what you are saying is kind of logical. Another critic took it too far and said that when I killed Yuhang, I was suggesting the murder of a specific Chinese producer. He published it! At least [Hiro's] idea has some logic behind it.

# To summarize, in Malaysia there's a diverse range of people, but that diversity is being lost with Islam becoming more dominant.

Said: I always prefer things to be open, and then layer on meanings. Even in the beginning of my film BUNOHAN, with the image of a torn screen, it's shot in full frame. Which screen is torn? Is it the cinema screen or the shadow puppet screen? In Malaysia, we are always fighting over whose is the dominant story among the different races. Sometimes you have to fight for your stories.

# How Malaysian are your films, even as you shy away from specific locations?

Yuhang: My film has a Hong Kong investor. So, when my film is in Hong Kong, it's a Hong Kong film. When it's in Malaysia, and shown in Malaysia, it's a Malaysian film. It's very tricky! But I like that. I like it when [audiences] really can't tell. But when I made this film, it was written for Kara. I wanted to make a film with her. I wanted to make a film with her with action. I'm not really thinking that I have to make a Malaysian film with a specific location. It's more like I'm making a comic; designing something for Kara. And with some other people that I would like to work with, like Simon [Yam] and Wu Bai, a famous Taiwan rock star. My next film can only be made in Malaysia. It's based on a friend's family's story. It happened in the northern part of the Malaysian peninsula, near Thailand. It has something that happened to my friend's father there, to do with some local black magic. It's a kind of curse from Thailand. But I did some research and some people say it originated as far away as India. But over thousands of years, the [folktale] changed and spread.

Said: This is a very important question. The history of cinema outside of Hollywood is an important question, because it reflects your culture. But there are many ways to look at that, and I don't know if we have enough time to go into it here. It's such a loaded question. It's like that famous argument amongst critics whether Kurosawa is less Japanese than Mizoguchi, or Ozu. Particularly in the post-colonial context of Malaysia. In Taiwanese or Iranian or African or Arab cinema, they've dealt with ideas of identity. I said to a famous Malaysian critic, it's too late! We're already in the 21st century. We squandered that [chance to explore identity issues] already. I'm not interested in talking about identity. I just want to tell a story. And it doesn't have to be a Malaysian story.

# The title of this symposium is "Hardboiled Detective and Lady Kung Fu". Basically, the detective is the one who tries to protect society's order. But kung fu is something you rely on to protect your family [outside of authority]. So even if the message of INTERCHANGE is to protect order, the characters fail. Maybe the message is to fight authority and protect myth.

Said: Thank you. That is an underlying concern for me and my producer. We work closely together. In many ways, everyone is trapped, but they try to escape. That's why Detective Jason killed Iva in the film. He represents the system. Even as a detective, he does things the system would not encourage. So everyone tries to break the system, to go outside of it.

# I also saw some contrast in how you handled "myth". In INTERCHANGE, the message was to destroy the myth. But in the character of MRS K, Kara WAI has made a myth from scratch.

Yuhang: It's difficult for us to live without myth. I think myth sounds a big [grand]. Maybe we can say that it's difficult for us to live without stories. We tell each other different types of stories. What makes you get out of bed and not get out of bed. Like this symposium, organised by Kyoto University. It's a story. And we're here. So, yes, it gets us out of bed.

Said: I can see why Hiro asked the question. Myths take a long time [to emerge]. Ancient myths. But we have modern myths now. And that is really incredible. Cinema is an amazing tool to create modern myths. I can imagine this kung fu housewife in the old days being talked about around a fire. Or about INTERCHANGE’s bird-man, which is also a myth.

Yuhang: Can I tell a joke? When I was growing up, I watched many films and television [programs]. And many were from America. For a long, long time I believed that foreigners only drink alcohol, and not water. These people don't drink water, but I don't drink anything else. I asked my mother and she said, yes, I don't think they drink water. So, yes, myth!

Said: He's right. Don't be offended! When I was a kid, I saw Japanese people committing harakiri for any reason. I thought that the Japanese were amazing people because of this!

Yuhang: And we wished our own politicians would do that!

Said: They didn't watch Japanese movies like us when they were young!

# In INTERCHANGE, was it deliberate that the detective that follows the rules is Chinese?

Said: No. Not really. I was aware of it at the time, but we also wanted to use many different races that exist in Malaysia. Still, I didn't want to make a stereotype. In Hong Kong movies, the white guy is always the bad guy. I really didn't want the Chinese guy to always be the bad guy.

# You have both been making coproductions, with Hong Kong and Indonesia. Does the message for Malaysian audiences get watered down?

Said: [My producer and I] always want to include Indonesian characters. In BUNOHAN, we had an Indonesian editor behind the scenes. But, yes, we always want to [integrate]. In terms of what's in the story, it's difficult. Malaysia does but doesn't have the same language as Indonesia. It doesn't translate. It's culturally very different. It won't stop us, because you just think of the story and just do it. Hopefully, I'll shoot my next film in Manila, in an area where people are so poor that they live in graveyards. They throw out the dead and convert the tombs to houses! The film is about cloning. I first thought about it five years ago. I hope to take a white actor that is dead but clone him and make him a character in the film! To add more to the race [mash-up]! But it's difficult. Steven SPIELBERG has already bought the copyright of all [famous] dead actors!

Yuhang: It's not an issue for me, the "watered-down" concern. Emotions are pretty much felt universally. And also, it's about the expression. How your film is made. For me, it's always about [film] grammar. For example, the next film that I want to do has to do with black magic. But we know what black magic is. It's not something completely foreign. It just happened that the one I'm portraying is common practice in South Thailand and the northern part of the peninsula of Malaysia.

# The message of both films is that people are very attached to where they are born and raised. In MRS K, the place you live now may not be where you're from, but you do your best.

Yuhang: For MRS K, I agree. Personally, I feel comfortable wherever I am these days. I don't feel that I'm very so-to-speak Malaysian. In some ways maybe. Everywhere I go, there's a bit of "Malaysianness" within me. But the only thing that makes us different is our passports. We have very common stories. For example, football! You and I may like Liverpool and that's something I can connect to you with. It's not [about] a country, it's just one of many [ways to connect].

Said: It's a good question. But a difficult one. It's difficult because I can only answer on a personal level. From very young, I traveled to many parts of the world because of my father's work. I always wonder what it's like when friends say they miss home. I never understood that concept because I never knew what home was. And also, when I was very young, all my heroes were writers and I felt that you needed a strong sense of identity to be a good artist or a good writer. And that always scared me, because it means that I'll never be good. For example, if you take the three writers in English that I most admire, [Samuel] BECKETT, [James] JOYCE and [George] ELIOT, at least they had something to reject. I don't even have that! But now, I really feel that I've been very lucky that I don't have a place. I'm only now beginning to learn how to accept that. Yes, I'm Malaysian. But in many ways, I feel that I don't have a place. And I like that.

Yuhang: Again, on a personal level, we have to think what home means to us. What is our particular attachment. I like my mom's cooking a lot, for example. If my mum and I moved to Osaka, and I could eat her cooking every day, would I still miss Malaysia? If I shipped my bed to Osaka, is there something I will still particularly miss? I'm not sure sometimes. I may miss my friends maybe, but I can make new friends here.

- Transcribed by Stephen Cremin