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Film director Saw Tiong Guan's heroes don't wear capes — they tell stories

MALAYSIAN director Saw Tiong Guan's new film, Life in 24 Frames A Second, which made its world premiere at the 23rd Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy recently represents a rare confluence of some of the greatest directors not only in Asia but also the world.

In 24 Frames, Saw takes his audience on a journey through the personal and artistic histories of four filmmakers: Cambodian Oscar nominee Rithy Panh, Hong Kong's action veteran John Woo, India's prolific auteur Anurag Kashyap, and Lav Diaz of the Philippines, famed for scorching social dramas.

Along the way, he takes advantage of an effortless intimacy the filmmakers share as they reflect on the healing power of time and celebrate their triumphs over personal hardships.

"I just wanted to make a film about how perseverance and hard work actually triumph over adversity," shares Saw, speaking via Zoom, before adding: "I hope some of the audiences who are going through difficult times will actually watch this and tell themselves, 'OK, it's fine, it's difficult now, but if I don't give up I can make it.'"

While the film was made for charity, on a shoestring budget and through the generosity of its subjects and crew, it doesn't pull its punches. Trauma anchors 24 Frames; each director grew up through nearly unspeakable hardship.

But what frees the film is the assurance that there is a place beyond the trauma; somewhere that lets you look back at it objectively. Watching the film, you understand the old saying that time heals all wounds. But you might also add that art can heal some of them, as well.

"To tell you the truth, I don't know," admits Saw when asked how he managed to dig so deeply into the lives of near strangers. Continuing, He says: "I think, and this is just me guessing, it's because they feel that this project is for charity, for the greater good, and they don't mind sharing."

A STORY TO TELL

For Woo, a hero of Saw's since childhood, giving up would have been the easy way out. A debilitating physical illness through early childhood, constant movement from home to home, and a tragic fire which burnt one of them down.

Each would have been struggle enough on its own, but Woo lived through them all. In his own estimation, it was an attitude of determination that helped him get through those struggles. And it's an attitude he tries to imbue in all the characters he creates for film — from his breakthrough Hong Kong thriller A Better Tomorrow (1986), right to his global box office hit Mission Impossible: 2 (2000).

"John Woo very clearly is someone who is, you know, creating for peace and calm," muses Saw, continuing: "Looking at this tumultuous childhood, you see (through) these films, and the underlying theme of all this violence and mayhem, this idea of peace."

And Diaz too. He grew up under martial law in a Muslim-populated area of the Philippines, and he describes his films as "free". Known for their length, Diaz's films — including his 2004 masterpiece, Evolution Of A Filipino Family, which runs for 650 minutes — feel like intense contemplation, reflections on lives and worlds under stress, with beauty bursting out from under.

Meanwhile, India's Kashyap, director of the acclaimed black comedy Dev D (2009), lived through a childhood, which was plagued by sexual violence, transience, and a conservative upbringing that didn't allow him an outlet for his pain. That is until he found art, at which point it became a form of rehab.

A LOVE IS BORN

An exploration of childhood is a central driver of Saw's curiosity as a filmmaker, acting as a common thread through all his films. Previously he has focused his camera on the likes of Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang (Past Present) and Hong Kong-based Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle (Wind) as they ruminated on their lives.

The 41-year-old Saw grew up in the village of Sempalit, about a two-and-a-half hour drive out of Kuala Lumpur on a good day. His father sold sewing machines while his mother taught in a local kindergarten.

Saw says he's reliably told that his cinematic journey began with a screening of the Steven Spielberg classic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial when he was just three years old. But he has no memory of the occasion. "I'm told I was very quiet throughout the whole film," he recalls.

It was the imminent conversion of the village cinema into a mechanic's shop and a car wash back in 2007 that inspired Saw to become a filmmaker. "I snuck in when it was all locked up and I remembered so many things — secret smells and all these things," he shares.

Adding, Saw continues: "I thought I should do something so I wrote a story about a boy who holds a screening for his mum and I made a short film (G16 G17). (Filmmaker) Yasmin Ahmad read the script and agreed to play a small role. That's how I got started. Now when I find a story I want to tell, I look for people who will help me make it into a film."

ANOTHER WORLD

For the subjects in 24 Frames, cinema was a saviour that, for a moment, took its subjects away from their hardship and transported them to another world. Woo, so desperate to watch movies, would beg strangers to pretend he was their child so he could get into the cinema when his own parents couldn't take him.

For Kashyap, he had a cinematic awakening at a film festival. He finally got to see films that resembled his own writing and drawing, something the Hollywood productions he had grown up on never could.

The cinema was an escape for Panh, who lived through the massacres of the Khmer Rouge, and the brutal dissolution and death of most of his family. Oscar nominated for The Missing Picture (2013), he grew up on Bollywood films, revelling in their songs and comedic moments. He went on to make films that couldn't be further away from these inspirations, but are no less personal.

"I think that's his way of giving those people who died, lucky as he was, a voice in telling their stories for them. Because they're dead, he's doing it for them," says Saw, adding softly: "Because he's lucky enough to have made it out of that and he's doing that for them so it I think it all informs their films."

Originally a lawyer by profession, Saw now teaches law at the Universiti Malaya. But he has definitely not given up hope of one day becoming a full-time filmmaker.

He's realistic about the circumstances he's up against, but retains a healthy perspective. Thoughtfully, he says: "I think in Malaysia it is very difficult because we have a very small market. To survive, as a filmmaker full-time, even the most successful film director that we have (the late Yasmin Ahmad) had a different job in an advertising company. Even she couldn't do film full-time. It's OK as long as I get to make a film every three to four years."

Saw takes comfort from the stories of the directors he has talked to across the course of all his films so far. Their optimism has very clearly worked its way into Saw's way of living.

On what he learnt from his cinematic heroes, Saw reveals: "The biggest thing I took away is not to give up."

QUICK TAKE

Life in 24 Frames a Second was made for the benefit of two charities: World Vision International and the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund (Unicef). Any money made from festival screening fees, ticket sales, and VOD sales will be donated to these charities. Saw's previous film, Wind, was screened publicly but not for commercial purposes.

At the time of writing, there are no set plans for the commercial release of Life in 24 Frames A Second, either in cinemas or on VOD platforms.

Saw hopes to continue screening the film at festivals and other cultural and educational institutions.

Finally, Saw would like to thank the four directors "for their generosity in sharing their intimate and personal experiences," and also his executive producer and close friend, Chan Fei Loong, for his support.

Chris Cassingham was part of the Far East Film Festival's annual Campus programme for aspiring Asian and European film journalists and critics.

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