MALAYSIAN filmmaker Liew Seng Tat says he “eats, breathes and sleeps films”.
One of today’s most promising filmmakers, Liew is no stranger to the local audience, particularly those who have their pulse on the international festival film circuits.
Liew’s debut feature Flower In The Pocket (2007) garnered numerous international awards, including the Jury Prize at the 10th Deauville Asian Film Festival in France.
The movie, which premiered at Busan International Film Festival, South Korea in the same year, was also screened in film festivals in Rotterdam (the Netherlands) and Fribourg (Switzerland).
Liew started filming four years ago with a live-action short, Bread Skin With Strawberry Jam.
With a penchant for colouring life’s mundane experiences, Liew’s inspiration stem from having grown up in Jinjang, a Kuala Lumpur township once associated with having a seedy reputation.
“I think growing up in Jinjang influenced the way I see and approach things and translate them into movies ,” he says in an interview with Life & Times.
Last year, he released a short film Welcome To Kampong Radioaktif, a mix of absurd cinema and social commentary.
The film is one of a fourpart short film series, Survival Guide Untuk Kampong Radioaktif, a joint project with award-winning directors Woo Ming Jin, Tan Chui Mui and Yeo Joon Han, to raise awareness on environmental issues.
IDEA FROM MEDIA
The former 3D animator-turnedfilmmaker is currently travelling to several film festivals around the world to promote his upcoming feature film, Lelaki Harapan Dunia (international title: Men Who Save The World).
A co-production with Everything Films (Malaysia), Volya Films (The Netherlands), Flying Moon Filmproduktion (Germany) and Mandra Films (France), it had its world premiere at the Locarno International Film Festival in August.
It has been screened at Toronto International Film Festival, Nara Internation al Film Festival in Japan, Vancouver International Fi l m Fe s t iva l, Bu s a n International Film Fes tival and was recently at the Kolkata International Film Festival.
“ Lelaki Harapan Dunia was meant to be my first feature film, not Flower In The Pock et.
But coming from an indie film background, I felt that Lelaki Harapan Dunia was too big a concept and theme for a feature length.
I needed more time and money to work on it.” “At that time, I had just started making short films so I really didn’t know where to start,” he says.
“I told myself that I should probably start with something smaller, requiring less budget.
It was only after the success of Flower In The Pocket that I re-visted the script for Men Who Save The World.” The idea behind the film, according to Liew, was sparked after reading a newspaper article about the tradition of house-moving or “angkat rumah”.
“I have always been fascinated by the images of traditional housemoving where people from a community get together to help move a house from one location to another,” he says, referring to an article in the New Straits Times about a group of villagers helping a farmer move his house closer to his ailing mother-inlaw’s place to care for her.
“The farmer has deep emotional attachment to his house and that sparked the idea for the movie.
The thought struck me instantly as something powerful.
It made me think about my home, my country.
The story about a man and his attachment to his house is the basis for this story, together with spirit of togetherness,” he says.
From fine-tuning the script to obtaining grants and turning it into hours of footage, Liew says he only started work on the film four years ago.
“Most of the time I work on the script alone.
Whenever possible, I attended script-writing workshops and found ways to speak to industry experts locally and abroad at film festivals, to make the script stronger,” he says.
The film went through three filmmaking labs, namely The Cannes Residency in Paris, Sundance Screenwriter Lab and Torino Film Lab.
Turning the script into a feature film, especially one that requires a big budget, provided another set of challenges.
“Getting funds and the script finalised are some of the challenges along the journey,” says Liew , adding that following his participation at Torino Film Lab, he was able to “connect all dots to make the project happen”.
“We faced so many rejections earlier.
But it made the script stronger and we couldn’t have it any better.
We are thankful to those who supported us, including a film grant from the Communications and Multimedia Ministry,” he says.
Men Who Save The World allows him to “learn as much as possible about the workings of the industry”.
“I don’t have formal training in filmmaking, so I get by on hands-on experience,” he says.
Lelak i Harapan Dunia stars Wan Hanafi Su,Harun Salim Bachik, Soffi Jikan, Jalil Hamid, Azhan Rani and Othman Hafsham.
Cinematography is by Gay Hian Teoh, known for his exceptional work in films At The End Of Daybreak, Opera Jawa, Paloh, Embun and Spinning Gasing.
“The year 2007 was the right time to find footing in the industry.
At the time, many local filmmakers started sending their films to international film festivals.
I was lucky to be part of that.
After Flower In The Pocket, doors began to open for me.
“From participating in festivals, I now know that there are platforms to get funds for film projects.
And things just started to fall into place.”
The biggest challenge in the making of the movie was the house-moving sequence.
Constructed out of materials from abandoned houses, Liew credits the production’s art department for the effort.
“The art department bought three abandoned houses within the filming location and took everything apart before salvaging whatever that’s usable.
The thing with old houses, it is built with solid wood.
Lifting the house is a challenge in itself,” he says.
Not only that, Liew also wants everything to look real.
“I don’t want to construct the house using cardboard because you can really tell.
It has to be real,” he says, adding that the scene was filmed on location in a secondary jungle in Padang Rengas, 15 km away from Kuala Kangsar, Perak.
Not wanting to damage the natural surroundings, the crew came up with an ingenious way to shift the house into the jungle.
“The crew took the house apart and moved it piece by piece into the jungle.
There, we re-constructed the entire house.
The day before we were supposed to film the house-moving sequence, it rained.
The ground was muddy and slippery.
We could only do it in one take or risk re-shooting and destroying the path,” he says.
In that scene alone, about 70 people — most of them villagers from nearby — were recruited to bolster the manpower for the actual move.
Liew used two cameras to capture the entire process.
He says: “The villagers were extremely committed and the spirit of unity was captured beautifully on film.
This is exactly what I hoped to convey.” In the official trailer, a group of men in baju kurung are seen plotting for something.
As the story goes, the village is being terrorised by orang minyak and in order to protect the women and children, the men and women decide to cross-dress in order to confuse the bogeyman.
“The men are protecting the women and basically everyone in the village.
Good intention comes first, comedy comes after,” Liew says.
The film will be in Bahasa Malaysia with English subtitles.
Although peppered with local slang and humour the film is relevant to the international audience.
“Our screening in Locarno was in a 900-seat theatre and it was packed to the brim.
The atmosphere was similar to a football match.
“Watching in Locarno for the first time with the Swiss audience was great.
Whatever jokes and messages in the film somehow translated well with the international audiences.
They caught all the jokes,” he says.
It was a similar situation at the Toronto Film Festival, and it was billed as the top 50 must-watch films at the festival.
“This is a Malaysian film for Malaysians first and foremost.
The movie was not made with the international audience in mind.
It was never my intention to come up with something exotic for the international audience.
I don’t make movies with an intention to penetrate the foreign market,” he says.
As for his future plans, Liew says he will continue writing.
“I still want to be able to have my voice heard through my films and be proud of what I do.
Most importantly, I make films for Malaysia.
I won’t feel complete if I know that my movie is not doing well in my own country.”