Friday, February 18, 2011
U- Wei Saari
I interview the talented director U- Wei who talks about his movie Hanyut. The story appears in the sun on Wednesday Feb 16. The story had a longer version on line compare to the print version.
Firm handle on life
Director U-Wei Saari believes in making movies that force viewers to think and ask questions
BY BISSME S.
"I cannot forget." The lead character uttered those words in the last scene of the movie Hanyut/Almayer's Folly. And sufficient to say those words describe my feelings about Hanyut.
I simply cannot forget Hanyut. Some scenes from Hanyut linger in my mind days after watching the film. Subtly, they have haunted me, persuading me to watch Hanyut, again. But it'll have to wait as Hanyut will officially hit the cinemas only at the end of the year.
theSun was one of the few media that were invited to watch the rough cut of Hanyut from the beginning till the end.
Hanyut has one of the best opening and closing scenes I have seen in local movies in the last 20 years.
The movie starts with a hysterical woman running along the river and then plunging into the river, swimming towards a big ship. A small boat appears and a white man grabs her hair.
Based on Joseph Conrad's first novel, the story centres around a Dutch trader Kaspar Almayer in Borneo in the 19th century. His ultimate dream is finding a mystical mountain that is filled with gold. He has dedicated his life to realise this dream but he soon learned that some dreams can be dangerous. They can consume you. They can destroy you.
The cast comprises Peter O Brien, Sofia Jane, Adi Putra, Khalid Salleh and Alex Komang.
While Hanyut can be a tad long with some redundant scenes, it compensates those shortcomings with excellent cinematography and a powerful storyline. After watching Hanyut, I asked the director U-Wei Haji Saari :
Tell us more about Hanyut?
The film is so un-Hollywood. It is ridiculous to see a failed white doctor trying to save Calcutta (In City Of Joy) and a white widow teaching the king of Siam (The King And I). Like one of the character says in the movie 'what do they (the whites) know about us and this country?'
Human are supposed to forget (and get on with life). The meaning of 'insan' (human) in Arabic means "to forget". If you cannot forget, then you will be damned.
It has taken me 10 years to make Hanyut a reality. I do not want Hanyut to my folly. I do not want Hanyut to pull me down (he hinted he does not want to end up like his lead character Kaspar Almayer where his dreams consumed him and in the end, destroyed him).
Hanyut is a prayer and every prayer has many obstacles. It also came to my realisation that every project takes its own time to become a reality.
In the last 10 years did you ever once give up your dream of making Hanyut?
I will quote what the lead character of Hanyut said in the end of the movie: 'I cannot forget.' I cannot forget Hanyut.
Why did you choose to turn Joseph Conrad's novel, Almayer's Folly, into a film?
I read the novel more than 20 years ago. I love Conrad's works. He is one of the few who writes about Malaya that is not condescending. He never patronised the locals. When Mat Salleh (white men) write about us (Asians), we always became the curtain of the window. It is his first novel. It was difficult to translate it into a script.
When novels are adapted into movies, there are bound to be changes. How faithful did you remain to the novel?
If I were to meet Mr Conrad now, I would probably say something like this: 'Mr Conrad I am very sorry but your story has become my story now.' Of course there are changes. I think that is what adaptation is all about. I tried to be faithful to the intention of the novel.
Your movies from Hanyut to your first film Perempuan, Isteri Dan ....always deal with similar themes – alienation, bad relationships, misplacement and identity. Why? Do these themes have any reflection to your life?
A filmmaker has only one film to make in his life time and the rest of his films are just variations. I can't help noticing these thematic stuff happening around me. Sometimes I can feel alienated. But I have more sad relationships than bad relationships.
Do you ever questioned about your identity of being Malay? What does being a Malay means to you?
Malay is not a colour. Malay is not even a language. Being a Malay is a state of mind. Even if you lived somewhere else but you have a strong attachment to Tanah Melayu, then you are still a Malay.
Your movie's budget so far is RM13 million. Don't you think the budget is lavish for a Malaysian film? (Most Malaysian filmmakers spent less RM2 million on their films).
I want make a good film. I want people who look at Hanyut and not say "Ah, untuk filem Malaysia bolehlah" (Ah, for a Malaysian film, can do-lah). I am giving the film as much money as it needs. Whatever it takes my kid to grow up, I will have to put in the money. My film needs more money. I have to get another RM5 million to complete it.
When I first did my first film (Prempuan Isteri Dan…), producers in Malaysia were making movies at a budget RM250,000. But I told my producer that my film will cost RM1 million to make. These days, it is normal for Malaysian films to have budgets of more than RM1 million.
Money is not the only answer to make a good film but it is a big factor that to make it look good. Films are for our eyes first. Once your eyes are satisfied with the visual, your soul will say ‘now it is my time to feel for the film.’
You have a reputation of spending a lot of money in making a film. Many producers are afraid to hire you. What is your comment?
Then, they are not ready to hire me. Most producers here do not believe in investing more money in their films. They stick to their safety zone. They believe all Malaysian films should be made with RM1.2 million.
It is a funny way of doing things. It is like saying everyone should be wearing RM3 shirt. Some project needs more money than others. They never come from film school. They came as business person. A lot of them put profit first. They neglect the craft of filmmaking. But I put my film first. I am a filmmaker who wants to make films.
Are you saying film making is an art and profit doesn't matter to you?
Profit is not my top priority. But profit matters to me. I do not like being poor. I hope my film sells. Art cannot be said art till it sells.
How do you think Malaysians will react to Hanyut? Do you think Hanyut will do well at the local box office?
That is not the question for me. The only position I have is that I wish Malaysian audience can accept my new pizza (both of us were eating pizza then and we laughed).
Your films are a huge success with the critics and international film festivals. But they do not draw in Malaysian audiences and are not local box office hits. Are you angry or sad about this fact?
I am more puzzled than angry and sad.
Despite the poor response from the Malaysian audience, you continue to make films. What motivates you to continue with this passion?
I am a filmmaker. That is my vocation. I have to make films. If I stop making films, I do not exist any more.
Women are always manipulative in most of your films and the same element can be found in Hanyut. Are you a women hater?
James Brown (the singer) said it is a man-man world. Women became manipulative because they have to survive. They are always survivors. Zaleha (actress Sofia Jane in his first film Perempuan Isteri Dan...) becomes manipulative because Amir did something to her (He kills her husband, raped her and sold her to a pimp).
In Hanyut, you will see Sofia Jane is a bidan (midwife) who brings other's people babies into the world but her own child is taken away from her. That is why she becomes manipulative. It is always a painful process to swim against the current.
The ending of all your movies are always dark and depressing. Why is that?
My films are about hope. In Perempuan, Isteri Dan..., the lead character gets killed but death is not the end. Death can be a rebirth. To be martyr you must die. In Kaki Bakar, the son killed his (abusive) father because he wants to move forward. Even in Hanyut, in the end, the character says 'I cannot forget.' It is a hint that perhaps he may do something to revive his dreams.
Do you watch local movies? What do you think of them?
I do but they do not draw me to have a discussion. Film makers here believe they have a formula they have to follow. But there is no formula in filmmaking. A lot of people here neglect their craftsmanship of filmmaking.
Our presentation is not good. So it is difficult for us to penetrate the international market. I respect anybody who can finish a film because filmmaking is very hard. That is why I go and watch local films. But I feel sad when films have no soul.
There are two types of Malay films. One that teaches you to dream and the other that reflects the life that the character leads and asks the audience 'what about your life?'
All art must be political and erotic . But erotic here is not vulgar. Erotic here means sensuous.
What are your inspirations behind your films?
I loved watching films. I still read a little, not as much as I used to. Sometimes, books make me sleepy. There are fine arts I loved. Everything inspires me. Life inspires me.
Here's what producer of Hanyut, Julia Fraser, has to say about the film
Do you think mass Malaysian audience would like Hanyut?
We know U-Wei's audience in Malaysia is small. We knew this when we started raising money for the film, but our market has always been overseas in the West. It took nearly 10 years to raise the money for the film but as a result, we can see that the movie is beautiful, and very much a Malaysian story. I think Malaysians will be proud to have this film as their own and perhaps the audience here will check it out just for that reason.
You have spent RM18 million on the movie. Are you confident that you will be able to cover the cost of the production?
Yes, we will cover the costs plus more. So far, the reaction to the movie from overseas audience has been very strong. Although our costs seem high here, it is still regarded a very low for what we have achieved. We have produced a period piece, where we made sure our overseas technical and creative guests had the best possible support – which is where a lot of the money went. But what a result!
What do you think of U-Wei's direction and the end product?
U-Wei has always been incredibly focused on the story he wanted to tell. I just tried to help him make the film – a film I felt he should make – a quality that would make an international audience want to see the movie. I felt his way of story telling would easily be appreciated overseas, so we wanted to match that with strong production qualities.
The end product is amazing – better than we ever thought possible – as our budget is regarded as shoe-string' in the West, but we have achieved visuals that could easily be compared to a Hollywood film, which means there is a strong market for it there.