Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Pen Ek Ratanaruang

theSun published my interview with the well known director Pen Ek Ratanaruang from Thailand 

Headline : Going a Different Direction 
By Bissme S 

PEN-EK RATANARUANG may not be a familiar name here, but he is a well-known film director and screenwriter back home in Thailand. His films have garnered rave reviews at many prestigious international film festivals. But while Ratanaruang may be respected by his countrymen, the same can’t be said for his movies.
“They have never accepted my films,” says the 56-year-old, who was in Kuala Lumpur recently to promote his latest film, Samui Song.
He admits that it hurts when his fellow Thais give negative comments about his films.
“I have always regretted that. But all of us have regrets over something. I do not have to be happy all the time.”
To be honest, his films take some getting used to as they are difficult to understand, and have been called eccentric, and even mind-boggling. Watching one of his films is like trying to solve a puzzle.
Ratanaruang has toyed with the idea of presenting his films in a more conventional manner many times, so that the audience back home would love them.
“I really want to give them what they want to see,” he says. “But it is not easy. It takes a special skill to do that, and I do not have that skill.
“When you make a film, a lot of it comes from your character. The first thing I do whenever I write a script is to ask myself: ‘How will other people direct these scenes?’ – and then, I do the opposite.”
He simply cannot bring himself to change his directing style, or his rebellious nature.
“Once you are a thief, you are always a thief, and you cannot become a policeman,” he adds.
“So if you cannot become good, then you should try to be as bad as you can possibly be.”
On the surface, his latest film, Samui Song, appears to be a simple crime drama. The film is about a soap opera actress Viyada Beaufoy (played by Cherman Boonyasak) who feels trapped in an unhappy marriage to rich foreigner Jerome Beaufoy (St├ęphane Sednaoui). She then makes the decision to break away from her husband, including hiring a stranger to kill him. 
The idea for the story came to Ratanaruang when he was out shopping one day, and bumped into a famous Thai actress with her European husband.
“I was drawn to them,” he recalls. “They looked perfect together. She was beautiful and he was dignified. I followed them without their knowledge. I was curious to see what they were buying ...
“Eventually, we paid for our items and went our separate ways.”
Over the next few days, he could not forget about the perfect couple.
“I was swimming and I remember the moment I finished my swim, I was ready for the wife to kill her husband,” he adds.
Despite the simple premise, Ratanaruang stays true to form, inserting so many layers into this thriller that the audience is left wondering if the murder even took place, or whether the actress imagined the murder.When asked to explain what really happens in the film, the director refuses, preferring to let the audience make their own conclusion.
“I know I may sound arrogant for not wanting to explain my films,” he says. “But I am not.
“To be honest, sometimes I do not even understand everything that takes place in my films!”
Ratanaruang loves focusing on unhappy relationships in most of his works. While he insists he is happily in love with his girlfriend, Ratanaruang admits: “If I did not have unhappy relationships, I could not write about them.
“I have many friends and colleague who confide in me. I do not know why they tell me their secrets, but they do.
“Some of them want to cheat on their spouses. I have not seen a truly happy relationship.
“Things can always change. When you enter into a new relationship, you always tell yourself that you will not repeat the mistakes you make in your past relationship. But, you always make new mistakes.”

Friday, April 6, 2018


After more than 10 years gap, Astro Shaw has decided to show Dain Said's Dukun to the Malaysians 

Headline: Spellbound by Woman In Red  
By Bissme S 

Film production house Astro Shaw is trying extremely hard to rewrite the history of its film, Dukun.
When the film was shot in 2006, it was said to be loosely based on the real-life crime of Maznah Ismail, better known as Mona Fandey, a pop singer-turned-witch doctor (dukun), who was arrested in 1993 for butchering a high-profile client.
After a sensational trial that rocked the nation, the 45-year-old Mona was found guilty and executed on Nov 2, 2001.
Dukun, which miraculously survived the censorship board's
vetting with only five audio edits, was supposed to hit cinema screens in 2007.
But for some strange reason, Astro Shaw decided not to release the film to the public.
Now, after nearly 11 years, Astro Shaw is finally showing Dukun in cinemas nationwide. It premiered yesterday.
The film now comes with a different tagline to reflect the lengthy wait: 'Akhirnya Kita Bertemu' (At last we meet).
Its original tagline was 'Saya Takkan Mati' (I will not die), allegedly based on Mona's final words before she was executed.
But the tagline is not the only thing that has been changed about the film.
"Dukun is not about Mona Fandey," insists Astro Shaw head Najwa Abu Bakar, when met at the press screening for the film.
"Dukun is a story about a father who goes all out to find his missing teenage daughter, including dabbling in black magic, and suffers terrible consequences for choosing the wrong path."
It appears Astro Shaw is hoping people will forget about the initial buzz surrounding the film. But some history cannot be easily erased. It will be hard for the public to stop relating Dukun to the story of Mona.
Umie Aida, who portrays the film's titular character, must certainly be happy that audiences can finally see her performance, said at the time to be her best ever.
However, she was careful not to make any reference to Mona when talking to the press.
Umie insists that she did not base her portrayal of her character on any female witch doctor, either living or dead.
To get into the skin of her character, Umie says she kept a python as a pet for two months. She observed the snake intensely and adopted its personality as part of her character.
"The python even slept in the same bed with me, and I am scared of snakes," she says with a laugh.
Once the shoot was over, she didn't keep the python any more.
When told audiences may say that she is, in fact, playing a character based on Mona, Umie replies with a smile: "People are free to make any kind of speculations. But I have based my character solely upon a snake's characteristic."
This staunch denial of a Mona Fandey link is echoed by everyone associated with the production.
"We are not back-pedalling," Astro Shaw's Najwa says. "The audience is entitled to have their opinion, and I respect their opinion. But If you watch this film, you will know we are not telling Mona Fandey's story."
Coming to Najwa's rescue is the film's director, Dain Said, who explains that memories of the case are still strong among Malaysians even today, and naturally, "any film that has a murder linked with black magic will be always be associated with the Mona Fandey case".
He pointed out that before her case, there were many other murders with elements of black magic.
Dain adds, jokingly: "If you want to say Dukun is Mona Fandey's story, it is your choice. But at night, she might come to visit you."
When asked why Astro Shaw decided to release the film after more than decade, the reasons given are vague.
"When I first saw the film, I felt it is a film that we will be proud to show the Malaysian audience," Najwa says. "In Astro Shaw, we are committed to telling good stories. We want to be an Asian hub of feature filmmaking."
Najwa says that films from neighbouring countries like Thailand and Indonesia have their own unique voices, but Malaysian films are lacking in this, which makes it a challenge to sell local films to the international market.
She feels Dukun stands a good chance to attract foreign buyers.
When asked what was the biggest challenge to bring the film to cinemas, she says: "Dukun was shot in film print in 2006, and we had to go through digital mastering to make sure the sound and the colouring match today's standard. Digital mastering is not something you can do overnight."
But then again, digital mastering does not take 11 years.
Reflecting on this, Dain said: "There is a woman in this film [who] wants a child badly, and she cannot have one. I am like her. I [could not] have my baby."
But unlike the woman who never stops her obsession about having a child, Dain has learned to move on, and worked on other film projects.
"I have heard all kinds of stories about why my film never got released in 2007," he says.
"I could write a thick book about it. Some even told me that they have seen my film gathering dust in some vault.
"Of course, I have my own theory as to why my film was not shown. If I reveal my theory, it will be like tuduhan (accusation). It will be fake news."
Right now, he is happy the film has finally reached audiences, because back then, his actors worked hard to portray their characters. At least now, their performances will get the appreciation they deserve.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Raymond Tan

theSun interviews Raymond Tan, who has just directed a movie about children and chinese opera 

Headline: The Love Of Theatre 
By Bissme S 

ONE OF the films opening in cinemas today, The Wayang Kids focuses on five primary school students who are training hard to enter an international Chinese opera performance.
The main protagonist is a young boy named Open, who is on the autism spectrum. He must prove to his classmates and himself that he has what it takes to be on stage.
Recently the film under produced by Brainchild Pictures was showed at a screening for the Malaysian media. The 90-minute film touched our hearts, thanks to the performances of the five child actors from different cultural backgrounds.
Austin Chong stars as the film’s protagonist Open, and his classmates are played by Mukesh Raghavan, Muhamad Mikail, Kaitlyn Ong, and Lorena Gibb.
To find the right cast, film director Raymond Tan, 44, visited over 20 schools and auditioned nearly 500 students.
“None of the kids had acting experiences before,” says Tan.
Tan gave the children two months of intensive training before facing the camera. They were given some lessons in acting and Chinese opera, where they learn how to somersault and back-flip. A few were given additional training to brush up their Mandarin, as the film is mostly in that dialect.
“I always tell them ‘whatever you do, never memorise your lines,” he says.
“Nobody will pay to see you reciting your lines.”
His child actors were given the freedom to interpret their characters so their performance would be more natural. Tan said the last thing he wanted was for his young actors to give ‘adult-like performances’.
“I want them to be kids,” he says.
It had always been his childhood dream to be a film maker. Tan, who was born in Pulau Tikus, Penang says: “I was exposed to films when I was six years old.
My father was manager for a cinema and I got the chance to see many films for free.”
“I wanted to be a filmmaker [and] make films to entertain people [in return]."
Unfortunately, it took him many years to become a filmmaker.
“I grew up in an era where we encourage to be doctors, lawyers and engineers,” he says.
Tan in fact became an engineer, and in 2000, he moved to Singapore to work there. But he could not forget his dream.
In 2009, he decided to take the risk, and left his engineering job to focus on turning his childhood dream into a reality.
“It is never easy to leave stable paying job,” he says.
“I suffered many sleepless nights.”
He started making experimental short films. One of his works, called Wa For Wayang, centres around a young Indian boy who loses a bet and as a forfeit, must learn Chinese Opera. Slowly he falls in love with the craft that was initially alien to him.
This 30-minute short film became an instant hit and showed in many international international film festivals.
In 2014, used it as the basis for his first feature film called Wayang Boy, making minor changes to the plot.
In 2015, the film was recognised as the Best Foreign Comedy Feature in International Family Film Festival in United States. The Wayang Kids is his second feature film.
Asked why both films feature Chinese Opera as a centrepiece, Tan explains: “When I was young, my grandmother often to took me see the Chinese opera that was performed on the street.
“I realised the younger generation is not aware that such performances exist, and I want my film to expose them to this heritage.”
Both films also feature children as the main characters.
“When I started my film career, I was told the two things I should avoid were directing animals and children.
“Directing children is five time harder than directing adults,” he says.
“But if you direct children, you will experience something unique, pure and special. It is always interesting to uncover unpolished gems.”
The other common factor in his films is the topic of racial harmony.
He explains: “When I was a young boy, my friends from different races.
"Skin colour was never an issue.”
But in recent years, he feels that there have been tensions between the communities.
“Perhaps we should imitate children, and not let our skin colours keep us apart,” he says.
His optimism has led to some criticism that his films are “too sweet”.
“I like my audience to leave the cinema with hope, and hope is not bad thing,” Tan says.
“There is always a light at the end of the tunnel.”
The next film he will be directing will have a story that focuses on a group of teenagers, followed by an animated film with a plot that touches on family values.
“That will be my first attempt at animation,” he says.

Fazleena Hishamuddin

Author Fazleena Hishamuddin speaks to theSun about her third book Tari Pasar Perempuan. 

Headline: Femininity redefined
By Bissme S

FAZLEENA Hishamuddin loves exploring women's issues in her writing, which has led some to assume she is a feminist who hates men.
The 39-year-old author and actress laughs on hearing that.
"Just because I write about a woman's strength does not mean I hate men," she says, adding that women's stories need to be told.
"A woman's voice should be heard in our literature. Why can't a woman write about her breasts? Why can't a woman write about her mother who cooks in the kitchen? Why can't a woman write about an uneducated woman who is living in an isolated island?
"Nobody has the right to stop a woman from expressing herself."
While some women authors project an aggressive, angry tone in telling their stories, Fazleena prefers to let her message comes across subtly in her writing.
"I am a 'graceful' feminist," she explains with a huge laugh.
Her first book, a collection of her poems, came out in 2012, under the eyebrow-raising title of Seksi Ovari. Two years later, she released Bibir Ceri Melati, featuring more poems and some short stories.
This weekend, Fazleena will be launching her third book, Tari Pasar Perempuan. This is a collection of short stories, all focusing on a range of women, from a six-year-old girl to a grandmother.
Some of the stories are told from a man's viewpoint but the central figure is always a woman.
There is also a touch of bitterness and darkness in her stories. Not all her female characters succeed in their struggles for a better life.
"They get defeated," Fazleena elaborates. "But my characters learn to pick up the pieces and carry on with their life."
Tari Pasar Perempuan has one interesting feature that distinguishes it from Fazleena's other books.
"After nearly finishing it, I felt something was lacking in my manuscript," she says. That's when she had the idea of adding illustrations in the book.
After a long search, she finally found a young illustrator named Yani Mahmud on social media.
"Her drawings had [elements of] 'kejahatan', 'kenakalan' and 'kehitaman' (evil, naughtiness, and darkness)," she says, adding that they will complement her stories.
"I did not interfere too much in her creative process and I want her to interpret my stories through her drawings," Fazleena adds.
Explaining the metaphor behind the book title, she says: "In a market, you always find buyers and sellers constantly negotiating. The buyers are looking for a good bargain, and the sellers are looking to make a good profit.
"Life is no different from this metaphor. In life, we are always negotiating to get what we want. Life is like one big market!"
The short story from which the book's title is taken is set in an actual market, the famous Pasar Besar Siti Khadijah in Kelantan, which is run mostly by women.
This wet market was named after Prophet Muhammad's wife, who was known for her entrepreneurial skills.
The story centres on a young woman who performs the Malay traditional dance of Mak Yong in front of her mother's stall.
Mak Yong is banned in Kelantan, as the authorities feel this dance form goes against Islamic teachings. The young woman is arrested, and the women in the market decide to rescue her at all costs.
Fazleena says: "The irony is that Mak Yong can be performed in any place in the world, except the place where the dance originated."
Tari Pasar  Perempuan will be launched this Saturday at Publika Solaris Dutamas at noon. Fazleena will be on hand to autograph the book which will be on sale at RM20 (soft cover), and RM50 (hardcover).
So what's next for the author?
Fazleena says she is currently working on her first full-fledged novel, which touches on the world of counselling – a subject she knows very well.
Fazleena not only has a degree in Malay literature, but also a master in psychology, specialising in counselling.
She was a counsellor for two years, during which she also pursued a fairly successful acting career on stage, and in scriptwriting, before turning to novel writing.
"I have been told that for your first novel, you should always write what you know," she explains. "And I know something about the world of counselling."