Thursday, November 09, 2006

Alhamdulillah, and thank you, Andy Lau!


focusfilms
Originally uploaded by yasmin the storyteller.
(Shortly before we went to the 19th Tokyo International Film Festival, Lorna Tee, a producer from Andy Lau's company Focus Films, came to the print test screening of "Mukhsin" at GayaLab in Shah Alam.

Watery-eyed and sniffing at the end of the film, Ms Tee turned to us and said she wanted to do two things: She wanted to take our film under their wing, and she wanted to pay for the kids to go to the festival.

I will write about the festival later, inshaallah, but for now, here's a list of questions she sent to me from Hong Kong. It was a brief interview, the contents of which were to be included in the press kit of "Mukhsin".

They were good probing questions, I think, and worth putting up here, as a means of explaining to you, my friends, why I make certain decisions when making my films.)

Focus Films (FF):
The female protagonist Orked has appeared in three of your films (Rabun, Sepet and Gubra) and now Mukhsin, at different stages of her life in all the films. Orked is truly a fully developed character who has grown and yet consistent in her strength, her ability to love, her vivaciousness. Did you base Orked on someone you know or did you develop her and then her stories to produce four complete narratives for your films?

Yasmin Ahmad (YA):
Orked is mainly based on my own life experiences, and myself obviously. But her personality includes traits and quirkiness in my mother, and also my sister, whose name is Orked.

FF:
The ideal young Malay girl is hardly what Orked represents in the larger community in Malaysia. And, even in the film, the character finds it difficult to engage with other Malay children her age. Is Orked the ideal Malay girl you see for the community or does she exist in Malaysian society?

YA:
Of course there are many Orkeds in Malaysian society. You just have to go to the right places to meet them. I think many strong Malay women in today’s society are Orkeds, grown up – Dr Jemilah of Mercy Malaysia, Rafidah Aziz, Zeti Ungku Aziz, Datuk Sharizad, Faridah Merican etc.

FF:
The same goes for Orked’s parents who do not represent or stand for the ideal Malay parents in the eyes of the larger Malaysian community. The notion of open physical affection, relating to children in a convivial manner without the archaic feudalistic parental behaviour over children is almost unheard of in Malaysia. Did you base Orked’s parents on your own parents or an imagined ideal one?

YA:
Orked’s parents are totally based on my own parents. In fact, as my siblings and I often remark, our parents are even crazier than Orked’s.

FF:
Will we see ever more of Orked and her family and friends in future films?

YA:
I don’t think any screenwriter of film director can ever run away from their personal wells of experience, no matter how hard they try. So even if I start making stories other than the Orked series, I’m sure a little bit of her and her family will find their way into some of my characters and plots.

FF:
Is there any intension to move away from the Orked odyssey of films in the near future?

YA:
Yes. I have a few stories I want to turn into films, and none of them is about Orked and her family. Well, except one called “Inom”, a story based on a heart breaking experience my mother had when she was 13.

FF:
What other themes and issues would you like to explore? What are the universal values that you hold on to as a filmmaker when you set about preparing a story/plotline for a film?

YA:
Only people interest me. Everyday people and the way they cope with the emotional upheavals in their lives. I try really hard to view people through compassionate eyes. You have to, or you’ll pass harsh judgment on the characters in your films, and that is not something I’m interested in.

FF:
You tackled head on Malaysian issues in your previous films i.e. the rural vs. urban Malaysia in Rabun, intercultural love in Sepet and religious tolerance in Gubra. Mukhsin tells of a beautiful innocent story on first love. What prompted you to make a film on this subject?

YA:
What prompted me was a poem by Wislawa Szymborska entitled “First Love”. In it, she wrote how the first love may not be as tempestuous or as passionate as later ones, but for some reason it’s the one that stays with you until the very end. It made me think of Mukhsin, a 12-year old boy I knew when I was 10.

FF:
On the other hand, Mukhsin does touch on what makes a Malay person Malay. Like in the scene when Orked and her mother danced in the rain, their Malay neighbour commented that the both of them were “forgetting to behave like Malays”. Was there an intention to touch on how certain people view the respect and practice of culture in its most narrow and inhibiting way?

YA:
Of course. No one knows what being Malay really means, but so many people want to champion some woolly cause about preserving “Malay-ness”.

FF:
In your blog, you made a comprehensive list of the (multiple) ethnic origins of your Mukhsin cast and crew in response to a comment on “not to mess” with your Malay culture. I like this response that you seem to be saying what is REALLY Malaysian anyway.

YA:
I like it too, but… what was the question again?

FF:
You have also taken a lot of criticism for your other films i.e. Sepet and Gubra where you tread on religious, culturally and racially sensitive issues. How do you see yourself as a contemporary filmmaker in multi-racial Malaysia?

YA:
I just see myself as someone who holds up a mirror to Mankind. I’m not so socio-centric; I just want to examine the human condition and nothing pleases me more than to hear that some people from another part of the world laughed and cried when they saw my film. I don’t care about national and political borders so much, but only insofar as they create interesting differences in culture and tradition. The fact that Malaysia is multi-racial is really not such a big deal to me. The world is multi-racial. That is a great blessing from God, and I don’t understand why some people treat it like a curse.

FF:
What does it mean to be Malaysian for you?

YA:
Being Malaysian means nothing to me other than that I was born in Malaysia. Having said that, I love this country. The weather, the food, the greenery, the languages… well, everyone says that about their home country, don’t they?

FF:
There is always a sense of an imagined Utopian Malaysia in all your films. You have very strong views on the ‘perfect’ Malaysia. How different is it from the real Malaysia of today?

YA:
I don’t really get it when people say my films are Utopian. In “Rabun” a loving old couple get cheated by their own relatives whom they trusted, in “Sepet” the love of my heroine’s life gets into a terrible accident, in “Gubra” nice people get beaten to death, and in “Mukhsin” a beautiful friendship is shattered by innocent love. I think my stories are actually quite dark. However they are always peppered with humour and moments of levity. Jack Lemmon once said, “It is hard enough to write a good drama, it’s harder still to write a good comedy, and it’s hardest of all to write a good drama with comedy. Which is what life is.”

FF:
You have been employing a regular creative team i.e. your cinematographer, editor and also actors for many of your films. Is it important that you work with familiar actors or continue a working relationship with one particular cinematographer? As a new director, does working with familiar faces makes life easier on the set?

YA:
My cinematographer, editor, producers, art directors and I are like a family now. They even call my parents Mak and Abah (Malay for mom and dad). This is the only way I’ve ever worked, so I have no idea if this is the best way or if there are better ways out there. I only know that when you’re close to a bunch of craftsmen whose talents you admire and respect, the work can have a lot of truth and heart in it. While making “Mukhsin”, Fendi (editor), Keong (cinematographer) and I (scriptwriter and director) even shared a small flat for the entire duration of the shoot. We ate, talked and slept together.

FF:
Music plays a huge part in "Mukhsin" right from the start where we hear the folk Malay keroncong-style song to classical pieces used in later scenes. How do you select such diverse musical styles for one film?

YA:
When I write a script and make a film, I think about human emotions a lot more than culture or tradition. As such, the music I choose for my films are based on the feelings they impart, rather than the language they’re in, or their country of origin. That’s why you’ll find Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Schumann and Dvorak, alongside Malay, Indian and Indonesian music, as well as Hong Kong and Thai pop songs from the 70’s. The fact that many people around the world have noticed the eclectic nature of my soundtracks, but no one has complained, encourages me to continue with this style of choosing music.