Saturday, November 28, 2009


I recently attended a conference that looked at the multicultural aspects of certain societies and films from that society. The day before that, a couple of films, namely Amir Muhammad's 'The Last Communist' and 'Gubra' by Yasmin Ahmad, were screened for the general public. I didn't quite manage to make it for the screenings, however. "Have you seen it before, though?" asked Amir after the conference. "I managed half of it, I think," I replied, recalling some years back in an NGO office when I helped out on an orang asli documentary/propaganda video.

The conference itself was rather interesting, because we managed to take a quick look (and I do mean quick) at the multicultural aspects of Malaysia, as well as how multicultural Korea actually is. There are, of course, some really simple answers that comes out of this. Korea is about as monoculture as monoculture can get within the modern world, while Malaysia practically lives on the messy, fucked-up, multi-level mixing of various cultures that grew out of half a century's worth of (inter)national evolution.

Of course, the truth must be said: when it comes to issues such as this, there is no such simple answers.

"I would like to know your opinions on how important you think the media, and in particular films, are when it comes to validating how multicultural a society or a nation is," I directed the first of my question to the panel of filmmakers and activists. They had all finished doing their respective speeches (the Korean feminist got on my nerves, though, with her simple branding of South-East Asian women in Korea, but more on this later); now the very short time has come for the grilling. "People look at films from Malaysia, and say, 'Wow, it's multicultural,' so I'd like to know the panel's viewpoints on this issue. Secondly, can we truly use such films or songs or media as a barometer of truth? After all, for the most part, they remain largely fictional endeavours."

I thought it was a fair enough question, one that allowed enough leeway for them to interpret it without being particularly messy. Instead, half of them got mixed up and thought I was talking about multicultural films ("Yes, it's important to have such films."). Amir got close enough, and gave a suitable reply: "I think that ultimately, on some level, the films we make will always reflect a part of us. Any film that has an audience cannot exist in a vacuum." In other words, Malaysian films tend to be multicultural because Malaysia itself is multicultural.

Or is it? I feel that in describing what is multicultural, its somehow important to further define the term first. To me, at least, I go for the basic and simplest answer of all: of having influences of more than one culture. The question, then, becomes how multicultural a nation or a society is, rather than whether it is merely a multicultural one to begin with. We are, after all, living in times where such barriers are easier to cross, and so even a society like Korea's is somewhat multicultural to a certain extent.

That's not to say that Malaysians are multicultural by default. There must be a distinguishing mark that is made between a society and its people. The Malaysian society, as I have experienced it, is multicultural. For sure. I mean, there are not that many places around where you can have your racial and religious appetites whetted no matter where you come from. You like films? Take your pick from the Malaysian, Hollywood, Indian, Chinese, Hong Kong, and other regional offers on regular offer at the cineplexes. Same goes for your songs and what not; Rain probably sells more records than half of the locally-bred artistes. We have more cultural-related and religion-related holidays in Malaysia compared to Korea; after all, nobody gave a shit about the passing Eid-Mubarak here in Seoul. And they tell you Islam's the second biggest religion in the world, and make up a couple of percentiles of the total Korean population.

But the people? Malaysia has a multicultural society, but it does not directly mean that people are automatically open to other cultures and religions. I suppose it merely gives us a nice little context, an opportunity to grasped, to actually be truly multicultural. It gives us a chance to be fluent in several different languages, to truly respect the customs of others, without having to leave our own borders. We have the chance to interact with people who are not the same as us, people who have had different experiences and understandings when it comes to life. I find it to be an interesting notion; if America is a melting pot of cultures, then we're...well, just as melting a pot as America is, in that sense. It is, however, merely a chance. There's always room for improvement, room to be more understanding and tolerant of others, room that is not always filled with the proper action and/or intentions.

"Got no pork meh," said a friend's girlfriend as we searched for a restaurant early Saturday morning in downtown Ipoh. We settled on a Chinese restaurant, and I was deciding which of the food I'm actually allowed to eat. She had suggested something chicken-ish, I told her that it's probably not halal. That was when she said about the pork: "Can't eat the chicken? Why?" Some of us looked on in slight shock, as my friend quickly tried to explain to her. It was a small moment, but it was a moment that stayed with me even until now. A Malaysian who had lived in Malaysia for practically her whole life...and she doesn't know why I'm not supposed to eat non-halal meat. Given such a situation, it makes me wonder about others who may not know.

Hell, it makes me wonder whether I myself am missing something.

Thus, multiculturalism (or otherwise) is not something that should be assumed lightly. Korea, by the same notion, is heading in the right direction, in the sense that people also have chances to be multicultural in their own way. They do learn English in schools. Some even learn Hanja in their younger days. But how far do they take it? How many of such chances do they grasp? Perhaps, in a purely statistical context, Korea has less 'cultures' compared to Malaysia, but I don't feel that the cultures that they are exposed to have less currency. Nestled in between Japan and China, with a huge amount of American presence both militarily and otherwise, it cannot be said that Korea (and Koreans) does not have a chance to be multicultural. People laugh when I say this ("So, what...having McDonald's is a form of being multicultural?"), but that is still a cultural influence from without, however lowly that culture is thought of. In my opinion, on some level, it still counts.

I have often said that people here generally don't speak English well because they don't actually use or need it on a day-to-day basis. At the same time, I have met people (mostly of the younger generation) who speak English very well without ever having left the Korean peninsula. They practice it, carry it on from their high school days, learn it, bang it into their head. One of my actors in a previous film can speak basic Japanese; acting in Irwan's film, there was a scene when he needed to write Hanja. We all oohed and aahhed as he magically created the Hanja words that needed to be written down.

So how multicultural is Malaysia? How open is Korea to cultures different from its own? The general, simple answers are always dependent on the kind of images that people actually want to portray, which can always be positive or negative, depending on their agenda. It shouldn't be dependent on the kinds of films the society makes (because if you really want to be picky, I'd say there's a strong European influence in many of the top-line Korean films). It should be dependent on the people, on the definitions, on the opportunities and chances that people exploit and create for themselves.

Even if it is merely trying to properly read the McDonald's menu in English.

Friday, November 27, 2009


“Is this something that can push things forward?”

I put the script down, being careful not to get it smudged by the dew marks from the ice blended Mocha. It didn't seem like a big challenge, but somehow, surrounded as it were by boxes of cigarettes, a couple of lighters, and a near-overflowing ashtray, it became more challenging that I thought. I made it through, somehow.

“Can you use this to get a chance to make a feature film?”

That was Tony, my cinematographer. We were couched, as it were, together, at the 2nd floor at the Itaewon branch of Coffee Bean. Discussing our film together, he had come up with some criticisms of the storyline. It's not a new thing, this; I am rather used to people telling me the opposite of what I actually want to hear, which is actually what I want to hear.

Confused? I love criticism. At times, I thrive on it. It may not seem that way before, but over time, I find myself dealing with negative feedback far better than I do with praise and plaudits. Beyond a simple thanks, I don't really know how else to react when someone say, “Wow, Fikri, 'My Father's Son' really touched me. It was so great!” They'd then go on to further illustrate how good it was, bringing into play a parallel from their own life. Which, of course, made it even more difficult for me to be comfortable in that situation.

With criticism, however, it's not such a bad thing. With criticism, I feel that there's always a part of me that's ready to swat things away. The script, 'Fly Me To The Moon', has been in 'circulation for a long time. I had thought of the story and its basic outline years ago; I had practically finalised it for shooting last year, before deciding to eventually push it back. Dragging it back out for my graduation project, me and Tony had sat down to discuss how to actually visualise the whole thing.

Hence, the criticisms.

In a way, though, they are not criticisms per se. Not of the kind that I am keen to have, anyway. I can deal with a lot when it comes to the bad words of others; it's a thick skin I developed from the harsh bullying of my secondary school years. It doesn't mean that I don't get angry, it just means there are less ways to hurt me by way of words. It depends on the person, rather than the words themselves. In this case, they don't hurt. I trust Tony with a lot of things, and especially with my film life. Perhaps I shouldn't, really, but that's the fact.

The fact of the matter is Tony also has an inquisitive mind at the best of times. We had discussed the majority of the shots for the film, and he visibly squeezed the mental juice out of his brain as he tried to understand my ideas, my shots for the film. Now, at that moment in time, with less than two months away from the shoot, there are still plenty that has to be clear. I don't do storyboards, which is why it's imperative that Tony understands what I'm trying to say.

“I don't think this would have much of a problem getting into film festivals,” he explained. “But I do want this to be something that you can use to make feature films with.” He then explained how he felt the emotional journey of the character could be further improved, highlighting this by balling both his fists and placing them on an imaginary graph somewhere in front of him. This is the beginning, this is he end, this is when the brother did this, this is at the beach. It was good information, it was good feedback, even if it wasn't something that's truly new.

It was, however, relentless. Tony's own ideas comes in after the mingle of ideas that had been the two professors I have had since I decided upon this script. Many who I discussed it with also had different ideas. The constant flow of other people's vision flooded my mind, and made it even more difficult to hold on to what I originally had intended. I suppose this is not necessarily a battle that is fought by filmmakers, or by artists across the spectrum. The battle of wits, of words, of ideologies, of the strength of one's personality to hold on to one's vision can be long and weary. The final say is mine, but the constant railing against my walls by others can be exhausting.

It doesn't hurt, it just tires.

He took off his glasses. His eyes were red, somewhat glazed. I surmised that he didn't have enough rest the night before. I was one step ahead of him; my glasses were off a long time ago. They tend to come off when I get deep in thought, as though the lack of focus concentrates my mind on making a decision.

That, ultimately, is what directing is. It's decision making. Snap, snap, snap. In the heat of the moment, it's these kinds of questions that comes at you, sharp and fast, left and right, affording you no time to truly catch a breath. What kind of angles should we go for? What size? How should the actor be feeling at this moment? What should his body language be like? The clothes, should they be of a certain colour? Speaking of colour, must the environment reflect that of the actor's or the scene's mood? What kind of props and items should be in the background? Shall we go with the master shot first, or do the close ups? What about this shot, instead of that? What if we do the actor's hair like this? His make-up? Glasses? Why don't we do a dolly shot for this? What if he says this line instead in this way?

How, what, why, when, who, where, why, why, why. Even in pre-production, the questions all come straight at you, and it is from you that the decisions are made. It's a form of pressure management; my father would say that filmmaking is problem-solving. That's not untrue, but the problems (or not) arises from the decisions you make. Sometimes, when you're at the head of the table, the pressure can be a little more intense. Imagine, then, the pressure of filmmakers dealing with the studios and other such power-brokers, people who could make or break your career within a single moment. What kind of pressure must Michael Bay be under when he made 'Transformers'? How did Bryan Singer control the madhouse that must have been the 'X-Men' and 'Superman' films? Others have wilted under this pressure; by making short films, then, I am practising dealing with this, dealing with the decision-making process to ensure that the final product will be dramatically viable.

I suppose within that process, you'd have to be a little bit of an egomaniac.

“Probably not,” I finally answered. It was a long silence from the question, but it was what it was. For all of the ideas that people give me, of which some is good, some is bad, it doesn't beat the honesty that comes from within. “I don't think this film will necessarily or directly lead me to a feature film. But I still want to make it the way I want.” It is a reason that I cannot quite use to effectively swat away some of the questions. It is a weak sword, less strong that the word it carries.

But it is a reason that is the most important, the most difficult to hold on to, the most challenging for people to find acceptable, and yet the simplest of all the answers.

That's the way I want it. It lies thinly between conviction and arrogance, but there is no other reason that ultimately drives me the way this one does.

Sometimes, holding on to your vision is really as simple as that.


Friday, November 20, 2009

First Snow

“Chot nun!”

It was light, it was soft. You could barely make it out against the dark exterior of the night. I had to strain my eyes to even make out the rough outline of each of the fallen. I stepped out further, reaching out with my hands. Sometimes, that which cannot be seen, can be felt. I extended my fingers, and tried to feel for it.

Late night/early morning, depending on your interpretation. It should have been the end of a long day, when the clock ticks 1AM in the morning. For me, however, it's the start. I am the lead actor in a short film, and we were just about to begin our penultimate day of shoot. It had lasted a week up until now, and there's just a little more distance to cover before we can call it a day/night.

It had been an interesting experience, but a challenging one. Enticed by the advantages, as usual I discarded the disadvantages. One of that would be the timing and the schedule. But then again, what is life without the sacrifices required to live it?

Dispirited, down, washed away, almost, by recent events. Emotionally, physically...difficult. The brighter days are ahead, but sometimes...sometimes, you need just a sign.

“Chot nun!”

Then I felt it. It drops, ever so slightly, like little flakes from heaven, and it is still hard to make out from the darkness. Nevertheless, I felt it. I felt it on the tips of my fingers, and then I began to see.

I see now the first snow for what it was. The coming months will be difficult, for the winter will be harsh. The cold will be bitter, the loneliness...the loneliness will be what it always will be. Times will be challenging. They have been up until now, and they will continue to be in the future.

Nevertheless, the beginning, the calm before the storm, the first snow, is always a time of hope. It is a sign that no matter what happens, things will somehow, someway turn out to be OK. The first snow, then, washes your worries away for a moment, and now you feel it not just with your heart, but also feel the burden lift from it.

Everything is going to be fine.

“OK, guys,” I said, turning to go back in. “I'm freezing my butts off. Let's finish this.”