Filmmaker Disconnected – Edmund Yeo

Don’t mind the title, it is merely a reference to Edmund’s film, ‘Girl Disconnected’. He himself is very much connected when it comes to filmmaking. In truth, I had actually wanted to go with ‘Yeo Yeo, Ma!’, but, despite the classical influence evident in his film’s soundtracks, I doubt whether he would very much appreciate being compared to Grammy Award winner.

Then again, he might. Here, the maker of ‘Chicken Rice Mystery’ and associate producer of ‘The Elephant and the Sea’ sits down in front of his computer in Japan, and discuss with us his videoblogging antics, Woo Ming Jin’s ‘Elephant’ and why it will only be released only in one cinema in Malaysia.

Tell us a bit about your background.
Filmmaking had been a lifelong dream, and I jumped into the world of filmmaking in Malaysia just months after I finished my graduate course in film at Perth. And the one-year graduate course was taken after I completed my degree in Marketing (and English Literature).

What (or who) are the biggest influences in your film career? A favourite filmmaker, perhaps?
Way too many influences, because as a child, I’ve been watching films non-stop. But I’ll name the directors whose works I normally watch as a ritual of sorts during preproduction for inspiration. I guess in the end, they are the filmmakers I reference most. Shunji Iwai, Kubrick, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, PT Anderson, Wes Anderson, Darren Arofnosky, Johnnie To, Wong Kar Wai, Frederico Fellini. There’s also always the French New Wave and some anime as well. But it also depends on the genre of film I’m tackling, say, I try to do a short film with noir elements (‘Chicken Rice Mystery’ for example) I would definitely sift through the older films that helped define that particular genre, like ‘The Third Man’ or ‘Maltese Falcon’.

But since I’m working with Ming Jin now, I’m sure I’ve also been influenced by him without noticing.

In what ways are you influenced by him, so to speak?
Ming Jin’s filmmaking style is very much about mise-en-scene. The visual strategy of a film, how to compose a shot, how to stage a scene, controlling the rhythm and pace of a film, all these I might have seeped in while we’re at the set of the previous productions.

You’re initially more famous for being a videoblogger rather than a filmmaker per se. Was there anything that you were able to bring in from that area into your film career?

Videoblogging was really just an extension of my personal passion in filmmaking. I started that out at the same time I was figuring my way around to become a filmmaker (and I didn’t even know the term ‘videoblogging’ then, I just refer to it as ‘filming some random stuff and put it on my blog’). But with videoblogging, I was given an existing medium to reach and interact with a wider audience, make friends with the blogging community and the like. Thus I end up with a tiny marketing platform (tiny because not many who visits my blog are also interested in my filmmaking endeavours).

Since I normally try to videoblog while traveling, I also ended up with lots of stock footage that I recently put together for my latest short film, ‘Fleeting Images’.

What is ‘Fleeting Images’ all about?
It’s some sort of an experimental film essay that kindas works like a documentary with a semblance of storyline that bookends it. My official synopsis might be:

“A young woman receives a series of emails from an old friend traveling in India and Japan. Some mundane, some rambling, some philosophical. He is seeking life’s meaning in his travels, but perhaps all he wanted to do is to view the sunset. Part documentary, part travelogue, maybe a love letter. An experimental essay-film.”

Sounds interesting. How did you get involved with Greenlight Pictures?
I wish there can be a dramatic story from this. But I met Ming Jin through another filmmaker, Kannan, when I was helping the latter with his telemovie early last year, not long after I returned from Australia. And sometime after the telemovie was done, Ming Jin asked whether I would like to help him out. So I did. It was June 2007 when that happened.

My first task was really to secure the theatrical distribution for ‘Elephant’, but subsequently, throughout the whole span of time used to make that happen (which was quite a while), we ended up churning a few productions where I was involved (normally) as co-producer, assistant director and editor.

In the past, Greenlight Pictures have made films for a variety of mediums, like television, short films and also feature length films. For example, a previous production of yours was a collaboration with Limkokwing University. How did that come about? Did they approach you, or was it the other way around?
We were approached while we were developing the film. Our co-producer, Aron Koh of Limkokwing, is an old friend of Ming Jin due to previous collaborations (in Ming Jin’s early short films), and he offered to provide the manpower to help us with the film. Since ‘Kurus’ (or ‘Days of the Turquoise Sky’) is relatively a big production, we were happy with any sort of assistance.

Will there be further collaborations along the same line some time in the future? Perhaps with other universities or production companies?
Absolutely. There was another collaboration of the sort recently for another telemovie that was wrapped days earlier. And we are always seeking new collaborative opportunities with like-minded people to do another production, after all, in this industry, none of us should really fly solo.

You are currently in Japan right now, studying for your master’s. How did this come about? And why Japan?
I applied for a scholarship to do it in Japan early last year, even before I joined Greenlight Pictures. And I was fortunate to get it. Have always had a major interest in Japan films (too underrated among the mainstream public, in my opinion), literature and culture, so I definitely believe that it’s a good place to help me develop my filmmaking skills and knowledge. Hopefully I’ll also be able to incorporate the best from the west (the previous place I had my film education being Australia) and the east in future endeavours.

Despite being in Japan, how involved are you with the promotion of ‘Elephant’?
I still communicate with Ming Jin daily via e-mails regarding the promotion of ‘Elephant’. While I’m unable to physically meet some people like I would if I were in Malaysia, I’m still doing whatever is possible through the Net for its promotion like orchestrating interviews, raising awareness among the public etc. Of course, I did cut together the trailer for the film as well. I also tell my pals in Japan about the film, but to no avail since, well, we’re all in Japan.

Speaking of ‘Elephant’, it’s coming out in cinemas next month. However, it was premiered in January last year at Rotterdam. Why is there such a big gap between the premiere and the Malaysian release? Was it planned like this to begin with?
It had always been the plan to allow it to play at the festival circuits before attempting to give it a deserved theatrical release at home. But, being somewhat undermanned, and also being our first film to have a theatre release, we have to undergo numerous procedures and paperwork that ultimately caused the delay. I was involved solely in the post-production of ‘Elephant’, and aside from adding a few more music tracks that I composed, I also had to help clean up and refine the film for the cinema release as well. Two non-explicit sex scenes from the film were removed so that ‘Elephant’ can have an easier time under the scrutiny of the Censorship Board

This trend is becoming more and more popular with a lot of other Malaysian independent films. Do you think that everyone plans for it to be like this, to build up their reputations overseas first? Or is the Malaysian market just not very susceptible to wide releases of independent movies?
I guess it’s a bit of both. I know that not all indie filmmakers want to take the film festival route, and would rather secure a local cinema release because their works skewer more towards the local audiences than the foreign festival audiences. But ultimately, the Malaysian market is still learning how to embrace independent films, and logically, it is hard for a normal audience to spend money on a local indie film when he could derive more enjoyment from, say, ‘The Dark Knight’ at the same price. Most indie films do not seek to entertain (even if they do, they find themselves the unenviable task of being compared to studio productions and foreign films), while most regular theatergoers are seeking entertainment. With such a disparity, it’s unrealistic for an indie film or an arthouse film to have wide releases.

But then, this isn’t happening only in Malaysia. Even in the US, there are many little indie films that we know nothing about dying an early death. (Edmund recommended a good read here. Fikri thinks this is good as well.) Only one out of a thousand indie films can really become a major moneymaker like ‘Juno’ or a ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ (and even so, their ‘indie’ statuses are still being debated about).

Why is ‘Elephant’, an award-winning film that has travelled all over the world, opening only at one cinema (Cathay)? Is distribution outlets in Malaysia for digital films a factor?

Some of my answer to the previous question can apply to this. Realistically speaking, we don’t expect ‘Elephant’ to make ‘Transformers’ or ‘Jangan Pandang Belakang’-type money, but it’s still our baby, and we want to share the movie with anyone who wants to see it on the big screen.

Are there plans to expand to other cinemas and cities in the country?
No, not really, we know very well that the actual market for this film is mostly in where we’re showing it. For us, it’s really not a matter of how wide a release we can get for ‘Elephant’, but really whether it will touch the few who see it.

What about GSC?
Well, we can only give either one for exclusive screening. Cathay, like us, are (relatively) new players in the local multiplex scene (compared to the likes of GSC and TGV), and we are interested in seeing how our collaboration would be like. After all, we were very impressed with how they handled the limited release of Tsai Ming-Liang’s I DON’T WANNA SLEEP ALONE last year.

What do you mean by impressive?
The promotional methods used for the film are rather unconventional. It wasn’t marketed like how normal commercial films are marketed in Malaysia, nor was it dump aside to rot. Grassroots marketing campaign was launched. Road shows were held, preselling tickets, public speeches, and the like. Ultimately, the film had some rather impressive box-office performance despite showing only in one screen. Although not a filmmaker of international renown like Tsai Ming Liang, we wanted to emulate their marketing methods, and believed that Cathay can be trusted with helping us out.

Will ‘Elephant’ be released on DVD, then, somewhere down the road?
Yup, DVD will be released later this year, or early next year. We are actually also preparing for that as well.

Evidently, after a long day of stagnating,

You yourself have made several short films of your own. Will you be making the jump towards feature length films soon?

Care to elaborate a little bit more about your feature film debut? 🙂
Er, as for feature-length film debut. I just know that I’ll be making the jump soon. But what, when or how, I still don’t know. I might make one while I’m in Japan, or wait til I come back to Malaysia, or something like that.

How many productions have you worked on with Woo Ming Jin? I ask, because I’d like to know what is the process like. Are you involved in the creative side of things, or do you stick strictly to the practical side of the production?
Two telemovies. ‘Kurus’ and ‘Cinta Tiga Segi’. And one short film, ‘Blue Roof’ (which sprang out from the latter). He was also around during the first day of my ‘Chicken Rice Mystery’ shoot. Despite my ‘producer’ tag, I am heavily involved in the creative side of things, so much that I often end up neglecting the more practical side of the production (to Ming Jin’s horror). The process had always been like this. First we brainstorm and develop a story together, Ming Jin types out a script, we seek cast members, then we’ll have rehearsal sessions (sometimes if necessary, and Ming Jin has to prepare for other aspects of the production, I’ll have to conduct additional sessions by myself).

I’m normally at the set all the time, where I serve as Ming Jin’s assistant director, and finally once the shoot is over. I’ll begin editing the film, which is made easier because I was present during the shoot and was already mentally editing the film while observing.

In the future, what other projects can we look forward to from Greenlight Pictures?

The problem with us is that our ideas are constantly flowing. So there are many film projects we are trying to kick into gear. Aside from the aforementioned telemovie that Ming Jin had just completed, I’m sure we’ll also be churning out a short film or two during downtime.

So, make sure you join the Greenlight Facebook group or visit my blog for updates!

‘The Elephant and the Sea’ will be released in Malaysia on the 21st of August at Cathay Cineleisure. You can buy pre-release tickets to the screenings, and get other info on the film, at the official blog here. For more of Edmund, his writings and videos can be found here.

Featured image credit: Medical Media Training 

4 thoughts on “Filmmaker Disconnected – Edmund Yeo

  1. In order to cut down the astronomical expenses in Tokyo, I figured the best way is self-imposed room arrest.

    You only won’t see me on Sundays. 😦

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