From zero to hero is a common saying for many, and while it may not literally and completely apply here, there’s value in saying it all the same. Starting out from almost nothing, TK Cheng has slowly but surely built up an interesting portfolio. One could not accuse him of slacking off; he was involved in 14 films released in 2014 alone.
The following is an excerpt from a full-length interview conducted by CQ Magazine.
Hi TK! Describe yourself in two sentences.
TK is just a 30-something guy who is new to the film industry. He is still working hard to contribute something to humanity via films.
Wow. That’s a big target. Why filmmaking, though?
From comic drawing, through animation and to films, it’s all about storytelling, and I am always looking to different media to present my story. Before I found film, which I regard as the seventh arts (with the combination of performing, visual and auditory arts), there is no other art form that can present such a perfect ‘story’.
Is there a specific film or director that caught your interest in this way?
To be honest, I didn’t really pay any specific attention to the directors, but when I started getting deeper into the industry I began to study them a bit more. This would depend on the kind of the film I’m trying to make. Recently, I am collecting the works of a number of directors, such as Daihachi Yoshida, Andrei Tarkovsky, Lav Diaz and more.
How did you start your filmmaking career, then?
In my case, it’s all a matter of coincidence. I wanted to give myself a new life after quitting my permanent role as a 3D animator. I became a freelancer for a year. I felt that the life I had was quite uncomfortable, because I didn’t really enjoy what I was doing at that time. I realised that animation is just one type of storytelling. To go further, I should go for the fundamental, film. Thus, I strongly considered getting involved in live-action films, dealing with human beings; previously, I dealt more with the computer! At that time, there was a Chinese produciton house hiring production assistants. I applied for it and was accepted.
How did your animation background help with the making of live-action films?
I believe it does help a lot. My theory for animation is like it is the son for the film. Everything of it is still based on film works and theory. In my case, I feel that the most useful skills I learnt that can be used in live-action films are the conceptual arts knowledge. Actually, I tried a little bit of this for my short film, Hikikomori, with help from my production designer.
Before we get to Hikikomori, talk to us about your filmmaking debut, Share.
It was done around the time I first stepped into film industry, and the starting point was a local short film competition. Of course, I think we should make film for film itself and not for competition, but I wanted to test my skill level and try to see practically how a film was done. Since I was new to this industry, I wished to create something as my first work. Every year, I would then make another short film, so I can compare the levels of my improvement and progress.
Share with us the most challenging part about making Share.
Everything has to be done by yourself, without proper knowledge and professional support. That was hard.
How did it come about?
I just came up with the idea during a yamcha session with my friend. At that time, everyone around us kept looking down at their smartphones. I didn’t have one at that time, so I wondered what will happen if a romantic couple is like that. How will the other person respond? That was how the idea came out. Nowadays, I too have a smartphone, so I became one of them.
It was screened at Filemmakers Anonymous 18, an experience which you described as “nervous” and, intriguingly, “just a short 5 minutes but my heart became empty suddenly. Am I too happy?” What did you mean by this?
I think it was probably because my short film was too simple and straight to the point. I realised that this might be the reason after I attended the 27th Tokyo International Film Festival. It seems like I always have such feelings after a film I was involved with is finished. I will feel empty and lonely. This will remind me I should move on, because the films I have done are now in the past and a part of my life. I need to create something more and better.
You worked with a closer friend of ours, Irwan Azani, who shot that film for you. This would also continue for your second directorial effort, the aforementioned Hikikomori. What is your relationship with him like?
He is just like my mentor, my saviour! He is a nice guy who is willing to be my director of photography when I was Mr Nobody for my first short film. At that time it was very hard for my to get advice or support from experienced filmmakers, but he is the one volunteer who helped me on cinematography. He allowed me to try whatever I wanted to. Until now he is still willing to support me as a long-time collaborator. He’s the director, actually!
Much like Share, Hikikomori touched on the subject matter of human relations. In this case, it dealt with the extreme situation of a young man who only comes out from his room for meals. How much of this is reflected in society, do you think?
I don’t have a wide version about the social issue, but I always think everything starts with one person’s life, and the closest to it are family members. However, most of the time we’ll create a border with them when we grow up gradually. Additionally, we choose not to voice out when we feel something is wrong. We are afraid of hurting someone’s feelings, and we don’t dare face the consequences. In the end, we’ll find out isolation and living by ourselves is the best way.
One more thing. I believe most of the director’s first work is usually based on their own true story.
Can we say that Hikikomori is based on your own true story, then?
Yeah, I guess it is considered a part of my own experience.
Beyond your directorial efforts, you actually managed to rack up a long CV as a production person.
It’s just because I started work as a project coordinator. This post is quite unique, it’s something similar to a project manager, casting manager and location manager, all at the same time! Most of the time I gained more experience on producing and in the production line, so I guess that’s why after that people can believe in me and are willing to pass to me related tasks. At the same time I won’t reject this post, because I always think the filmmaker is not solely responsible for directing, but also for assuming the role of a manager who links up the otherwise discrete steps in the creation of a finished product.
In particular, you have worked extensively with Edmund Yeo and Woo Ming Jin on their films, River of Exploding Durians and Second Lives of Thieves. What was that experience like?
At first, those are big and different experiences for me, from the pre-production and production stage, from the director’s mindset towards film perception, and how they’re judged and made a film that really more on art value rather than profit.
There seldom is any support for local independent films, and we only able to process these films with some grants from different film festivals on limited budgets. Thus, I needed to multitask more. At the same time, it was exhilarating because it allowed me the opportunity to learn and master different knowledge and experiences in a short time.
Both films successfully brought me into two Asian international film festivals. Second Life of Thieves had its world premiere at Busan International Film Festival 2014, while River of Exploding Durians became the first Malaysian film in history to compete in the Main Competition of the Tokyo International Film Festival. I came back realising I have experienced a world I have never seen before. A world full of possibilities and knowledge. Without them, I wouldn’t be continuing in this industry.
Let’s look at River as a brief example. I am aware that it had a last-minute change of location. What was that like for you and how did you solve that issue?
That was just about teamwork and the relationship between the members. This kind of situation always happen within the production period. I believe most experienced filmmakers can handle it well. For my case, I was able to get a lot of suggestions and help from people who always supported local independent filmmaking. Also, my team was willing to work until the very last minute and into overtime to get it right.
Read the rest of the interview here. Alternatively, you can download the PDF file of the magazine. Speaking of which, special thanks to CQ Magazine for allowing us to reprint this.
Featured image credit: Medical Media Training