In the first of a fairly new series, Buzz of the Week, Fikri Jermadi takes a closer look at a young filmmaker setting Malaysian cinema alight.
Those who follow Malaysian shorts cinema closely will be familiar with the name John Cho. Those who don’t will probably think of the Korean-American actor who starred in the ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Harold and Kumar’ films. What we’ll be doing in a fairly new effort on this website is to shine a light on films and filmmakers we believe deserve greater attention, which is categorically the case for John Cho @ We Jun.
As it turns out, we ‘accidentally’ ‘wrote’ about him some years ago. Back in 2009, his short film ‘Resonance’ was shortlisted as one of the finalists for BMW Shorties. At the time, the competition has yet to gain the sort of cachet it has today as arguably the main short film competition it is now in Malaysia.
Nevertheless, it was a useful point of consideration, highlighting some of the themes that would continue in his other films. A fairly serious effort and contemplative in nature, it was deep and dark (literally in the case of some scenes). Watching it again, the impression is that this is a filmmaker who does not disrespect his intended audience, encouraging them to think as well as to feel.
From our perspective, John is the sort of filmmaker who prioritises the story above all else. It’s not to say that this is an approach exclusive to him, nor does it wish to imply a master-servant relationship relative to the narrative. Nevertheless, this perceived lack of an agenda to change minds is more than made up for with his affective and effective films. The strong technical quality in the majority of his works we’ve seen points to a very cinematic approach.
This can be seen in ‘Fix’, a short film featuring Alfred Loh as a silent undercover cop. Here, the emphasis on visual storytelling allows for more universal understandings and interpretations. The cinematography is also something to behold. Check out the opening scene, in which we see a car suspended on a car lift outside a workshop. I have seen this many times before in real life, and yet its silver screen renditions are far and few in between. Here, John manages to find that space between the real and the reel: a verisimilitude achieved in a cinematic manner.
Such realities may be contested in the period film ‘The Outpost’, made as a part of Astro’s My Hometown short film series. The difference does not, however, make it any less effective, despite its sunnier outlook and colours. Set on a beach, it details British efforts of manning security posts during World War 2. One particularly jaded soldier had to deal with a fresher recruit, who’s more enthusiastic, and the contrast between the two is as clear as the night and day shown in this film and the last.
Again, there is a sense of the surreal here. Historical and period portrayals tend to be fairly serious in nature, rarely venturing beyond its lip service to textbook materials. ‘Outpost’ flips that on its head with its more comedic touch, tipping its toes in the genre without diving all in. Not unlike ‘Fix’, there is an uncommon freshness here. Just look at the picture above, and see the wide space for interpretation there.
He tackles nostalgia in a different way for ‘The Apprentice’. It’s a short documentary focusing on the trials and tribulations of an old school photographer, and how he tries to keep the business alive. I’ve noticed an interesting group of films popping up, short docufilms that historicises certain historic outlets, and this is an interesting part of it.
Two things stand out in ‘Salvaj’, the Best Short Film award winner at the Malaysian Film Festival. The first is the moving performance from the two lead actors, Tuan Faisal and Megat Shahrizal. Both are mainstays in the industry here, but I’ve not really seen them spread their acting wings as much as I did here. They are talented performers, but even such performers require good direction.
The same could be said for the cinematography, another reason why ‘Salvaj’ is head and shoulders above many of its competitors. The opening scene, a single take that runs for around two minutes, again highlights the visual emphasis of the director. There is an unmistakable specificity here: single takes are incredibly challenging, for there is a need for dynamism even within static shots.
For many, though, the coup de grace is his latest short film, ‘Coaster’. It’s a project for Tiger Beer Malaysia, and intriguingly promoted itself as the first film in the world to be made on beer coasters. I thought it meant that the film itself was literally shot using such paraphernalia, but it transpired they merely facilitated patrons expressing their desire to be involved in the film.
The film is tagged with Baltasar Kormakur’s involvement as a mentor, but I am not entirely clear how involved he is in its production. Watching this slick and soupy tale of revenge, it feels like a natural progression from the other films listed here, with or without Hollywood directors.
The common link of flawed protagonists is obvious. Intentional or not, parallels can be drawn here with Ishak from ‘Salvaj’, while Alfred Loh’s Yan in ‘Fix’ gives us room to infer his past as much as his present. I believe John focuses on his stories and characters a great deal, and this attention to detail shines through.
Ultimately, there are many reasons why filmmakers make films. At times, the need to raise awareness is obvious. Sometimes, the desire to adapt a true story can also be incredibly conspicuous. There are many who wish to preach, while an equal number push against walls with more experimental modes.
Not as many tell a story for its own sake. I could be mistaken, but I believe this is what sets John and his films apart from the rest of the field. On surer ground are his cinematic presentations of character-driven stories, intangible qualities unquantifiable to begin with. Much like answers in questions, you’ll only know when you see it, which is why you should make some time for the films of John Cho @ We Jun.
Featured image credit: We Know Your Dreams