Every year, the BMW Shorties throws up a few films that catches many of us by surprise. The range and quality of films highlights the level of grassroots filmmaking in Malaysia. Some may be more experienced than most, having cut their teeth in the advertising industry, while others have taken a ‘purer’ filmmaking approach.
Aw See Wee is one such filmmaker. Having identified his passion in filmmaking from a young age, a series of planned events and happenstance led him to study filmmaking in Taiwan, before returning with a bang with ‘Highway’. It was selected as one of the finalists for the competition last year, and the small-big approach (small space, big story) in the car was both efficient and effective. We sat down with him for an interview not that long ago, so check it out below.
Hi See Wee! Thanks for agreeing to this interview. One of the things that struck me about you was your filmmaking experience in Taiwan. What inspired you to further your career and education there?
Hello! First of all, thank you for this interview! It was a coincidence, really, my decision to go to Taiwan for film studies. At the time, I had limited knowledge about film schools.
What got you thinking about Taiwan, then?
I once watched the news coverage about Ang Lee, the Oscar-winning director. He said he is an alumni of the Department of Motion Picture in the National Taiwan University of Arts. I applied to attend the school, but by the time I sent my documents, the deadline had passed. I had to wait a whole year to apply again. I chose the pre-university study first, and submitted to the same school and course. Lucky, I was chosen by my lecturer from the interview!
What was that experience like? Was it as you expected, or were there vast differences between that and reality?
The experience was great. Taiwan is a place that allowed me to explore more about cinema, and it changed a lot of my perspective. The expectation was always different from the reality, but that’s because filmmaking is so much harder than I thought!
True that. Having said that, as with anyone who has forged a life abroad, there must have been some challenging moments for you. Can you recall one such moment for us?
Of course, just like many foreign students, I was homesick and craving for Malaysian food! Apart from that, there weren’t many difficult obstacles, because the best part of being in Taiwan is the kindness of the people. I got a lot of help from my Taiwanese friends.
Considering Taiwanese and Malaysian cinema, on the surface we can see a number of differences, but were there any similarities between our films and theirs?
I think both countries share many similarities. For example, the Chinese language, culture and food are incredibly similar, if not identical. Additionally, some words in the aboriginal language in Taiwan is exactly the same as in Bahasa Malaysia! These similarities means the connection between Taiwan and Malaysia is a lot stronger than I thought.
With regards to films, there is common ground there too. I remember attending a screening of ‘Sepet’, directed by the late Yasmin Ahmad. It was shown to a Taiwanese audience in Taipei. They liked it a lot! They do understand the storytelling.
Yes, her films are very universal. You mentioned Ang Lee, of course, but there are many well-known directors who came from Taiwan. Even Tsai Ming-liang, born in Malaysia, makes his films there. What is it in Taiwan that is different enough to have provided the space for them to grow?
That’s a hard question! It’s very difficult to pinpoint one single and obvious thing. In my opinion, Taiwan has a good environment for people to grow their own cinema. For example, the variety of theatrically released films in Taiwan is greater relative to Malaysia. They even show documentary feature films in some of the cinema halls.
Also, the ministry provide not only funds for feature film productions, but similar support for short films, documentaries and film festivals. That means there’s a large number of filmmakers, as well as a variety in the types of films produced. In general, it is a nice and fairly open environment for artists to learn and work in.
I suppose that’s one thing we could bear in mind. Going beyond that, in your opinion what can we learn from how the Taiwanese make films to better ourselves?
There are many things we can learn from them, but I think most of all it’s their passion and attitude. They always make sure of the quality and effectiveness of their work.
Before we come back to Malaysia, let’s reverse that question: what can they learn from us?
I think the multilingual aspect of our cinema and society is a real plus. It can help us to adapt to the different scenarios available.
Now that you’re back here, you’ve been involved in the production of a number of short films. Generally speaking, what’s your opinion of the short film scene here?
I don’t really have access to a lot of Malaysian short films, but for me the more important thing is that short films should have bigger audiences. We don’t always have easy access to watch short films or artistic feature films in Malaysia.
In 2011, I did a small screening in my hometown in Johor, with a combination of some student short films by my classmates. Although most of the audience weren’t used to the style or form of short films, we actually still got some good reviews. I think the reason why people refuse to watch Malaysian short films is because they didn’t really have the chance to get a different variety of short films. In this case I think more public screenings can be good, and of course, it is way better than watching videos online!
Speaking of well-received short films, I quite like your own effort, ‘Dinner’. What inspired you to make it?
The astronaut theme was actually inspired by a film that I liked quite a lot. The film is ‘Moon’, and it is directed by Duncan Jones, who’s also the director for ‘Warcraft’. I like the way the film used minimal characters to tell the story, and I’m always a big fan of astronauts, so the theme came first. For the plot, I thought that I wanted to tell a story that is close to my personal experience, so I wrote a script related to my family and I.
Was it strongly related to your own father, specifically?
In a way. It’s just a simple personal experience between me and my father. We didn’t talk much when I grew up. We spoke even less when I was studying in Taiwan. The film doesn’t have any dialog. I wanted to make it interesting with the silent moments I experienced with my own father.
That film was recently screened at Kelab Seni Filem Malaysia. What was the reception from the audience like?
Actually, I didn’t get a lot of feedback about my film at the screening, but some of the audience members did talk to me after the screening. I’m glad they liked the film, as it somehow related to their personal experience too.
That wasn’t the first time it was screened in public, was it?
I didn’t mention that this film was actually a third year project in my school. In fact, the first version of this film was not well-made. The visual effects looked terrible! In spite of the image, it was still well received! I managed to refine the second version, reworking the visual effects. That’s the version you see now.
After ‘Dinner’, came ‘Lunch’. What was that story about?
‘Lunch’ was my final year project. It’s a story set in the future when people have to leave Earth, as it is inhabitable. The film shows the journey of an old lady and her grandson, the last batch of people leaving the planet.
What sparked the inspiration for this particular story?
My grandmother. I was close to her when I was young, so I wanted to make a film about her.
While we’re on it, why the tendency to name films after the meals of the day?
Well, we always have to eat! The name was also a connection from my previous work. Most of all, I think dining scenes can be a good way to show the emotion of characters.
Talk to us about your directing process, using ‘Lunch’ as an example. Is it a very verbal and direct style, for example, or do you prefer giving space to others to do their thing?
It depends. In the case of ‘Lunch’, this story is more like a combination of all my imagination. Some parts were inspired by realistic experiences, with certain parts originating from my childhood memories. As such, it’s quite hard to verbally tell people about the film. Also, I didn’t manage to write the script as well as I wanted to, so people didn’t quite understand what I wanted to do! However, I’ve learned my lesson, and hope that my storytelling will be clearer and simpler to others in the future.
Are there any filmmakers you’re inspired by? If so, who are they, and how are you inspired by them?
There’s too many of them! If you want me to give names, I think Yasmin Ahmad, Ang Lee and Hirokazu Koreeda would be near the top. Yasmin was always a good storyteller, especially at showing the emotion of characters. I really like Ang Lee’s style for making the connection between family members. As for Koreeda, I liked the simplicity of his direction, which is also not cheesy at the same time.
Shamefully, I must admit that I only came across your name when I saw ‘Highway’, which was made for the BMW Shorties competition. What made you decide to take part in that competition?
I did the sound design for a film which was made for the same competition in 2013. Coming back to Malaysia, I thought it would be a good start if I took part myself, so I made ‘Highway’ my first short film as a director after I returned from Taiwan.
The entire film was set inside a car. With space at a premium, what was it like directing the film?
After extensive discussions with my cinematographer, Lee Ling, we decided to use the simplest way of storyboarding, while focusing on close up shots for most of the scene. However, it was still very challenging, because we had to choose the right time and route to show how the traffic jam was getting worse.
Directing with a very limited space was extremely hard. I had to really focus on the script and the actors’ performance. As we didn’t have more space for a sound recordist, I was also the one recording the audio! Sometimes, I got distracted in setting up the recorder. Although my intension was to show the thick haze in Kuala Lumpur at the time, we ended up feeling unwell. It was the thickest haze at that time; we could smell it even from inside the car.
The conversation between mother and son was also thick with tension and emotion. It felt incredibly real, which made me wonder: what kind of research went into this film? Was it inspired by a real-life incident or event in any shape or form?
My mom always talks a lot while I’m driving, so she inspired me to make this film! Actually, when I was writing the script, I didn’t follow much of my own experience. It was a combination of what most Chinese mothers and sons would show in real life. After screening this film, many of my friends told me the interaction in the film is similar to theirs. I was quite surprised about this, as I never really thought it would be so connected the audience.
In an interview for this film, you mentioned being driven to tell family-based stories. Why?
It’s always interesting to tell family-based stories. It is the most relatable theme to many audiences, and also most of my inspiration came from my family. However, I wouldn’t limit myself to only making film about this. In the future, I would also like to try other themes.
How did you get into filmmaking? Was there a specific moment that crystalised this particular desire?
I was interested in watching movies when I was a lot younger, but I got into filmmaking only in the last year of my secondary school. My friends and I used some low quality phones and DV cameras. Actually, we just made some crazy lame video, but it inspired me to get into directing, camera operating and editing. This was the very first instance of me being involved in the filmmaking process.
Lame is good! What kind of films did you watch growing up? Did any of them make a strong enough impression for you in your career?
Just like most of the people, I watch American blockbuster movies when I was young, and I remember that Steven Spielberg was one of the directors I can recall of that time. His film focuses my attention on the director. They have a unique style and connects emotionally with the audience. As such, I must say he did have quite a big influence on my decision to be a filmmaker.
Before we wrap things up, what’s the best advice you can give about filmmaking?
There’s been so many! Filmmaking expresses my thoughts to the audience, and it records some precious perspective at the time I make the film. I guess I’ll keep trying to make more films, and that’s what people should think of as well.
What’s next for you?
I’m planning to make a short fiction film. I’ve pitched this story in the Astro Shortcuts Storytelling Workshop. Also, there are plans for an animation documentary and a feature film. I hope I can make it soon!
I tell you what, what I hope you make soon is ‘Supper’.
I will if I have the inspiration! But hey, we should make ‘Breakfast’ first, right?
Featured image credit: Medical Media Training