Vice Versa – The Films of Chan Teik Quan

Fikri Jermadi made the mistake of going into the rabbit hole that is the films of Chan Teik Quan.

I spent a long time thinking about what I should write with regards to Chan Teik Quan’s filmography. It’s an interesting situation to be in, because I have actually written about at least one of his films before, ‘Spotlight’. Perhaps we should start with that? “There is a natural flow to the conversation, one that is actually very difficult to replicate,” it says here. “I don’t entirely know for sure the purpose of this particular film, other than to document the ebb and flow of the conversation. Nevertheless, it does give me the feeling that I am eavesdropping on a very private exchange.”

I go on to describe it as a very unique film in Malaysia, one that takes on the mumblecore approach in verbally vomiting everything unto the screen. This is an approach I first came across nearly a decade ago in Aaron Katz’s ‘Quiet City’, which depicts the story of two people coming together and talking their way through the film. While the United States is more known as a relatively experimental arena when it comes to storytelling, Malaysia’s short film scene, more populated by the marginalised than other forms of entertainment, offers braver narratives in terms of the core content, which can be a bit more political than most.

As such, a film like ‘Spotlight’, featuring two characters doing little more than bitch about other people, was a very refreshing take on what could have been a very dry affair. The same could be said about ‘Lalang’, which again feature people conversing about what, on the surface, was very banal. To do banal well, though, is not so easy, and Teik Quan achieved this with minimal fuss.

Clicking around on the Internet, I came across more of his other films, and that’s where the journey into the rabbit hole continues. ‘Space and Place’ and ‘Fauntin’, for instance, pushes the envelope in terms of duration, clocking in at a touch over one minute. I suspect much of this is experimentation, perhaps for the sake of it, but to see him attempt a quieter piece after the oral onslaught of both ‘Lalang’ and ‘Spotlight’. I see any musicians try this slightly scattergun approach, throwing stuff to the wall to see what sticks, but I don’t really recall of others who do it much in the same way for films.

That’s not to say that people don’t experiment or do different things. It’s just that when they do, there is a clearer logic or progression that we can see, in relation from one text to another. For instance, the likes of Bradley Liew would start off exploring Tarantino-like styles and substance in ‘Mack’ and other films, before, being exposed to festival-entering films, transitioning to ‘Xing’ and ‘Singing in Graveyards’. The difference in style is there, but much of it is a beaten path of progression.

With Teik Quan, there is ‘Fallen Leaves’, described as an experimental film that is shot on 35mm, which consisted of still images allied with classical music (of sorts) in telling the story of a boy meets girl. ‘Baby I Love You’ went the other way, training the lens of a smartphone on a doll. There is ‘Anitya’, a film with three different screens in that one single screen. The action on the different screens repeat themselves, but with slight time delays, which forces you to look around at all the screens, trying to figure out not only what will happen next, but also what is happening right in front of you, even when you’ve already seen what just happened. It wouldn’t be out of place in an art installation, while ‘Suri’, the longest of his (narrative) films thus far at nearly 20 minutes, is a festival-caliber film with high production value.

‘Suri’ is very possibly my favourite of his films thus far. It tells the story of Suri, who lives her life in subservience to an old kampong house. There is a strong element of relying on more traditional elements, which makes everything seem… well, more expensive. The production design, led by Teik Quan himself, lends an air of mysticism to the proceedings. That is a sentence I didn’t I would write after his previous films, but that’s where we are now. As I recall it, there’s not a single line of dialogue here, but the sound design of Amzar Hafizi stands out by blending in; it sounds like the perfect film-school-film, where every track is carefully considered and constructed, so much so that the construction becomes a little ‘too real’. What I’m saying here is that he did his job a little too well, but that’s much better than not doing it at all.

Dig a little deeper, then you realise that there’s something going on here. ‘Suri’ is part of a series of films from Multimedia University, which caught my attention not long ago with their attempt to crowdfund their films. I’ve often dismissed student efforts in doing so, but these efforts (like ‘Kakek’, ‘Bittersweet’ and ‘Suraya’) were very professionally done. Beyond the academic setting, Adam Zainal, the lead of ‘Spotlight’, also has a YouTube channel of his own, with a number of interesting short films to discover. There’s also Mary Grace Liew, whose ‘Uncle Soo’ short film was shot by Teik Quan himself. Then there’s the rest of the MMU gang, whose filmmaking endeavours makes you wish you have more time to explore all these things.

I don’t. I really don’t, actually. There’s plenty of stuff on my own plate I need to get through, but there’s more than just a little something about the films of Chan Teik Quan and his cohorts that draws you in. I realise much of this could be very much ado about nothing, that he could very well be experimenting for the sake of discovering his own boundaries, which basically means that there is indeed something about people rambling on and on and on (or not), for these are the films we make at the start of our careers that are far likelier to be sincerer to our true visions and intent, the films that can truly mean something… even if they’re not really about anything in particular.

I look forward to seeing what he has to offer in the future.

We’ll be publishing an exclusive interview with Chan Teik Quan soon. In the meantime, find out more about ‘Suri’ here, and you can watch more of his films on his YouTube channel.

Featured image credit: Odyssey

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