Karma Chameleon – Chan Teik Quan

Driven by curiosity, we corner filmmaker Chan Teik Quan for a discussion on his many and varied films.

Hi Teik Quan! Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. For those of us who don’t know you, how would you describe or identify yourself?
I’m a happy-go-lucky person, haha! Just kidding. I’m just somebody who is trying really hard to make life more bearable for himself.

You’ve made a series of short films thus far, but what was the starting point for this interest or passion of yours? Was there a particular film or person which helped to motivate you in this way?
Five years ago, I dreamed of becoming a fine artist. I thought I was going to end up in an art school. Then I came across one of Jean-Luc Godard’s films, ‘Bande à part’, and it changed my mind. I enjoyed it very much because it seemed so much fun and easy.

In what sense?
Not just the film, but I got the impression that the people behind the scenes had a lot of fun shooting the film. So I ended up in a film school, and I realised that filmmaking is not ‘so fun and easy’ after all. But, at least, when I’m on set, it keeps my mind off of things I don’t want to think about.

I first came across your short film, ‘Spotlight’, when it won the Best International Film award at the Take 21 Film Festival in 2016. For those who don’t know it, tell us a bit about the story. Can you identify a particular moment that sparked the whole thing?
My short film, ‘Spotlight’, is about two friends trying to open up to each other and talk to each other about their insecurities. I got the idea during a road trip to Malacca with my friends. There were seven of us in the car. I was in the passenger seat. Five of my friends were at the back, talking. They talked a lot. From one topic to another. I was just there, trying to digest everything. That night, when we got back, we shot Spotlight.

Was this the reason behind the film’s focus on verbal storytelling?
I like to observe people, especially when they are talking. I think you can learn a lot from them.

I am reminded of a number of mumblecore films I watched some years ago (‘Quiet City’, ironically, stood out). I wonder whether there was an attempt of some sort from your side to emulate or try something inspired by this.
To be honest, I didn’t know the word ‘mumblecore’ existed until recently, when the Young Filmmakers Forum labelled ‘Spotlight’ as a ‘mumblecore’ short film. I learn new things every day! It certainly is a unique approach to filmmaker, at least based on what I’ve seen in Malaysian shorts cinema thus far.

It feels like both performers in the film play themselves in this regard. What was the process like, directing people who are performing essentially as themselves? Was there a lot of specifics that come from you yourself?
All I did was to give the cast, who are also my friends, Adam Zainal and Sahira Jeffry, some guidelines, like what I wanted them to talk about. Then I set up the camera and shot the film.

Another of your film, ‘Lalang’, follows the same path. The opening scene started with a single shot and two characters initially talking about Maggi (and its merits as food). You varied it in terms of style and content, where the characters ended up talking about other things. In many ways, it’s incredibly shallow… but also relatively deep. What kind of planning went into making ‘Lalang’?
Not a lot of planning actually. For me, too much planning kills the vibe. I like to just grab the camera and shoot when an idea pops into my head.

I say it’s deep, because as brief as the representations on screen may be, it is also a lot of what I see in real life as well, in terms of duplicity and hypocrisy. How much of this is reflected in your own motivation in making the film? Was it a case of you wanting to highlight such behaviour for a particular purpose?
Like ‘Spotlight’, I got the idea from observing my friends and the people around me. They often come to me and tell me stuff about other people. I don’t have a particular purpose to make this film, I just think it is interesting to listen to people backstabbing each other!

As short as those films may be, some of the others (like ‘Fauntin’) are even shorter. It almost seems like you’re attempting to challenge yourself and see how much you can pack in ever shorter durations. What is it about this medium that attracts you very much? For my part, it feels like you have different paths you could take to tackle some of the stories you did, but the short film medium was the choice you made.
Filmmaking is a combination of many art forms, like painting, music, poetry and etc. I paint and write too, and that is why I chose filmmaking as a medium to express myself.

For now, I make short films only because the idea of making a feature-length film scares me. I have to overcome this fear and develop the confidence for it.

Speaking of shorter-than-short films, I had a talk not long ago with Fransiska Prihadi, the program director of MINIKINO, during the SeaShorts Film Festival. She was calling for submissions for her film festival, Minikino Film Week, which is happening on the 7th – 14th of October 2017 and she made a joke about submitting a one-second short film. It actually got me thinking. Maybe I should try making a series of one-second short films!

Arguably your most intriguing film, however, must be ‘Space and Place’. Again, though brief in its running time, the edited shots of tombstones in a graveyard captivated me. What was it like making that film?
I had a lot of fun making that film. I remember I was alone and the sun was going to set soon. My friends were waiting for me in the car outside the cemetery. Although I was alone, I didn’t feel lonely.

I say arguably, because I then came across two other films you’ve made: ‘Anitya (Impermanence)’ and ‘Suri’. Two highly accomplished films, and yet incredibly different from much of what you’ve done in the past; ‘Anitya (Impermanence)’ wouldn’t be out of place as an art installation, for instance.
‘Anitya (Impermanence)’ came about because of my lecturer, Amir Shahlan Amiruddin. He came to me and asked if I was interested in making an anniversary video for Multimedia University (MMU), where I study. He told me the theme, which is ‘present time in MMU’, and the freedom to do whatever I want, all fully funded by him. I agreed and formed a team with my friends. All the cast in the film are students from MMU Cyberjaya, Melaka and Iskandar Puteri, and all the locations where we shot the film are in the campuses. I didn’t want to make a corporate video, so I came up with the video installation concept.

What about ‘Suri’?
My friends and I teamed up again to make ‘Suri’. ‘Suri’ is loosely based on the legend of Mahsuri. It is one of the New Mode films done by MMU students for our New Modes Design class in which we have to base our films on Malaysian folklores.

Sorry, what is new mode?
‘New modes’ means new ways of telling stories outside of cinema, like web-series, interactive, and immersive. ‘Suri’ is one of the immersive films. My team and I created an art installation to complement the film during its premiere in MMU. There was also a spoken poetry performance performed by my poet friend, Safiah Hafiez, before the film was screened. All this is to let audience immerse deeper into the world of the film. Eight New Mode films were made in total in my batch.

That’s great, and it certainly helps to explain a lot. Still, it differed greatly from what you’ve done before…
I think the reason why ‘Suri’ and ‘Anitya (Impermanence)’ differ from my other works is because of my teammates. For ‘Spotlight’ and ‘Lalang’, I shot and edited them on my own; there was no pre-production, and I had no teammates who I can ask for opinions from. They were made in a laidback manner, I would say. Also, these two films were made from observing my friends and the people around me.

But for ‘Suri’ and ‘Anitya (Impermanence)’, I worked in a team. Everything was done properly, the pre-production, production and post-production. We had many brainstorming sessions. I guess, at this stage, we have become more serious about what we do. In ‘Suri’ and ‘Anitya (Impermanence)’, I decided not to turn to the people I observe, but make them more about how I feel about myself, with the hope of people being able to relate to me. I guess this is a way for me to feel more like a human being.

Speaking of working in a team, you were also involved as an editor for Joy Heng’s music video, ‘Race’. Additionally, you shot a short film for Chloe Yap as the cinematographer. What was the process like, transitioning from someone who calls the shots (and in some cases, featuring in shots of the film as a protagonist) to being a lot further back, behind the camera and bringing someone else’s vision to life?
When I work for a director, I try to understand his or her vision, especially when I am the editor or cinematographer, because these are big roles. I let the director lead me. Hence, the director should know what he or she wants. My advice would be, work with people who actually care about your vision. When you have crew members who are passionate about your idea and vision, the workflow will move smoothly.

What is your opinion on Malaysian shorts cinema at the moment?
I think we are all on the same quest of defining what Malaysian cinema is. With regards to Malaysian shorts cinema, I feel like it is finding its identity. As I was involved in the SeaShorts Film Festival, I got to watch a lot of new local short films made by both up-and-coming and veteran Malaysian filmmakers. I noticed that a lot of them follow a certain style and look, like low-cost apartments as the setting and a lot of silent long takes. It is quite exciting to see these filmmakers unconsciously develop a certain style and look that can relate to each other.

You mentioned being involved in organising the SeaShorts Film Festival. What do you do, and what has the experience been like thus far?
I formerly interned at Next New Wave and I worked as an in-house designer for the film festival. I designed the posters with my friend, Syukri A. Rahim, who was also an intern. It was hectic, organising the film festival. Everybody had to do everything. We had less than ten people in the team! But it was fun, we all had fun. I learned a lot.

Can you give us an example of what you mean?
I think, the thing about film festivals is they try to define what is a good film and what is a bad film, as well as which film suits a certain film festival. It is hard to tell if a film is bad or good and, to be honest, it is not important at all. In my opinion, what is important is that every filmmaker should have their own ‘voice’, something that comes from within. Finding your own voice is not easy. It takes time, and once you have found it, hold on to it and believe in it. SeaShorts Film Festival really opened up my eyes. It showed me all these strong ‘voices’ from all over Southeast Asia.

In terms of challenges, I’m sure you’ve faced a few. Can you describe for us the trickiest part of your career thus far?
Pitching my ideas has always been my biggest challenge. I am not good at explaining what is in my mind. I need to work on that.

At the same time, I suspect there are also moments that are rewarding for you. Tell us something that pleasantly surprised you.
What really surprised me is that some of my works actually go places. To think that people would spend time to watch my films, whether they like it or not, is truly rewarding.

What’s next for you? Are you working on anything in particular right now?
Right now, I am working on a short film also my Final Year Project called ‘Weeping Birds’. It tells the story of an elderly couple who take old age and death lightly. A man and his dying wife try to relive their past (youth), but realise that the past can never be recovered, so they decide to prepare for their future (death). This story is inspired by my parents, my aunt and uncle and my late grandmother. I am also seriously considering on making the one-second short film series.

You can find out more about Teik Quan’s films on his YouTube channel. We previously wrote about his films here, and featured his short film ‘Spotlight’ in the write up of films from the SEAShorts Film Fest. Teik Quan was also a key example made in the article about Malaysian shorts cinema.

Featured image credit: Medical Media Training

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