Having covered earlier terrains, we talk to Lim Mei Fen about her experience of starring in James Lee’s ‘Two Sisters’.
When I realised that you’re acting in James Lee’s latest film, ‘Two Sisters’, I looked you up and realised that I have actually seen you in the film ‘Thanks for Saving Me’ by Tan Ce Ding. Not unlike ‘Two Sisters’, that film can also be described as a psychological one. I wonder whether, in preparing for the role of Mei Yue, you were able to connect to past roles you have performed before, or whether you had to start from scratch.
I basically had to start from scratch. I know that many first came to know me through that short film, ‘Thanks for Saving Me’. I did that in 2014, I think. I shot it after ‘The Cage’, just a few weeks after that. So I was a beginner at that time.
I think at that point, when I did ‘Thanks for Saving Me’, my acting was very fresh. I put a lot of effort into squeezing out the emotion. When I see it again, I am actually not that satisfied. When I did ‘Two Sisters’, perhaps I am more ready.
So, very little from that film, then.
It’s two different things, actually. If you ask me whether I was partly inspired by ‘Thanks for Saving Me’, I would say no. Character-wise and such, they are two different things, even though both are also psychologically thrillers and horrors, and I look very sick.
I suppose you did…
Actually, a lot of people said good things about it. Even James, he confessed that he watched me in Thanks for Saving Me, and he said that I am suitable for ‘Two Sisters’, because of that sickening look, because of makeup! The skinny, horrified look!
For Mei Yue in ‘Two Sisters’, I didn’t have much time to prepare, because at that time I was really busy with ‘Tanah Akhirku’ as its producer.
That’s quite a heavy load.
At the time, I had yet to secure the funding, so I initially rejected when the producer first approached me. I loved the story, and James is my idol.
James Lee is your idol?
Yes! When I was young, people idolised Meteor Garden and F4, or Westlife. But me, in my heart, my idol was during my high school years were the four from DaHuang Pictures. Amir Muhammad, James Lee, Tan Chui Mui and Liew Seng Tat. They are my F4, my idols! So being able to work with my idol was a very big thing.
Wow. How about that!
But at that time, I was so busy with the Istana Budaya production, so I was struggling lah. Still, my boss said, “You cannot, you have to focus on your ‘Tanah Akhirku’.” So when the producer called, I rejected them two or three times.
What swung the decision, then?
James insisted. He said he wants me, so that touched me. In the end, I talked again with my boss, and eventually I managed to find someone to help me, to share the burden of producing ‘Tanah Akhirku’ for a while, and at last I accepted the offer to act in ‘Two Sisters’.
Finally, working with your idol.
Actually, I think about a month or three weeks before we shot the film, he actually used me in another feature film, ‘Kill Fist’. I only made a cameo appearance, about three scenes only. In that role, a ghost entered my character’s body, and she shouted like hell! She’s a sick wife of the main character, and James thought, “Wow. You can really shout, ah.” To him, I can play the horror character really well.
A mini audition!
So when Amir approached him for this project, he thought of the concept for ‘Two Sisters’, and he immediately said he had in mind who he wants for the role. He didn’t even think about auditions. He told the producers, “I want Emily Lim and Mei Fen on board.”
So I actually didn’t have a lot of time to prepare for the role, but what James did was he had the script reading with us, and he made us do monologues in rehearsal to make us explore the character together, to find the soul and the background of these two sisters.
How did you explore the characters?
So we built these two sisters together, me, Emily and James. And then we explore when it worked one way. We acted it out, and then realised, “No it does not.” Then we change again. What about this? Then we experience it again. Without script. So we did a lot of improvisation.
So that two days of improvisation was really, really important in building the character of Mei Yue. We created a world of Mei Yue.
Wouldn’t he give you some films to watch?
I did not even have time to watch any films. James did give me a list of films, but I did not watch them, and he said it’s OK if I don’t watch them. He said he don’t want me to copy, especially this kind of role. He’s fine with me not watching any other films, but just work around the background that we had built together.
So it’s difficult, then, to decide how much was created by one person, or another.
James and I, we did a lot of negotiation and discussion. Before we filmed every scene, we’ll do a small rehearsal again. At that time, I would throw in my input, what Mei Yue is thinking or feeling. If what I throw out is the same as what James would want, he would be OK with it. Sometimes, he would say, “Oh wow, that’s a good idea. I never thought of that.” For instance, I contributed the red ballet shoes, and he liked it. He opted for that, and rewrote another scene based on that.
But there are also times when I feel that Mei Yue will do something because of a particular reason, and he will say, “No, this is not important. It’s not parallel to what I see in the overall story.” He would explain to me, then I would just get on with it. If he had no time to explain to me, he would remain silent. I would understand, through that silence, that he is not convinced. If he likes an idea, he will say, “Go on, do it. This one can.”
How do you feel about that?
I actually like this experience. I like a director who gives the freedom to an actor, someone we can talk and discuss things with. After all, the intention is the same. We want to make this character or story more solid or convincing for the audience. So I like how he make us participate in the storybuilding.
In terms of character, what was it about Mei Yue that attracted you to her? Were there any points of similarities that could be connected to you, or is the character very different from who you are?
I think Mei Yue is very different from Mei Fen lah. I’m a very cheerful, very happy-go-lucky, very simple girl. I think Mei Yue, she is not afraid of ghosts! Not as much as Mei Fen. Mei Fen in reality is very timid! But Mei Yue, if she hears a strange voice, she will go and explore. Maybe, in a way, I know it’s a film set. I always see the ghost before she appears in front of me, in front of the camera. It’s not that scary lah. There was a funny moment when we did the dubbing a few months after that. When a particular scene came up, I actually shouted! I was so afraid. But when I played that role, no issue.
Of course, as an actor, I do have emo time, when you’re alone at night, especially when you did a shoot, or after you perform a big show, and you go home alone. You need a period of time to be really alone, and ponder back over what you have done. Emo sikit lah, time tu. But it’s not to the same level as Mei Yue.
What do you mean, emo time? Can you give an example of this?
As I play the role of Mei Yue, basically I also experience a period of time whereby, as a human being, I went through a really down period. It’s such a painful time for me, actually. There are a few scenes, but I want to mention one where we shot at the rumah orang sakit jiwa in Tanjung Rambutan. It was an abandoned hospital. On that day, my tears just came out. It’s not acting. I basically I felt so emotional and depressed.
After I finished the shoot, I could not stop and I could not get out of that depression. So I confessed to my friends, “I think I now know the feelings of people who are depressed.” When I play Mei Yue, the impact that Mei Yue left on Mei Fen is there. I became less cheerful, and I always felt like I had the feeling of not wanting to live already. So down, so dark, so painful, I don’t see hope in life anymore. To be exact, maybe around a week.
How did you get out from this funk?
I didn’t have much time to deal with these emotions, because I was also struggling in producing and acting in ‘Tanah Akhirku’. At that time, we had issues with the scriptwriter and director, and we changed the director. So I didn’t really have that much time or the luxury to keluar watak. I just have to do it.
After we’re done with the shoot, that very evening, I drove straight to Istana Budaya for rehearsals for ‘Tanah Akhirku’. So even though on the outside I’m OK with people, when I go home at night, Mei Yue’s shadows affected me.
I also wonder about the working relationship you have with Emily Lim. What was she like to work with?
I know Emily as an actress for many years, but we have never worked together before. This is the first time we worked together, and thankfully, during the rehearsals, we managed to bond very fast. She saw that I was very busy dealing with ‘Tanah Akhirku’, and she called me and said, “Let’s do a prayer together, and surrender to God.” After this prayer, things changed. It became an upside for the story as well, where she is acting as the older sister to me.
So we bonded pretty fast, and it helps with the story as well. I don’t feel the distance with her anymore. It really helped to bring us closer together. When we do the scenes in ‘Two Sisters’, the intimate scenes, we don’t feel awkward. The relationship is there already. I trust her a lot. We both really trusted each other. We both put in the same effort and energy, and both our performances helped to make the other better.
What was the most challenging part of acting in this film?
There is a scene where I was very emotional. In the past, I always had issues of crying on set. I cannot give out the immersed emotions in a click. I need time, to go aside, and really focus on my characters, sometimes with the help of EyeMo!
When we shot the scene in Tanjung Rambutan, the moment I stepped into it, I felt I was emotionally affected. Previously, my challenge is how to cry on set. Now, however, my challenge is how not to cry. The director did not want me to shed too many tears. The first two takes, I did not force myself to cry, but the tears just dropped non-stop. James stopped me. “Mei,” he said, “I don’t want so much intense emotions. Subtle, subtle. Hold back, hold back.” I needed to take a break and really calm myself down.
What precipitated this? Was there a particular trigger, perhaps?
At that point, I was thinking about a close friend, a good friend, whom I know is having these mental issues like depression. It’s quite serious, to the point that he had to see a psychiatrist and seek treatment. It happened not too long ago, and the memory was fresh, so in that scene, I imagined that it was that friend.
Naturally, the tears just kept on coming, and in the first two takes, I think I cried very beautifully and did a good job on screen. But, as it turned out, the director did not want it. So in the third take, I tried to hold back. The challenge was not how to drop the tears, but how to hold them in my eyes.
That’s a lot of emotions swirling around. What about the good ones? Surely there must be a happy memory of working on ‘Two Sisters’?
Because it’s a horror film, I don’t think there’s any happy mood or scenes for me! But I love being with this team, honestly speaking. I love working with James. I guess he’s one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with.
I really love the communication between the director and actor, and then the rest of the crew as well. We may be a small team, but everyone, really, for the sake or love of film, came together for minimum wage and we want this to be a good product that we can show to people in the future. It’s Buatan Malaysia, but still, it’s not bad.
What’s next for you? Are you working on anything in particular right now?
I’m producing a small-scale theatre production in May, so now we are actually in the stage of rehearsal. It’s a Chinese ghost story –
Wait. Another ghost story?
I always have a fate with ghost stories! It’s a comedy story called ‘Marry Ghost Around’. After that, I’d like to further develop my Hang Li Po story. After ‘Tanah Akhirku’ I merajuk, and say I’m not going to touch theatre. ‘Two Sisters’ could be my last film. I want to survive, so I want to quit this industry, but my heart is still here lah. One of the producers asked me what I would do if the box office for ‘Two Sisters’ is good. If it does well and hit RM1 million, I will immediately pack my stuff and go to MM2 office, sit there, and write my Hang Li Po story!
I am also writing a proposal about the stories of our Malaysian Olympics athletes, turn it into a pre-Olympic campaign. I’m also studying, learning to become a financial planner!
That’s a lot of hats to wear! Finally, weren’t you scared of acting in a horror film? Maybe you had some nights where you weren’t able to sleep, perhaps. No?
I am actually a very timid person. I cannot watch a ghost film wan. I would be screaming and shouting. That’s why a lot of people have been wondering about this. I think this is really funny.
For instance, ‘The Cage’ is actually a reality film, but there was also suspense and horror. I was killed on stage in that film! Well, I’m scared of ghosts, but to play a ghost are two different things. When you’re into that character, it’s not so much about yourself already. I even slept on the film set.
I was so busy with ‘Tanah Akhirku’, and I had those issues I mentioned earlier. I didn’t even have the strength to drive home. After the shoot, because we had shot at night all the time, we usually wrap around 4 or 6 am. I asked the producer whether I can stay overnight, and I ended sleeping there, in that ‘haunted’ house, for two nights.
Perhaps you’re not that scared or timid, after all.
I guess when you’re really busy with something else, you won’t be affected so much. You’re just too tired already.
That’s one way of doing. Thanks for your time, Mei Fen!