Going To Tokyo: Interview With MUKHSIN Director Yasmin Ahmad
Tomorrow, Malaysian filmmaker Yasmin Ahmad leaves for the Tokyo International Film Festival, where a retrospective of her work is being presented, as well as the world premier of her new film, Mukhsin.
Yasmin was already well-known in Malaysia for her heart-tugging TV commercials, which were ground-breaking and brought in a whole new style that is much emulated till today. Her commercials were, in themselves, complete short films. Even back then, her humanist concerns and pluralist approach were already evident. She burst onto the filmmaking scene with a made-for-TV movie called Rabun (Blurred Vision), about an elderly couple who move from the city to a village to seek a quieter life. Her breakthrough film was the interracial love story, Sepet (Slit Eyes), about a teenage Malay girl who falls in love with a Chinese video pirate. Sepet was well-received during its commercial release, and also won Best Asian Film at last year's Tokyo festival.
Even so, Sepet met with a lot of criticisms at home, mainly due to a scene involving a man in his underwear and some scenes with women clad only in sarongs. The film ran into some problems with the censors but was later released in the cinemas with some cuts. But there was no denying the film's ability to touch the hearts of many, and its unflinching approach to the many social issues in the country. The larger universal issues of humanity, which were clearly lost on the film's detractors, won Sepet the top awards on homeground at the Malaysian Film Festival, and Best Film at the Creteil International Women Directors Festival in France.
With her next film, Gubra (Anxiety), Yasmin had clearly grown in confidence, her style now more assured, tackling a bigger story with multiple characters. In fact, Gubra is essentially made up of two separate stories dealing with love, loss, compassion and forgiveness. Yet again, Yasmin met with some strong criticisms, especially for her portrayal of a religious man and his wife who befriend two prostitutes. And once more, Yasmin silenced her critics by again winning the top awards at the Malaysian Film Festival.
She completed her new film, Mukhsin, about innocent childhood first love, earlier this year and the film is slated for a February release in Malaysia. For Mukhsin, Yasmin pared everything down to the barest necessities, telling the story as simply as possible. The result is a film that is quite different from her previous ones.
All four films are being screened as part of Yasmin's Tokyo retrospective. Mukhsin has been picked up by Focus Films for international distribution.
The Visitor: Were you surprised that Tokyo wanted to do a retrospective of your work? What exactly did they tell you?
Yasmin Ahmad: I was VERY surprised because I still consider myself a novice and a dabbler. It was such an honour though, to be told that a big festival like Tokyo would want to do a retrospective of my little films.
Sepet won in Tokyo last year. Did it get distribution in Japan after that?
We couldn't allow Sepet to be distributed anywhere in the world, even though 6 or 7 countries wanted it, because we had bought the music rights only for Malaysia and Singapore, and we couldn't afford to pay for world rights. Sepet was largely self-funded.
What do you think are Mukhsin's chances this year? The Japanese friends to whom you previewed it had positive things to say about it, didn't they?
How can I know what Mukhsin's chances are, when I have not seen most of the other films that are competing? In any case, I never think about the "chances" of my films winning anything in the past, even when they did win. It's a foolish preoccupation.
Focus Films' acquisition of Mukhsin means a bigger audience for your film now. Personally, what do you hope from this? Foreign funding, perhaps, like what Ho Yuhang's films have done for him?
My only real hope from this is that more people around the world might get to see how I feel about certain aspects of humanity and the human condition. Funding I believe ultimately comes from a source much higher than mere funders.
Some say your static camera is very "Japanese." Obviously you're very influenced by Japanese cinema, and you've said the very first film you ever saw in a cinema was a samurai film. Apart from Ozu Yasujiro, who else do you admire?
Yes, the first film I ever saw at a cinema was Shuntaro Katsu's Zatoichi Monogatari. I was 6 years old, and I was awe-struck from the word "go"! My mother, who is half Japanese, was translating bits of the dialogue for me. Ever since then, I have of course discovered many Japanese filmmakers whom I admire greatly - obviously Yasujiro Ozu, Imamura Shohei, Juzo Itami, Oshima Nagisa, and Yamada Yoji, but also, in recent times, Kitano Takeshi, Naoto Takenaka, Suo Masayuki, Koki Mitani, Kohei Oguri, Yoichi Higashi, Harada Masato, Iwai Shunji, Koreeda Hirokazu and the wonderful folks at Studio Ghibli, just to name a few. Having said that, though, I can't say for certain if my static camera influence came from the cinema of Japan, Iran, or certain cinematic traditions of Europe. I admire films that uphold real sentiments, and I daresay I don't much care which country they come from, for as long as they engage me on some human level. In fact, if I had to cite my greatest cinematic hero and influence of all, I would have to say it was Charlie Chaplin.
Chaplin? So perhaps your static camera is more the influence of the silent era?
Not really. It's just Chaplin, actually, whose films I watched for laughs as a child, but later recognised as the work of a cinematic genius. City Lights, one of my favourite films of all time, gave me the license to be as sentimental as I wanted to be, so you know who to blame. I love that film so much and find myself going back to it time and again because it agrees with my observation that in life, great comic moments and the tragic constantly exist side by side. This is why I have very little patience for films which are morose from start to finish.
You'd found your cinematic voice since your very first film, Rabun. Was the time spent making TV commercials the period where your voice was shaped and formed?
Making TV commercials got me in close contact with two great minds in Asian commercials filmmaking - Pongpaiboon Siddighu from Thailand (also Pen-ek Ratanaruang's mentor) and Kamal Mustaffa. These two masters taught me that the most crucial aspects of filmmaking are the power of the script and the choice of actors. According to them, if you get these two right, the film would almost direct itself. These are of course deceptively simple principles. Also, when making TV commercials, directors are often forced by the short duration of commercials to resort to fast cuts amd fancy editing. There is also this pressure from your peers to be stylish. While making my first film Rabun, I loved the freedom to keep the camera still if I so wished, and to rise above those superficial trends that plague TV commercials. This of course made it harder for my actors as there is very little room for mistakes.
I know you faced some criticism from certain parties who believe that people from advertising shouldn't make films. Of course, you've since proved them wrong with your four films. But how did those negative reactions make you feel at the time?
They really didn't affect me in any way. That's because I had exemplary predecessors in the form of Satyajit Ray, Alan Parker, Abbas Kiarostami, Ridley and Tony Scott, Iwai Shunji, and Michel Gondry. I doubt if I will ever be as good as them, of course, but they give me something to cling to and reach for.
The independent filmmakers are certainly making headway on the international front. But what about Malaysian commercial cinema? Where do you see it going in the next few years?
These are exciting times! More and more independent filmmakers are taking their films to the public. They're going commercial. I've made four, Amir Muhammad has made Susuk, Yuhang now has Rain Dogs, Dain Said has made Dukun, and Osman Ali has made Puaka Tebing Biru and Anak Halal. Pretty soon, those mainstream demons who crucified me for
encroaching upon their territory will run out of wood and nails. So where do I see our commercial cinema going? At the very least, I think there'll be much better scripts and actors, God-willing.
After a lull, Malaysian films were given richer and more thoughtful and insightful content by the likes of Rahim Razali in the 80s and later by U-Wei Haji Saari in the 90s. And today, the young filmmakers are a more well-read set who make films that are more philosophical and have the filmmakers' social concerns as a backdrop, whether consciously or unconsciously. What do you think is the driving force, or the wake-up call?
To tell you the truth, I don't really know the answer to that. All I know is that watching Osman Ali's underground film Bukak Api five years ago gave me the courage to start, and I believe Amir's Lips To Lips made many aspiring young filmmakers think, "Hey, I can do that!"
This really is a great time to be making films in Malaysia, isn't it?
It certainly is.
Ever been to Tokyo? The city rocks!
Yes, I have been to Tokyo several times. It's unlike any other city on earth. The Japanese are so artistic and pay so much attention to design and detail that even their billboards look beautiful. I wish this were true of the rest of Asia.