IFFR 2008: Interview with "Flower in the pocket" writer / director LIEW SENG TAT
Ard Vijn here, with an introduction for the next interview.
Missing "Flower in the Pocket" has been my biggest regret at this year's International Film Festival Rotterdam, especially since Peter van der Lugt (GhibliWorld.com) and I kept running into writer/director Liew Seng Tat. We even got a chance to interview him!
Now I would have loved to participate in interviewing Liew Seng Tat, but fate had its way of making me miss every single screening of "Flower in the Pocket" prior to the meeting.
And I didn't want to bother the man with made-up questions while I hadn't even seen his film (I did stick around to take the pictures though...)
But thankfully Peter had managed to see it and he had several questions prepared. Liew Seng Tat had just had a very successful week in Rotterdam: he received the Prince Claus grant which is a financial injection for producing his next feature, and Peter caught up with Mr. Liew the morning after "Flower in the Pocket" had won the Tiger Award...
Read on after the break.
PL: First of all, thanks for doing this interview with us. The first question, really easy: a double winner in Pusan, a double winner in Rotterdam, next week you're in Berlin...
PL: What are your feelings, how do you feel?
LST: I feel bad!
PL: You feel bad?
LST: Yes, because now I think I have the reputation that I'm always the guy who runs away with the most money (both laugh). I feel bad.
PL: But did you expect it, or... because Pusan was a success already.
LST: I think Pusan for me is... it's a great feeling because that's the first festival I went to and my film was world-premiered there, and then I won two awards. And after that, yes, my film will be in some other competitions but I think I have won, I... my film has DONE something. Any other awards or price money for me is an extra bonus. Of course it gives me inspiration to go on, to further on my fimmaking, and I think it's a big encouragement for me.
PL: For the Twitch readers who missed the items on "Flower in the Pocket", can you tell us a bit about the movie and the ideas behind it?
LST : "Flower in the Pocket" is about these two Chinese boys who grow up without knowing who their mother is. So they're pretty much on their own. And they have a father who is a workaholic and doesn't care much about them so they're forced to grow up very quickly, compared to other kids. They have to take care of each other, basically they're on their own.
The inspiration for this film started, ehm... how do you say? I actually got the inspiration from an article that I read, that this journalist who went to Japan, it was during Mother's Day, and he noticed that people there, they wear flowers. Red and white, you know? Red symbolizes one's mother is still alive and white means the other way round. This journalist, he's sad because he needs to wear a white one.
So I thought: based on this custom I can write a story, so I thought to write about these two kids. They're on a journey to find out who their mother is, because they are not sure what color of flower they have to wear.
That is why it's "Flower in the Pocket", because in "Flower in the Pocket" the mother character doesn't appear at all, it's unknown, it's a stranger. That's why their flower is pretty much in their pocket. It's unseen, you don't know what color it is. You don't even know whether there IS a flower.
PL: To be honest the story is a bit sad of course, but you decided to make a bit of a comedy out of it. What was the idea behind that?
LST: Well, I've always liked comedy, and I like telling jokes, and that pretty much reflects... on my writing. And whenever I write, I would want to be myself, I don't want to pretend I'm anybody else. I don't want to be... I don't want to write about things I'm not familiar with. I want to write from my heart, so... I like to tell jokes and naturally my script, there will be comedy, there will be humor in it.
PL: But if I'm correct, the story is not autobiographical?
LST: Not really, no. It's a fictional story, but like I said I want to be personal with my work so I write using my own experiences, using my own observations, so there will be part of me in it.
PL: Another obvious thing in the movie is of course the different cultures in Malaysia. The Indian people, the Chinese, and the Muslims. If I'm correct there are some problems in Malaysia, I'm not sure, but in your movie you bring them together in a good way.
LST: Well, Malaysia is a multiracial country. Whether you like it or not, we are one nation, living together, but there is still a gap between us. Of course you're talking about different cultures, different languages, of course there is a gap, but in my film... yes, I would like to bring them together. I mean, I hope I can influence some people. I mean when I show my film back in Malaysia, well, attendance wasn't so good but the response was good, because people who managed to go and watch the film, they like what they see. They can relate. It's close to them.
PL: Like you said earlier, the attendance wasn't that great in your home country, but over here it's a huge success. Did you have a particular target group in mind for this movie, or not?
LST: It's a film for Malaysians. Like, I'm not sure when I show it here... I mean responses were good but ehm... I don't think as a foreigner looking at the film you would get all the little details here-and-there I put in, because only Malaysians or only people who have lived in Malaysia for a long period of time will be able to catch it, catch all the details. So it's a film for Malaysians, actually.
PL: Your movie kind of made me think of the Japanese movie "Nobody Knows", of the small children who live without their parents, and also the humor in it. What sort of influences did you use for this film? Are there particular directors you like?
LST: (thinks for a long time) Ehm, I'm not sure. Directly, I don't think so. But after watching a few films I want to challenge myself, I'm curious about how... after watching films like "Kes" by Ken Loach, or "The 400 Blows", the kids in those films were great, they... I was curious of how the directors could manage to direct the kids like that. So that is partly the reason why I wanted to make a film with kids. I wanted to know how to do it, so I challenged myself in a way.
PL: I heard that getting money to make "Flower in the Pocket" wasn't easy, the budget was kind of tight if I'm correct?
PL: While I think it's one of the charms of the movie, because of the tight budget you need to use your creativity.
LST: Well, this was actually meant to be a movie for television, but somehow the deal with Malaysian television didn't work out. So I ended up keeping the script for a while, looking for money. And at the same time, another fellow filmmaker, Tan Chui Mui who won the Tiger Award last year, she got the price money and she used it in my film. So then I started to make the film, and that's how the film got made, by that money.
Of course it's a low-budget film and that is why my production only took like thirteen days. I mean, if you're talking about shooting kids and animals, in only thirteen days, and for a first-timer like me... I think that is kinda... short. But then, because the budget is limited you have to do it this way.
PL: So if things would change, you now have won the price money from various awards, you think it will change the future films you will make?
LST: It depends on the kind of story that I want to tell. Like for my next one, it will be a bigger film in terms of the story. So THAT I can not do with just the budget I used for "Flower in the Pocket", I need more money. So by winning awards here it helps for my next project.
PL: One of our writers, “The Visitor”, already wrote some interesting details on your next film, called “In What City Does It Live”. Can you enlighten us and tell our readers something extra about it?
LST: It's a film about the Malay people, how they carry a house physically from one place to another. That is the basis of the story. Of course in this film I want an... there is an African element in the story. Africans, as you know, in Malaysia they are immigrants. They started coming to our country and especially for the last few years, we can see them everywhere.
It looks strange, because it's normal to see Africans here in Europe, but in Asian countries like Malaysia it's something new. So it's strange, like they don't belong here but they are here.
But when you think back the Malays are immigrants from like 200 years ago, so I wanted to question the definition of home.
Ard Vijn here again: Unfortunately that was all we had time for, as Liew Seng Tat had to go to his final screening at the IFFR 2008. Logically, we thanked him and wished him good luck, not only with his current one at future film festivals, but also with his new film which sounds very interesting!
Rest assured we’ll be on the lookout to cover that one as well. Maybe at Rotterdam next year?