“I sat down and I thought...”
“There was a point in my career when things weren’t going that great. Not that it was awful but I asked myself the question: why am I doing this? Have I produced anything that is definitively in my voice?
“And it came back to the complex relationship I had with my mother.”
You Mean The World to Me is Saw Teong Hin’s latest film, conceived in a script workshop at the end of 2008. He’s trying to explain its gestation; born in one, effortful push, brought up around the world and, now, ready to meet it.
A flash of self-awareness: it’s “semi-autobiographical,” he says.
“I sat down one evening and wrote the script over two or three days, I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, it was really cathartic and after I managed to get some sleep I looked at it and half of it at least was garbage.
“Over the next six to nine months, I can’t quite remember, I worked on it before knocking on doors.”
He shopped his baby to potential investors. They thought it wasn’t attractive enough. Family dramas weren’t trending, they told him. “Worse, it was in Hokkien,” adds Saw.
“There was interest out of Singapore and China but they wanted it in Mandarin, but I thought it might as well have been Tamil, because it (Mandarin) wasn’t true to the context.”
Saw was born and raised in Penang. He attended St Xavier’s Institution for both his primary and secondary education and left Penang aged 20. He’s lived in KL for the past 31 years. The Hokkien title of the film, Hai-Kinn Sin-Loo, is the name Victoria Street, where he grew up. The story: a Penang-born filmmaker Sunny (Frederick Lee) goes home to make a film about his family, as part of personal reckoning.
We detour into Saw’s trenchant insistence on making a movie in Hokkien, the stuff of box office blockbusters not.
Penang Hokkien is distinctive; the assimilation of Malay and English (and thus Sanskrit, Tamil, Arab, Latin, etc); words in unique cadences, singsong, a bit Siamese?
“Correct. I stuck with the idea of the film in Hokkien because that is the way we communicated and so doing away with it was untenable.
“I was doing an audition for 10-year-old kids, over a hundred of them; most spoke mainly in Mandarin, only about 50 percent could speak Hokkien fluently. Shortly after that I came across an article that said dialects are going extinct because the future language of commerce is Mandarin.”
Is Hokkien a dialect?
“My father used to read the Mandarin papers in Hokkien. Similarly, those here (in KL) would have read it in Cantonese...
“Language hard-wires our brains in a certain way.”
The trend of Chinese dialect-extinction, at least Penang Hokkien, seems inexorable. The reality is a shedding of the island’s historically cosmopolitan make-up once resonantly spoken by a bunch of stateless immigrants, exiles and their spawn.
“That would be a shame,” he says.
“So I stuck to my guns and moved on to other projects until [Penang’s] George Town Festival called [in 2014], and I proposed the idea of a Hokkien play and they loved the idea. It was very successfully staged at the Khoo Kongsi.
“The reassuring thing is that non-Chinese reviewers gave me my career-best reviews. Younger members of the audience were also very struck by the play. Two girls, early thirties, sat sobbing until the lights came on and were helped out by ushers.”
In addition to Frederick Lee, other original members of that cast, Neo Swee Lin, John Tan, Yann Yann Yeo (latterly of Ilo Ilo fame) reprise their stage roles for the silver screen.
Sometime in 2009, Wouter Barendrecht and Michael Werner of Hong Kong and Netherlands-based Fortissimo Films visited Malaysia, threw a party and met Saw. Over dinner in Hong Kong, they introduced him to Christopher Doyle, the director of photography who helped Wong Kar Wai create his languid, sumptuous sensory feasts. Barendrecht recommended Doyle to work with Saw, who came back from Hong Kong “walking on air”.
Barendrecht’s clout with Doyle stemmed from his close collaboration with Wong on Chungking Express, Happy Together and In the Mood for Love. He was a doyen of the international film fest circuit and great advocate for indie cinema. Fortissimo threw its lot with the likes of Tsai Ming Liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul earlier on. Bahrendrecht passed away suddenly a week later in Bangkok on April 5, aged 43. The stars had aligned but to amuse the gods. “Scuppered,” says Saw at the memory.
Or so it seemed. Fortissimo filed for bankruptcy last year. In 2014, Astro Shaw came on board as investors and producers following the stage success at the George Town Festival.
Saw began to assemble his team, including, Leonard Tee (producer for Tsai Ming Liang), Liao Ching Song (editor, The Assassin), Hou Hsiao-Hsien (director, The Assassin), and Taiwan star Zhao Chuan (who sings the theme song, Kam Sia Lu (thank you)).
And Doyle was flown to Penang to begin his work on the film’s trailer. He agreed to come despite there being no budget for his team. It was his first time in Malaysia, where improvisation is not unheard of.
Saw says he and Doyle bonded during the latter’s initiation. “Things went along they were looking better than I imagined they could,” he adds with a dash of understatement.
When Doyle had turned up in Penang, he brought out the script from a big ring binder, replete with sketches and notes. Saw describes his commitment as “complete immersion” and his rigour as a sharpening tool in aid of the director’s vision. “Which is why I will not stop saying how generous this man is,” he says.
“With Chris Doyle, you learn the rules in order to know how to break them… not continuity, not lighting, but the feeling and atmosphere a picture evokes. That’s key for him.”
Resentment is a creature of memory. What are we without our memories?
“It’s a double-edged sword,” says Saw. “It depends on what we choose to remember.
“Self-flagellation, if you like… This film is like my public apology to my mother and also my late brother.
“I learned to see my parents as people. When you see them as mum and dad there are certain unfair expectations. They’re just human beings, trying their best.
“This film is my exorcism of the things that haunted me; writing, shooting the things that happened more than forty years ago.”
This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Malaysia, May 2017.