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Bernice Low interview

The screenwriter for Malaysia’s beloved sitcom ‘Kopitiam’, Bernice Low, explores the communication gap between the Chinese-educated Chinese and the English-educated Chinese in her directorial debut ‘In Between Floors’

Bernice Low (middle) with cast Alvin Wong and Dawn Cheong
We’re all very familiar with the language conundrum between the English-educated Chinese and their Chinese-educated counterparts. What inspired you to develop a story about the culture clash in this micro-budget comedy?
I had been knocking on a lot of doors with scripts and was just sort of being politely rebuffed (because you know, I wanted to make a Malaysian movie). Once I decided I wanted to make a micro-budget film, I needed to think of a venue, which I knew had to be an enclosed box of sorts. Since someone had already done a coffin (‘Buried’, starring Ryan Reynolds) my only option was an elevator. Since I can’t do horror and didn’t have the budget for a good suspense film, I had to resort to comedy – because comedy is cheap to make.

The idea of doing a story set around an English-educated Chinese (Banana) and a Chinese-educated Chinese (Ah Beng) trapped in a lift goes back to 2008. The cultural dichotomy between the two seemingly similar yet very different groups occurred when I was searching for a screenplay. I kept meeting Bananas and Chinese-educated directors and kept getting frustrated by the fact that each of them brought limitations to the table. I remember meeting this one director and arguing with him over concepts like press freedom and having very different opinions from him about vernacular papers and their journalistic standards. And as we were debating, I kept asking myself why it was that although we were ethnically the same group, we had this gigantic chasm that seemed to separate us. And that placed the kernel of the idea in my head, although it took me a long time to realise it.

Did getting a familiar cast like Alvin Wong (Ah Beng/ Kenth Chu) and Dawn Cheong (Banana/Sharon) make things easier for you?
Both Alvin and Dawn are true professionals and so it really was almost no effort on my part to get them working together. The chemistry they have on screen was very true to the chemistry their characters possess and that has to do with a certain slyness on my part in casting – I specifically looked for an actress who was a Banana and in the case of Kenth Chu, the character played by Alvin, I specifically looked for an actor who was a little bit ‘Beng’ as well.

So Dawn can’t actually speak Chinese in real life.
No. And the irony is that she lives in Cheras.

Since the film was shot in one location, did you worry that the film would come across as visually stagnant?
Yes. This was one of our biggest concerns in pre-production – that we would not be able to be visually dynamic. So early on, we designed the entire set to be such that we could open up different walls, thus moving the camera around. We also put thought into making sure that we had a ‘money shot’ every 15 minutes in the film. We defined the ‘money shot’ as either a shot that was visually creative or a scene where the dialogue has to really pop and sparkle and just be witty, thereby giving the actors a chance to showcase their abilities.

Does making a micro-budget feature limit your creativity as a filmmaker?

I think a limited sandbox is always a good thing. I always feel that too much money makes the product indulgent. You should always feel the budget is a little bit tight or that you are limited in some way because that forces creativity to come to the fore. Necessity, after all, is the mother of invention for a good reason. And there are countless stories in Hollywood of great films that turned out to be the by-product of restricted circumstances. ‘Jaws’ for example, doesn’t have the shark appear for the first 30 minutes of the film because Spielberg couldn’t get the shark to work during the initial days of production. What was a production nightmare turned out to be a great tool for suspense. For me, I saw the micro budget as the ultimate test of my creativity, not a limit on my creativity.
So ‘In Between Floors’ is a combination of a good commercial film and a good indie film then?
At the risk of being grossly disproven, I’ll go out on a limb and say yes!

What do you think of Bananas who believe they’re above the Chinese-educated, and the Chinese-educated who think the Bananas are deserting their roots?

I think both sides have their point but also that both sides don’t engage. On a personal level, I think many English-educated Malaysian Chinese struggle with the question of identity at some point and Chinese roots, and it takes time to figure out which parts you like and don’t like, and recognise that you can actually do a pick and mix approach. Some Bananas can’t speak Chinese but love Chinese food (the ‘rice bins’), some Bananas speak Chinese but can’t do without bread. I think the gap has closed with more Chinese-educated Chinese recognising English is important and more English-educated Chinese embracing Mandarin for economic reasons. The schism needs to be addressed by both sides just getting off the superiority complex bandwagon, whilst mutually respecting each other’s space and worlds. But at the same time, maybe it’s this friction that makes life interesting, eh?

In your director’s statement, you mentioned that the audience wants to watch scenarios that are uniquely Malaysian, not films that pander to their social stereotypes. Has ‘In Between Floors’ achieved that?

I tried to write a film with universal elements – at its heart, the film is about two people, who come from different worlds, being stuck in an elevator together, and how they handle that without killing each other! The localised elements are the fact that I used two types of racial stereotypes (the Ah Beng and the Banana), but to me, Ah Beng and Banana can easily be ‘Mat Rempit and TTDI Girl’ or ‘TTDI Malay Guy and Kampung Baru girl’ or New York WASP and Cowboy from Texas.

The film explores the notion of people from different worlds, who would NEVER engage each other, being forced into an uncomfortable situation of engaging with each other, and the comedy that ensues from that. It just happens to use two Chinese actors.

To me, making a film that’s uniquely Malaysian spans situations, characters, comedy and language. Linguistically, I tried to capture the unique patois that is Malaysian English, and on some levels, Chinese Malaysian English (which I term ‘Benglish’). I also tried to inject into the film a brand of comedy that is quintessentially Malaysian. For example, Kenth and Sharon automatically assume that the security guard who is responding to them is a ‘Bangladeshi’ or ‘Nepalese’, and there is a running joke in the film about the habitual lack of punctuality of Malaysians. Ultimately of course, I think what completely defines the film as Malaysian is actually the elevator. Nowhere in the world do you see permanent service elevators except in Malaysia and we went to great lengths to make sure we recreated a service elevator that all Malaysians would absolutely be able to identify, down to the obscene graffiti!

Speaking of a Malaysian production, what do you think defines a Malaysian identity?
Durian. Prickly on the outside, but all mushy and squishy and sweet on the inside.

In Between Floors’ is showing now.