Five local directors explore the emotional points of a man grappling with love and pre-marital cold feet in the highly entertaining flick ‘Cuak’
By Kong Wai Yeng
How valid are pre-marital jitters? How instructive are gut feelings? And you know what they say about getting cold feet: Doubts don’t vanish, they’re suppressed, only to resurface later. These questions are addressed in ‘Cuak’, which tells the story of a man getting married and the events leading up to his akad nikah (solemnisation ceremony). Showcasing five talented directors (Khairil M Bahar, Lim Benji, Manesh Nesaratnam, Tony Pietra and Shamaine Othman), the film stitches five segments into one seamless story. Producer Michael Chen and lead creative director Khairil M Bahar (Khai) tell us how the film was made.
There are five different directors depicting the internal and external conflicts of Adam (Ghafir Akbar), the lead character who gets cold feet before marrying his bride-tobe Brenda (Dawn Cheong). How difficult was it to put everything together? I mean, there’s some neo-noir going on in there. Michael Chen: I’ve always wanted to work with many directors in a film. I was working for Garang Pictures and I managed to convince executive producer Low Ngai Yuen to do a collaborative film. So I approached Khai and we convinced four more directors to join the team. We got the green light to produce the film in 2011, locked down the plot in 2012, and started filming last year. Khairil M Bahar: As the lead creative director, I let the directors do whatever they want as long as their stories work. Tony Pietra wanted to do neo-noir for his segment. I said okay because I knew he could pull it off and make it visually impressive.
Shamaine was the last director on board. Did it suddenly occur to you that you needed a female’s point of view? KMB: It’s a wedding film and we had four male directors. None of us knew how to tell the story from a woman’s perspective [laughs]. MC: I think no matter what story you’re telling, you need to have a female’s point of view. Female directors are quite rare in Malaysia so Shamaine was a shot in the dark because she’s not a director to begin with. But we really like her writing. Her segment is probably the most relatable because it focuses on Adam and Brenda, whereas everyone else talks about other things like the couple’s friends, Adam’s suspicious stepbrother, unresolved ex-girlfriend issues and crazy in-laws.
Are films about relationships easier to tell? There was ‘Relationship Status’, ‘KIL’, ‘Kolumpo’ and now, ‘Cuak’. Is this a common theme among local films? KMB: I think ‘Cuak’ is a truly Malaysian film with themes that resonate with a universal audience regardless of race or religion. MC: When we decided to shoot a love story, I didn’t want to do a story on interracial relationships just for the sake of doing it, although we ended up doing it. To be fair, we didn’t decide on the characters – both Ghafir and Dawn complemented each other so well during casting. The entire film didn’t touch on interracial marriage at all except for Shamaine’s segment. It’s really refreshing because we’re making a film about a Chinese girl and a Malay boy falling in love without having to talk about race and religion so much.
Was it difficult finding the perfect Adam and Brenda? MC: Honestly, we got a lot of flak for choosing Ghafir and Dawn as the leads because they’re not well-known. When people invest in a film, they want it to sell. They want ‘easy’ faces so that’s why you see a lot of recurring actors in local films these days. But Ghafir is a ridiculously talented actor. He’s so talented it’s stupid [laughs]. With regards to Dawn, her acting is very instinctive. She reacts intuitively without having the directors to convey what they need. KMB: Both Ghafir and Dawn weren’t friends before this. But you see this great chemistry in Shamaine’s section because they are kind of like that in real life. When Ghafir provokes, Dawn retaliates – they’re great to watch. Both of them are great actors; they managed to capture the essence of Adam and Brenda as the story develops throughout different segments.
The editing process must have been crazy. KMB: Editing this film was similar to editing a documentary. You have tonnes of good footage and exceptional interviews but what’s the story here? In ‘Cuak’, the scenes from different segments overlap each other. It’s not ‘Here’s movie A, movie B and movie C’. The film might be showing Benji’s scene and then it’ll suddenly cut to mine. We shot the film in less than 20 days but the editing process took a few months.
And that wasn’t the hardest part of producing this film? MC: Convincing the film distributors was no easy feat too. For a long time after we finished the first cut, nobody wanted to support the film. It’s disheartening. They [people in the film industry] liked the film but they also said this kind of film won’t sell.
But you know that’s not true… KMB: There is a market for films like this but no one is feeding it. People are sceptical, and there’s just too much politics in the film industry. Why do you think James Lee is only doing YouTube videos now? I asked him once, ‘You made a bunch of films and it wasn’t easy. Why did you stick around?’ He said, ‘I had hope’. But you know what? That hope is gone now.
What do you hope to achieve with ‘Cuak’? KMB:I want to showcase the directors. These talented people have been doing TV and all sorts of things but they never had a shot at doing a feature film. With ‘Cuak’, it’s like having our cake and eating it too. MC:This is a film by five unique directors who come together despite their differences to tell a good story. I think that’s what matters the most.