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Liew Seng Tat
Liew Seng Tat. Photo: Hizwan Hamid

Liew Seng Tat interview

Liew Seng Tat is making a splash in the international film circuit with his second feature, ‘Lelaki Harapan Dunia’. We speak to the acclaimed, award-winning director

Written by
Wai Yeng Kong

Two primary school boys suffering from parental neglect – that’s the stuff of tear-wringing headlines, but not in Liew Seng Tat’s 2007 debut feature ‘Flower in the Pocket’. The kids in his first, quietly moving film are mischief-making brats who hardly exchange words with their father, Sui (actor-filmmaker James Lee) – a workaholic who spends his days repairing broken mannequins. The premise may come across as contrived but Seng Tat’s trademark humour turns this slow-burn depiction of a father-and-sons relationship in crisis into a funny paean to familial bonds.

This is Seng Tat’s forte – the ability to tell simple, everyday stories that transcend borders without a lot of self-indulgence. In the low-budget, award-winning ‘Flower’, he meted out small emotional surprises through the taciturn and embittered Sui, who abdicates his paternal role in the absence of the boys’ mother. Now seven years later, Seng Tat is making a blip on the international film radar once again with a bigger production and a grander script – ‘Lelaki Harapan Dunia’, a story inspired by the angkat rumah tradition, is set to double the emotions, theatrics and laughter.

Stories about unity and muhibbah often run the risk of being overdone. How different is ‘Lelaki Harapan Dunia’?
I was inspired to write the script after reading an article in the newspaper about a farmer who decided to move closer to his sick mother-in-law so that he can take care of her. Because he was reluctant to move into his new house, he sought help from the villagers to help him carry his old house to his mother-in-law’s place. Remember Malek Noor’s Shieldtox ad? Where he helped to lift someone’s house? This angkat rumah tradition has fascinated me since I was young. What amazed me about the man in the article is his definition of home – the house was his possession. People don’t have that kind of attachment to things anymore because we’re living in a time where things change so much and so fast. This angkat rumah theme allows me to explore how people come together for one purpose.

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‘Lelaki Harapan Dunia’ was meant to be your debut feature, not ‘Flower in the Pocket’. What happened?
The film was too difficult to execute on many levels. I did some short films but I was trained as a 3D animator, not a filmmaker. One day, I thought I should graduate from making short films and start making feature-length films. I used to do things without a budget – things were very DIY but a huge production like ‘Lelaki Harapan Dunia’ needed resources. So I put the idea aside and started with something small, like a story about kids.

‘Flower’s worldwide recognition has opened many doors for you.
‘Flower’ was shown around 30 festivals in the world, and I was touring with the film for two years. The recognition did help; ‘Lelaki Harapan Dunia’ was developed at the Cannes Director’s Residence-Cinéfondation and participated at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. It was the first time I had proper tutoring. Part of the reason I delayed making ‘Lelaki Harapan Dunia’ was because I wanted to do it properly. I needed to grow as a filmmaker and I didn’t want to compromise anymore so I waited. I was tired. So for four years, Sharon Gan [producer] and I went to seek knowledge everywhere – to do things the proper way.

Is that why we’re seeing a more veteran cast in your second film? Have you gone a bit mainstream?
I won’t say mainstream but it’s an experienced cast. Wan Hanafi Su, Harun Salim Bachik, Jalil Hamid – these are actors who can teach me a thing or two about acting and directing. By directing them, you learn about directing. At one point, I even wanted to cast Malek Noor because of all the nostalgia. As for Solomon’s character, I didn’t know Captain Khalid was a stand-up comedian at ‘TOKL Comedy’ but he’s a natural at acting. We also recruited many non-actors – villagers – to be part of the cast to lift the house. We didn’t even have to tell them how to act because those are real expressions you see on the camera. Lifting the house was no longer an act – it became a real-life mission. That’s the power of angkat rumah.

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Did working with an experienced cast make things easier for you, especially when you had to deal with the difficult shooting conditions in the jungle?
I was pressured like hell! [laughs] Luckily, the cast believed in the vision of the story and the spirit of it. Wan Hanafi Su became one of my best friends so I’ll bring him around whenever he visits KL. The shoot took place in Kampung Kroh Hillir in Padang Rengas, Perak, about 15km from the main town. Surprisingly, the shoot went quite smoothly but the most challenging part of the shoot was to build the house. We found three old houses and broke them down. Then we re-assembled the parts and transformed them into just one house, which is called ‘The American House’ in the film because it’s painted white like The White House. Because it looked too ‘perfect’, we aged it down with paint as well as dirt. We had to build the house on the set, amongst the foliage, because we didn’t want to chop down trees. It took about 60 to 70 people to lift the house.

‘Lelaki Harapan Dunia’ met with an enthusiastic reception at film festivals across the world including Festival del Film Locarno as well as Toronto International Film Festival. With a storyline so culture-specific, how did you ensure the film appeals universally?
From the beginning, it wasn’t a decision to make this film exotic. I’m more interested in the value of the angkat rumah tradition and the sense of community. People joining their efforts for a single purpose – any community in the world would understand that. I’m just borrowing this tradition to tell a story. I suppose the best film is always the kind of film that’s true to your roots and cultural identity. I never do films based on what the audience out there wants to watch. Or what I can promote through the film. The important thing is what kind of story I want to tell to my own people, my fellow Malaysians. The intention is never forced.

Early reviews of ‘Lelaki Harapan Dunia’ latched onto the idea that women are marginalised in the film. Did that feedback surprise you?
With this second feature, I’m not so naive to think that anything I make will satisfy everyone. About the reviews, making that kind of comment is like saying war films are male-dominated and there are no females. It doesn’t make sense because the tradition of angkat rumah involves only men. It’s physical work, so obviously the story will be dominated by men. It’s a shame people can’t see beyond that.

Does that bother you?
I’m not worried if they don’t get the details of the film. In general, the response of ‘Lelaki Harapan Dunia’ is very good so far. At the screenings, people laughed at the right places. Even the very much withdrawn Japanese crowd reacted well to the film. Again, you can’t satisfy everyone.

‘Flower’ was initially intended for TV. Do you think TV can deliver that pure cinematic moment?
No. You must first understand the quality of TV overseas. Their budget to produce a TV series is as much as producing a feature film for us. We don’t have that kind of platform. Our films don’t travel so much but the main purpose of producing a film is to get as many people as possible to watch it. Somebody told me ‘Flower’ was available to download online for free, and I encouraged people to do so because I want to share the film with everyone. You’re right that I’d intended ‘Flower’ for TV, like a tele-movie, but it didn’t happen. The late Yasmin Ahmad and a few filmmakers including Ho Yuhang were supposed to put things together but it didn’t happen. I guess that was a blessing in disguise because I turned it into a film.

Your style of comedy has been very well-received, judging from the awards and accolades ‘Flower’ has amassed over the years. But your comedic talent could also mean getting typecast.
I’m not afraid of being typecast. I was only scared and insecure when ‘Flower’ was released because initially, it was meant for TV. It only became big after I submitted the film to the festivals. It wasn’t meant for such a large-scale reception, but I was very surprised with the outcome. Comedy-wise, it’s not hard for me to put humour in my film. I actually like watching stand-up comedians like Bill Hicks, and lately I’ve been watching a lot of Michael Haneke’s stuff. I know ‘Amour’ is very sombre but there’s a hidden comedic sense that’s very, very dark.

If a budding filmmaker 50 years from now says he’s inspired by your work, what do you hope he means?
I’ll be 85 so I guess I can finally die? [laughs] Maybe I’ll venture into something different, I don’t know. I just like seeing new filmmakers make films. Making films is hard but there’s no secret to it – you just have to do it. Currently, I’m working on a soldier and zombie film that’s based in Malaysia. Nothing like ‘Zombieland’. I try consciously not to inject humour in my films but they just naturally turn out to be funny.

Lelaki Harapan Dunia’ (also known as ‘Men Who Save the World’) opened Nov 27 2015.

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