Woo-ing the audience

Woo-ing the audience

25 Aug – Cinema Online caught up director Woo Ming Jin to dig deeper into his award-winning indie film, "The Elephant And the Sea". This critically-acclaimed film managed to grab the Best Director and Critics Awards at last year's Cine Digital Seoul Film Festival. It also won a Special Jury Award at the Torino Film Festival, and another Best Director Award at the recently concluded DIBA Digital Barcelona Film Festival in Spain.

Tell us about your movie “The Elephant And The Sea”.
It’s basically a drama about two people who are trying to cope with a recent personal tragedy in a Kuala Selangor fishing village. One is a young adult, a hustler that cheats his way through life by doing things like setting up minor traffic accidents to profit from fixing tyres. The other is an older fisherman.

Oh come on. A bit more?
Well, one day a mysterious disease strikes the area and kills a few people. One of them is Yun Ding, the hustler’s partner in crime. The fisherman, on the other hand, loses his wife. It’s about emotional paralysis. It doesn’t need to depict the struggle very literally and has a subtle cinematic approach to it.

Where did you get the inspiration for this story? You’re the writer too, right?
Yes. The movie is made up of small little vignettes, small little stories that I’ve heard of. I like to write stories about people that I’ve heard of. So part of Yu Ding’s experience is based on my uncle’s life, for instance. He was also a hustler but of course much older. Scenes with the planks and the burst tyres – I got them from my dad because it happened to him! I think he paid them like RM10 or RM20. I collected these stories over the years and strung them together.

Press Conference at Cathay Cineplex.

Ming Jin speaking at "The Elephant And The Sea" Press Conference.
So it’s an art movie. Do you have any underhanded messages or anything like that, maybe?
I don’t really deliver messages in my movies. Even if people do see messages, I’ve never really paid much attention in delivering messages because my main intentions are to entertain or to tell a story. In this case, it’s more of a story to tell than to entertain. So wherever the story takes me, I’ll write it. I’m also very interested in the nature and irony of life. The movie has irony plot.

When I read one of Variety’s articles, they compared your movie to Tsai Ming Liang’s “I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone” because of the obvious similar themes. How do you feel about this comparison?
I’ve told this story before. I’m a very big fan of Tsai’s work but when I started making films, I didn’t know whom he was! When I showed my film to some of my friends, people like Amir Muhammad, they said that my film resembled those of Tsai Ming Liang. But I was not sure who he was. So when I started watching his films, which was around six years ago, I was very impressed with his work and thought he was a genius! Since I came from being influenced from the European cinema, French cinema to be particular I got more interested in cinema by watching French movies. Unfortunately now as a Malaysian filmmaker, if you make a film with long takes, people are going to mention Tsai Ming Liang. It’s inescapable and I’d rather embrace it than anything else.
So it’s an honour for you?
Yes, of course.

Is this your third or fourth film line feature?
No, this is actually officially my second but it’s also like my third. This is my second art film.

What was the first called?
The first was called “Monday Morning Glory”, it's about a terrorist attack. It stars a bunch of stage actors like Patrick Tan. Salon was my commercial romantic comedy that starred Pierre Andre and Raja Farah and it was released nationwide. It did quite well in the festival market but wasn’t released. It almost got through to television but because it dealt with terrorism as a subject matter, it didn't passed censorship.

What do you think of provocative filmmakers who are interpreted to be almost in-your-face incendiary like Amir Muhammad?
Well, I like Amir’s work and I think it’s simply the area of interest in work someone takes up. As long as Amir is speaking the truth about the subject matter, I’ll totally support him. Coming from an independent background, I understand that we always want to speak of the truth. So if my film is considered controversial, I have no qualms taking it on at all. But at the same time if I want to do a love story, as long as I like it, it’s fine. So Amir’s interest is in that area. I think what he does is truthful. There are people who are just doing it for publicity. Sine no one in Malaysia is doing what Amir does, I think it’s a good thing that it can raise awareness.

If Amir is at one end of the spectrum, where his movies are all banned and inaccessible, who would be at the other end of the spectrum in the local scene? Would it be Liew Seng Tat? And where would you be?
Maybe Seng Tat, yes, and I would be somewhere in between.

Can you give us a general take of the local independent films then?
We’re newly discovered here in Malaysia, unlike Thailand and Philippines, so now we are considered somewhat making history. I think that’s amazing. The attention and the opportunity is there. The best thing is that these indie films lately are actually good! I’ve been to many film festivals, easily half a dozen. I’ve watched a fair amount of films. I mean, we do get bad rep in Malaysia as always because local critics will compare us to Hollywood films. But I’ve been to festivals where we’re being compared to big-time local indie films and nobody has ever said that your film is cheaper or anything like that.

How did “Elephant and The Sea” get funding?
“Elephant and The Sea” did receive some government support but it was not enough. However, we’re still very grateful for it. Most of our funds come from Europe, it’s where most local indie films get their funds. We make something out of the fund. They do have requirements but its pretty small and we have the artistic freedom. I haven’t done any promotion for “Elephant and The Sea” so it’s being heavily overshadowed by Liew Seng Tat’s and Tan Chui Mui’s films. Don’t get me wrong, I like both of their films but Green Light Pictures just doesn’t have the manpower. I sold myself as a filmmaker, not a marketer. But since it’s my movie, I have to do something to promote it, don’t I? The film has done quietly well. It has won some decent awards and not crappy ones.

What award was that?
The Torino award was the biggest. We got the Special Jury Prize in 2007. We were up against films from Berlin and such.

Of all the current crop of local directors, who do you admire?
Tan Chui Mui. I look older than her but we’re from the same wavelength and we knew each other right from the beginning. We helped each other out in Amir’s film “The Big Durian” – we call it the Dream Team project with Deepak, James, Mui and all. She's also more gifted in her artistic side compare to her technical side. I think it's because she's still very new in the technical aspect of movie making. From this movie, she will know a thing or two on how to shoot. I went to film school and studied the technical aspects of a lot of things but I personally think, you don’t need to be a technical expert to be a good filmmaker. I like Seng Tat too but I know Mui longer. Here’s why I like her; she’s a really nice person. And in this industry, it's not easy to find someone who is genuinely nice. But she is!

Ming Jin drawing a picture of Cinnamon

Speaking of Deepak, did you watch “Chalanggai”?
Yeah I liked it. I thought it was a mature work from someone so young. He’s around 29 right? That's considered still very young. I think he’s talented.

How do you see yourself when people mention the name Yasmin Ahmad. Do you respect her?
I have incredible respect for Yasmin’s films. I’m a very big fan of “Mukhsin” and “Sepet”. I think “Mukhsin” is a very good coming of age film. “Gubra” isn’t the best but I really liked “Mukhsin”. I do have a lot of respect for her work. Not everyone likes her work but I do. Her movies have a very wide appeal, that’s something we don’t get all the time. When I watched “Mukhsin”, I was wowed, and I know it could go far.

Tell us more about Woo Ming Jin the person?
Well, I studied business previously but I always wanted to be a filmmaker. I’ve been telling this story for a million times. I went to San Diego State University to study and I worked in Hollywood for a while, made a music video or two along the way. I came back five years ago and met Amir - that’s how I start. As for what the future lies, I found Green Light Pictures. We started making independent films but now we’re in the television production line. We’re making a lot of telemovies. We’re working with Astro and NTV7. You can only do art films once in every two or three years because your creative juice is pretty limited. I have also done commercial stuff but it doesn’t mean I’m selling out. It just means that I like art stuff. There’s an art film that I hope to start shooting next year. I don’t have a title for that yet. Meanwhile, we’re prepping some TV work.
Tell us something about you that no one else knows.
Erm … well, I’m not a person that's full of surprise. I’m into sculptures and stuff like that. I’m currently writing a children’s storybook! But I’m not like Seng Tat who is more in touch with the kids. Compare to him, he's more patient.

Thank you Ming Jin. All the best.
Thank you.

"The Elephant And The Sea" opened in Malaysia on 21 August 2008.

Related Movies:
The ELEPHANT AND THE SEA (Mandarin) (21 Aug 2008)