(L-R) Christopher Doyle, Yeo Yann Yann, Najwa Abu Bakar, Saw Teong Hin, Frederick Lee, and Neo Swee Lin.
Back in 2009, director Saw Teong Hin wrote a script with the intentions to develop it into a full-length movie, but because there was a lack of budget to execute it, he approached several people to sponsor his film.
Many of the people he approached didn't have confidence in the film as he intended to shoot it entirely in the Penang Hokkien dialect, and even though many persuade him to make the movie in Mandarin instead, Saw refused to comply as he believed the message he wanted to convey would be lost.
As such, he ended up proceeding with a stage play instead, which became tremendously successful at the 2014 George Town Festival in Penang, winning over the audiences and film critics.
Gaining a successful reputation, Saw gained confidence and approached Astro Shaw for a collaboration, to which they agreed to, seeing it as a unique opportunity to surpass the language boundary and create a meaningful film with a universal theme, thus "You Mean The World To Me" was born.
Director Saw Teong Hin and the Head of Astro Shaw, Najwa Abu Bakar.
Roping in Christopher Doyle, a celebrated Australian-Hong Kong cinematographer who has won awards at the Cannes Film Festival and Venice Film Festival, Saw's latest film is set to showcase the rich culture and heritage of Penang Island, which is one of the few places in Malaysia that retains its old-world charm while also embracing modernity and progress.
Starring a great line-up of talented actors and actresses from both Malaysia and Singapore such as Frederick Lee, Yeo Yann Yann, Neo Swee Lin, Steve Yap, Sue Tan, and Chelsia Ng, the semi-autobiographical story which is based on Saw's personal life, serves as a tribute to all mothers, sisters, and aunts for their unconditional love and sacrifice for the family.
The story is especially made to honour Saw's own mother who passed away in 1999.
"Your parents are the easiest people to take for granted as you think it is their responsibility to care for you. When my mother passed away, I became such a mess. I realised that I had a lot of unresolved issues with her; a lot of things were left unsaid. Working on this project was a therapeutic experience, the whole process helped me to put things in perspective, it helped me to make peace," said the director.
"You Mean the World to Me" will be shown in Malaysia on 4 May 2017 while is it also expected to be screened in Singapore in the near future.
How did the partnership between Astro Shaw and director Saw Teong Hin come about?
Najwa: Teong Hin had the film script years ago. At that time, the people he went to meet to make a film kept asking him to make the film in Mandarin but Teong Hin refused. Because he felt that the essence of the story, apart from the premise of a mother's love, is also very much embedded in the fact that it's about Penang and its culture heritage.
Therefore, he felt that it was most fitting to make the film in Penang Hokkien. Then he went off to make a play at Penang's George Town Festival in 2014 and it became a tremendous success. He then came to see us at Astro Shaw and proposed the idea. After we discussed it, we felt that Malaysia is missing a unique story like this, so that's how we came about it.
Najwa and actress Yeo Yann Yann.
Saw, what made you decide to share your personal story to the public?
Saw: The driving reason is to honour my mother, and to apologise (to her). This film was made to remind people how important family is, and to tell them that we should not take them (family) for granted, especially the sacrifices of our parents.
When you decided to shoot this film, did you get any objections from your family?
Saw: Initially when I brought it up, they were not sure and uncomfortable. But my sister was very generous, kind of like the character in the movie. She trusts her brother.
From a stage play to a film, what was the most difficult part of the transition?
Saw: Actually I wrote this as a film first, so what's fantastic about the play is that the play helped to clarify things. Perhaps the play was like a rehearsal for the film. We identified the problems in the play and fixed them for the film. There was not a big jump at all, because it was originally created as a film script.
Christopher, what was it like shooting the film in Penang?
Christopher: For me, the space is another character. The way people are in this space, pushes my camera in a certain direction. The way the space takes life, gives a style to the film, brings out the colour and the texture of the film, and that is what makes people think it's my style – it's not, it's Penang's style.
Working with a bunch of Malaysian crew, what was the most unforgettable moment for you?
Christopher: All of them are unforgettable. The only reason for me to make a film is to be with the people who care about what I care about. And as I said, the people and the space, that's the dynamic for me, that's what pushes the work ahead.
Director Saw and famed cinematographer Christopher Doyle.
What about the cast? Can you share your experiences working on this film?
Yann Yann: Teong Hin is a very scary director. He gave me a difficult task. He had me shooting the last scene of the film on my first day on set. This was one of the most difficult tasks I've ever received in my whole acting career, but I managed to pull through it.
I want to thank Mr. Doyle, because he's the first cinematographer that never asks me to accommodate him. He gave me all the freedom on set and I enjoyed working with him and the director.
Frederick: I really admire the director for his courage to expose the past to the public and make it into a movie. Every day on set must be tough for him as it reminds him of his past. Every time when there's an emotional scene, the director will cry. Even until the end of the shoot, he still cries. I really admire his bravery.
Swee Lin: Teong Hin and I are old friends. We've known each other for a long time, and we have always kept in touch. We went to university in Singapore together, and ever since then, even though the two of us went our separate ways, we still kept in touch and there's always been a strong familiarity and love between us.
Before we did "You Mean the World to Me", Teong Hin and I actually did a stage version of that, and if I think back now, Teong Hin has given me a dream role. He's a close friend and he made me closer to him just by giving me the honour of playing his mother. It's been a great experience for me, to be able to be in Penang and work with my old friend, and I'm proud for him and his film to come this far.
The cast talk about working on the movie.
Did Yann Yann miss the opportunity to be in the stage play version because all the other main actors have participated in it previously, right?
Yann Yann: No, it was because the director never invited me to be in it! I'm so angry! [laughs] I'm just kidding!
Saw: I did speak to her about it but her schedule was packed, so she couldn't make it for the stage play.
But in the end, you got to play a role in the film, what do you feel about it?
Yann Yann: Initially, I tried to turn down the offer because I thought that I might need a longer break after just giving birth. But after reading the script, the role itself was too good for me to resist. The main challenge for me was the language because I speak southern Hokkien, and Penang is northern Hokkien.
Though it is the same case with Frederick and Swee Lin, they have already acted in the stage version, so I believe they can already grasp the language. I needed a longer time to learn the language like maybe stay in Penang for months to get used to it. But Teong Hin came up with a brilliant idea, he had an instructor record the lines, and I picked up the lines and accent by listening and practicing to it.
Yeo Yann Yann plays the sister of the main protagonist.
Saw, can elaborate on your music selection and collaboration with Taiwanese singer, Zhao Chuan?
Saw: The music featured in the film is for memory. Music is very specific, when you hear a song it takes you to a certain point in your life. Although we worked with a Taiwanese, it wasn't so much a Taiwanese song, because the composer of the theme song, David Khoon, is a Malaysian. He married a Taiwanese when he was writing hit songs in Taiwan, and then they came back together and started a school here.
I heard about him through a friend, and I liked both him and his wife. I shared the recording of the stage play, and then they came up with a song just like that. When I heard the song, I thought it was perfect and suited the 'feel' of the film. The same thinking was applied to picking the singer. If somebody else could give me the same voice as Zhao Chuan, I would have used the same person. But Zhao Chuan's voice is perfect for the feeling and emotions of the film.
Why did you quote a "Star Wars" line in the movie? Does it have anything to do with the movie being released on May 4th?
Saw: It was quoted by my real brother. Before he passed away, my sister went to visit him at home and he told her that he wanted to speak with me, so my sister called me and put him on the line. He just told me "May the Force be with you", and the shortly after that, he died, so I kept the line in the film, and it just so happen that our film is opening on 4th May in Malaysia, it's a coincidence, I didn't plan it.
What's your next project?
Saw: Nothing is in the plan. It depends if something comes up that interests me, whether it is Malay, Chinese or Indian. Actually somebody approached me to do an Indian film, so I don't know what's next for me, it could be anything!
Cinema Online, 02 May 2017