This month SEA-Images meets with James Lee, one of the leading figures of the filmmaking scene in Malaysia, and discusses the development of the independent filmmaking in the country over the last few years.
Along with Amir Muhammad, you’re one of the initiators of the new wave of the Malaysian cinema. How would you evaluate the last five years of the video filmmaking in Malaysia?
Maybe not the initiators, but the first ones who started working on it. It’s very encouraging, but at the same time, it has reached a very dangerous point where they forgot what filmmaking means because DV is so cheap. This year, we got two or three young guys making features even before making short films. I don’t know if they are really talented, but this is the trend. They skip a lot of work process. I think it’s become too easy to become a filmmaker. They just graduate and say “I’m a director”, this is how it is in Malaysia now. The worst point is that the quality drops. When you look at the mainstream Korean films today, they are not as good as those of five years ago. They used to have their own messages, and the director’s reason was very clear. Now when I go to Hong-Kong Filmart and see Thai films, HK films and Korean films, they all look alike. If you take the poster of a Thai film and change the title into Korean, it could become a Korean film. Same with Japanese films, they all look alike. Malaysia is worse. We haven’t even reached the point where we have good mainstream cinema. Everybody is rushing to an independent, experimental cinema, without much experience.
In the last five years, hasn’t there been any attempt to link the independent cinema with the mainstream cinema?
There has been. In a sense, it can be considered as a failure because all the indie guys who made their first feature film with a big budget all flopped. And some of them made quite bad films. So it’s like, when you got more money, you make even more mediocre films. The cross-over is not very successful, and that is a serious problem because it shows that these young guys are not good at what they do. They can’t even implant their own style in the mainstream filmmaking industry. There, you can see the handicap of this DV thing. They just shoot and shoot without any proper training or industrial support.
Yet, the number of productions has grown?
Yes, and it is definitely growing. And the directors are growing younger and younger.
Is there any evolution in terms of diffusion and audience? Can you reach more audiences?
Yes, we definitely reach more audience thanks to our art house cinema. Actually, there’s only one in whole Malaysia. Compared to Paris that has three on a block… Those who cannot make it to the cinema because of censorship still show their films in colleges and universities. The younger directors that I just mentioned now do not make the same films as before. They make so many genre films such as thrillers, mysteries and horror films. And these attract the audience. It is good that there are different kinds of films, but still, they are more or less amateurish.
You also work as DP and producer, which is quite rare for an established director. Why do you continue to work as a DP and producer?
I stopped producing, but I continue my work as a DP because it is a good way to learn, to see how young people work. They might be new, and they might make lots of mistakes, but sometimes, their ways of setting things are interesting.
You have made two films on love, which are going to be part of your trilogy on love. Can you tell us about the third one?
Basically, it deals with the same subject, but it will present a clearer solution to the whole problem.
Deauville Asian Film Festival did a tribute to you this year. How do you feel about this?
I was quite shocked when I was informed about the tribute. Of course, I’m happy about it, but still, quite embarrassed. I mean, I don’t think myself being at the stage of directors who could claim that they can have a focus at a film festival. I have to say that Malaysian cinema, including the work of Amir Muhammad, Ho Yuhang and myself, is still very young. We’re still trying to find ourselves. People say that our films look like this and that, and this is because they have lots of references. I’m honored, but I have to admit that I’m embarrassed. I’ll hide in the cinemas and watch a lot of films.
Original published on 27 May 2007 by Jérémy Segay for ASEF culture360