One month after the last 15Malaysia film was unveiled, a week after the pandemonium on the red carpet in Busan, four days after I’d landed in Tokyo, and seconds after you left me to drown in the dignified calm of the Hotel Okura, it finally became clear what I must do.
I guess it is apt that clarity came to me in your city. For it was also in Tokyo a year before that I first had an idea to make short films about Malaysia. I’d be lying if I say now that it was more than shapeless silhouette then. Indeed, things would not solidify until I met James months later - when his employers at P1 agreed to fund it - but it remains true that the seed was in fact sown in Tokyo. I am not sure why it should be so.
Perhaps it was the glaring contrast between our respective birth places - yours a homogenous, disciplined and relentlessly distant land - and mine, ravaged by cultural differences, corruption, abuse and hypocrisy - that sparked the desire to tell the truth through cinema. For we are nothing if not the truths revealed in our stories and cinema is arguably the most compelling form of storytelling in modern times. You should know - Japanese cinema remains one of the best mirrors of your land.
“Japanophile”, you chastised. Gently teasing like a lover.
You adjusted your skirt.
My heart fluttered. Had you always such translucent skin and delicate lips that spoke in mirth? I wondered for a moment how you’d look in rapture. You’d be beautiful, I was sure.
I know your country is not perfect. You have your crazies too. But I bet your crazies haven’t recently thrown an idealistic young man off a building in the name of a dubious investigation. I’d wager also that you don’t feel insidious contempt at the mere thought of public servants. Hell, your politicians resign or kill themselves when they’re tainted with infamy - while ours… well, let just say they hang around for encore.
It did not used to be like this. At least I don’t remember it to be so. I grew up loving LAT and believing that Malaysia was a story of tolerance and diversity. We might never be a beacon of discipline and efficiency but we would never be wanting for character and spirit either. But it appeared that, somewhere between then and now, Kampong Boy got kidnapped and we instead became a nation run by unworthy men and women ever willing to trade the nation’s soul for a few empty slogans and platitudes.
Did we change? Or had it been a myth all along? It does not matter. What matters is that we dwell in a cesspool of corruption, hypocrisy and stagnation. And since this is home, one is duty-bound to protect it from further dilapidation. So I recruited filmmakers, actors, musicians, activists and politicians to make 15 socio-political short films. We called it 15Malaysia.
In retrospect, the elements that made 15Malaysia successful were apparent from the get-go. Even then, I did not expect it to be this successful. No one expected 14 million visits to the official site in 60 days, or that international festivals would love it and Jean-Michel Frodon would compare it to the French New Wave, or that political parties on both sides of the aisle would line up to endorse it, or that millions would await eagerly for every one of our new releases. But all these things did happen.
“So do you feel happy now?” You teased again.
I couldn’t answer. Happiness is not something I think about much. So I smiled weakly and shrugged. Momentarily, your cell phone rang. You looked at it nonchalantly and left it unanswered. Our eyes met. I fell into the deepest brown and wondered what it would be like to kiss you.
“I don’t know”, I replied after an awkward moment.
What I had really wanted to say was that I wished Yasmin were here. She was the first to sign up and the first to shoot. She spent every cent of her budget on production and refused to keep one penny as fee. And after she’d seen a few of the films, she texted to say: “if there’s a few more like you, perhaps we might turn this country around.” You can’t believe how much of an encouragement that would become when the going got tough. Still, I missed her enough already. So I left it unsaid.
That’s not to say that I was not haunted by her words though. Given the media frenzy surrounding the project, it was easy to let aggrandizing bullshit get to your head. But the truth is – 15 short films alone will not solve the country’s problems – and all we’ve really done is merely to widen the country’s discursive space by a little. We do need more people to step into the breach and keep the flames of reform burning. Otherwise, what we did would amount to nothing more than casual entertainment.
You looked at me calmly before breaking into a half-smile. Perhaps you sensed that I had not been entirely truthful. I looked away. Another awkward silence. The festival press coordinator came to the rescue. He smiled and nodded at us from just out of earshot. Your checked your watch. Time was nearly up.
“So what next?” You asked finally.
There had been much talk of a follow-up to 15Malaysia. And I had a few ideas - something similarly fresh and cool and irreverent. It would be exciting and fun. But I also had a new album in my head. Making a new record will not be as newsworthy as 15Malaysia or any of its siblings that I might concoct – but it is something I must do. It’s been months since I had time to think about my future though - so I offered you the only answer an uncertain and tired man could give…
“Sleep”, I said.
You laughter was sonorous but oddly tinged with sadness. I’d only ever known one other voice like that. Rick Danko’s. He played bass and sang for a seminal rock group called ‘The Band’ in the 70’s. Like yours, his voice was bright and haunted at the same time. I used to listen to him deep into the night and imagined what it would be like to be cursed by a ghost like his.
The press coordinator made a signal. We were out of time. You stood to say goodbye. You may have smiled too. But I did not see it…
I was lost in thought - thinking of how, when The Band broke up in 1978, Rick continued to live a life of a working musician. He never attained much success thereafter and never made any money. His health deteriorated steadily over the years and he died chronically overweight in 1999. The only consolation I could find in his sad end was that he died peacefully in his sleep. That, and the music he left behind.
So I guess, like you, Rick left as he came. Silently.
I regret missing your farewell. Bad manners aside, I had wanted to tell you something important. You probably would have thought me crazy, but I had wanted to tell you that Rick gave me directions to what I must do next year as I was returning from my reverie. I don’t know. Perhaps I merely wanted you to stay a little longer. It was not to be though. You were half way out the door by the time I came to. And you did not once look back.
Rick Danko would die tomorrow.
Ten years ago.
- ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS -
Visit the 15Malaysia official website HERE.
Join the 15Malaysia Facebook page HERE.
- BUSAN PHOTOGRAPHS - [Click To Enlarge]
PRESS CORP. A press corp of about half a dozen content makers and journalists came with 15Malaysia to Pusan. This included reporters from The Star, Sin Chew Daily and NTV7. The festival were amazingly helpful when it came to accommodating the needs of our group, which numbered over 30 people. In the photo is Grace Wang from NTV7. She was one of the earliest adopters of the 15Malaysia story. Grace is real nice. All the boys were in love with her in Pusan. Ha.
NAMEWEE. Abrasive and controversial, Namewee’s Negarakuku video pre-dated 15Malaysia in using satirical short clips to address socio-political problems in Malaysia. While some may not agree with his use of the national anthem for satire, there is no denying that he spoke an uncomfortable truth. His participation in Potong Saga and Meter gave the project an edge that was highly effective. In person, Namewee [pic, right] is shy, funny and thoughtful. I like him a lot.
GIMPO. [L to R: Walter Hii, James Chong, Linus Chung & Me] This was taken at Seoul’s Gimpo airport. The two girls in the picture were PIFF volunteers charged with looking after guests. The bald guy in the middle is James Chong. He runs ruumz and believed in 15Malaysia from the beginning. He was also crucial in getting the project funded. We’ve had disagreements since but nothing that a few beers would not fix. Please give ruumz a try. Click HERE.
GANG. [L To R: Khairil M Bahar, Nam Ron & Jordan Suleiman] It is a weird fact that, due to scheduling difficulties, many of the 15Malaysia filmmakers did not know each other before Pusan. So the trip not only reinforced existing friendships but also created new ones. Hopefully, this will lead to more co-resourcing and collaborations between different groups in the future. As far as I am concerned, the more people can come together, the better. Unity is strength.
15MY PARTY. [L To R: Benji Lim, Chua Thien See, Me, Jordan Suleiman, Desmond Ng, Khairil M Bahar & Bahir Yeusuff] Screenings and pissing about on the streets of Pusan were fun, but the most alcoholic event of the trip was the 15Malaysia party at the Seacloud Hotel. It was an event filled with film industry people from all over the world. Not only did it give our younger filmmakers a chance to network, it was also the first time that 15Malaysia partied together as a group.
GROUP. The Malaysian contingent at Pusan this year numbered over 40 people. These not only consisted of filmmakers, actors, producers and journalists, but also folks from ruumz who came to gather content for use on their portal. Here’s a group photo at the 15Malaysia party. Other guests at the party included Kim Dong Ho [founder and president of PIFF], director Hou Hsiao Hsien, Jeremy Segay [Directors’ Fortnight, Cannes], Gertjan Zuilhof [Rotterdam Film Fest] and so on.
BALLOONS. The highlight of the 15Malaysia party was the release of 200 white balloons in honor of the late Yasmin Ahmad. It’s no exaggeration to say that most of the filmmakers in 15Malaysia had benefited from Yasmin’s generosity somewhere along the line. So it was a pretty emotional moment. The memory of those balloons floating away into the night sky will stay with me forever. You can catch that moment at the end of this VIDEO by Khairl M Bahar.
BILLBOARD. Every filmmaker whose film is screened at PIFF has his or her portrait displayed on a huge billboard in the middle of downtown Pusan. Here, Benji Lim and Jordan Suleiman were trying to locate theirs. There’s a stall across the road from this billboard that serves the best ramen ever. Its so good I was there for supper 5 nights in a row. The Korean lady who runs the stall loved us so much she bought us drinks. Shoju is only slightly less evil than live octopus.
CORE. 15Malaysia’s production management team consisted of 3 people. Me, Walter Hii and Albert Law [pic right]. While Walter concentrated on web matters [with the help of our server guru Simon Lim], Albert and I covered everything else - from publicity to production control to transfers and content assembling. Albert and I have been friends since my early days at No Black Tie. I’d rather have him assisting me than an army of hacks.
RED CARPET. The red carpet experience at Pusan is made seriously special by two attributes: (1) the sheer length of the walk; and (2) the tendency of Korean fans to cheer hysterically at anything that moved on the carpet. I am certain it’s an experience that all who walked on it will remember for the rest of their lives. One of the best things about it is how inspiring it was. Makes you want to do it again. And again. We had a blast. Upwards and onwards.