Tan Seng Kiat was born in Malaysia. He studied filmmaking at the National Taiwan University of Arts. He is the director of the short 32°C Fall in Love. “Shuttle Life” is his debut feature film.
On the occasion of his film “Shuttle Life”, screening at Vesoul International Film Festival of Asian cinema, we speak with him about the movie in detail, his life and career, Malaysia and its cinema, and many other topics
Can you tell us a bit about the path that led you to become a filmmaker?
I didn’t have good grades in high school and I worked in my uncle’s hardware store in the meantime. I wanted to work in the store after graduation from school. That could be more stable. From 2003 to 2004, I didn’t use the internet, my only source of information came from the newspapers. I didn’t really think more about my future.
It was my elder sister who asked me if I would be interested to see different things in the world. I thought living in other cities or doing other things could be the same as my life now. I was just seventeen or eighteen years old. Then I decided to go to a cheapcollege to study mass communication to have a degree.
I didn’t make any film yet. I didn’t like watching movies during the college period. One day, I found out I had to work as a director for an exercise. I didn’t go to the class and others decided for me. After the shooting exercise, I found movies could convey feelings. In fact, I didn’t have a good relationship with my parents. Something in my mind was released with that movie. I discovered the energy of cinema. So I was eager to find out additional possibilities regarding filmmaking and decided to go and study in Taiwan.
The college I studied in Malaysia had a connection with another school in Taiwan, so I began my second year in National Taiwan University of Arts. After going to the Taiwanese film school, I continued making films, up to now. My filmmaking career just happened like that. I discovered my passion for filmmaking quite late. After the first movie, something happened to me. So I would like to explore the world of cinema more.
“Shuttle Life unfolds like an Odyssey, with Qiang travelling from one trouble to the other, without any kind of hope on the horizon. Why did you choose this pessimistic approach for the film?
This film describes things happening in Malaysia. As I studied in Taiwan, the works of Dardenne brothers and Emir Kusturica taught me a lot. All their films talk about their country. So I would like to go back to Malaysia to show what’s happening in our society.
I found a lot of ridiculous things in my country, but people don’t care anymore. We are like frogs being boiled alive, we lose gradually our feelings. When I just returned to Malaysia, I was quite surprised with that. I didn’t understand why people could just do nothing about serious issues. For example, Malaysian Prime minister was found taking 700,000,000 US dollars from a public fund to his personal bank accounts. The Malaysian people couldn’t do anything for that scandal, but Taiwanese politicians could be brought to justice. Our PM could even use the occasion to fight against opponents in politics. So I hope to talk about the Malaysian society through my movies, to talk about the society I have grown up.
The film deals with the lives of the poor in Kuala Lumpur, mental illness, the troubles with the bureaucracy, particularly in connection with the health system, the corruption, and the huge differences between the rich and the poor. Can you tell us a bit about these concepts? Is the situation in Kuala Lumpur so dire?
The story takes place in Pudu area of Kuala Lumpur. It was very prosperous during the 1990s, but a lot of people have moved out, only old people and foreign laborers stayed there. But Pudu is still part of Kuala Lumpur, even if it’s old now, it’s still breathing, there are still basic activities here. So I like specially this place. There are different populations here, some children could be born here. They are not rich, I would like to talk about its stories.
Being poor doesn’t only mean you don’t have money, you could have less possibilities to good education, have less resources to enrich your mind or don’t have a lot of solutions for problems. Those who are born in Pudu have no choice. Most of tje time, when others are studying, they have to survive in this city. They could feel helpless.
When I have just returned to Malaysia, I felt helpless, too. I was like Ah Qiang in the film. I knew the problems, but I couldn’t find a solution. I felt like a shipwreck’s survivor floating on the sea, pushed by waves without knowing where to go. I returned to my country to make films, but I had no ideas how to begin.
Do you know the main conditions to become a filmmaker in Malaysia? You have to know a lot of influential people. We don’t really care if you have studied in a film school or not, you could make films only if you know some rich people.
The film seems to put male friendship as one of the few true values of the current world. Can you tell elaborate on this concept?
When we grew up in Malaysia, friendship is very important for us. Maybe we’re afraid of being alone and having no friends. It’s easy to influence each other.
I decided Ah Qiang would have two male friends in the film. When we are young, we need to be part of a group to feel comfortable. As we are not alone, we’ll have more confidence and we won’t be afraid. We won’t be afraid of being alone to face problems of growing up. That’s my point of view. Ah Qiang and his two friends live in that area, they are good friends and help each other.
Chin’s cinematography is impressive. How was your cooperation with him ?
TSK: The film was shot in Pudu area of Kuala Lumpur. I spent about one year observing the area, I know where the locations for some scenes of the film could be found. I wrote them down. I knew why I chose the places. In fact, I didn’t know this old area, so I spent a long time there. It’s like Báng-kah, the Western part of Taipei in Taiwan. Having played a significant role in the city, it’s not so popular as before. Young people don’t really want to go there. That is why I would like to tell its story.
I knew the relations between some specific locations and the characters. I visited some places several times with the cinematographer. We rehearsed together and imagined the actors’ reactions. Then the actors arrived in the shooting location. We would tell them the situation of the scene and they could act as they liked. However, we already imaged most of their performance, sometimes they played in some way we didn’t expect. We kept shooting all the acting. We prepared a ground plan to indicate actors’ movements and the positions of the camera. But I threw it away with the script when I began shooting. We were waiting for surprises.
I tried to use less lighting. Even when we needed it, it’s set far from the actors. I hope they could play without worrying too much. I didn’t want to bother their performance. There are no real professional actors in Malaysia, so I don’t want the lighting or other shooting equipment to bother them. I prefer they concentrate on their acting. For example, the refrigerator in a scene will be like the real one we use in daily life, the actors could feel comfortable in the shooting location. For the scene of the power outage, all the lights were set on the ceiling, not on the ground. We shot the scene in this way.
Can you elaborate on the scene with the two siblings riding the bike?
For the riding scene with sparklers, Angela hadn’t ridden a motorbike before, so she practiced several times to get used to it. For the shooting, we attached her to Jack for safety. When she got used to Jack and two other adults, it was easy for them to play together. We just gave her a sparkler and she began to play with it. Most of the time, I didn’t really explain clearly what they were supposed to do, each actor/actress had his/her own mission. If everyone performs naturally his/her own mission, the entire scene will be something in itself.
We usually shooted in the car, it’s difficult to control the acting of actors. The road was small and noisy, a morning market was just next by. Even though we yelled loudly, the actors couldn’t hear our words. They chose one song for the riding, I was OK with their choice, so they sang the song for the movie. All this scene was very natural. It’s quite romantic for me to go riding and playing sparklers. For the poor people, happiness and romantic feeling could just come from small things.
I think my family is middle-class. In fact, I didn’t know quite well the financial conditions of my family. I never like to ask my parents for money. I usually had some jobs as I was a student in high school and in college. When I was studying in Taiwan, I often made a living by making films. When the financial crisis occurred in Asia in 1998, my family was not the same as before. The economy and the relationship between family members were affected. For example, my parents quarreled quite often, maybe for money. We sold out our cars one after another, my elder sister had to ride a motorbike. Maybe my parents and my sister thought I was still young and they didn’t want me to know these problems, but I could feel the changes at home. Our family was different. I didn’t know exactly my family’s financial situation. When I knew better how to deal with money, I didn’t want my parents’ money. Money causes conflicts quite easily, so I prefer making a living by myself. I have lived in this way.
A lot of friends thought Ah Qiang was similar to me. He talks like me and he also has some similar attitudes. Both Ah Qiang and I have such a rage, we don’t have other motivation to do something.
Can you tell us a bit about the last scene? It left me perplexed regarding the “solution” you propose.
The last scene is an “open” ending. The characters were eating and moving. Moving could lead them to a better or worse place, eating is to give themselves energy. I think the motivation is quite strong. They would like to change the situation, they were eager to survive.
In fact, the first scene is similar to the last one. In the beginning scene, Ah Qiang took a risk climbing the high tower to find water. It’s ridiculous, so is the last one. Ah Qiang didn’t find money to make fake documents, but he stole the car. With his mother, they could spend time in air-conditioned car during the rainy night. They could sell the car to have money for the fake document, and then it would be possible to get back the corpse of the little sister out of the hospital. That could be a chance, but he could be arrested.
The story couldn’t end in a “closed” way, with a clear direction. Ah Qiang is just 19 years old, if I gave him a determined ending, it would be like a trial sentence for him. I don’t come from the same social class as him, I don’t think I could decide their future like a judge. I just hope people continue to live, and they’ll find their way out.
You chose Jack Tan, who is also a pop-singer for the protagonist role. How did this choice come about? In general, how was the casting process like, particularly for Angel Chan? How was your cooperation with Sylvia Chang, who has the hardest part in the film?
My producer is Jack Tan’s agent, that’s why he decided to choose him for the protagonist role. I have quarreled with the producer for a long time about this choice. I didn’t want Jack to play this role. He’s 19 years old, but Ah Qiang is 16 years old in the script. Such a teenager faces so many problems, it would be quite dramatic. But my producer insisted on his choice, I couldn’t refuse, then I had to change the age of the main character. There are so many limitations when creating films.
I didn’t really dislike working with Jack. I have tried to communicate with him when my producer made the decision. I didn’t want an actor to “play” a role, he just needed to feel how the character’s living at the moment. We can usually use our own experiences to be a character. For instance, he could think of his high school days or his own family life. I told him why I wrote the scene and what I thought about life or some important issues. I preferred Ah Qiang to be similar to Jack, he didn’t need to play the role of Ah Qiang. During the first two weeks, we couldn’t communicate with each other, he wasn’t used to my way. He kept asking questions and tried to prove his capacity. One day, I told him he was not my first candidate for the role, he said he knew it. I told him it’s not necessary to prove he’s capable to play the role of Ah Qiang. I have spent one and half year writing the script, and I have met the challenges from different investors, producers and script writers. He just got the script for one month, it’s impossible for him to find quickly a logical way to play the role. He calmed down after the conversation, he began to explore the inside world of the role in a lot of ways.
When we began shooting the film, there was the scene in which the mother attacked the son with scissors. Sylvia Chang didn’t follow any classic rules of acting. The script didn’t mention any scissors, she didn’t use them during the rehearsal. As she saw them, she told me she would use them for the shooting, I agreed. I told the crew to make these scissors less sharp, but they had no idea how to make it. When Jack appeared in the scene, he was surprised with the scissors. The shooting began, and it was quite realistic. We shot the scene three times.
Concerning the scene on the bus, I think it’s a little bit artificial. The mother just needed to grab her son’s hand, maybe because she’s so sad. Sylvia changed the idea of the script and would like to get off the bus. Jack was surprised with her reaction. I told Jack to yell at her, but he couldn’t understand. He thought the emotion for the bus scene was similar to the one with the social worker after leaving the police station. I was not glad with his idea. How could Ah Qiang know what would happen later in his life? He couldn’t know what’s going on. From that day, Jack didn’t bring the script to the shootings any more. I would not film in a chronological order of the story. I just told him what he could do for the scene.
I am satisfied with the result, everyone thought he’s not a professional actor. When I attended Shanghai Film Festival in China, one member of the jury appreciated the “non-professional actor” who played the role of Ah Qiang. I said Jack was a professional actor, he has played in a feature film and some TV series.
Sylvia Chang joined us as professional actress. She didn’t interfere in my creation except the role of the mother. She respected the team. She prepared for her role and did her work. Since she is not Malaysian Chinese as the mother in the script, I reduced her dialogues a lot, so people wouldn’t find out her Taiwanese accent. It’s more difficult to deal with the unstable mental disorders of the mother. Sometimes she could get mad, and then become a normal person. The role is inspired by an actor’s mother. We asked him to give us details and then we used them for the film.
The most difficult to work with was Angela. She came to a casting with her elder sister, the casting team encouraged her to participate because she’s quite cute. She’s like a little elf we could keep in a pocket. She could speak a lot of languages, like many kids in Malaysia.
We didn’t have problems in communication in the beginning, but she cried all day long during one shooting. We told her not to be nervous, but she couldn’t help crying. There were not many scenes with her, but we prepared ten days for shooting her. We found a solution. When she felts nervous, we’ll give her a box of Kleenex. She could begin acting after crying. She spent at least one hour crying when she arrived at the shooting place.
We spent two days for the car accident scene. The ground was too dirty for her to lie down on her back. Even when all of the team lied down on their backs on the road, she refused. She asked her mother to sit inside the car. When the car left, she jumped up and called her mother loudly. That’s totally kind of soap opera, we all laughed.
The toilettes scene was also difficult. Angela couldn’t stop crying. She said she didn’t cry for lack of practice. She has practiced a lot and remembered everything, but that’s the first time she played a role. She’s nervous. She replied as an adult. She’s just a kid, but she behaved like a grown-up, we all like her a lot.
Sylvia Chang just gave us six days for shooting. We concentrated on her scenes with Angela. Sylvia knew how to cope with children. Everything was going well. The nightmare began when we finished the shootings with her. Angela refused to play or kept crying from one a ’clock to three a ‘clock in the afternoon. As we were tired, she became “normal” and ready for shooting. You could ask her to act many times and she was never tired.
What is the situation with Malaysian cinema at the moment?
90% of Malaysian films are Hollywood movies or Chinese commercial feature films, there are few “films d’auteur” or alternative artistic films. Malaysian films aren’t successful, and the Malaysian people don’t support our local productions. I am not optimistic about the Malaysian cinema in Chinese language.
We thought there was a boom in the film industry, and there are more opportunities to make films now, but it’s just an illusion. If we make a co-production with China or Taiwan, we won’t be able to make films about Malaysia. Some people made horror films, but they couldn’t show them in China.
What’s really the cinema of Malaysia? Maybe other people don’t think about that issue, but I am eager to explore the subject of our country. I have no idea what others are doing, I just make my films slowly.Some Malaysian directors shoot films every four or five years. People of the film industry don’t help each other. Several potential filmmakers tried to made something ten years ago, but generally people prefer commercial films like local comedy or films especially for the Lunar New Year.
Some people continue working for the artistic films. There is no film school in Malaysia, the filmmakers have studied mass communication or audiovisual courses in college. We could study in a foreign film school or learn by ourselves about the cinema and film-making.
Which are your favorite filmmakers/movies?
Dardenne brothers, Emir Kustarica and Ken Loach.
Are there any other projects you are working on/ planning on working?
I am preparing a new film, “One Fine Day”. I would like to adapt a child rape and murder case occurring 30 years ago into a contemporary story.
Ten years ago, a girl was sexually assaulted and murdered in Malaysia. The killer was arrested the day of the crime. His father was an important guy, he ran away to Australia. He was arrested as he came back to Malaysia two years later. He wasn’t found guilty for the first trial since the investigators found other accomplices involved in the crime. The victim’s father was so sad, he wanted to jump off from the second floor of the court, the journalists stopped him. The victim’s family had their hearts broken as the tragedy happened, and they continued suffering from the loss of their beloved one. So I would like to adapt the old crime case to a contemporary story to talk about the victim’s family as they face the media and the society. The murderer was sentenced to death about ten years later.
The justice system is not fair in Malaysia. There are more than 10,000 children rape cases since 2014, only about one hundred cases got solved and the rapists were arrested. We couldn’t hope the police or the justice system will help us, what people could do is to be very careful with their own children