After being exposed to his films during the festival circuits, we really started to pay attention to Malaysian filmmaking. A director we consider a personal friend of the site, Edmund Yeo, is one of today’s hottest directors coming out of that region. Born 1984 in Singapore, trained as a filmmaker in Australia, and now based in Japan. Edmund is a Malaysian filmmaker who began writing and directing short films in 2008. KINGYO, his first Japanese-language short, was selected for competition at the 66th Venice International Film Festival. He was the youngest Malaysian filmmaker to ever compete in the prestigious film festival. His other short film Exhalation premiered in competition at the Dubai International Film Festival in December 2010 before screening at the Rotterdam, Jeonju, Shanghai and Curtas Vila Du Conde International Film Festivals. We had a chance to catch up with him between fests and talk about films, emotinal scenes, and locales. Read below for the full interview…
How do you approach the storytelling process in your films? Exhalation had some very avant-garde effects; is experimentation something you try to put into all your films?
Edmund: Yes, my interest and focus had always been about the narrative. So I usually try to figure out the best way to serve my story, and experimentation is definitely part of the process. I don’t really like to repeat myself and become redundant, even if doesn’t bore my audiences, I’ll be bored by it too. Therefore, I try to ensure that each and every one of my works is as different from one another as possible. For example, using split screens almost entirely in Kingyo (2009), playing with colours in Exhalation (2010), employing a more spontaneous and improvisational mise-en-scene with Inhalation (2010). These techniques might work better in one story than in another, so I wouldn’t really want to ‘force’ an obvious authorial style upon my work and end up messing up my story.
Do you feel Malaysian writers and filmmakers aren’t getting enough credit in the Asian film society?
Edmund: Not really, our industry is quite young, so I think we’re getting the sort of credit that we deserve. It’s only in the past decade, beginning from the early 00s that Malaysian writers and filmmakers were getting their films shown beyond our own country thanks to a movement that is called by some as the ‘Malaysian New Wave’. (The Tokyo International Film Festival was one of the first few prestigious international film festivals to support these films.) Many of these filmmakers are relatively young and have only 3-4 films in their filmography, so there are still much more for us to work around with, and much more for audiences to discover in the future.
Travelling so much due to filming or festivals what kind of locales spark your imagination? What kind of locations do you scoop out during your travels?
Edmund: To tell you the truth, my imagination are often sparked from the most unlikely of places. It could be someone I met, a place I visited, a film I caught, or a story I heard, or a passing feeling.
But I’ve always liked to travel since I was a child, most of my dearest childhood memories were of the annual family vacations that I had, along with those long. long flights. So maybe these allowed me to be more perceptive of everything around me. I do think that travelling constantly, and allowing myself the opportunity to meet more people, see more films, hear more stories, know more of other cultures, and visiting places that I can never ever imagined, had helped me a lot with my own creativity. However, a simple visit to a nearby bookshop or a library can inspire me just as much too!
Inhalation was shot in a different location than Exhalation. How were you able to give both films such a similar distinctive cinematic voice even though they obviously bear certain differences?
Edmund: The similarities are probably instinctive. As much as I try to make each of my film as different from one other, people have a much easier time pointing out their similarities. Like the recurring themes or visual motifs that I tend to favour, or some stylistic choices that I repeat inevitably.
I shot INHALATION in Malaysia a few short months after I did EXHALATION in Japan. I usually name my films only after I finish them, so INHALATION was never meant to be ‘paired’ up with EXHALATION when I was doing the film. In fact, ‘INHALATION’ was really a spin-off of Woo Ming Jin’s THE TIGER FACTORY, a feature film that I produced and co-wrote (which received a special jury mention in the Winds of Asia section at Tokyo Film Fest 2010)
EXHALATION was more controlled, more meticulous in its staging and visual storytelling, where I was trying to look at the films of Tarkovsky and Bela Tarr for inspiration. INHALATION, on the other hand, was entirely spontaneous, I didn’t even have much of a script, just a plot outline, a skeletal crew, it was almost like doing a documentary. I went more for handheld shots, more naturalistic dialogue inspired by the works of Edward Yang. I thought both films couldn’t be any more different. However, once I was editing INHALATION, I noticed (belatedly again), some common themes that it shared with EXHALATION, as if whatever that caught me while making the semi-autobiographical EXHALATION lingered in my mind a little while making INHALATION, so they both ended up being a ‘companion pieces’ that mirrored each other despite their initial, obvious differences.
Having spent the last few years living in Tokyo, did that inspire you initially to start adapting the works of author Yasunari Kawabata to film?
Edmund: Yes, I’ve always been interested in Japanese literature prior to my stay in Tokyo. I was going through some Haruki Murakami, some Tanizaki, a bit of Akutagawa. But once I moved to Tokyo, I picked up Yasunari Kawabata’s short stories collection ‘PALM-OF-THE-HAND STORIES’, and immediately I was hooked. The sparseness of his prose and the impressionism of his stories gave me a lot of space to imagine a screenplay that I can work around with, films that were closer to my own sensibilities and emotions.
After all, I always find it hard to do adaptations, I’m torn between being faithful to the source material, and also being true to myself! My latest short film to date, LAST FRAGMENTS OF WINTER (2011) is inspired by a Mieko Kanai short story called ‘The Moon’.
Aside from your own work, what are some of your favorite Asian films or Anime?
Edmund: The list is endless. But instead of throwing a long list of Asian filmmakers whom I love (and I assure you, it’s going to be a really LOOOOONG list, and I definitely prefer to talk about other films than my own!), I will name a film by a filmmaker whom I’ve often neglect to mention as an important influences to me. I first discovered Laputa by Hayao Miyazaki when I was eight, I was already watching anime by then (Doraemon, Dragon Ball Z etc.), but I was so blown away by Laputa, the fact that the film was so rich and had so many things in it, romance, steampunk, adventure, a melancholic meditation in loss, I ended up rewatching my VHS for three straight nights. First, with my little sister, the second day, with my grandma, and then, finally, by myself. It was through Laputa that I discovered the rest of Studio Ghibli. But you can never forget the first, and that was Laputa.
Word on the street is you cried like a baby during Real Steel! Joking aside, in your opinion what elements from a directorial perspective make for a good, impactful emotion scene?
Edmund: That absolutely did NOT happen! Someone, er, hijacked my Twitter account. Yeah, that’s it.
But seriously, I don’t really think there’s a formula for making such a scene. Or maybe there’s one, and it eludes me. I think everything needs to come together, the directing, the writing, the acting, the previous build-up, just for this particular scene to work? There are some manipulative and cheap ways to wring some tears, but I definitely prefer to stick to emotional authenticity.
In the past you were serving as editor on some key titles and helping out in scene in general. Did these duties contribute to your overall efficiency as a director in the present day?
Edmund: Absolutely. Long ago, just before I went to Perth for my University studies, I got myself an editing software and a camcorder, so I ended up shooting a lot of random stuff and teaching myself how to edit. I guess all these editing practices had given me a better grasp of rhythm and pacing, which is definitely important to me as a director.
I’m always mentally editing during my shoot, so maybe that’s why my film sets are usually quite organic and improvisational, I often add or remove scenes instead of sticking strictly to my script, letting my actors ad-lib their lines, never shooting more than necessary. After all, I edit my own films, I woudn’t want to give myself too much trouble [laughs hard]!
2011 Was a big year for you. What kind of plans do you have for 2012?
Edmund: Right now I’m helping the Asian Film Awards (held during the HK International Film Fest every March) direct ‘The Road To AFA’, a series of interviews with numerous figures from the Asian film industry, directors, actors, producers, cinematographers and many others. I just finished the shoot for the Taipei episode, but will be going to numerous other countries within the next two months. I’ll keep you informed about this one
There are also two short films that I’m doing within these few months. Aside from that, I’m making preparations for my debut feature, ‘Reincarnated Dreams of Deer’, hopefully I’ll be shooting this by the end of this year.
Lastly, can you offer up any advice to any young filmmaker out there looking to make a splash in the film world?
Edmund: Well, I’ll just share with you all some of my beliefs: Just make whatever films that are emotionally genuine to yourself without wanting to imitate others. You are unique, prove it with your films. Nothing can, or should, stop you and your imagination, you can make a film with a smartphone, a camcorder, anything. The quality of a film isn’t dictated by its budget, or the amount of crew members you have. I made films with a crew of almost twenty members, but I’ve also made some where I had only a cinematographer and a sound guy. One is not better than the other.
Want to keep tabs on Edmund’s filmography and future shoots? Follow his cookie crumb trail below: