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Ten questions with Malaysian filmmaker U-Wei Bin Haji Saari… and then some. By Philip Cheah.

It’s always with a sense of trepidation when I find out that the Malaysian filmmaker, U-Wei Bin Haji Saari, would be in the same city as I. Invariably that would mean that we would go on the hunt together. U-Wei is a big game hunter but his game is jazz. He’s such a formidable hunter that if I’m midway through one vinyl rack, he would have knocked off three racks by then.

U-Wei’s consumption of culture is so voracious that he would blow most film critics away by his viewing depth. Most of the time, they end up coming back to him to solicit historical memory. By contrast, his filmmaking output seems modest. Six features at last count. U-Wei (born 1954) studied filmmaking at the New York School for Social Research. His controversial film debut, Perempuan, Isteri Dan… (Woman, Wife And Whore, 1993) received five awards at the 11th Malaysian Film Festival including Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay. The censors chopped off the last word from the film’s title for the domestic release. Then followed Wajah Ayu (Black Widow, 1995). In 1996, his film, Kaki Bakar (The Arsonist) premiered at the Singapore International Film Festival and was then shown at the Un Certain Regard of the Cannes Film Festival.

This was followed by Jogho (1999), an intriguing tale about bull fighters set in the Patani Malay community of Southern Thailand, a little explored border region where Thai and Malay cultures overlap, bonded by the common Islamic faith. Then Swing My Swing High, My Darling (2004), the idiosyncratic adaptation of James M Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, and his magnum opus, Hanyut (2013) a total cultural reset of Joseph Conrad’s Almayer’s Folly.

U-Wei has always been the link and gateway for the Malaysian digital New Wave to emerge in 2000 with Amir Muhammad’s Lips To Lips and Osman Ali’s Bukak Api (Open Fire!). The thoughtfulness found in his filmmaking as well as its outlaw sensibility, gave the next generation a benchmark to aspire to.

While U-Wei is still the most well-known personality in Malaysia, he remains a man with a secret identity. Not many have had the privilege to see his 10,000-strong vinyl collection or his houseful of art works and installations. Neither has U-Wei been engaged on one of his chief loves - music - and how it impacts on his cinema. In this interview, Philip Cheah listens to the song of the little road with U-Wei.

Philip Cheah: Let’s start with jazz. It’s one of your fundamental influences and I often wondered whether you started digging it during your New York film school days or whether you picked it up in Malaysia. If it’s the latter, how did that happen?

U-Wei: Jazz, that’s fundamentally what I listen to on vinyl and CDs, plus lots of ‘world music’. I remember that in the early ’70s, they called jazz as something of a personal black experience and that’s why maybe in my collection, 90 per cent of the records I bought were black musicians playing that music. That changed a bit along the way.

My father bought the first gramophone in the village plus a couple of ‘hip’ (guitar-based) records recommended by the salesman. Musically, the local radio station was useless to me except for the radio dramas they put out. I started checking out the contemporary ‘now’ music from long-haired musicians. I felt they would be the ones making the interesting music. (Editor’s Note: In the ’60s, long hair was disallowed in schools and considered a sign of rebellion.)

Then with my own money I bought a Bob Dylan EP and albums of British blues groups. Very soon I backtracked towards the real blues - Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and T Bone Walker - with whom I naturally went crazy over. I then abandoned those white musicians (except for a few artists) and went on to other black music especially soul, funk and gospel.

I love the blues. I listened to a lot of funk although I didn’t dance. Ornette Coleman answered it for me years later in 1976, that I was ‘Dancing in My Head’. (Ed: Ornette Coleman’s album title.) I enjoyed gospel very much even though I am a Muslim. It was the only music I listened to till I came across Charlie Parker with strings on Verve and Miles Davis’s ‘Seven Steps to Heaven’ on CBS that I bought around 1972.

And the rock music I’m familiar with came from hanging around my hip friends. I grew out of it early but there was a time in the ’90s when I was back in Malaysia and there was hardly anything to buy or listen to, so I started listening again to rock. But the stuff that I really dug, I never really stopped.

When I went to the States in 1976 for my film studies, just being in the record stores was like being a kid in a candy store all over again. But the very first album I got was Bob Marley’s ‘Catch a Fire’ (since in Kuala Lumpur, I could only get Jimmy Cliff). After that, I bought the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) and musicians such as Julius Hemphill, Leo Smith, Cecil Taylor, Arthur Blythe and the rest in the avant-garde and those who came before that I missed. I quickly realised the greatness of Duke Ellington and Sun Ra and I was so glad to be finally able to get and listen to their records easily.

I have to say that I had two entry points into jazz. I started first in Kuala Lumpur even though I was only listening to Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, as the availability of the music was scarce. The second was New York where the music was really happening: the loft scene (Sam Rivers), Chicago (AACM musicians), California (David Murray and Butch Morris), Saint Louis (Julius Hemphill and Oliver Lake), Mississippi (Leo Smith and Olu Dara) all moved to and played in New York City. It was a great time to be there if you’re into the new jazz. Of the two, the stronger entry-point into the music for me was when I was in the States and that stayed with me till today.

Strangely enough, it was funk and gospel that got me deeper and deeper into jazz. No matter how strange or how ‘out-there’ early ’70s jazz was, I kept on telling people, “jazz musicians can do that funky stuff too man… and that’s gospel.”

It’s ironic that while [Indonesian filmmaker] Garin Nugroho has used many pop music references in his films, you on the other hand, with your cataloger’s mind for jazz, blues and rock, have not bothered to reveal this influence. How come?

Perhaps the films I’ve been making are set in the ‘kampung’ (village or rural areas). As a matter of fact, one of the reasons I decided to remake “The Postman Always Rings Twice” with Swing My Swing High, My Darling in 2004 was the reggae attitude towards songs. Not by using reggae music on the soundtrack though. Reggae musicians especially in the ’70s did many many versions of a song - either straight cover versions or dub versions. So I thought “why not another version of James M Cain’s story?”

Songs and music are very much a big part in my filmmaking process especially while writing the script. I always write scripts with songs in mind or with music playing in the background even though those songs are not featured in the films. In that sense, they might not be an influence considering that these songs would not be heard on the film, but that’s the whole point of being influenced isn’t it? They are present but invisible.

‘Family Affair’ by Sly Stone and a friend’s group, Kopratasa, are the songs I kept playing again and again while writing ‘Kaki Bakar’ (The Arsonist). I then quoted Kopratasa’s Sani Sudin’s lyrics in the opening of the film but the song is not heard in the film. It was just the essence of self-esteem of a man, being recalled from the song.

Lyrics such as “One child grows up to be somebody/they just love to learn/another child grows up to be somebody/you just love to burn…” and “…blood is thicker than mud” from Sly Stone’s ‘Family Affair’ are lines that I hung on to when I thought about Kakang, the protagonist (of The Arsonist) that went off the rail in his late 40s while having a family to take care of.

I have not used songs as references in my films. Maybe I was too busy just listening and enjoying the film soundtracks done by Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Willie Hutch, Miles Davis, Art Blakey and even Art Ensemble of Chicago that I loved.

Then again, I’m a filmmaker from this part of the world where I can’t just look across to my producer and say, “Make a call and get me the rights to ‘Singing in the Rain’.” But that’s doesn’t mean I don’t want to have some songs in my films… maybe the next one. Like James Brown said: “Give the drummer (filmmaker) some…”

Hanyut (2013).

There is one other unknown influence for you that most critics are not so aware of - and that is your deep interest in painting, sculpture and art installations. There must be some reflection of that in your films. Tell us more.

As a ‘mualaf-seni’ (art-convert), I love looking at fine art works of paintings, sculptures, installations and photography. At times, I tried to see films as another extension of fine art. But in films, the audience is locked down (seated) and cannot roam freely as a fine art audience can. Sometimes, I see filmmaking as another form of installation with a different set of rules. After all, the French word for film composition is ‘misc en scene’.

For that reason, I enjoy curating art shows for private galleries, the Malaysian Embassy and also for The National Visual Arts Gallery in Kuala Lumpur. Eventually, that led me to publish some books for them.

Before I started Hanyut (2013), my director of photography (DP) and I sat down and discussed some art works and photography as reference points for the film’s colour tones and moods. It was not so much to emulate the paintings or the photographs but to set a common ground and understanding for us to start the project.

I see myself more as an art fan though I do have some artists working on my film sets. I had Fadzil Idris, a sculptor, as my Art Director in Jogho (1999) and in my theatre project, Euripides’ “Bakai” (1998). Zaki Ahmad Anwar, one of the most prominent Malaysian contemporary artists, did a few of my movie posters (Hanyut 2013) and theatre (Wangi Jadi Saksi 2006).

In 2011, I invited eight contemporary Malaysian fine artists and four writers (including yourself) to participate on a project, Wayang U-Wei Angkat Saksi, where these artists were allowed to interpret or react freely to what they felt when watching my films; and through their disciplines, they produced their art works. Subsequently, the writers will then comment on the works (art pieces).

If there is a thread running through your films, they seem to be about misunderstood women (Woman, Wife And Whore, 1993) and angry men (The Arsonist, 1995, Jogho, 1999, Hanyut, 2013). Coincidence or they are pet topics??

That’s true. It seems there’s a thread or even a common theme I’ve been working on in all of my films. There are some specific themes like alienation and loneliness with misunderstood and angry people in them. Maybe I know one or two things about alienation and loneliness from living abroad for a certain period of time. Or like a comedian having only one joke to tell, since the rest are variations; a filmmaker too has only one film to make because the rest are just variations as well.

From the two films you mentioned, the woman, Zaleha in ‘Woman, Wife And Whore’, and the man, Kakang in ‘The Arsonist’, get into a lot of trouble in the society they live in. As a filmmaker, I need characters that can produce drama or trigger a crisis (externally or internally) for the narrative. But it has to be plausible.

One effective way is to involve the society they are in, for example, one man against everybody. I always thought that’s a potent premise searching for a reason. The reason being that not understanding can be an attractive, beautiful thing but misunderstanding is a damned thing. By constructing a misunderstood character, chaos and drama will result and escalate into anger or even anarchy.

Both Zaleha and Kakang are misunderstood figures, but they’re strong and smart and that makes them retaliate by any way they know how. Both of them feel like strangers in a strange land and their answer is to survive at all costs. A misunderstood person will eventually be an angry person if he or she cares. A woman like Zaleha will seduce and Kakang will burn to cleanse their problems. I thought that looking into these kinds of characters was exciting.

Another thread seems to be the invasion of space - from personal space (The Arsonist) to geographical space (Hanyut) to imaginary space (One Note, One Fragment). Is space really the place where all conflict grows out from?

Like Sun Ra said, “Space is the place.” What can one (filmmaker) say or do now without a space. Space is what it’s all about. Ask Mr Ra.

You came from a generation of Malaysian filmmakers who all studied overseas and came home to build your careers and make your statements. Was it then impossible to enter the film industry without a degree or as a rank independent outsider? (Note: FINAS only set up the Film Academy of Malaysia in 1989)

In Malaysia, filmmaking is a free for all. A lot of people here seem to think that filmmaking comprises talent, bravery, luck and ‘cari rezeki’ (a way to earn a living), without looking much on other aspects of it, for example, a technical, or better craftsmanship. Filmmaking requires different kinds of knowledge and discipline. Although talent is fundamental it cannot be that only. Everybody has talent or feels they are talented. Sometimes, they are only raw talents.

It’s easy to get into the film industry here but the loose infrastructure and the high priority on business and profit, makes it a challenge for a film school graduate to make a meaningful, personal film. Lino Brocka from the Philippines said something like, “I’m not optimistic with what is happening but I’m not pessimistic either since I’m still making films.” That could be a position a film school graduate might take regarding the industry.

As you can see, I’m not as prolific as some of my peers. I would like to make more films but the conditions and chances just seem hard to come by.

Kaki Bakar (1996).

The screen quota regulation of 1991, where a local film had to be screened for one week was improved in 2011 to a minimum of two weeks, seems to have actually boosted local production. The 1970s saw annual production limping along at three to four titles. In 2013, there were 71 films. But are there still too many other regulations that repress creativity?

The ‘Skim Wajib Tayang’ (Screen Quota Regulation) was implemented in 1991 with the good intention of safeguarding local films by having a compulsory two-week screening time in the theatres. But the catch is the tickets sales must reach a certain amount daily. The theatres have the right to pull out a film if they feel it’s not doing good enough on the first couple of days. No sleepers are allowed. Of course, there are still other loopholes in the Skim Wajib Tayang that I can think of.

Now that Malaysia produces more than 80 films a year makes producers fight over dates. Meanwhile, theatre owners still have preconceived doubts on the life expectancy of a local film judging from their track record against Hollywood or Bollywood. The idea of giving a chance is thrown out the window.

The panel that decided or agreed on the dates and amount of approved theatres (the date and theatres are requested by the producers actually) are not actuaries, nor fortune-tellers, if you know what I mean.

The ‘conditions’ needed for the given ‘privilege’ of ‘Wajib Tayang’ has never been dealt and addressed properly too. Wajib Tayang is like a nice seat given during a ride but many are unable to sit for long because the train master will ask them to leave because they smell. Again here, James Brown might say, “Give me some air… it’s too funky in here.”

Cinema seems to have become a bit of a career opportunity today. Was that on your mind when you started out? What were you thinking and hoping then?

Even though film is among the youngest art forms, it’s the sexiest of them all. Everybody is attracted to it. It looks democratic, it’s a beauty, it’s accessible, and it’s relatively easy to get involved and be a part of it. Yes, traditionally cinema has always been a career opportunity especially for the actors here. As politicians here do, actors use cinema as a career opportunity for building a name to get other lucrative jobs.

But I’m just a kampung kid who started as a ‘kaki wayang’ (film buff). I fell in love with the images first and then the medium. Later I realised I not only love watching films but also reading about it. Then I thought it might be fun to have talented people acting out the stories that I have. Then I thought, since JD Salinger only wrote four novels, Thelonious Monk only composed some 33 songs and Captain Beefheart stopped when he was still at his peak, I don’t have to be so prolific. My problem is I’m still trying.

I salute you for being an original “kaki wayang” (film buff) but I think you need to tell us how a village boy from Pahang could devour so much cinema… For goodness sake, this was a long time before multiplexes!

I grew up in a village (in Pahang) nearby (within walking distance) a town with two cinema theatres and another nearby town with another cinema theatre. So I have access to three cinemas. How about that? It was the perfect place to be if you’re planning to skip school. When you’re not a sportsman or a musician and do not have many friends, you run to the movies. But when you have a camera strapped on your waist, they start running towards you! Ha Ha!

I was brought to the movies quite early in life by my father. A friend of his told me not long ago they used to tie me to the bicycle to go to watch some Hindi films. That surely would be in the ’50s. The earliest moving image I remember was a villain-like person running on top a parked train to open the lions’ cage.

Back then adults hate bringing their children to the cinema. They cry halfway wanting to go out. You’ll see them taking their kids out a bit then rushing back into the cinema. I remember kids crying during film screenings but not me. Maybe being in the dark watching the images soothed me. So that might be a reason my dad had no problem bringing me along when he had to babysit me. Little did he realise that I might be enjoying it much more than he did.

So my cinema habit followed me ever since I suppose. I remember watching films in the newly-opened multiplexes in the South in United States around 1976.

Francis Ford Coppola took a big risk in the early period of his career with Apocalypse Now but you took your big career risk with Hanyut in the late part of your career. It marks you as a driven soul, who just wants to look after his art. Was Hanyut some kind of summation of your creative obsessions and what was it that you think you achieved with it?

Making films are ‘berdoa’ (a personal prayer). It’s a problem-solving profession and when one is having problems (or tests) in life, he will ‘doa’ (pray). And making films is just that, right from the beginning choosing the text until the film screens in the cinema.

You begin also to realise that the process of making a film is like science fiction. Anything can happen in making a film, just as anything is possible in a science fiction story. (My late wife) Gail gave me three books that she felt might really interest me. The first was William Faulkner’s short story ‘Barn Burning’ which became ‘Kaki Bakar’ (The Arsonist) and also Joseph Conrad’s ‘Almayer’s Folly’ which then became ‘Hanyut’. The word ‘Hanyut’ (roughly translated to mean drifting or meandering) itself sounds quite apocalyptic doesn’t it?

When you reach a certain age you begin to say, “if it’s not now, then when?” Putting aside most of the fears and risks, you do what you feel you need to do. This film I couldn’t have done without Julia (Ed: Uwei’s wife and film producer). She never stopped till the film was ready.

Then after that, I’ll be doing my ‘doa’ again. God willing…

Note: This interview was first published by the Griffith Film School, Brisbane, Australia, for their Showcase Cinema programme - Of Identity and Vibrancy: The Real Cinema of Malaysia, Sept 28-Oct 10 2016.

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  1. One Response to “UNEXPURGATED U-WEI!”

  2. Thank you Philip, for this very interesting interview with our mutual friend U-Wei, in which you have asked all the right questions to best bring out of him, comments on the very interesting influences and inspirations in his creative life. I have noticed that he’s usually rather loath to speak a lot about himself, so you’ve done “posterity” a favour. Some important revelations are here. As for the up-coming release of his most recent film, “HANYUT”, I wish him great success, for this fascinating and important film, which I like very much.

    By Cynthia Webb on Oct 11, 2016

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