Filmmaker with a difference

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JAMES Lee is that rare Malaysian filmmaker who straddles the line between mainstream commercial flicks and independent art-house films — and he is steadily making a name for himself in both arenas.

The self-taught filmmaker wrote and directed Malay horror flicks such as Histeria and Tolong! Awek Aku Pontianak!, as well as action-packed movie The Collector and period kung-fu comedy Petaling Street Warriors. But he is also the darling of the independent film circuit, both at home and abroad. At the ninth edition of the Deauville Asian Film Festival in 2007, there was a special focus on his movies, the first time the French festival has turned the spotlight on a Malaysian filmmaker. His critically-acclaimed indie films include The Beautiful Washing Machine and Call If You Need Me — both award-winning films — and the critically-acclaimed Love trilogy.

"I try not to box myself in," explains Lee, who started out in theatre in the late 1990s before going into film. "I don't want to be stereotyped as a filmmaker; I want to keep the job interesting."

Films are more than just entertainment but also an avenue for experimentation and self-expression, says Lee. "People ask, why do I need to make all these small films since I'm already doing so many commercial films. It's a space for me to experiment. When I do commercial films like horror or gangster films, I'm stuck within a basic structure. When I work on my independent projects, I have a more open hand. I go more for the mood and atmosphere, and then the characters. A lot of times, my personal films look like there's no traditional narrative plot with a beginning and an end… It's good for me as a filmmaker to experiment; it's there that I discover new things… But I also learn a lot from making commercial films that I sometimes incorporate into my independent films — there's this exchange of ideas."

Lee's latest independent film is the bleak family drama, If It's Not Now, Then When? Produced by Da Huang Pictures with the support of the Krishen Jit Astro Fund and Hubert Bals Fund, the film was screened at the recent Busan International Film Festival and Vancouver International Film Festival. The movie stars Pearlly Chua as the mother, Tan Bee Hung in her debut role as the daughter and Kenny Gan as the son. Their father seems recently to have died. The mother leaves home early and returns late, out on long walks in the park with a lover. The daughter pecks away at a computer at work and has a desultory affair with her married boss. And the son breaks into cars and "recycles" the electronics he finds.

A scene from the movie

The film was conceptualised with Tan, a dancer with Kwang Tung Dance Group, whom Lee directed in the 2010 dance theatre piece On Anxiety. "During rehearsals, we improvised a lot. Some of the things they came up with were very interesting. When the production finished its run, I asked Bee Hung if she would be interested to use whatever we had discovered in the rehearsals to make into a movie. That's how it started. There was not even a story or plot, just a character. From that character, we created her background, relationship and family. Slowly, the story formed. That's the beauty of when I do my own stuff. It could come very organically," he says.

On the surface, the film is about the characters and the lives they lead, but on a deeper level, it debunks the notion of a perfect family. Says Lee, "It's questioning the traditional family structure, where it's actually very confined, and a lot of things are left unsaid… Even though they look like a family in the film, they are not actually operating like a family any more."

Lee is screening his movie from Nov 1 to 3 at three different locations where he will be on hand to conduct a Q&A session after.

"I'm making a film that's not normal," he says frankly. "Films like these, if you leave them unexplained, people are going to stop coming to watch. First of all, they are not learning anything. They cannot see why the director is doing this. Most get bored and stay away. That's why I do encourage Q&A. A lot of filmmakers don't like that, but I think it's a cop out. If you're doing a very personal film, alternative films, very arty and experimental, when there's opportunity to interact, you should. We should get the audience to understand why these films are made, why they are important to a filmmaker or the film industry."

Additionally, Lee will be screening three of his new short films: Birthday Lunch, written by June Tan about a couple who come from two very different worlds; Family Portrait, about how technology affects a family as seen through the eyes of a small boy; and The Last Supper, an action-packed short with guns and fist fights.

If It's Not Now, Then When? will be screened at:

• 8pm, Nov 1, Tocatta Studios, 19B, Jalan SS2/55, PJ

• 8pm, Nov 2, Help University Auditorium, Pusat Bandar Damansara, KL

• 4pm and 8pm, Nov 3, Five Arts Centre, 27 & 27A Lorong Datuk Sulaiman 7, TTDI, KL

The film is in Chinese dialects with English subtitles. Entrance is by a minimum donation of RM5.

This story first appeared in The Edge weekly edition of Oct 22-28, 2012.