On Thursday afternoon, during the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2017, the committe hosted a symposium with Malaysian film directors Ho Yuhang and Dain Said Iskandar at The National Museum of Art, Osaka. Entitled “Hardboiled Detective and Lady Kung Fu.” It explored the similarities and differences between Ho’s opening film, Mrs K, and Said’s competition entry, Interchange. I also had a chance to interview Said about Indonesian cinema, his latest project and what influence him in making film. In this article, I have edited the text and would only include relevant material from the symposium and interview.
Interchange uses pictures of locals taken from a hundred-year-old book titled Through Central Borneo, including women washing themselves by the river. Did you always intend to set the film in Borneo?
It’s not set in Borneo. It’s set in a city “somewhere”. I prefer not to be specific about where that city is, but for different reasons. From Bunohan to Interchange, there are overlapping concerns. In Malaysia, we have a belief in spirits and ghosts but we deny it. Mainly because it can be seen – as in Bunohan- to be anti-Islamic. So I purposefully pulled back. It’s the same in Borneo. We have many tribal people, but we ignore them and treat them as less then human.
We are very proud of the Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, which show our country’s Islamic devotedness. If you use a real [place] name, you [create a divide] between Malaysians and tribal people. But if you don’t give it a name, then you don’t create that comparison. One last point. It’s a concern for both my producer and I. In Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and even the Philippines, we are surrounded by tribal people but we don’t bring them into our stories.
I felt that you were trying to integrate Malaysian and Borneo people and culture…
Yes and no. I’m not really concerned about bringing indigenous people to the attention of Malaysian people. But I do care about their stories. And I cannot tell their stories as if I am one of them. So I took a point from history, of what had really happened. Tribal people always believe that when you take their picture, you take their soul. I thought they are washing themselves by the river [in the photo], because they are washing away the bad spirits. But I also imagine another river that meets this one downstream, one that comes from the West.
The idea that the camera steals your soul [is universal]. In the West, image is the reality, and reality has also become the image. Behind every image is another image, and another image; so that is also [now] concerned with losing one’s soul. I like the idea that the very first machine that the tribal people encountered was the camera. Before that, they’d never seen a 20th century machine, not even a gun. It was the camera. That’s why I brought the story to the city, rather than shoot it in the jungle. I feel that Iva and her people are trapped in the photograph, but Adam is trapped by the photograph. Both have to break it to be free. Even the camera is an obstacle for Adam, because the camera makes you blind.
In Interchange, there are no Islamic elements except for the drag queen singer in the club at the beginning. Is that intentional?
Of course not! It’s very funny! I have another friend that made a film with a lot of transgender people that got banned. It wasn’t my intention. [The actor] came with a different thing, a hood. That was the [costume] design. But on set, it looked flat like a Muslim [headdress]. I thought, that’s okay, and I left it. It’s not easy to make films in Malaysia. Yuhang asked me to act as a priest in one of his films. I thought, “Great, a Catholic priest!” But I didn’t really know what was in his mind. I asked his producers, but one said “No way!” Yuhang told me that of course it was meant to be a Catholic priest, but it’s not allowed because I’m Malay and a Muslim. So it would be a scandal, even if it is only acting!
To summarise, in Malaysia and Indonesia there’s a diverse range of people, but that diversity is being lost with Islam becoming more dominant.
I always prefer things to be open, and then layer on meanings. Even in the beginning of my film Bunohan, with the image of a torn screen, it’s shot in full frame. Which screen is torn? Is it the cinema screen or the shadow puppet screen? In Malaysia, we are always fighting over whose is the dominant story among the different races. Sometimes you have to fight for your stories.
You have been making coproductions with Indonesia. Does the message for Malaysian audiences get watered down?
[My producer and I] always want to include Indonesian characters. In Bunohan, we had an Indonesian editor behind the scenes. But, yes, we always want to [integrate]. In terms of what’s in the story, it’s difficult. Malaysia does but doesn’t have the same language as Indonesia. It doesn’t translate. It’s culturally very different.
It won’t stop us, because you just think of the story and just do it. Hopefully, I’ll shoot my next film in Manila, in an area where people are so poor that they live in graveyards. They throw out the dead and convert the tombs to houses! The film is about cloning. I first thought about it five years ago. I hope to take a white actor that is dead but clone him and make him a character in the film! To add more to the race [mash-up]! But it’s difficult. Steven Spielberg has already bought the copyright of all [famous] dead actors!
Tell me more about the project
I’m not sure I can tell you this but I think it is okay. For the next project, I will make a film based on Robohnya Surau Kami. This project has been going around for 3 to 4 years. However, it got delayed because my partner and investor passed away so we must postpone the production. It is back on track now. I think the message in the novel still relevant up until now. We don’t put much concern on the religion but more on the faith, humanity and how it applied in the society.
Already have names on who playing who?
No, not yet. It still on the writing phase. But it certainly will features more Indonesian actor. There would be like two or three Malaysian actor.