Challenge Yourself, Challenge Your Cinematic Heroes: Award-winning Filmmaker Edmund Yeo on Honouring Legacies, Emotional Authenticity andCreative Inspiration.

Edmund Yeo is a Malaysian filmmaker. His short films, Kingyo and Inhalationhave racked up impressive accolades at international festivals and in 2014, Yeo’s feature debut River of Exploding Durians made its world premiere at Tokyo International Film Festival and was nominated for Main Competition. Last year, for his work Aqerat, Yeo was the first Malaysian filmmaker to win Best Director at the Tokyo International Film Festival.His films often deal with exploring the nuances of human nature, and incorporates real-life events with enigmatic, dream-like sequences.

Speaking with Filmwallas, Yeo shared with us his preparation for last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) andhis creative process behind Aqerat andRiver of Explodinf Durians.

Hi Edmund, congratulations on your win for Best Director at the TIFF. Two of your films, Aqeratand Yasmin-sanwere screened at TIFF this year. Is Yasmin-san your first debut documentary?

Yes, in the last 2-3 years after I finished my debut feature River of Exploding Durians, I had been experimenting with documentaries. I have done a few documentary shorts, some for Channel News Asia, one about a pre-Independence Malayan badminton team which won the inaugural Thomas Cup in 1949. One of the team members is still alive and is turning 100 this year.

Yasmin-san was a project I stumbled upon by accident. While producing Isao Yukisada’s short film Pigeon, which starred Yasmin Ahmad’s muse Sharifah Amani, I noticed a series of coincidences that I couldn’t turn away from. And what started out as a “making-of” video became a documentary about Yasmin Ahmad’s legacy and influence.

Yeo’s first feature, River of Exploding Durians, is about high school students and their history teacher protesting the construction of a radioactive plant.

How is the journey of making a documentary different from making creative shorts and feature films?

I find documentaries much harder to make because sometimes we are unable to shoot more takes, and there is a lot of research involved. The materials we shoot are usually a lot more compared to features, hence the editing process too, is a challenge. During the making a documentary, I constantly ask myself, how I can summarize hour-long materials to a few minutes and how to maintain a distance from the subject. These are few of the many things questions in my mind when making a documentary.

You’re no novice when it comes to screening your work, both short and feature length films at film festivals. What is usually the hardest part of the preparation leading up to these festivals?

One must know that film festivals aren’t all about being glamorous and walking the red carpet. Aside from preparing materials like posters, trailers, filling up forms, there’s also the delicate manner of planning press conferences and post Q and A sessions, figuring out how many complimentary tickets we need for each screening and who to give the tickets to avoid hurt feelings.

The few weeks leading up to Tokyo Film Festival was exceptionally difficult, because we were preparing for two films, and I was in the midst of shooting a new film.

Also, sometimes we have to think of what to say about our films, just so we won’t misrepresent it. Aqerat, for example, dealt with a serious subject matter that is still happening, we wouldn’t want to do or say anything that could undermine the seriousness of the situation. Yasmin-san was a documentary about the much-beloved Yasmin Ahmad, how can I, a person who never had the chance to meet Yasmin in real life, talk about Yasmin in a way that does not dishonour her memory? These were points I considered.

Aqerat,is a beautiful film that explores the interweaving of time, along with almost dream-like sequences that merge dream and reality. What drives your penchant for such thematic devices?

I think it comes from the personal nature of my own films. Being a daydreamer and one who is constantly sifting through memories of the past for ideas, I find myself using cinematic language to replicate my mind, where the boundaries between dreams and reality, past and present, are a little less apparent. Somehow this is something that I have been exploring, from my early short films to my current feature films. Thanks for noticing that.

A scene from Aqerat, where Hui Ling and Wei hid and made plans for their future.

The journey of the main character Hui Lingin Aqerat, draws parallels with the plight of Rohingya victims, reflecting how the humanistic struggle for a better situation is often mired with a sense of overwhelming isolation, uncertainty and helplessness. Did you draw inspiration from any other true events for this film?

I drew inspiration from those around me, and from personal experiences. Hui Ling contained autobiographical elements from me and actress Daphne Low.

Most of my adult life was spent outside the country, because growing up, I have been conditioned to believe that a better life –a better education, a better career, etc.–is attainable only overseas. Yet in this constant chase, I find myself suffering from a perpetual sense of displacement. Where do I belong? In a country where I grew up in, yet constantly being reminded by previous generations and racist politicians that we do not “belong”? In the foreign countries that I lurk about? Where I try to assimilate within a culture that I am less familiar with? Languages that I can barely understand?

Hui Ling was going to Taiwan because actress Daphne Low had moved to Taiwan two years ago to further her acting career. She too, while being overseas, felt a loneliness that she had never experienced before. We combined our experiences and feelings for the character Hui Ling.

Aqeratfollows stoic Hui Ling (played by Daphne Low) entangled in human trafficking and making complex moral choices.

During the creative process of making a film, have you ever had to reconcile the difference between what you envisioned and desired with what you achieved?

I generally work in a very improvisational, instinctive manner, I don’t really do storyboards, so I feel more excited seeing how my collaborators can improve upon what I have written. If it doesn't work, I will step in an intervene, otherwise I rather give everyone space to perform their best. As a director I’m supposed to direct their creativities, not limit them to just my vision.

Many of your stories often feature humanly flawed characters, such as Hui Ling in Aqerat and Teacher Lim in River of Exploding Durians, blurring the line between what is morally right and what is best for them. What is your creative process when it comes to creating such characters and navigating their flaws?

Hui Ling and Teacher Lim, coincidentally, are the characters that are closest to me. All along most of my films are driven by female protagonists, mostly because I was afraid that I would project too much of myself upon a male protagonist. An idealized version of myself, onscreen, that would have been awful. But by changing the genders of these characters that are closest to my heart, I find myself given a bigger space to work with them. Teacher Lim was originally written as a male character, until the later drafts of the script, where I realized that changing her to a woman made it easier for me to write and develop. I became less self-conscious, less cautious, I do prefer the distance.

Teacher Lim and student Hui Ling have their resolve tested.

What advice would you give to filmmakers about to make their first short or feature length film?

At the risk of sounding like a sports slogan, I would say, “just do it”. I feel that one should never think too much about film festivals, or chasing awards, or fulfilling the tastes of the market. Worries like that will diminish the emotional authenticity of the work, and that’s sad, because why would you want to compromise yourself in such a manner when doing your first film?

Just aim to make the best film you can make, challenge yourself, challenge your cinematic heroes, ignore other noises, make something that had never existed before, something uniquely yours. As my mentor Woo Ming Jin used to tell me: “As long as you have made a great film, good things will happen.” Just focus on your job first!