Monday, November 30, 2015

Q&A with River of Exploding Durians' director, scriptwriter and editor Edmund Yeo

Durians hanging safely from a tree -- and in 
little danger of exploding -- in Penang, Malaysia

Some years ago, when I was just a novice blogger, I got to know a young fellow blogger -- and fellow film fan -- who went by the moniker of The Great Swifty on the internet.  While taking in a screening of Days of Turquoise Sky by Malaysian filmmaker Woo Ming Jing at the 2008 Hong Kong International Film Festival, I was startled to see my friend's real name appear in the film credits.  But after I saw it, I figured that it'd be only a matter of time before Edmund Yeo directed his own film.

After his River of Exploding Durians (2014) was announced in the line-up of this year's Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, Edmund contacted me and invited me to a screening of his debut directorial offering (which he also scripted and edited).  After the screening, I admitted to him that I hadn't liked the film.  Nice guy that he is, Edmund didn't seem to take offence -- and even kindly agreed to do a Q&A about this ambitious dramatic exploration of various malaises affecting young Malaysians and their nation, parts of which I'm hereby sharing in this blog entry:-  

YTSL: What are the exploding durians in River of Exploding Durians meant to signify?

Edmund Yeo: Ourselves. Durians are so important to us Malaysians. They are the king of fruits. They also are like us: thorny on the outside, and needing a bit of time to get used to! And here we are, flowing on a river, to an unknown future, about to explode. 

The Chinese title of the film, Liu Lian Wang Fan, is also a wordplay: originally it was 流连忘返, which means nostalgia, but I changed the first two words into "durians" 榴梿忘返 -- so they literally become durians floating about, forgetting how to return. It's pretty much our current condition. 

YTSL: What did you want to accomplish with this film, and did you think you were successful in doing so?

Edmund Yeo: Most of my works are generally very personal and somewhat autobiographical. I had a story I wanted to tell, there were situations in the country that I wanted to depict, there were feelings and memories built up within me that I wanted to share. Therefore I ended up making this film. 

The longer I was away from my country during my adult life (two and a half years in Australia, another five years in Tokyo), the more I found myself curious about its history, and the normal everyday things that I have missed out while growing up. Therefore I made this film to remember things from, yes, a particular stage of my life. 

There's also our collective memories from the past few years coming into play here. After all, the backstory is loosely based on real-life events (the Lynas rare earth plant controversy). But instead of making this a film with an environmental message, I wanted to examine how these things impact the people, especially those who are at their crossroads of their lives, those who are on the verge of adulthood. 

What was I when I was about to finish secondary school? Apathetic towards politics, interested only in girls, yet finding myself inspired by certain teachers [YTSL's note: like the film's main male character]. In those days, with our education system, our teachers were like gods. The things they did, especially when it's something beyond just teaching something from textbooks, impacted me deeply. 

As for the second part of the question: I'm not so presumptuous to say that I have accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. In the end, once the film is done, I think I have done the best I could with the resources I had. The rest is up to the audiences. As for myself, once the film is out, I try looking forward to the next one, hoping to make a better work.

YTSL: Who is your target audience for the film? On a related note: has it been (allowed to be) screened in Malaysia?

Edmund Yeo: The film has been screened in Malaysia but I made the film knowing that I wouldn't have much of a chance of getting a wide distribution in the country.  Due to its sensitive content, the depiction of the sociopolitical situation in Malaysia, etc., a few local actresses had to turn down the Teacher Lim role, and I ended up turning to Taiwanese actress Zhu Zhi-Ying to play the role instead. 

So no, in its current form, the film is unlikely to have a wide theatrical release. We had a few mini-screenings organized by some nice folks from an environmental organization recently. Nevertheless, we are still figuring out the best way to distribute this film locally. Perhaps a new cut, or perhaps we'll continue touring on campuses.  

YTSL: The Malaysia depicted in the film feels foreign to me (maybe because of age difference and also because of language).  Are there schools in Malaysia where secondary education is conducted in Mandarin (rather than Bahasa Malaysia/Melayu, like I'm more familiar with)?    

Edmund Yeo: Yes, there are schools like Chong Hwa Independent High School (and other Chinese schools) which are not part of the national school system. The actress Daphne Low was actually from Chong Hwa, along with a few of the student extras. 

I can understand why it seemed foreign to you. I guess that's also one of the interesting things (for me anyway) about making this film. I found myself rediscovering the country. I had a Thai cameraman (Kong Pahurak) and sound recordist, so they brought in a fresh perspective when they were shooting with us.

We worked in a very organic, improvised manner; there were many happy accidents (I like to keep my shoots loose and raw instead of being too controlled), many discoveries. For example, I visited Cameron Highlands for the first time. Also, we found out about the 140-year-old parade that appears at the end of the film from a cast member, and deliberately made adjustments so we could shoot during that particular day. In many ways, I realized how foreign Malaysia had been to me too!

YTSL: Where did you shoot your film and what was your reason for picking the particular locations that you did?  (By the way, for the first couple of scenes near the water, I was mesmerized by how choppy the sea was!)

Edmund Yeo: We traveled to various places in Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya, Johor, Cameron Highlands, the seaside area of Kuala Selangor, the town of Sekinchan, we also went to the waterfalls of Ulu Langat. We shot for 15 days, so it was a pretty insane schedule!

Some places, like Sekinchan and Kuala Selangor, were places I was familiar with because I had done some short films and TV series there. Even two of the films by Woo Ming Jin which I produced, were done in these areas too. I like those places because they're so photogenic. And because we have long established relationships with the locals, they gave us access to their houses, factories and boats, etc. It's great working with them. 

The real-life Lynas event happened in Kuantan and I had considered shooting there too. But at the same time, I think my film is more an artistic representation of the issue instead of a factually accurate documentary. Therefore I didn't want to go to the actual place of the event, I wanted to maintain a certain amount of distance to make this film and tell our story. 

YTSL: Those moments in Asian history that the class presentations were on: are they real and if so, how did you find out about them? (Incidentally, these are the parts of the film that I consider the best.)

Edmund Yeo: Yes, they were real. The film has a lot to do with the suppressed and hidden history of the country, but throughout the time that I was developing the script, I also found out that our neighbouring countries had numerous painful, hidden histories of their own that are mostly forgotten, or rather, external factors prevented these issues from being discussed in the open. The Thammasat Massacre, the death of Liliosa Hilao, and the Karayuki-san.

I cannot remember whether these discoveries were made when I was writing River of Exploding Durians, or some other screenplays before that. Nevertheless, I was haunted by the videos and images I saw of those events and people for the longest time. I wanted to preserve this in my own films, because I think cinema's forever and we remember the world through cinema anyway. So that's probably the least I could do: to create more awareness of these things, to be a bit more conscious of things around us -- history's a cycle, I guess.

As previously mentioned, I worked in a very improvised manner.  While I choreographed the presentations and the camera movements, I really allowed the student actors and actresses to do their own thing. They brought a lot of things into these presentations which were beyond my expectations. I am grateful for that. 

YTSL: Be honest now: on a scale of 1 (worst) to 10 (perfect), how would you rate your film?  

Edmund Yeo: Usually I would give myself a 1! But that would diminish the efforts of the rest of the team. 

I put a lot of sweat and blood into my films, and up until its world premiere [at the 2014 Tokyo Film Festival], there was pretty much nothing else in life that would mean more to me than completing the film. After I first saw it on the big screen during the world premiere, I found myself crying (although I was pretending to just wipe sweat off my face 'cos, you know, my actors were sitting next to me)! The crying had nothing to do with the film itself, but more because I was relieved it was finally done and I could move on. It was quite an intense journey that we had taken to get there. 

The film itself, I feel oddly detached towards. I have not seen it in its entirety on the big screen since the world premiere last year. Maybe I got tired of it because I edited it myself too! (laughs) I think once the film is done, it's really out of my hands. However it's received by viewers is up to them. I'm just gonna respect their opinions. I know quite well that with its methodical pacing and unconventional structure, and the uncompromising subject matter, it's not going to be everyone's cup of tea. Just like my previous short films.

River of Exploding Durians will always mean something to me because it's my first feature film. After so many years of doing short films and producing feature films by other directors, the feeling of making my first feature is pretty different. I always loved the journey more than the destination itself. The process, for me, was a thorough joy. Now I just want to make my next film and hope it's better. (smiles) 

YTSL: What's next on the horizon for you?

Edmund Yeo: For the past year I was working on a documentary about the 1949 Malayan Thomas Cup team. The Thomas Cup is the biannual "World Cup" of badminton.  Its first edition was held in 1949. A ragtag Malayan team took a one-month boat journey to the United Kingdom to play, and ended up winning the whole thing!

I'm now in Tokyo, preparing for a Japanese short film starring the actress Fujii Mina and the actor Yuki Kubota. It's a love story of perpetual missed chances. I'm shooting that next week, hopefully it'll be fun.

I'm also helping to produce my partner Woo Ming Jin's next film projects. (We both run a production company called Greenlight Pictures, and had been working together since 2007).
I've also been writing the follow up to River of Exploding Durians. It's a story that spans a century, following four generations of a family. I think it'll be set in Japan and Malaysia. Some characters from River of Exploding Durians will appear in it, because we have different stories to tell during different stages of our lives. (smiles once more)


A big thank you to Edmund for answering my questions in such a detailed and interesting way.  I wish him the best in his filmmaking career -- and do hope that I will like his next feature film, and the ones after that. :)


Edmund Yeo said...

Thanks for the great questions :)

YTSL said...

Hi Edmund --

I hope you enjoyed answering the questions as much as I enjoyed getting your answers! :)

More than BTW, apologies for the formatting problems earlier with this post: they've now been solved (I think and hope)!