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A degree in engineering from Iowa State University. A love of western movies and William Faulkner novels. A passion for the music of Schubert and Debussy. What kind of Malaysian film-maker is this?
Simple answer: he is Yuhang Ho, fast emerging as the country’s most gifted screen artist. Longer answer: he is a writer-director who has enhanced his Asian birthright, and his insight into social truths and family life in his native country, with influences richly gathered from Europe and the US.
Yuhang’s short film Trespassed persuaded an international jury it was the best submission of more than 100 entries for the Emerging Voices prize. It is a truth-based story in black and white with the power of a dream.
The film is about a mentally troubled young girl obsessed, even “possessed”, by the spirit of a mysteriously missing father. Her caring mother tries desperately to protect her from destruction or self-destruction in a story evolving, hypnotically, towards tragedy.
“It’s a based a little on my sister,” Yuhang says. “She is no longer with us. She was sick for a long time. My mother looked after her until she died.”
Was that a mental or physical illness? “It was both,” he says. The doctor could not say what was wrong. She was born that way and it must have been mental at first. Then it affected her physical abilities.”
Though Yuhang describes Trespassed as a short, a “sketch” rather than a painting, he says that does not make the film less rich or meaningful.
“In short films I can really work on the shadings. I can try to do things that would be more difficult in long films. I would love to work more with black and white, for instance, but it’s difficult to get distributors to accept features that are not in colour.”
Even with colour films, his style is poetically, distinctively sombre. Both his recent full-length films, Rain Dogs and At the End of Daybreak, are tragedy-tinged family dramas.
“Most times, when I start to write a story, I find I’m working on a family relationship. I always seem to come back to that, even when I try to get away.”
Within the family drama framework he is a magical mood mixer, able to imply larger worlds through intimate, even claustrophobic ones.
He has had — he has chosen — good teachers. The film-makers he loves are those who combine mystery with psychological insight, from Hollywood’s Jacques Tourneur (Cat People, Night of the Demon) to France’s Robert Bresson. And though he grew up in Malaysia understanding only basic English — “I never finished a novel in English; I couldn’t even get through The Famous Five” — he fell in love in America with William Faulkner.
“It totally clicked with me. I know people say he’s difficult. But he deals a lot with families in books like The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. I was totally captivated by his world.” (Yuhang even named one of his own short films As I Lay Dying.)
Back home after attending university in the US, Yuhang wanted “to do something in the arts”. Though, growing up, his first love had been music — “I learned the piano and once tried to form a jazz band” — he found work, through a friend, making commercials for Malaysian television and cinema.
Then, “I realised if I was going to shoot my own features and shorts I had to write something.”
The film industry proved unexpectedly welcoming. “It has been easy, in recent years, to get films funded. A lot of money has been pumped in by investors.”
Yuhang’s work does not get wide distribution — “My last film played in maybe three to five screens” — but its budgets do not require it. Trespassed, like most of his films, boasts small costs and frugal production values.
“It’s in black and white, with a very simple plot. It’s a story about a curse. In a way it’s like Night of the Demon [his favourite Tourneur film] crossed with L’Argent [his favourite late Robert Bresson film from 1983, about the curse of a counterfeit money note passing from stranger to stranger]. A single thing is set in motion, then a lot of things happen along the way.”
If you can combine Faulkner, Tourneur and Bresson in one short film — or their influences — and bring it in at minuscule cost to prize-winning calibre, it looks as if you might have a movie career made.
“Made in Malaysia” in the case of Yuhang has come to signify an Asian and world cinema voice no longer emerging but fully emerged.
Shubhashish Bhutiani’s short film, Kush, is based on real-life events. It is set in 1984, and tells the story of a teacher who struggles to protect her 10-year-old Sikh pupil from mobs as they travel home from a field trip, immediately after the assassination of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.
The bodyguards were aggrieved by Gandhi’s order to send the army to storm the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Her assassination led to a wave of anti-Sikh riots across the country that left nearly 3,000 dead and many more displaced.
Bhutiani says his own teacher told him the story of how he protected the Sikh boy. But it was not until 2012, when six people were killed in a shooting by Michael Page, a white supremacist, at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in the US that Bhutiani decided to make his teacher’s story into a film. The work was his graduation project at New York’s School of Visual Arts.
“The story felt unique yet universal. There is communal violence all over the world and this story spoke about a little spot of hope in a tragic situation,” he says. “It was difficult getting funding, but with help of grants, I managed to put the film together.”
Kush was shot over five days at Sanjay Gandhi national park in Mumbai. “I was fortunate to work with a generous cast and crew who believed in the film.”
Bhutiani, then 22, entered the film in the Venice film festival in 2013, where it won the Orizzonti prize for best short film. It was also longlisted for an Academy Award in 2014 for best live action short film.
“None of us expected this recognition. We just set out to make this story that we all felt had something to say,” he says.
Mont Tesprateep’s Endless, Nameless (2014) is the story of a group of Thai army conscripts gardening and carrying out routine chores at the house of a high-ranking officer on a military base. The film is semi-autobiographical, based on the director’s memories of conscripts working in his childhood home for his father, an officer in the Thai army.
“A group would serve us for two years, before another replaced them,” says Mont Tesprateep, 36, who lived at the house in north-east Thailand from the age of nine. “I noticed these privates had a very distinctive character. They were like entertainers. They planted trees and roses. Some sneaked out. I’ve heard many stories about runaway privates being captured and punished.”
In Thailand, all men turning 21 must participate in a military draft lottery. Mont Tesprateep says those from more privileged backgrounds serve in the higher ranks, but he says he is conscious of the difference between his own upbringing and the limited opportunities of the young privates he remembers from childhood.
After graduating in fine art from London’s Chelsea College of Arts in 2011, Mont Tesprateep started making the film in 2013, using hand-processed Super 8 film. “Its rawness is such an unexpected detail,” he says.
Audiences for Endless, Nameless, which was funded by the Bangkok Art & Culture Centre and the Thai ministry of culture, find their own themes, the film-maker says.
“I’ve seen various interpretations, depending on the screening areas. [Audiences] might change their view about Thai culture after watching.”
He hopes the Thai film industry will grow to value critical expression but remains concerned that independent film-makers face censorship.
Han Ting’s extraordinarily affecting film The Sea (2014) is the story of Mr Chen, an ailing elderly man who leaves city life in Beijing to live out his days in a remote town in Sichuan province in south-west China.
While teaching at a primary school he encourages a boy with a talent for drawing. The boy longs to see the sea, and with Mr Chen’s help, he grows up to be a celebrated artist. “[The film] is about love, life and responsibility,” Ting says.
The film-maker 26, made the short after shooting a documentary in 2013 that followed the lives of three elderly people who had no family to support them
“I was shocked by the situation they were confronted with. They were isolated. When I had a chance to make a short, I decided to write a story about a desperate elderly person.”
She filmed The Sea in the town of Daocheng Yading, in the Tibetan autonomous prefecture of Garzê in western China. High in the eastern Hengduan mountains, the remote location posed a significant challenge for the director and her crew. “When we first got there, we found it hard to breathe. Some of my colleagues even needed oxygen. It took some time to get used to.”
Han Ting is cautiously optimistic about the future of the Chinese film industry. “On one hand, we have a big film market — film-makers now have more chances to make films,” she says.
But censorship still concerns her. “For example, policemen cannot be portrayed negatively in films — they must be righteous and noble.
“When I face this kind of problem I have to change the character, otherwise I might not be able to release the film.”