Friday, June 12, 2009

Edmund Yeo: Hot young Malaysian filmmaker tackles classic Japanese literature

by Chris MaGee

Asian cinema seems to be exploding with young talented filmmakers in recent years, and not just filmmakers from Japan. One of the newest on the scene is Edmund Yeo. The 25-year-old Malaysian-born and now Tokyo-based independent director and producer has been garnering more and more positive buzz by the day with his short films "Love Suicides" and "Kingyo" based on the stories of Nobel Prize-winning Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972). It takes a lot of courage to tackle one of the most revered figures of Japanese literature, but Yeo takes the challenge on gladly, not only as a way to hone his already impressive filmmaking skills, but also to find his place as a Malaysian filmmaker working and living in Japan.

Yeo was born in Singapore in 1984, but when he was only two his parents, who both worked in the music industry, moved the family back to their native country of Malaysia. While Yeo's mother and father may have had active careers in the world of music entertainment they also harboured a love for film, a love that they shared with their young son. "Going to cinemas was, and still is, something I do with my dad all the time," Yeo explains the morning after "Kingyo" screened for enthusiastic test audiences in Shinjuku. While the kinds of films that Yeo saw growing up don't vary much from what most of his generation saw (Disney cartoons, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Back To The Future), it was how his parents approached the films that set Yeo on the path he's on today. "There was a time when I went to watch "Tremors" with my parents in the cinema when I was really young," Yeo remembers, "I was freaking out. Mom thought the best way to calm me down was to totally deconstruct the illusion of films, like pointing out how some stuff was just props, how they were just acting, how the guy didn't really die, how the monster was just a construct. Perhaps that deconstruction led to the whole discussion about how films were made." Yeo's mother explained that the person in charge of the props, actors and the monster worms in "Tremors" was called a "director". The lightbulb went on for Yeo.

While his parents never discouraged Yeo's cinematic dreams his route to the director's chair hasn't always been a straight one. Before completing a one-year post-graduate course in film production at Perth's Murdoch University Yeo majored in Marketing with a minor in English Literature, but thankfully a job opportunity came up that steered him away from a career in P.R. "After returning from Perth in late 2006 I stumbled upon my first production job as an assistant director for a TV movie. During pre-production, the director, Kannan, introduced me to his friend, and that friend happened to be Woo Ming Jin." 32-year-old Woo is a filmmaking phenome in Malaysia, writing, producing, directing and editing seven films in just five years. After the TV movie Yeo and Woo became friends and this friendship led to an offer that Yeo couldn't refuse, "He asked me whether I was interested in helping him out at the company he'd started, Greenlight Pictures. He had just completed 'The Elephant and the Sea' [which would go on to win the Special Jury Prize at the 2007 Torino International Festival of Young Cinema], and needed someone to hop aboard as associate producer to help with its post-production and local theatrical release." Yeo accepted and his production experience with Woo proved invaluable. "After making student films exclusively in Australia, I needed to reconnect with my country again, and feel around, just to know how things work in Malaysia, the different approach I had to take to make my own films, readjusting to my own culture again, etc."

Yeo didn't have much time to readjust to his homeland though. "Before I got that assistant director's job, I applied for a scholarship offered by the Japanese Embassy that would send me to Japan to further my studies. The entire process went on for an entire year until I got selected." Yeo had to make yet another transition, but Japan wasn't a country that Yeo was wholly unfamiliar with. While studying in Perth one of Yeo's close friends turned him onto the biggest names in Japanese literature, Mishima, Tanizaki, Akutagawa, but one writer really impressed him, "Somehow Yasunari Kawabata's "Palm-of-the-Hand Stories" stood out to me because of their deceiving simplicity, some stories lasting only a page or two, yet I just felt they were screaming for some adaptation." Yeo did just that, bringing his vision of Kawabata's "Love Suicides" and "Canaries" (adapted as "Kingyo" or "Goldfish") to the screen with two short films. "Of course there were some initial concerns that," Yeo laughs, "what I was doing would be sacrilegious to a Nobel laureate."

"Love Suicides" revolves around an absent father/ husband sending letters to his estranged wife demanding that she and their daughter keep quiet because the sounds they make somehow reach him and make his heart ache. "Canaries" also takes the form of a letter, this time from a man to his former mistress about a pair of canaries she gave to him as a gift. The man's wife ended up being the one who cared for them never knowing they were a gift from her husband's lover, and after the man's wife passes away he's left questioning his role in the whole affair. Far from sacrilegious Yeo's films aren't slavish adaptations either. "I wanted to make sure what I did was more capturing an essence, an interpretation instead of a faithful, line by line adaptation." "Love Suicides" was transplanted to Malaysia while "Kingyo" is set in present day Akihabara, the man now a professor and his lover a hostess in a maid café. "Ultimately the short stories serve as a starting point, the rest of the dots are up to myself to connect."

It wasn't just Yeo who ended up connecting the dots on "Kingyo" though. In keeping with the old adage that filmmaking is a collaborative effort Yeo involved his cast and crew in updating Kawabata's story. "I didn't want the film to end up being too 'un-Japanese' solely because I am a foreigner. I knew that I would bring something different to the film, so I needed a balance. My entire crew was Japanese and while I wrote my script in English the translation process, and later the rehearsal process, was a free-for-all session for all my cast and crew members to give creative input, so that I could capture some nuances that I might have overlooked if I had blindly followed my initial script."

As well as whatever updates Yeo and his crew made to the Kawabata's original story he also made a unique technical choice for "Kingyo" inspired by Hans Canosa's 2005 film "Conversations with Other Women": telling almost the entire story in split screen. Shooting most of the film simultaneously with two cameras and then splicing the footage together side by side on screen is an ingenious way of depicting the gulf between the two main characters, but there were times when Yeo worried about how this technique would be received. "I was quite worried that Kingyo would end up being a film that resorted only to a gimmick and on the contrary, during editing I was wondering whether I should eliminate the split screens. I don't want "Kingyo" to be thought of as a 'split screen film' but more like a film about lost love and such that happened to be told in split screen."

While thankfully "Kingyo's" split screen technique has been left intact Yeo is still putting the final touches on the film while keeping his ultimate end goal in mind. "All these short films I've made I consider preparations and practice for whatever feature film I can make soon." Soon might not be immediately though, "I still want to experiment more with what I can do," he explains, "My shorts have just started getting some festival circulation, so perhaps I'm more like testing the waters, seeing how audiences of different cultures and countries would react." If the test screening in Shinjuku is any indication though the reactions should be good. "I was very flattered by the sudden applause during the end credits. Maybe it was the surprise of seeing the name of a foreign director on the credits!"

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