Making movies of the people, by the people and for the people

loading Christopher Doyle and Jenny Suen.

With the great changes happening in electronic applications and networks, most things are, by definition, going through a transition. This is true for the film industry as well, not least in how movies are funded: it is currently still using the conventional studio financing method.

But over the next decade or two, we should see more adventurous film funding ways becoming mainstream. Crowdfunding, for one, is a method that’s been picking up speed lately, with films like Rob Thomas’s Veronica Mars and Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here being produced through global crowdfunding platform Kickstarter.

And the latest to employ this rather novel way of making movies is none other than renowned cinematographer Christopher Doyle, of Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love and 2046 fame. Together with artist and upcoming director Jenny Suen, they are reaching out to the public to help fund their project, Hong Kong Trilogy: Preschooled Preoccupied Preposterous – a three-part film which is a reflection of the people and culture of Hong Kong in today’s turbulent times. We all still remember the city’s recent Umbrella Movement, a pro-democracy political movement that faced a harsh crackdown from the government.

The film encompasses three generations of Hong Kong: children (Preschooled), the young (Preoccupied) and the old (Preposterous). We speak to Doyle and Suen about the project, among other things, and why Malaysians might do well to pay attention.

Can you tell me what Preschooled Preoccupied Preposterous is about, and what it means to you?

Jenny Suen: It’s really an assertion of our city at this time. We’ve made it in a very specific way in that we didn’t write a script; we interviewed real people in Hong Kong and through that we got ideas for stories. The things that they said to us became the voiceovers in the film. Through that process, we tried to capture something that’s true to the city today.

Without a script, what was the creative process like?

Suen: We picked certain people – sometimes off the streets, sometimes through casting, sometimes they’re our friends – and I just talked to them about their lives. We didn’t go in with any preconceived idea of what we might get. At first we had a list of interview questions, but I quickly threw them out the window – for what we were doing, we wanted to get something that was unexpected.

Christopher Doyle: The questioning process constructs the ideas that we want to address. Then we try to see how to fill that in visually. We get the kids to take us to a certain space that we’ve never been because we’re not kids anymore, and the older people to take you to a certain space you’ve never been because you’re not old, and we try to use whatever experience or what they’ve said to make some visual kind of mirror or space that incorporates what they’ve told us about their feelings about life. They created the film. We just filled in the colours.

Is it also about encapsulating a tumultuous era in Hong Kong right now?

Suen: We started making this film a year ago, and we’ve been working on it here and there since. No one in Hong Kong could have imagined that (the protests) would’ve happened. We had to address it.

Doyle: I think there are two things: firstly, this is the way in which the film grew. Secondly, as filmmakers, as people who care about a place or ideas or communication, this is one of the most important things that many of us would have experienced. It’s interesting that there will be this echoing of different things because each generation would have experienced their city and their own lives differently, and there are certain experiences that are unexpectedly quite similar.

Do you think film can change the socio-political scene of a place? For example, in Malaysia, we had a similar protest for fairer elections three years ago, and perhaps a lot of local filmmakers would do well to pay attention to this project.

Doyle: Number one: you have to dare. If you really believe in something, you have to do it. Number two is, have you ever heard of Crocodile Dundee?


Doyle: Crocodile Dundee was one of the first super hits of Australian films in the US, like Mad Max. The Prime Minister of Australia at that time went to the US and said, “These two films are doing more for my country than any politics can.” That’s what’s happening in Korea at the moment. The Korean government is extremely smart – they’re putting their money into what they call cultural (products). I mean, K-pop is not so cultural, but it is an expression of the energy of these people at this time.

These forms are much more effective than hard politics. Many other cultures have tried to support creative endeavours in different ways. At the moment, the most astonishing one is Korea – they’ve really gotten it right. The influence of Korea on the rest of the world, not just Asia, is astonishing. It’s real engagement because they have things that they want to share with people.

The thing is, for anyone in any democratic country, if you find your own voice and if you express it in ways that people feel comfortable with, I think it will grow.

Suen: All I want is for the story to inspire people to be able to say what they want. One of the issues that is very important to what’s going on in Hong Kong right now is that young people don’t feel like they have a say in their future.

Doyle: Not just in Hong Kong, but everywhere.

Suen: When I was growing up, I never really felt like there was a place where I could be myself, and in the last few years I realised that you have to build it yourself because nobody is going to give it to you.

Doyle: Until you see yourself in your own art, you’ll feel a bit lost. We both come from countries that used to be part of the British Empire. Now, with independence – actually Australia’s still not really independent (laughs) – you need a voice, and that’s what it’s always about. You have it through your football team. In Australia you have it through beer. You have an identity through something that’s tangible. That’s what art can do – anything that responds and reflects and helps people give themselves a sense of identity, which is about pride. If you can see a Malaysian film in a megaplex, it’s better than seeing another remake of Spider-Man or something. A Malayman! We should do a Malayman! (Laughs)

"Preschooled is not really pre-school because (the kids) have all these ideas about things."

On the set of Preschooled Preoccupied Preposterous.

(At this point I am hesitant to tell him about Cicakman.)

Once you have a Malayman franchise then people would have a much stronger sense of themselves. All we can do is to reflect that; we’re not going to change the world, but at least we can sort of celebrate what we think is beautiful in where we are. If it works, it gives people confidence.

Is crowdfunding a good way to do this, and does it mark a move away from conventionally funded films in the future?

Suen: I think it depends. There’s only so many times Chris can go on Kickstarter and say, “Give me money for this.”

Doyle: The other system has failed. You can’t go running around the world for three years trying to get prizes from film festivals. Even the film that won the Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival last year, Black Coal, Thin Ice, only made enough to pay for the trips of the people to go to Berlin, and that was the biggest selling Chinese film internationally! They spend all this money, energy and promotion in a traditional way and it’s falling apart all over the world. It doesn’t work anymore.

Like any business, you have to think of the economics of your art. Certain things have to have some relationship with economic realities. Even this film, which is not expensive, takes a lot of energy from the people and a little bit of money, so how do you work that out? That’s what we should be talking to the kids about: do your film with your friends over a year for no money, or find some way to get the money and do it. The other system – waiting for people, waiting for the government to give you money, waiting for film festivals to say you’re the greatest Malaysian filmmaker in the world – it doesn’t work.

Support has been overwhelming for your project though. Within a week, you raised US$80,000.

Suen: We’re really happy with the results so far.

Doyle: Now we have to make a good film… uh-oh (laughs).

You have to be responsible to the people who, for some reason, have this trust. If we don’t expect that much of ourselves, I think it would be deceitful to ask for other people’s support.

I understand Preschooled, which is about children, and Preoccupied, which is about the young and focuses on the Occupy Central movement in 2014, but why Preposterous? Is it because older people, i.e. people in power, get to do things and get away with them?

Doyle: (Points to himself) I’m older people (laughs).

You can interpret as you wish. Maybe you’re right – maybe it’s ridiculous that these people are taking over our lives. Maybe they take themselves too seriously, or maybe to them, everything is preposterous. I think it’s all those meanings. Life is preposterous, but we’ve got to get on with it. Maybe the way we think about things is preposterous, so listen to the kids. Preschooled is not really pre-school because (the kids) have all these ideas about things, Preoccupied is about (young people) thinking about things because maybe they don’t mind too much. There’s a space for you to interpret as you wish, which I think any good film should do.

At what stage is Preschooled Preoccupied Preposterous right now?

Suen: We’re shooting here and there. We’ve been shooting at Occupy and we’re raising money.

Doyle: What do you mean? We’re halfway through. We’re shooting two days from now, and we’re done in 10 days. That’s it.

Suen: We won’t be done in 10 days.

Doyle: Yes we will. I will be done in 10 days. And then I will jump out the window (laughs).

No, it’s in a very solid state. It came from the people themselves – they gave us these ideas which took us a certain way, which to me became very coherent; we found the spaces which were related to them in some way and it falls together.

The sense of being part of a team and having a focus which comes from all these people building it together – that’s the special thing about this particular film for us. None of them are actors. Actually, the best actor is the guy who collects trash! He’s so great because he’s just who he is. You create a situation where everybody is just who they are, you make a film which is just what it is. It could be a comedy, social satire or a thriller. It could be this kind of film which is halfway between documentary and fiction. As long as it’s true, then people will embrace it.

Scenes from Preschooled Preoccupied Preposterous.

Chris, you’ve worked in various places in South-East Asia. What do you think of the state of cinema here?

Doyle: On the way up. I think the difference between Asia and the rest of the world is it’s a young people’s world, and in terms of expression, energy, participants and the people who are making the films, it’s much younger – at least 10-20 years younger than the rest of the world. The ideas and energy and the way things will evolve will be much more dynamic, focused and eclectic. There is much more potential.

The whole point is communication: sharing a space together, the ideas will flow more quickly, you have a sense of community and you’ll feel more confident. In Penang I’m seeing a little bit (of that), and in my recent relationship with Singaporean and Malaysian filmmakers I see that everyone’s taking care of each other, which is the only way to do it. Don’t wait for the government, don’t wait for Hollywood to recognise you, don’t think that there’s really a Chinese dream. It’s your dream.

You’ll be involved in the Penang film, Hai Ki Xin Lor, with local director Saw Teong Hin. What drew you to the project?

Doyle: He gave me a really good room in a really good hotel – that was it. I can’t do the promotion unless they sponsor our Kickstarter programme (cackles).

I think it’s always about people. You get together, you feel some energy, and you see what happens. In my experience, film has always been through friendship. Every film is a marriage.

It won’t be your first time in Penang either; you presented a master class at Roughcut back in 2013, and apart from film projects, you’re also the judge for this year’s Tropfest South East Asia. What inspired you to become involved?

Doyle: People. I’ve been in Penang for various reasons over the years, even as a sailor 40 years ago. Sometimes, some places have a connection with you. Certainly, the strong sense of community there and the interesting struggle to balance between economic progress and strong cultural identity are very prominent.

Visually, you can even smell the colours. Walking down the streets, I immediately… it happens to me in different places. Hong Kong of course, and Belfast. The space suggested the film to me, which is very encouraging. It starts to connect, and the structure of this film started to appear to me because the spaces are so accessible in terms of what I see and what they are – it’s very close. When I was there just before Christmas, I could feel the film; the culture, the integrity of the architecture, the way in which people interact with each other – or sometimes don’t – all that starts to piece together.

What are your hopes for Hong Kong cinema in the future? Because right now it seems a little bit slow…

Doyle: We’ve done four or five films in the last year. Don’t worry, wait, wait.

Suen: We’ll be back.

To pledge your support for Preschooled Preoccupied Preposterous, go to

Julia "Bubba" Tan is assistant editor for Penang Monthly. She must have seen Chungking Express a few hundred times.

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