THE MEANDERING RIVER to the left of the sprawling countryside in the painting of actress Umie Aida references Leonardo da Vinci’s world-famous portrait, the Mona Lisa. Umie is shown with an unnerving scowl instead of the enigmatic smile of Mona Lisa, the luminescence of her (Umie’s) crimson blouse a contrast to the sinister tawny tones of the backdrop landscape. On the fourth finger of her left hand is a diamond ring, indicating her marital status.
Umie’s character, Diana, in the controversial movie, Dukun (witch-doctor), is honed after singer-turned-bomoh Mona Fandey, who was convicted in 1993 with two accomplices of murder in which the victim was cut up into 16 parts! (They were executed by hanging in 2001). Dukun, completed in 2006, was only released in 2018 after 12 years!
The movie poster for Ice Kacang Puppy Love.
The portrait of Umie Aida was painted by Phuan Thai Meng in a rare case of painter involvement in the local movie industry.
In others, Kow Leong Kiang was assigned to draw portraits of the female lead, Lee Sinje, in Ice Kacang Puppy Love (2010); Chang Fee Ming was inspired to do an eponymous tapestry on the sidelines of Tsai Mingliang’s Visage, filmed inside the Louvre Museum in Paris; Yee I-Lann was tasked to help in production props in the Hollywood movies, Entrapment (1999) and Anna and The King (1999); and Hoo Kiew Hang was once involved with Walt Disney Imagineering in Shanghai.
That’s about it.
But in Hollywood, biopics of artists are prevalent. Like Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life and Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate (2018). Or where paintings are animated in snippet scenes like in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (Edward Hopper’s House By The Railroad) and Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus).
China’s Tang Dynasty painter Wu Daozi is immortalised in The Painter, starring Wu Ma; and prostitute-turned-artist / art academician Pan Yu-liang (1899-1977) is dramatised in a television serial as well as in Huang Shuqin’s A Soul Haunted By Painting (1994), with the effervescent Gong Li in the lead role.
Kow Leong Kiang’s oil portrait of Lee Sinje in Ah Niu’s rom-com, Ice Kacang Puppy Love.
A major film celebrating Japan’s great ukiyo-e artist, Hokusai (Katsushika, 1760-1849), (http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=HGk-mfh51gl), with Yuya Yagira / Min Tanaka in the title role, has its release pushed from May 2020 to 2021 because of the Coronavirus pandemic. Controversial Indian artist M.F. Husain (1915-2011), who died a Qatar citizen, was also a filmmaker but not about art or artists.
Singapore pioneer artist Georgette Chen was celebrated in Georgette: The Musical, a 2007 stage play, and in a three-part docudrama (April 2015) with Rui En in the lead role. Another stage musical, Nanyang: The Musical, revolved around five Singapore pioneer artists.
Ice Kacang Puppy Love was actor-singer-songwriter Ah Niu’s (Tan Kheng Seong) directorial debut.
Ah Niu took Kow on board to paint his love interest, Anqi a.k.a. Fighting Fish, played by Asian superstar Lee Sinje. In the film, Ah Niu expressed his secret love for Anqi through portraits of her, surreptitiously painted, and it came to light when his work won 1st Prize in a national competition.
Chang Fee Ming’s painting, The Wolf Totem, from his Visage exhibition.
Kow, who won the coveted Major Prize in the Philip Morris Asean Art Award (1998), is known for the alacrity of his languid lines and pastel hues which accentuate the innocence and fragility of female forms. He agreed to take up the challenge without fees, on condition that whatever he painted on set belonged to him. When the movie became a box-office hit, Ah Niu presented Kow a token stipend, in appreciation.
On set, Kow painted one main portrait of Lee Sinje in oil, besides smaller works in oil, and also a few charcoal drawings. He also painted two watercolours of street scenes in Teronoh, Perak, where the rom-com was set, mainly in the kopitiam where the leading actors grew up.
Chang Fee Ming “photobombs” a screen break during the shooting of Visage in the subterranean Louvre Museum.
The movie also starred Fish Leong, Eric Moo, Gary Chaw and Victor Wong.
But Chang Fee Ming, who spent three weeks observing Tsai Ming-liang up close shooting in his chosen cavernous low-ceiling basement of the Louvre Museum in Paris, took a different trajectory when conceptualising and painting his oeuvre of works when back home in Kuala Terengganu.
There was a surreal parallel in the stream of consciousness approach of Visage, where the protagonist filming in Paris got news of his mother’s death in Taiwan. In a tour de force, Fee Ming craned the camera view to reflect on local socio-political vignettes in his eponymous oeuvre of watercolours that led to a major solo exhibition in Singapore in October 2010.
Tsai’s camera is known for its non-narrative, somnambulist “bubble moment” eternity and a form of deconstructed reality, and Fee Ming extrapolated episodal fragments from the film, even texts, to embellish, dramatise and symbolically allude in his leavened images. Works like Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité; Jump, Frog, Jump; The Victim; and the diptych, Le Totem Du Loup (The Wolf Totem). The foetal-like pose of the corpse of Teoh Beng Hock who fell from a top floor of the office of the investigating anti-corruption team casts a dark shadow in The Victim, while The Wolf Totem telescopes the Mongolian model Altantuya C4 murder on a forest fringe in Malaysia. Fee Ming also added a slew of smaller works, measuring 12.5cm x 17.5cm, to complete the oeuvre.
Chang Fee Ming’s painting, Liberty, from his Visage exhibition.
So in Visage, the film written and directed by Tsai and the art from the southpaw hand of Fee Ming, it became an inadvertent collaboration. You get bifurcating fugues of restlessness and torpor, conditions of being, and the surprise of contrasting ideas, expressions and interpretations.
Visage, commissioned for the Louvre Museum’s collection, was written and directed by Tsai, who is of course the Malaysian-born film auteur who won the Golden Lion for Vive L’ Amour in the Venice Film Festival (1994), the Silver Bear for The River in the Berlin Film Festival (1997), and the FIPRESCI award for The Hole in Cannes (1998). Visage was nominated for the Golden Palm in Cannes in 2009. It stars among others, Laetitia Casta, Fanny Ardant, Jeanne Pierre Leaud, and Tsai’s muse, Lee Kang-Sheng, who has also directed films.
As Fee Ming (b. 1959), one of Asia’s most redoubtable watercolorists, recalled, he met Tsai (b. 1957) in July 2008 during Fee Ming’s epic exhibition, Mekong The Source in KL (It also travelled to Beijing in China and Singapore). Mekong was truly a magnum opus in art and anthropology charting peripheral life from the river’s Tibetan source of Xishuangbanna down to Cuu Long, “the Nine Dragons” delta in Vietnam.
In an email response, Fee Ming said: “In the same year, Ming-liang visited Terengganu for a few days. We had a good time sharing life experiences, and he kindly offered me to visit him in Paris at the end of the year, as the Louvre Museum had invited him to make a film for the museum collection.” And therein, the Visage offshoot.
Photography is deftly incorporated in most of I-Lann’s works in installations, collages and video, and her core training in cinematography (in Australia) gets her expertise sought in films shot in Malaysia. Anna and The King, which starred Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-fat, was shot in Penang, Ipoh and Pulau Langkawi.
As motion pictures are great vehicles in exposing local visual art, hopefully the parameters can be expanded. Spillovers and thread-ins among the various creative disciplines like visual art, dance, music, film and literature will foster cross-pollinations for transformative engagements and positive denouements.
Ooi Kok Chuen, art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary fantasy “movel” (a novel conceived as a mock movie) spun from a local legend.