Vulnerable and Exposed: Saw Teong Hin on the Travails of Filmmaking

By Lim Wan Phing

May 2024 FEATURE
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WHEN SAW TEONG HIN started his filmmaking career in KL, he began at the bottom rung. But to even get a foot in, he had to leaf through the Yellow Pages from A to Z. Thankfully, he got his break at O – at an advertising agency named Ogilvy & Mather.

This was the mid-1980s, when telephone calls led him to face-to-face meetings and to a production assistant job not at the agency but elsewhere. Throughout the nineties and noughties, Saw’s work ethic and willingness to try new things would take him from producing to directing to scriptwriting, and eventually to setting up his own company, Real Films.

He put Malaysia on the map with box-office success Puteri Gunung Ledang (2004) at the Venice International Film Festival and KRU’s music video Fanatik (1997) at the MTV Video Music Awards in New York. What else is left for the Penang-born director after four decades in the industry?

Pursuit of Happiness

Saw’s journey as a filmmaker will resonate with many. It is sobering to realise there is no shortcut to success and that good old-fashioned hard work and perseverance–coupled with a bit of luck and timing, of course–is what it takes.

Growing up in George Town in the 1960s and living in a pre-war shophouse on Lebuh Victoria, he is the youngest of six siblings. After completing his Upper Six education at St Xavier’s Institution, he went to Singapore but failed at being a scholar. He then left for KL at age 24 to make something of himself. 

“I enjoyed watching movies as a child, but I never thought I’d be in that line of work.” Saw also faced the usual Asian parent dilemma of doctor, lawyer or engineer being the only career options. “Filmmaking is challenging with its ups and downs, but now it’s the only thing I know how to do, and want to do.”

His persistence in his early 20s paid off, and he remembers his time as a production assistant as “good training ground”—making coffee, sweeping floors, carrying lights and learning every aspect of film production. But midway through a busy and lucrative career doing television commercials, Saw hit a point in his mid-30s when he wanted to make films instead. 

“I came to a point where I told myself I had to stop doing these other things and actually focus on what I like,” he says. So Saw wrote his first script and tried to get it off the ground, attending film festivals, networking and looking for investors–all on his own time and savings. But reality was harsh, and his efforts were unsuccessful.

Thankfully, a call came one day from actress Tiara Jacquelina, who was looking for someone to direct Puteri Gunung Ledang. Saw turned the action-heavy script into a romance, and the result was Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actress wins for the film. 

Saw’s World

It was then that Saw ventured into theatre, alternating between the screen and stage. That was when he appeared at George Town Festival (GTF), staging Emily on Emerald Hill (2010), Silat (2012) and Hai Ki Xin Lor (2014). His last theatre project was a semi-autobiographical play about a mother’s love for a mentally-challenged son, which was adapted into the film You Mean the World to Me (2017), both of which received positive feedback and left audiences in tears.

“This was a story I had to tell,” explains Saw, “from family baggage I had been carrying for so long. I came to a point in my career where I thought, ‘What film would represent me?’ and this was it. It was something I knew from personal experience and it was a way for me to honour and apologise to my mother for having misjudged her love for my brother all these years.”

Saw recalls that audiences at the 2014 play came up to thank him for telling such a personal story. “Back in my day, mental health was not discussed in families, and any kind of disability was attributed to spiritual possession,” he says. “In hindsight, my brother could’ve gotten the appropriate treatment, but we just didn’t talk about it and I ended up resenting him for so long. Everybody is so ashamed of having a mentally-disabled family member, but once you tell your story, you are so relieved. You realise that it’s common in many families, and you’re not the only one.”

As the first Malaysian film to be done entirely in Penang Hokkien, Saw explains that he wrote the script in English and phonetic Hokkien. A self-confessed “banana”, he then worked with translators at the Penang Hokkien Language Association to create a trilingual script in English, Mandarin and Romanised Hokkien for the cast.

“When you make a film, all your vulnerabilities and sensibilities are exposed,” he says, recalling how he was initially so embarrassed by Puteri Gunung Ledang because it was a deeply romantic film and all his soppiness had been exposed on screen. “Once you put your work out there, it is for the public to judge.”

A Legacy of Work for All to Enjoy

It’s been 10 years since his last GTF appearance, and Saw is not done telling stories. He is currently filming a Malay horror movie titled Laknat, and hopes that, as a filmmaker, he can leave a legacy of his craft for the next generation to appreciate. For anyone trying to break into the industry, he only has one word: tenacity. 

“You need mental strength to not give up so easily and to know why you’re doing something,” he says. “It all comes back to intentions. There are so many ways to express yourself, so why film? If you’re in this for the glamour and money, it is best to do something else. You’ll be more famous being an influencer!”

After You Mean the World to Me, Saw says he would not hesitate to film in Penang again. “Penang is so photogenic and picturesque, and it has such a strong personality. One look and you know where you are. Penang will always be special to me as it is where I spent my formative years, and I will always look back on it fondly.”

Lim Wan Phing

is a freelance writer based in Penang. She has a short story collection, Two Figures in a Car published by Penguin SEA.