“Actually, it all came down to the story.” Filmmaker Liew Seng Tat is describing the driving force that compelled him to make his latest feature film, Lelaki Harapan Dunia (Men Who Save the World). “I wanted to make a film about a community.”
Lelaki Harapan Dunia, due to released in Malaysia in a few weeks, is Liew’s second feature film. When I meet the writer-director for an interview, he is in between his travels. Lelaki Harapan Dunia premiered at Locarno Film Festival, and has also been shown at several other prestigious festivals, including Toronto and Busan.
The film, shot in Kuala Kangsar, Perak, is a kampung tale. The premise of Lelaki Harapan Dunia hinges on the ancient Malay tradition of angkat rumah: the act of literally carrying a house from one place to another when the inhabitants want to move without changing their house. The main character, Pak Awang, intends to gift his daughter a house as a wedding gift, but unable to afford a new one, he restores an old abandoned house in the jungle and enlists the help of his fellow neighbours to carry it into the village.
Unbeknownst to the villagers, an illegal immigrant on the run has been hiding in the house. A villager mistakes the squatter to be the mythical folk monster Orang Minyak, and this sets off a series of misunderstandings and false accusations leading to a comedy of errors – complete with some cross-dressing pakciks.
Liew’s debut, Flower in the Pocket, was released 2007 to critical acclaim. But his follow-up is very different. While Flower in the Pocket was a tear-jerker urban drama about two brothers, Lelaki Harapan Dunia is a lampoon comedy on rural life shot in Kuala Kangsar, Perak.
“I tried making it much more accessible than my first film.”
“It was an entirely different direction and a different film from the same person can’t be seen in the same way,” says Liew. “That’s why this time, this film can be released commercially; I tried making it much more accessible than Flower.”
For international audiences, the premise undoubtedly has a quaint novelty. Was this a conscious decision? “I wasn’t actively looking for an exotic theme but it fit together like a jigsaw puzzle: this tradition (of carrying the house) and a community story,” Liew explains. “Tradition is all about people coming together to work on something, like a gotong-royong.”
Like Avatar to James Cameron’s Titanic, Lelaki Harapan Dunia was supposed to be Liew’s debut feature film but he ended up shelving it and making Flower in the Pocket first. Luckily, the critical success of Liew’s debut paved the way to the young director receiving grants from all over the world for Lelaki Harapan Dunia.
Foundations from seven different countries in total pitched in for the film’s funding: Malaysia, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, France and USA. The film, with a total budget of around RM2.5million, was a co-production effort between Everything Films (Malaysia), Volya Films (The Netherlands), Flying Moon Filmproduction (Germany) and Mandra Films (France).
Like most Malaysian filmmakers, Liew credits Yasmin Ahmad as one of his main influencers – “When you see someone like Yasmin Ahmad do it, you really want to do it too,” he says, cheekily adding, “She had a lot of balls la.” Her stories were about being Malaysian, and Liew wanted to make a film that made people feel a sense of unity. But in watching, they may feel uneasy at the same time.
“Tradition can make us come together and do something great but we can also do something bad.”
“There’s no villain, there’s no hero. I play with this tradition as something that can make us come together and do something great but we can also do something bad,” says Liew. “There’s a danger of having this herd mentality too. [The characters] just follow, they don’t question. Like I said, it’s about community, and all these elements are in there.”
Flower in the Pocket was in Chinese. Liew hopes that by writing and directing Lelaki Harapan Dunia in Malay, the audience will be reminded that he is Malaysian first, and the stories he has to tell are wholly Malaysian, rather than something only relatable to the Chinese. “I have the power to do something and I want to see the industry grow,” he says.
Malaysian Chinese cinema has grown exponentially in the past decade, with recent successes such as The Journey bypassing Malay language movies, despite the Malay audience having a bigger share of the market. “Our audience is very segregated,” Liew says. “The Malaysian Chinese audience won’t watch Malay films (and vice versa).”
This segregation divides the film industry into sub-industries, slicing up a small market for local films even further. “But in the long run, I don’t think that’s healthy. If everyone does this… we won’t see this industry grow. It’s a very short term vision,” he adds.
Lelaki Harapan Dunia also reflects on larger Malaysian social issues such as xenophobia and homophobia. Such ‘sensitive’ issues can be made less difficult to confront when cloaked in comedy, Liew explains. “It’s a vessel, a vehicle for me to deliver something.”
Yet the satire walks a fine line. The film itself has been accused of veering into “the territory of racism and homophobia” by some international reviewers. In screenings around the world, some audiences reacted with raucous laugher, others with silence. Liew’s response is that he’s happy to facilitate a conversation with his work. There is nothing worse than making a film “so bad that nobody will want to talk about it, and it’s not worth their time”, he ruminates.
He feels the process of making Lelaki Harapan Dunia has definitely changed him. “I’m not so naïve anymore. What we learn is practical stuff, we learn by doing, by practice. For Lelaki Harapan Dunia, there was a challenge to apply a bigger story, a bigger budget. Everything is bigger; it was a leap.”
While the film has travelled around the world, it’s fair to say that Liew is most excited to see it screened in cinemas here at home, where the story means the most. Making the film was a leap, but one that’s taken six years from script to cinema release. He’s waited patiently for the right time to tell this story and the time is now. “As it is with life, timing is everything,” he says.
Lelaki Harapan Dunia will be released Malaysian cinemas on 27 November. For the latest updates, go to www.facebook.com/lelakiharapandunia