Ghafir Akbar as Adam in Cuak. Photo courtesy of Garang Pictures.

The saying goes that, “two’s company, three’s a crowd.” But how about five? Malaysian production house Garang Indie Pictures will shortly be releasing Cuak – a feature length film with no less than five directors.

Cuak, a “romantic comedy of Malaysian proportions”, centres on the impending marriage of Brenda (Dawn Cheong), a Chinese woman and Adam (Ghafir Akbar), a Malay man. The feature film is comprised of five short films, threaded together. Each film tells a story from the couple’s past, but what is striking is the variation in the films’ tones. They range from camp comedy to noir thriller and romantic drama.

The five directors are up and coming filmmakers Khairil M. Bahar, Lim Benji, Manesh Nesaratnam, Tony Pietra Arjuna and Shamaine Othman. For Interview², Poskod.MY asked two of the directors, Tony and Shamaine, to interview each other on their experiences of making Cuak as well as their wider thoughts on filmmaking.

Tony interviews Shamaine:

Shamaine Othman.

T: How do you compare and contrast directing for the screen and stage? Is there a particular discipline that you maintain between film and theater?

S: Well, when it comes to directing for screen you have to think about how you can tell your story using the language of your camera – with The Couple (my segment of Cuak), the shots were handheld to create this  feeling that the audience was invading the couple’s home. When directing for stage and film, I  pay a lot of attention to the acting. I would make sure my actors know what their characters want in the scene and what actions will they play to get them. Also, rehearsals are very important. Like the old saying goes, “Practice makes perfect!”

As you know, I’ve half-jokingly and half-seriously referred to your segment in Cuak as the Before Sunrise of the film, at least in terms of genre or sensibility. Am I close or completely of the mark? 

Close. I really like Julie Delpy’s work, especially her Two Days franchise rather than the Before franchise. I like looking at relationships and the problems that come with it. Another film that inspired my segment was The Weekend, directed by Andrew Haigh. It was so intimate and so invasive. When I came on board Cuak I knew I wanted to create something with that effect.

How much of your experiences or observations are reflected in the intercultural and interpersonal complications that Adam and Brenda face with their marriage? What do they represent (or what do you have to say) about the Malaysian condition?

Well, a lot. I’m a product of a mixed marriage. My sister-in-law is Chinese. I had an ex-boyfriend who was afraid to take our relationship to the next level because he would have had to convert. So, I’ve had first hand experiences with what The Couple deals with. I’m not really attacking or questioning the way conversion is handled in Malaysia but because I’m a romantic, I am examining the hurdles that cause some of us to make sacrifices such as losing one’s religion or losing one’s true love.

On a broader note: Many people (perhaps more men than women) tend to label any subject that takes a female viewpoint, or addresses women’s issues, as either a “chick flick” or “feminist”. With some of your work in mind, how do you respond to these pigeonholes?

I’m just telling a story, that’s all. I don’t think The Couple takes a female viewpoint, it just gives Brenda a stronger voice compared to the other segments. People always think that if a female director or writer does something, she’s trying to make a point about women’s plight. Some do but there are some who just want to tell a story well. Kathryn Bigelow directed The Hurt Locker and I don’t think it’s a chick flick or a feminist flick. *sticks tongue out*

What other themes or topics do you aim to explore in future films (or plays)? Are there recurring elements in your stories?

For now, I think I’ll stick to exploring dysfunctional relationships till I get tired of them. I may want to approach different themes like religion, family, patriotism, sex, etc. but it will all be explored through familiar dysfunctional relationships. I just want to tell a good story that will move people.

Shamaine interviews Tony:

Tony Pietra Arjuna.

S: If given the opportunity to direct KL Gangster 3, how would you approach it?

T: Haha! I’m possibly blowing my chances of ever getting the gig by saying this, but I would reset it in the 80s, a la classic Miami Vice or Scarface: Convertibles, neon lights and pastel colors, synthesizer music, shoulder pads, etc.

I think a retro reboot would suit the flashiness and OTT style of the first two films. I’m sure the GTA crowd would love it (that seems to be every Gen-X or Gen-Y male, nowadays). Plus, being a Michael Mann fanboy (as you well know), I’d design the movie as a high-concept heist flick like Heat or Thief, with mullets. I’m having a ball just imagining the whole thing in my head.

What is your definition of a Malaysian film?

This is a tough one. As you suggested, there are various definitions. From my point of view though, you only need to meet three simple criteria: It is made in Malaysia, done by Malaysians, featuring Malaysians. I realise that Issues (my segment of Cuak) is more of an American crime or pulp thriller set in a Malaysian milieu, but I believe it still has enough local flavor to qualify for the “made in Malaysia” stamp.

Now I daresay that Cuak overall is possibly a more Malaysian movie than most Malaysian movies these days. Sure, it has an urbane or universal audience in mind, but I think it could potentially speak to all local viewers with its central and relevantly Malaysian dilemma (which your segment directly addresses in an understated yet intimate manner). Plus, Cuak has just about everyone in it: Malay, Chinese, Indian, dan lain-lain. You cannot get more Malaysian than that!

In your segment of Cuak, you paid a lot of attention to music and worked with Nick Davis for an awesome 80s electro score. Most Malaysian films in the cinemas don’t usually have or don’t want to invest with a good score. Why do you think this is the case?

As a recording artist/composer, Nick conceptualizes his sounds in highly cinematic terms. Atmospheric and symphonic, they evoke darkly romantic images of urban nightscapes: A perfect fit for a neo-noir mood piece. To me, the score is such an essential part of film storytelling, that it should be thought about even before the cameras roll. The synergy of sight and sound is crucial in creating the final experience, so I thought musically even during the pre-production stage (I met Nick to discuss and listen to his musical style prior to the shoot).

In fairness, this is an artistically subjective discipline, so it’s not a rule that all films should follow. Having said that, I do notice (and can attest to from some behind-the-scenes experience) a tendency among many local films to take music scores for granted: it seems like people just “slap on” a generic track that drives the visuals or quickly brief the composer during audio post, a few scant weeks before the ultimate deadline.

Maybe the fact that most Malaysian productions are rushed means compromising the scoring process. There’s simply not enough time and money to really achieve more Ennio Morricone-esque masterpieces, though I also suspect an endemic lack of appreciation for the craft of movie music. However, there are plenty of notable exceptions out there.

Which Malaysian composers and/or singers would you like to work with on future film projects?

Nick Davis is a truly talented musician with a visually edgy sensibility, so I will most definitely collaborate with him on a frequent basis. There’s also a local indie band called Stellar Dreams, who are part of a “synthwave” revival scene which has garnered a global web following. I’m eager to use their tunes (which sound like they belong in the Drive soundtrack).

Rabbit (aka Ivan Chan) released an amazing electro-rock album titled Mango Overheat, and he scored some of my early directorial efforts. I’ve improved since then, so my work now would probably do his compositions more justice!

What was the last Malaysian film you watched in the cinema? Did you like it?

I was impressed with Kolumpo (not just because it’s a fellow indie anthology flick), with Bront Palarae’s segment being my personal favorite. Its surreal depiction of the city as a nocturnal no man’s land appeals to me for obvious reasons.

Cuak will be released in selected TGV cinemas on 14 February 2014. Watch the trailer and find out more here.