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Sunday March 25, 2007

From hawker to actor

Kuih seller Norman Atun has not let his role in an international movie get to his head. He remains down to earth and gets on with his business. 

Norman Atun is going places. He has been in Venice, Bangkok and Taipei, and will soon be heading off to France. Not bad for a man who sells assorted kuih at a roadside stall in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur. 

For all intents, Norman is the average man-in-the-street, but his life took a massive turn when he was asked by internationally- acclaimed Taiwan-based Malaysian director Tsai Ming-liang to appear in his movie I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone. 

Business comes first: Norman has no intention of hanging up his wok to pursue a career in acting, which to him is just a part-time job.
The movie is about a homeless man who is beaten up and robbed in the streets of Kuala Lumpur. Norman plays the part of Rawang, a Bangladeshi worker who takes pity on the man and takes him into his home. The movie, which was shot around Kuala Lumpur last year, was initially banned by the Malaysian censorship board, but has just been cleared for local screening, albeit with five cuts made. 

So how does a roadside vendor – who has a basic education and speaks mostly in Bahasa Malaysia – find himself acting in an international movie? 

“It was purely by accident,” Norman relates. 

“I was spotted by Tsai at my stall when he was in the area. He then sent a representative over who informed me of Tsai’s interest, and invited me to meet with the director. 

“To be frank, I had never heard of Tsai Ming-liang before, neither was I familiar with the movie scene, least of all a Chinese film director. In fact, the first thought I had was ‘who is this person?’ 

“Of course, I was sceptical. I was wondering if this was for real and if he was serious about using me as an actor. I went through all sorts of emotions – doubt, surprise, confusion and disbelief – and it took me about a week before I finally met up with him.” 

Norman had no acting experience prior to landing the role, and in the meeting spoke at length with Tsai. 

Celebrity status: Norman (second from left) with (from left) cast member Lee Kang-Sheng, artistic director Peter Sellars and Tsai at the Cinema Palace in Venice last year. — Reuters
“He did tell me there was another candidate, one who had acting experience, but Tsai told me that he was not right for the role while I suited the bill perfectly. He told me what I had to do, but I still do not know exactly why he chose me – you will have to ask him yourself,” he says with a smile. 

Curiosity got the better of Norman, and he was intrigued by what the movie industry was really like. And so he thought there was no harm in trying. In no time, Norman found himself not only acting in a movie but also working under a famous director. The entire shoot took about 20 days. 

“It was easy working with him, even though we spoke different languages. It wasn’t much of a barrier, as someone was there to translate,” Norman says. 

“In terms of the acting itself, my role was easy because there wasn’t much dialogue to memorise. But acting had its own set of challenges. 

“The challenge was understanding what Tsai wanted me to do. For example, he asked for a more natural feel to the acting, as if the scene we were portraying was actually happening to us,” says Norman, who admits that acting naturally in front of the camera was a bit awkward for him. 

“It was also not easy reacting to direction instantly, especially since it had to go through an interpreter. I had to figure out what he wanted on the spot, and if I didn’t get it right, we had to shoot the scene again.” 

Norman’s commitment to the movie did not end with the completion of the shoot, however. He soon discovered there was another aspect to movie making – publicity – and he was asked to be part of team representing the movie at the Venice International Film Festival. 

But Norman took it all in his stride. “I’m not quite sure how significant my role was, but it was important enough for me to be there promoting the film.” Describing further how much of this was new to him, he says. 

“Until I went to Venice, I had never travelled overseas – the furthest I had ever gone was to Borneo. All of a sudden I found myself in Taipei and Bangkok, although it was only in transit.” So does Norman intend to hang up his wok and pursue an acting career? 

“No,” he says. 

“I will continue with my business for a while yet, because I do not think acting is my full-time job. I will take on more acting jobs if the chance arises.” His life will never be quite the same again, and he is discovering what it is like to have some measure of celebrity. 

“People look at me differently. Some actually recognise me, and ask if it is really me. 

“Once, some people working in a nearby office bought kuih from me because they said they wanted to eat food prepared by a movie star!” Despite all that has happened to Norman, he remains down to earth and is reticent to give details about his personal life. 

“I would rather not speak about my personal life, but sometimes I feel like I am split into two people – the actual person that I am and the one who has acted in a movie. I still want to be the same person. It is difficult, but I do what I can. 

“When you enter the film industry, the real becomes fake and the fake becomes real. We have to measure ourselves and not do more than what we are capable of. 

“We have to accept where our limits lie. We want to be the best, but we may not always achieve that. Life really is full of ups and downs.” 

Norman still finds the events over the past year a surreal experience. “It is difficult to believe what has happened to me. 

All I can say is that I am a very, very lucky person.”


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