Edmund Yeo made history in 2017 when he became the first Malaysian to win the prestigious Best Director award at the Tokyo International Film Festival, for his film Aqerat.
After he won the award, he announced that he was already working on his next film, Malu, which will finally have its world premiere at the upcoming 33rd Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) in November. A week later, the film will also hit Japanese cinemas on November 13.
Expectations are obviously high for Yeo’s next film, especially after his award, but he personally does not feel any pressure at all.
“I actually started working on Malu before I won the award – I was doing the post-production of Aqerat when I began shooting Malu!” Yeo said in a recent interview conducted over Whatsapp.
“There was no pressure, as Malu was always meant to be something different I wanted to try after Aqerat, a more intimate and gentler story with an ensemble cast, and with a different type of filmmaking style, ” he explains.
“Although the rest of the Malu shoot happened after my award, my only thought was really just to make it as good a film as I can, and be different from Aqerat so that they won't be compared!”
The movie is about sisters Hong and Lan (played by MayJune Tan and Sherlyn Seo), who are separated after their grandmother kidnaps the former to keep her from their unstable and destructive mother. Twenty years pass and the two are reunited for a day, as strangers, when their mother dies. They try to reconnect through their shared memories but discover they are only that.
Later, Lan disappears before the sun rises, now free from obligation to seek her fortune in Japan. Hong then receives a call a few years later and goes back to Japan to seek out her sister’s ghost.
The inspiration for the story came from a Japanese novel Yeo read a few years ago, titled Grotesque, by Natsuo Kirino. According to him, the broad strokes of Malu's plot came from that book. “However, because we worked in such a spontaneous, freewheeling way, many of the cast members also contributed a bit of themselves into the story!” he said.
“The project was actually initiated by my producer MayJune Tan (one of the lead actresses), whom I've collaborated with many times, ” he adds. “MayJune's a cinephile and ultimately a storyteller, so having spent years being an actress, she has always been interested in producing.
“So, we brainstormed together numerous ideas we could do for a small project, maybe a series of short films or an omnibus. But finally we agreed to just make a feature film instead.”
Production on the film started back in 2017 and the initial plan was to release it in 2019. However, Yeo admits that it was an ‘optimistic deadline’ he gave himself at the time.
“2019 was a deadline I gave myself to finish the film, which do so I won't linger too long with the same project! I was being optimistic and assumed that the film would be ready by then!” he says. “I went through a long post-production process, while my producers and distributors in Japan tried to find the right time for the film's theatrical release.”
Since the movie is set both in Malaysia and in Japan, Yeo also had to travel quite a bit to complete it.
“Logistically, I knew it was going to be a nightmare! The film shoot stretched out to nearly a year, as I had to wait for the different seasons. The months-long wait between shoots was very tough for me!” he recalls.
“I also ended up traveling way more than I expected, as I also had to go to Paris last year to edit the film with my French editor Tina Baz, who edited many Naomi Kawase and Johnnie To films.
He was grateful to get a group of Japanese producers and crew members, along with Japanese stars Masatoshi Nagase and Kiko Mizuhara involved in the film.
“It was fun to see the Malaysian cast interacting with the Japanese cast. It really reinforces my belief that filmmaking transcends national barriers!” he says.
He also hopes that Malaysians will eventually get to watch Malu as well, in one way or the other.
“Although I still believe firmly in the big-screen experience, it might not be possible (to have a theatrical release) because of the pandemic, ” he laments.
“For the safety of Malaysian audiences, we are working on getting Malu onto a streaming platform like Netflix or MUBI by the end of the year, so that more Malaysians who are interested can watch the film.”
Correction: The print version of this story, which appeared in The Star today (October 9) contains errors, in which actress MayJune Tan was mistakenly included in the captions of the photos, which only featured actresses Sheryln Seo and Kiko Mizuhara. The photos should also have been credited to Kuan Pictures in stead of Greenlight Poctures. We apologise for any inconveniences caused by this oversight.