Malaysia-born, US-based Ng Jing Ai is barely out of film school and she’s already making waves as a director.
After graduating from the American Film Institute Conservatory (AFI) in 2019, the up-and-coming filmmaker was named Best Asian American Director within the same year for her work in the short film, Fleck, at the Directors Guild Of America (DGA) Student Film Award.
The award honours outstanding minority and women film students in film schools.
Then this year, Fleck got shortlisted for Best Short Film at the Cannes Lions Young Director Award.
“I definitely feel lucky just coming out of school and getting recognition for my film, Fleck, and I’ve been able to keep working on various projects, ” the 26-year-old reflects on finding success so early in her career in an email interview with StarLifestyle.
Having said that, her journey hasn’t always been smooth-sailing either, revealing she has experienced her fair share of rejections too.
“In film, rejection is part of the trajectory. Learning how to accept and grow from rejection is actually something being a director has taught me. It doesn’t get easier, just more manageable, ” she says.
Ng, who started to seriously pursue filmmaking only four years ago, says she didn’t imagine a career in film initially.
“I’ve always wanted to be a storyteller but didn’t know which path to take. I thought I would write novels for a really long time but I naturally gravitated to film over time since I’m a visual thinker, ” she shares.
Ng says her time at AFI was instrumental in helping her learn the ropes as a director, describing the programme as “structured like a mini Hollywood studio”.
“There were only 25 directors in my year, and I was among the youngest – some classmates were older than me by a decade and had a lot more experience than me.
“Just being surrounded by them and the wonderful faculty (most of whom are working directors), I learned a lot about directing in a very short period of time.”
Fleck revolves around Asian-American teenage girl Jamie’s experience in a boarding school.
Ng, who also attended boarding school, says the film is her “most personal” one yet but it’s not an autobiography.
“It’s a film that came from me reflecting on my experiences at boarding school and finding a way to dramatise them.”
She also talks about deliberately depicting life in a boarding school from the point of view of a female protagonist.
“We’ve all seen films about boys at a boarding school – Dead Poets Society, Scent Of A Woman, School Ties. The boys in these stories struggle with the repression that thrives in these traditional institutions.
“And every single one of the films asks us to choose self-determination. They ask us to question what it means to be a man.
“But what about the girls? What does it mean to be a girl in a school full of these hyper masculine traditions?”
She continues: “I don’t want to see faint sketches of women on screen. What I crave more than anything is the ability to see flawed women, real women, on screen.”
Influenced by Asian cinema
Ng is only getting started when it comes to telling more female stories. She’s currently working on her feature-length film debut, Forge, which centres on two women caught up in the world of art forgery.
“I was reading a lot of books on art forgery, and then there was a line in one of them – ‘There have been no known female art forgers’. At that moment, I knew I needed to write a story about that.
“Forge is completely fictional, and it’s about two female art forgers. It’s a darker take on Thelma And Louise. It’s about art crime but also the fissure of a female friendship under the pressure of wealth and ambition.”
Ng, who lived in Kuala Lumpur until she was 14, says growing up watching the hodge-podge of entertainment options available in Malaysia helped shape her as a filmmaker.
“Most of my family still live in KL. I am very tied to Malaysia culturally and I would say I am influenced by Asian cinema.
“I grew up watching Star Wars, Bollywood movies, Bond movies, Bong (Joon-ho) movies and Korean soap operas. I watched Hong Kong police shows with my grandma and Sunset Boulevard with my dad, ” she reminisces.
“I read a lot of manga. All these influences, the clash of cultures that makes Malaysia so unique, it has had a big impact on me.
“I always feel out of place wherever I go, but growing up in Malaysia, I’ve learnt that’s not always a bad thing.”
Would Ng be up for making a Malaysian film in the future then?
As it turns out, she’s in the midst of making not one but two films!
“When the pandemic really hit the US hard, I started longing for home and started writing about it.
“I’m writing my first Malaysian feature right now and am almost finished. I wrote a short as well but that’s on hold due to the pandemic.”