He may only have four films under his belt, but these days, the name of director Chiu Keng Guan has become almost synonymous with good quality Malaysian films, and sure-fire box office hits.
Each of the Johor-born filmmaker’s four films has been a resounding success, with the last two, The Journey and OlaBola ranked among the six top-grossing Malaysian movies of all time.
However, the 45-year-old director says he doesn’t let the pressure of all that success get to him.
“As a director, every film is a reset. This film might make money, but the next one might flop,” he said during an interview at the recent Quake conference, organised by Astro on marketing matters, where he was one of the speakers.
“For me, making a movie is a happy thing. I try not to think about how others will see it. If I get too influenced by that, the happiness I get from filming would be gone.
“So, when I’m making a movie, I forget all of that. I’ll only start to feel more pressure when the movie is done and we have to promote it!” he said with a laugh.
Having garnered an interest in filmmaking at an early age, Chiu studied filmmaking at the Beijing Film Academy, graduating and returning to Malaysia in 1998, when the market for local Chinese movies was virtually non-existent.
“People were still more interested in watching Hong Kong, China and Taiwanese shows, so there were not as many opportunities in film,” he recalled.
Joining Astro in 2007, Chiu honed his craft through filming television shows, music videos and commercials, until 2009, when he felt that the timing was right to make a Malaysian Chinese movie.
Woohoo of joy
A story of a group of men who formed a tiger dance troupe, Chiu’s debut feature film, WooHoo!, was released in 2010.
Chiu said getting the movie made was a challenge at first.
“No one believed it would succeed. Before that, there were one or two local Chinese films, but their box office takings were not so good. So when I wanted to make my film, many people were saying it wouldn’t work,” he said.
“But having worked in Astro and seeing the good response to our TV shows, we felt there was an audience for local Chinese films as well.
“We just hadn’t figured out what audiences wanted yet.”
WooHoo! earned RM4.2mil at the box office, and its success helped Chiu build a base of support and instil a measure of confidence into Malaysian moviegoers towards local films.
The following Chinese New Year, he released Great Day, a touching tearjerker about two old men who run away from their nursing home to look for their children in the city.
“It’s quite a sad movie, and we were wondering who would actually watch a sad movie during Chinese New Year! But I feel that people don’t go to the movies specifically to laugh or to cry. We just want to watch something we can relate to.”
Chiu’s reasoning proved to be true, as Great Day raked in RM6.5mil, comfortably beating WooHoo!’s takings. The movie was also an example of Chiu’ main principle when it comes to making films – don’t repeat what has been done before.
“People were asking me why I didn’t just make WooHoo! 2, because that would be easier! But I wanted to do something different,” he said.
“The challenge I give myself with each film is not to beat the box office record each time, but how I’m going to make it more creative, and content wise, how to break new ground. That’s the pressure I keep giving myself.”
Box office gold
Chiu certainly broke new ground with his next film, The Journey in 2014. According to him, he’d wanted a break after the first two movies, but was drawn into the idea of making a “Nation Movie” that would enable anyone, even those with no filmmaking experience, to be involved in making a movie.
With a heartwarming story about an old man who embarks on a journey around Malaysia to deliver wedding invites with his foreign future son-in-law, the movie not only broke the Malaysian all-time box-office record at the time with a total of RM17.37mil, but also gained widespread acclaim for being a film that could appeal to Malaysians of all ages and races.
This begs the question: while he may have started out making Malaysian Chinese films, has his films transcended that genre to create a whole new “Malaysian film” category, one that isn’t defined by race or language?
Chiu begs to differ, saying that all he is trying to do is tell stories about things he sees all around him.
“When I’m creating my films, I never really try to fit it into any genre. Yes, I started with Chinese movies. But even in those, you could see very Malaysian situations, with people speaking in different languages,” he said.
“Sometimes, after filming, I would realise that it has grown into a more Malaysian movie. But I really don’t set out to do that deliberately. All I’m trying to do is tell the stories that are around me. It just happens that those stories are very Malaysian in nature.”
After The Journey, came 2016’s OlaBola, a sports movie inspired by the Malaysian national football team’s heroics in 1980, when it qualified for the Olympic Games.
While it didn’t out-gross The Journey, it still managed to reap RM16.5mil at the box office, making it the fourth highest grossing film of all-time at the time. It added another feather in the cap at Taiwan’s prestigious Golden Horse Awards, winning the Best Original Film Song award for the Zee Avi-performed theme song, Arena Cahaya.
Scaling things down
After the heady heights of The Journey and OlaBola, Chiu decided to scale things down a little for his next project, a still untitled 2018 Chinese New Year feature.
The film, which recently wrapped its month-long shoot, is about a bright and positive young girl who works as a cartoon mascot at a theme park. However, an unexpected incident forces her to participate in a national weight-losing competition that will be broadcasted online. With the encouragement from her friends, she begins a month-long challenge to lose weight.
The movie stars 2016 Miss Astro Chinese International Serene Lim, newcomer Fabian Loo, Yoong Swen Moon, and Vivienne Oon, among others.
In a press release, Chiu says that after three movies about fathers and a hot-blooded football film, this time around, he wanted to make a movie that revolved around a female lead instead.
According to him, the movie is a result of him wanting to do something smaller and simpler after OlaBola.
“After this, I will be filming an even bigger production than OlaBola!” he said.
“But for now, I just needed a break, to do something smaller and tell a simple story that can move people. Doing that can be fun as well!”