Chiu Keng Guan tells us his journey towards becoming Malaysia’s most bankable film director.
"My mother is a film star. My father is a film director. And so, I started making films by age eight,” declared Chiu Keng Guan, director of The Journey, and currently the most bankable filmmaker in Malaysia.
Then with a hearty chuckle, he continued cheekily, “I’m just kidding. That’s not my story. It was part of a speech I heard recently. It’s something like Steven Spielberg’s story – he started making movies at a very young age.”
With The Journey recently becoming the all-time top-grossing local film, Chiu has plenty of reasons to laugh. The movie collected RM17.17mil at the Malaysian box office in 56 days, having started screening on Jan 30, and dethroned KL Gangster, which had held the record of RM11.74mil since 2011.
The Journey also closes the chapter on Chiu’s acclaimed family-oriented Lunar New Year Trilogy, which started with 2010’s Woohoo! and was followed by The Great Day in 2011. Chiu’s directorial debut, Woohoo! recorded RM4.2mil in box office takings and became the most successful local Chinese movie at the Malaysian box office at that time.
Great Day made RM6.5mil at the local box office and won him the best director award at Malaysia’s inaugural Golden Wau Awards last October.
Journey to success
In a recent interview, Chiu, 42, revealed that he has loved drawing since he was young, and had hoped to become an artist. But things changed when he had his first taste of the stage in Form Six.
In order to graduate, it was compulsory in his school for all students to participate in the staging of a school play. “Since I was not from the theatre group, I thought I’d just take on a minor part and be done with it. But, I gradually found it quite fun and contributed a lot of my ideas and even ended up becoming part of the main cast,” he recalled.
“Then I got involved in the scripting, and sort of became the director. Breaking away from convention, we had people jumping off the stage and others emerging from behind the audience,” beamed the unassuming chap, adding that the play was staged successfully, and was well-received by students and teachers, who raved about his very creative out-of-the-box presentation.
Combining his childhood love for art and and his new-found passion for storytelling, Chiu initially went on to study graphic design and figured he would go on to film television commercials. But the course curriculum did not fulfil his needs, so he switched to fine art and focused on producing ceramics and sculptures instead.
While making horse and cow sculptures using cement at Sunway Lagoon, Chiu encountered another life-changing event.
“When the loose cement bits fell from the sculptures onto the newspapers, I spied an ad seeking an editor for HVD. I immediately applied for the job and started by doing QA (quality assurance), where I sat and watched movies and tried to spot scratches on the film.”
To learn faster, Chiu used to skip lunch in order to take his turn on the editing console. “I was also lucky to have met some very generous seniors, who offered me tips. I quickly became an editor, and soon realised that filmmaking was my calling, and that I would have to attend film school,” said Chiu, who was in his early twenties then.
He then began to build up his library by collecting books and equipment so that he could teach himself about film. Eventually though, he realised that it wasn’t enough to study at home, so he enrolled into the Beijing Film Academy, which boasts famous alumni like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige.
“Film school was the most enjoyable time of my life. I was learning so much, I just couldn’t wait to go to classes everyday,” gushed Chiu, who dabbled in all sorts of productions after he graduated. He did TV dramas, commercials, corporate videos, and also worked as an assistant director and cameraman. He was also part of the pioneering group that helped set up 8TV, and freelanced for Astro in the early days.
Amateurs and non-actors
Unlike most local commercial filmmakers, who would usually cast well-known actors to boost their box office earnings, Chiu prefers working with amateurs and non-actors as he is more concerned with the storytelling.
“There are not that many professional actors available here, and really good actors are even fewer to come by. Even outstanding actors may not be suitable for the story,” he said. “Some of the experienced actors also have a (set) ‘format’, so they find it difficult to adjust. Hence, I’d rather pick ‘new’ actors, so I can very easily mould them into the characters I want.”
The cast of Woohoo! and Great Day mostly comprised of non-actor celebrities from Astro’s stable of popular radio deejays and television programme hosts, such as Jack Lim, Gan Jiang Han, Royce Tan and Vivian Tok, all of whom already had a solid fan base. He went one step further for The Journey, and used a cast of fresh faces he practically plucked off the streets.
“The Journey is the kind of movie where casting was way more important than acting. I had to find people who could step right into the role and be convincing because they were genuine. The reason audiences tend to feel more for the characters in The Journey is because they are ‘real’ people.”
While the casting manager may pick people for their physical attributes or acting ability, Chiu said he prefers to sit them down for a chat, to gauge whether he or she is a natural fit for the role. “I will also spend time observing them walking and sitting, as these are habits that have taken many years to form.
“Sometimes I meet people with outstanding characteristics that truly blow me away. Sometimes, they don’t necessarily fit into my idea of the role I designed, but I like them all the same. When this happens, I will gladly rewrite my script to work around the differences.”
This happened when Frankie Lee Sai-Peng was cast for the main role of the father in The Journey. “I liked the way he walked, sat and moved in general. What I didn’t know was that he didn’t read or write Chinese. I found out later that he was only fluent in English, but I’m glad that we managed to work around that eventually,” he said.
His next goal
With the World Cup just around the corner and Chiu being a football buff, it seems natural that his next movie would revolve around football.
“It will be an inspirational action movie set in the 1970s and 1980s that shows how youngsters achieve their dreams,” shared Chiu, who used to play football for his secondary school team in Batu Pahat, Johor, and represented his university in Beijing.
The production budget for the upcoming film is expected to exceed that of The Journey (approximately RM3mil) as Chiu anticipates the need to “build sets and create a whole new wardrobe, as well as props”.
“We’ll also be flying to Brazil to do research and learn more about football and observe how fans react when a match is in progress.”
Then there is also the challenge of filling up a stadium with football fans.
“Making the massive hot air balloon out of recycled plastic bags and sticky tape for The Journey required the help of some 500 people,” he said. “But back in the day, more than 70,000 people would crowd into football stadiums. So you can imagine the excitement and the atmosphere.”
“This movie will be totally different from the trilogy, and it will be an action film shot entirely in Malaysia. I can foresee that CGI (computer-generated imagery) may be one of the new challenges, as there is a lot of detail to look into,” said Chiu, who hopes to finish it in time for next year’s Lunar New Year.
He is currently conducting open casting sessions to scout for fresh faces to make up his dream team.
“I’m looking for someone who can play football. I think people play futsal more now, so that will do, too,” he said.
>> A much sought-after speaker now, Chiu Keng Guan is set to join Taiwanese filmmakers Wei Te-Shen and Chi Po-lin at the Dreams Conquer All sharing session in Singapore on June 8 (2pm-5pm). Visit sistic.com.sg for details and reservations. The Journey is also available in stores nationwide now.