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Writing to exorcise his personal demons
IT didn't take much to convince famed cinematographer Christopher Doyle to work on the Penang-set You Mean the World to Me (YMTWTM). The regular Wong Kar-wai collaborator fell for the island's idyllic charms - as quickly as he did with the deeply personal script penned by Malaysian writer-director Saw Teong Hin - the latter reveals.
The semi-autobiographical drama is based loosely on Saw's life and family, and was first staged as a play at the George Town Festival three years ago. Despite the Hokkien dialogue and 18-rating (which prohibits anybody below that age to watch it), the film has struck a chord with Malaysian movie-goers and is the country's third highest-grossing movie of 2017.
Both Saw and Doyle were first introduced five years ago and reconnected after the former sent him the script for YMTWTM. "We flew Chris to Penang and he fell in love with the island," shares the veteran filmmaker who was the creative director for both the opening and closing ceremonies of this year's South-east Asian Games, "I'm grateful to him for believing and he brought a rock star dimension to the project which helped with the fundraising."
A household name himself back home, Saw's career in film and theatre has spanned over two decades. His 2004 effort Puteri Gunung Ledang became the first Malaysian film to be selected for the Venice Film Festival and was long-listed for a Best Foreign Film Oscar.
YMTWTM has come full circle as the 55-year-old wrote it seven years ago as a motion picture screenplay. Due to the story's darker undertones, it had trouble attracting investors. At one point, Saw even approached Singapore's Media Development Authority, which agreed to fund it on condition it was made in Mandarin instead of Hokkien.
When he was approached by George Town Festival director Joe Sidek to stage something for the festival in 2014, Saw decided to adapt YMTWTM into a play. It became a smash hit and more shows had to be added after it sold out its original three-night run.
Thanks to the success of the stage production, Saw was able to finally realise his dream of turning YMTWTM into a film. Both versions differ slightly: the big screen adaptation has a longer running time and more characters in it.
Actors Frederick Lee (younger brother of Channel 8's Christopher Lee) and Neo Swee Lin reprise their characters in the film, while others like Tan Ai Suan and Chelsia Ng returned to take on different roles.
Although names have been changed, fictionalised events have been added for dramatic effect, and certain artistic liberties have been taken, the plot parallels the struggles Saw faced to bring YMTWTM to life, as well as the personal demons he has been fighting and trying to exorcise.
Lee plays Sunny, a KL-based filmmaker who returns to Penang to shoot a movie about his family which leads to the reopening of old wounds. Saw, himself, left his hometown of Penang in 1981 for KL where he resides now, to pursue a career in films. The move weighed heavily on him because he cut himself off from his family in the process.
He dedicates YMTWTM to his late mother: "I completely misjudged (her and) my brother who was mentally unwell; I didn't have the compassion to try to understand him and just decided it was inconvenient or unsuitable for me, and so I rejected him and his condition."
But he stresses: "I wrote this story not just out of guilt but more because of love - I had never understood why things were the way they were - in the process of writing it, things became clearer." The entire exercise remains an emotional rollercoaster for Saw who could barely compose himself on set during the shooting of the heavier scenes.
Until now, his voice still quivers slightly when talking about the making of YMTWTM: "The writing process has been cathartic but also taken its toll on me as it's baggage that I've carried for decades. For the most part, I have let go but there is a lingering effect on my psyche which I don't know if I can be totally rid of."
- You Mean the World to Me (dubbed in Mandarin) is screening exclusively at GV VivoCity.