Saturday, June 27, 2009

What do you call a comedian who never swore, and never made fun of anyone other than himself?

I would call him "a genius", and he would be Tommy Cooper, my favourite comedian of all time.

Right from the moment I first saw him play out a sketch, I believed that if I, as a scriptwriter and a filmmaker were to observe him closely, I might learn something to help me with my craft.

If you're reading this, and you fancy taking up scriptwriting and/or filmmaking one day, try this simple test:

What do you reckon was the biggest lesson in filmmaking I learnt, just by observing the late great Tommy Cooper?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Food for farmers, fit for kings.


It's Vietnamese hot noodle broth with beef or chicken, and it's called the "pho".

No, it's not pronounced "po", or "fo", or even "fur", and it's impossible to learn how to say it, without someone sitting in front of you to instruct the intonations and inflexions. (Yes, there are more than one intonation/inflexion just in that one brief word!)

It's soup is made with home-made beef or chicken stock. No fat or oil is added to that already drawn from the meats.

Herbs and spices include basil leaves, cardamom, cinnamon, fennel seeds, ginger, lemongrass, nutmeg, sawgrass, scallions, shallots, sriracha and star anise.

The noodles or koay teow are immersed shortly before serving the broth, so as to retain the firmness of texture.

Fresh bean sprouts, chilli padi, lime, and fish sauce are served on the side.

Pho is, by any reckoning, humble food.

If you're in Saigon, try it at a small halal restaurant with the inappropriately grand name of "Four Seasons". I did, yesterday.

And it... was... DIVINE!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Off to Saigon for four days!


We're looking at actors and locations. There'll be auditions and lots of looking around for suitable places to shoot.

Wish us luck. I'll be back on Friday, inshaallah. Then it's Taipei on Saturday.

Friday, June 19, 2009

My fourth time judging at an international film festival. (Excited giler, siot!)

Taipei International Film Festival 09

It all began in 2006, with the Fajr International Film Festival in Iran. What an experience that was! Tehran was freezing, my skin was so dry that my whole body was itchy, and my poor mother slipped and fell on the sleet-covered sidewalk and cracked her wrist.

On the plus side, I met Abbas Kiarostami, Majid Majidee, and became close friends with Bahman Ghobadi.

Another sunny side to Tehran was meeting a Turkish ulama with whom I shared my experiences on Gubra, and how certain quarters here went up in arms over the idea of a bilal who was very civil towards dogs and prostitutes. His response was, "What kind of Muslims do you have in your country?!"

Then it was Thessaloniki in Greece. This time around, it was my husband who came along. We enjoyed long walks, holding hands, by the Thermikos Bay, and the Greeks took us dining at magnificent restaurants. (Greek salads have no equal on earth.)

Best of all, I got to judge with, and learn from, cinematic luminaries like Fred Roos and Jirzi Menzel.

Next was Berlin. It was freezing again, but thankfully, a lot less dry. And by then, I had already developed such a soft spot for the Berlinale. They had given Mukhsin two prizes the year before, and, as it so happened, just slightly over a week after that memorable, if somewhat traumatic, bout of jury duty in Iran.

And now, Taipei.

I was in Taipei for the Golden Horse Film Festival less than two years ago, when they held a retrospective of my films: Sepet, Gubra, and Mukhsin. It was a charming experience I should never forget.

To start with, each screening was held in a thousand-seater hall, and almost every screening saw a full house. Alhamdulillah.

The programmers had lined up the screenings of my films in the chronological order of Orked's life, starting with Mukhsin, and ending with Gubra. Smart move, I thought.

But the most sensational experience of all happened at the Q&A after a screening of Sepet.

A young man in the audience declared openly, "Hi, I'm from Tainan City, in the south of Taiwan. My friend and I saw Sepet last year and we loved it. He is so sad that he couldn't come, but he asked me to kiss you for him. Would you please let me kiss you?"

The audience roared with wild laughter. Then, just as suddenly, it fell silent, waiting for a response from me. But I was gobsmacked!

First of all, I kept thinking, "How on earth did they get to see Sepet in Tainan?" And secondly, how the hell do you say "No" to a guy who was obviously very shy, but had somehow mustered enough courage to make such an earnest request, in front of 999 people?

After a long, uncomfortable spell of pin-drop silence, I cleared my throat nervously and mumbled into the microphone, "Ok... but can it wait until we're outside?" I swear the hall then literally shook with the thunderous applause and foot-stomping that ensued.

Sigh. Unforgettable city, Taipei.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Strictly for ardent fans of Tora-san.

Anyone who has ever clicked on the profile button of this blog would be familiar with the eclectic nature of my top 10 favourite films. And while some may note the presence of what certain people refer to as "arthouse films", others may wonder what films like Raj Kapoor's "Bobby" are doing there.

Closer to the truth would be those who notice the one constant factor in my choice of favourite films: Sentimentality. And that would explain the nature of my own films which, unfortunately, has been the reason why some people disapprove of them so.

Towards the end of 2002, I stumbled upon a Japanese film called "Tasogare Seibei" (Twilight Samurai), written and directed by an old man named Yoji Yamada. So taken was I with the simplicity of the story, and the basic yet deep and humble emotions that dwelled within it, that I hungrily found out as much as I could about Yamada-san's body of work.

I remember Encik Hassan Muthalib, one of my three gurus of filmmaking, telling me to look out for the Tora-san series. Yamada-san had made 48 films in the series, apparently, so I searched everywhere I could -- in Singapore, Hong Kong, and France -- for the very first one.

Happily, I found a dvd copy of it in Hong Kong. It was the last on the shelf, and it was entitled "Otoko wa Tsuraiyo" (It's Hard Being A Man).

The film opened with a square-faced man in his late thirties, roaming around the Japanese countryside, with his voice narrating his plight. He had left home as a teenager after getting into a fight with his father, his head bloodied as a result of it. He had left behind a younger sister named Sakura, now living with some relatives after their parents had died. It was spring now, and watching the Sakura flowers falling made him think about going home. He sang a song, and in it, apologised to Sakura for having been such an unreliable brother to her.

It all sounds terribly melodramatic, obviously, and in a way it was, but as you can see from the third video above, the film offers laughter as well as tears. There are no heroes in the story, and neither are there villains. Every character on screen is capable of both heroism and villainy.

In other words, they are just like you and me.

I have since watched 30 of the 48 in the Tora-san series. Sometimes you get mad at his rude, calloused ways, but sometimes you can't help but admire his kindness and courage in the face of adversity.

In the end, Tora-san was just a man. Worthy of scorn, worthy of admiration, and most of all, worthy of our love and compassion.

On August 4, 1996, the main actor of the Tora-san series, Kiyoshi Atsumi, died, after two years of battling pulmonary tuberculosis. Thus ended the world's longest movie series, in the history of cinema.

Recently I saw the 48th installation, the last in the series, and Atsumi-san clearly looked weak, despite the laughter and bravado so characteristic of Tora-san.

At the end of the film, when the credits rolled, I wept and wept. I realised then that it wasn't just Tora-san I was weeping for. It was for every man I had ever known and learned to love -- my father, my husband, my brother, nephews, and even my friends.

Husband and I

I wept recognising that no one was perfect, and that if we expected to be loved for all our imperfections, why are we so reluctant to accept and forgive the imperfections of others?

("Otoko wa Tsuraiyo" is now officially my number one favourite film of all time.)

"Seraphine". Shepherdess, housekeeper, self-taught artist, genius. Watch her story at GSC One Utama.

seraphine 1

seraphine 2

seraphine 3

Séraphine Louis

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Sharifah Amani, Nothingness, and Kiki Sugino.

nani, ozu, and kiki

While looking at locations for "Wasurenagusa" and meeting with investors in Japan a couple of months ago, I asked our Executive Producer, Kousuke Ono, to take us to Ozu's grave.

So off we went, the four of us. Sharifah Amani (who is to play the lead character Inom), Kiki (the producer who will also play Yukiko), Ono-san himself, and I.

We took a long train ride from Tokyo to Kita-Kamakura station, walked to Engaku Temple at the edge of it, and climbed steep paths and steps to the tomb of one of my favorite filmmakers of all time.

Written on his tombstone was the Chinese character "Wu" ("Mu" in Japanese).

In my opinion, along with the term "Zen", "Wu" is perhaps one of the most frequently misunderstood words in history. It literally means "Nothing", and herein lies the first hint of its hidden meaning.

No one is truly able to understand Nothingness or the figure Zero, any more than they can comprehend the concept of Infinity.

So what does it mean when we say a Thing is in a state of Nothingness? How can Nothing (No Thing) ever be a Thing at the same time?

Perhaps, and I stress perhaps, it has something to do with Lao Tzu's concept of emptiness.

"The True Way is empty
yet it fills every vessel with endless supply
The True Way is hidden
yet it shines in every corner of the universe"

Five times a day, a Muslim is asked to face what some people would describe as The True Way.

He begins by standing upright.

At some point, he lowers his head and torso and bows.

A little later, he finds himself at an even lower position, kneeling and pressing his forehead against the ground.

All the while, as he reduces himself physically, he expresses obeisance and utters words that concede absolute subservience to a Greater Power.

In other words, he drops all manners of arrogance, and sheds any belief of self-importance.

Is he, in fact, approaching the state of Nothingness?