Of Pigeons, Yasmin Ahmad and the ‘Malaysian time’ with Isao Yukisada.
The lounge was dimly lit but the section where Isao Yukisada resided was somehow brighter and it gives an undeniable presence of the director of Pigeons; a short film shot in Penang for the Asian Three-fold Mirror 2016 project with the theme, Reflections. This film series has a goal of enlarging a global focus on Asian films made by an all Asian production and it is the brainchild of the Japan Foundation Asia Center and The Tokyo International Film Festival which is parallel with the aim of encouraging the exchange of Asian cultures prior to the Olympics and Paralympics 2020 to be held Tokyo. We had an evening with Isao Yukisada of discussing the comparison between Asian cinema with the West, admiring the work of Yasmin Ahmad and working in Malaysia in such an alien setting.
1) Why the theme, Reflections?
This is the very first omnibus film created by the Tokyo International Film Festival bringing together three directors from Philippines, Cambodia and Japan and we talked about Asia’s future. One of the things we discussed is on the topic of the elderly which was truly resonated because it is a common issue that we face in our countries. The question of how old people are going to live and how they face the notion of death which is why we created the theme for the film project.
2) What is different about Asian cinema that we wouldn’t see in other mediums such as Hollywood?
When you look at each of the directors’ respective countries, there is a tendency to look at the real and mundane everyday life and that is something that we see in generally most of the Asian films. I think that’s a style that is unique to them versus Hollywood as the latter tend to be fast paced and focused on just telling a particular story while Asian films are examinations and snippets of everyday lives.
3) Filmmakers tend to borrow from their experience; did you also incorporate your past in Pigeons?
The story for me was very personal and the rule in the Asian Three-fold Mirror 2016 for the three directors is that we have to shoot a film in countries other than our own. In my case, my grandfather before he passed away had said that he wanted to visit Malaysia but, it never happened. After his death, I researched on why he had mentioned Malaysia and discovered that his older brothers died during World War II during battle in Malaysia and so I guessed that’s probably what my grandfather wanted to do; visit that place where his brothers had died. It made me want to grant his wish through this film. When I was a child, I used to keep pigeons as it was popular in Japan at the time to keep the birds and compete to see which is the quickest. The reason why I kept pigeons was because I went through a period when I was a child and refused to go to school and an uncle who lived nearby said that, “The reason you don’t want to go to school is because you don’t believe in anything isn’t it?” and he suggested that I keep pigeons to help me learn to believe in things. The thing with homing pigeons is that once released, they always come back home without fail which is why I combined my grandfather’s story and my childhood in this particular film.
4) How did you discover Malaysian actress, Sharifah Amani?
I’m a huge fan of Yasmin Ahmad’s Sepet which had a huge impact on me and there was a very young Sharifah Amani in that film which is why I’d asked the producers to find me an actress like Sharifah. We did many auditions to find someone like her but; we couldn’t find anyone who is suitable and when that happens, someone suggested that we meet Sharifah Amani herself. Although she is already older than the character I had in mind, when I met her she had this sweetness and liveliness about her which made me wanted to work with her so much so that I was willing to change the character of the film.
5) Is it very different working in Malaysia than it is in Japan?
(Laughs) Yes, in Malaysia time flows at a much relaxed pace. Normally a person that you agree to meet with would arrive 30 minutes or one hour after the agreed time and you try to judge that ahead of time so you set the meeting 30 minutes earlier on purpose but even that they still come late (laughs). It that sense, it was quite an experience. Though once you’re able to get an understanding of that ‘Malaysian time’ then it’s a very comfortable place to be in. We’re mainly foreigners who came to shoot in Malaysia but, because of the different races; Malaysians tend to accept us so it was truly gratifying to have that sense of being accepted by the people here. In Japan, the accepted consensus is that a film shoot should have a sense of heightened tension all the time while in Malaysia the first thing that we did was to take a group photo so there’s this really friendly atmosphere. For this piece, we had a veteran actor, Masahiko Tsugawa and because he is one of these old school veteran actors so he really got into his role. From the moment he arrived in Malaysia, he didn’t talk much, tried to isolate himself and really came across as this very lonely old man may be slightly senile. When Sharifah Amani met him, she thought that he was like that in real life because when she greeted him he wouldn’t reply back and she misunderstood that he wasn’t accepting her and it caused her to become a bit depressed. In Malaysia, one’s approach to filmmaking is very different even though ultimately everyone is trying to make a good product in the end.
6) What is your hope for future projects under the Asian Three-fold Mirror?
This is only the first part and hopefully the subsequent versions will cover more different countries and national borders but I found that my experience from interacting with the other directors and staffs, it was very pleasant. The moment I finished working on Pigeons, I actually thought about how I wanted to make something here in Malaysia again. Although we may have histories between these countries, I think it is valuable and important to learn about each other through these kinds of interactions. Hopefully we can make a new style of film for this part of the world.
Featured image courtesy of UNIJAPAN; Isao Yukisada working on the set of Pigeons.