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James Lee is best known on the Asian festival circuit for his socially astute art-house dramas, such as his breakout My Beautiful Washing Machine, which won Best Asean Feature Award at the Bangkok International Film Festival in 2005. But in his native Malaysia, Lee is now a massmarket showman and a leading purveyor of the country’s wildly popular genre films. His slasher film, Histeria, was one of the biggest domestic hits of 2008 and he’s produced two or three genre titles each year since. His latest project, If It’s Not Now Then When?, premiered at the BIFF on October 5th, marking something of a return to form. A domesticscaled indie-drama, the film tells the story of singularly odd family drifting apart in Kuala Lumpur. Lee spoke with THR about striking a balance between pulp and pet projects and the Malaysian film industry’s tentative steps onto the world stage.
If It’s Not Now Then When? tells a story of family dissolution. Were you trying to get at something about contemporary Malaysian society or is it more personal?
It’s more of a personal project than a broad comment on the social environment in Malaysia. We shot it on a DSLR, with a very small crew. It’s a small independent project and most of the actors are my friends. It’s one of those projects I do once in a while just to try making something I really like. Most of the time these days I’m working on mainstream commercial movies.
So what themes were you trying to touch upon with your portrayal of this rather peculiar family?
The story revolves around the passing of the father — in the Asian context the father is still always the head of the family. Once he’s gone, where does it leave the rest of the family? Unlike in the past when family was very important, in today’s world, without a conventional family structure, families can drift apart. Especially with everyone connected to other people on the Internet and pulled in different directions. Do we still need to hold together to be considered family? If we live apart and don’t really have integrated lives, are we really family? That’s what I was interested in. The characters in the film don’t see each other much and don’t even know if they care about each other.
Why did you originally branch out from art-house work to make more mainstream fare?
I remembered reading how John Cassavettes used to act in Hollywood films just so he could fund his own independent projects. I guess I took some inspiration from him. I also did it to challenge myself. I was curious to see if I could make a movie that appealed to a big mass-market audience. Commercial filmmaking has a very clear objective and in many ways I found that more challenging than the art house style I was used to, which was all about exploring my own ideas and interests. Now I prefer to do both.
Malaysia is said to be launching it’s own international film festival this November. What’s the buzz among the Malaysian film community?
The event is sponsored by the government—[the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (FINAS)]—so it’s going to be quite big. It will certainly benefit some of the players in our industry. You don’t see Malaysian films making it out of the domestic market and doing well abroad yet, unlike in Thailand or Indonesia. So having our own festival to bring in critics and international audiences to see more of our local cinema will definitely help. At the same time I worry that it might be too soon for an international-level event in Malaysia. Our industry is still developing, and I’m not sure it makes sense to have a big international platform yet.
There have been periods in your career when you’ve made up to three movies a year, but you’ve been quiet in 2012. Besides If It’s Not Now, what have you been up to?
I’ve been spending all my time developing a sci-fi action movie, which will be my first Englishlanguage feature. I’m studying special effects and developing ideas, and I’ve been working with some scriptwriters from the U.S. and collaborating with some American actors. We’re hoping it will become a co-production between Malaysia and a U.S. partner.
Malaysia is known for genre films, but not exactly sci-fi…
Yeah, our genres are low-budget horrors, action and slap-stick comedies. But the market is already oversaturated and we’re risking alienating our own audience because at least half of these films are very low quality. They’re popular because they offer local stories and humor, which Hollywood films never have. That’s the only way we can compete. But this means my commercial films will never travel, because they won’t make sense outside Malaysia. That’s why I’m hoping to try something different. We’ve never produced a sci-fi action film locally.
So what’s your Malaysian Sci-Fi pitch?
We were very inspired by District 9, which was shot in South Africa on a low budget—not the usual Sci-Fi recipe, but an excellent film. We’d like to try something similar, set in the not too distant future in Malaysia. We’ll have a modest budget, but a local setting for the local audience and some big ideas and the English language for the international market. I just want to try something new to break out of the local industry and see where it goes.
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