EK Interview: Edmund Yeo

Malaysian writer / director Edmund Yeo has an impressive, award-winning, and constantly evolving filmography. He’s a stand up guy, who not only contributed to this interview, but also graciously allowed us to premiere his latest short Last Fragments of Winter at EK’s A Movie Night With James Kyson (Mark your calendars for March 3, 2012)! 

One of my personal favorite filmmakers (I’ve made previous posts for his other two shorts Inhalation and Exhalation). Check out the full Q&A as follows!

What is your indelible passion for sticking with short films? Have you ever thought about going into feature length territory (in terms of directing)?

It’s not really a conscious decision stick to short films. I initially started making short films because I like the medium, I can tell stories that can be told in a very short time. It’s also a way for me to experiment with all kinds of styles and techniques before I apply them on a feature-length film. However, I have also co-written, produced and edited a couple of feature films (Woo Ming Jin’s WOMAN ON FIRE LOOKS FOR WATER, and THE TIGER FACTORY) to make sure that I don’t limit myself only to short films.

As a filmmaker, compared to a feature, short films are easier to put together, so while I spend the past two years developing my feature film script (took a year to write one, threw it away, ended up writing another), I had plenty of time making my short films. It’s also just a way for me to prevent myself from getting rusty, really.

It had always been my intention to go into feature length territory, but even if I do, I will still be making short films. It’s like alternating between writing a novel or a short story, I like both.

What was the inspiration behind the fruition of Last Fragments of Winter?

Last Fragments of Winter is loosely based on “The Moon”, a short story by Mieko Kanai written in the 70s. But I cannot really say that it is an adaptation, but more like an interpretation of it. Just like how a few of my previous short films were interpretations of the works of Nobel Prize-winning writer Yasunari Kawabata.

Back in late 2010, my parents visited me in Tokyo for my Master’s graduation ceremony. Two days after that, my uncle (father’s youngest brother) passed away suddenly in his sleep, so my parents had to fly back to Malaysia immediately instead of staying around for a week as planned. On the day they left, I decided to go to a bookshop and bury myself in some books. I randomly picked up one of them and it turned out to be The Word Book, a collection of short stories by Mieko Kanai. Some of the images from her stories lingered. So I bought it.

A few weeks later, I was itching make a new short film (it usually happens if I’m not involved in a film shoot for nearly three months), and immediately I find myself thinking of her story.

Short films are tough to make, no doubt. Trying to concisely portray an idea or feeling in a very limited amount of time is a great challenge. That in mind, could you share how you go about developing your own stories into potential projects?

As you can see from above, that was one of my processes in developing my own stories into potential projects. It can either be a story or a novel that I happened to read by accident, or a personal memory, or a person I meet, or a feeling I have that I needed to work on, so it becomes a story for a potential project. They just happen organically, I guess.

Do you have any filmmaking heroes / role models? And even more specifically, were there any influential factors / people that contributed to Last Fragments of Winter?

I have quite a few, Edward Yang, Wong Kar Wai, Ang Lee, Johnnie To, Hirokazu Kore-eda, PT Anderson, Andrei Tarkovsky, Darren Aronofsky, the list is endless, so I’m not going to bore you with it!

But when I prepared for Last Fragments of Winter, I think the two biggest influences that I drew from were the works of Tarkovsky and Krzysztof Kieslowski, especially Double Life of Veronique from the latter. Because there was just something so mysterious and unexplainable about it, yet I found myself captivated by how it made me feel, which was similar to Mieko Kanai’s short story.

One person I met made the film what it is today. I was returning from a lengthy film festival trip in Europe early last year, as I was in a bus back from the airport. I saw, through the window, a young girl walking around at the streets with a huge camera that I’ve never seen before. The bus stopped nearby, I hopped off and ran to where the girl was, just to ask her about her camera. The camera turned out to be a Mamiya RB67, she was nice enough to bring me to a junk shop where she bought her wares, her name was Miho. Although I had just written a rough outline of the story before my trip, it was after my encounter with her that helped “solidify* things.

As you’ve lived in Japan for some time now, did the recent tragedies of the earthquake / tsunami / radiation seepage have any effect on your direction (like the small sound bite of current events heard in the backdrop of the corner store) while shooting Last Fragments of Winter?

It did. Last Fragments of Winter was shot in both Japan and Malaysia. The snow sequences in Japan were shot just a few days before the earthquake, while the Malaysian sequences were shot a week after. I actually returned to Malaysia just two days before the tragedy.

What happened saddened me, but I also felt a lot of love and admiration for the people of Japan, who went through all these with so much dignity and spirit.

I felt that I had to capture this particular moment in my life with my film, therefore when I was shooting on location (at the streets of Kuala Lumpur), and there was a donation drive going on, I decided to have them in the background as well. It was my way to show solidarity with my friends in Japan, which had already became a second home to me. And when I was shooting at the corner shop, the news on TV was indeed about the events in Japan, so I didn’t make any move to switch off the TV either.

Through your critically acclaimed filmography thus far, how do you feel you’ve grown as a filmmaker? What is that you want to get out of making a film? What is your drive / motivation, and has that changed over the course of your work?

I think I got this from a Christopher Doyle interview I read a couple of years ago. The interviewer asked him what did he think was his best film, and Doyle replied that his best film is his next, because that is the only way to keep him going.

It was indeed a mentality that I agree with. As much as I’m proud of the films that I have made in the past few years, thanks to my cast and crew, who had shown me so much faith, I find the journey itself more enjoyable than reaching the destination. I always feel rather depressed when I’m done with a film. Therefore I have to always jump into another project as soon as I can, and try to believe that my next film is going to be even better than my last.

Going back to Last Fragments of Winter, there seems to be a lot of poetic and powerful attachments to the watch and camera. What was your own personal interpretation of those two items, and their roles in your film?

I think that the watch and the camera have a lot to do with time, and also our attempt to preserve a special moment in our memories. Isn’t that why we take photos? I used these two items to reveal the actual relationship between the girl in the snow and the young mother. They are most probably the same person, and the film revolves around her memories of her loved ones, and also what they remember of her.

Let’s talk tech. Do you have any gear that you’ve fallen in love with?

Oh, I’m quite a tech geek (and a lifelong gamer), actually. Since having my iPhone 4 after Christmas 2010, I find myself marveling at the apps that I could play with, the iPhone had brought a lot of convenience to my life, especially during those lengthy train and bus rides, I could just go through the articles on Clipboard, play some Angry Birds, do some tweeting (I’m @greatswifty) or facebooking etc etc. Or just listen to music.

I was taking so many photos with my iPhone that I almost forgot how to use my DSLR (I have a Canon 7D, which I shot many of my short films with)

Of course they can be dangerously distracting when you have a deadline to deal with! So my trick is to chuck my phone into the closet, go somewhere far away without wi-fi, and start working,

Culturally speaking, most of your films have encompassed Malaysia and Japan. Have there been any spikes of interest concerning other countries that you’d love to film in? If so, where and why?

It’s also a very long list. I think one of the reasons why I make films is because I love to travel, and in the past few years, I’ve been to so many places that I have never dreamed of going, or even places that I have never heard of before. I long to make films in many of these places. I guess that is the beauty of filmmaking, it is quite easy to transcend cultural and national barriers. 🙂

I have many countries in mind, I just hope that my stories can bring me there in the near future.

Are there any upcoming projects in the works at the moment that you’d like to share? The premise perhaps, or any other tidbits of information?

I’m hoping to make my debut feature-length film. It’s called “Reincarnated Dreams of Deer”, it’s an epic detective romance with a slight tint of magical realism, a guy is hired to look for a deer, the story spans one hundred years, covering long-forgotten historical episodes in Malaysia, Japan and Indonesia. It’s quite ambitious, so it will take some time. 😀

Edmund Yeo