MAKING HIS MASTERPIECE: The journey is just beginning for U-Wei
CYBERSPACE is abuzz with Bunohan. It has been a while since netizens were really interested in a movie. Helmed by Dain Said, it features some of the best local actors - Faizal Hussein, Wan Hanafi Su, Namron, Zahril Adzim, Bront Palarae and Pekin Ibrahim.
There is another movie that had been eagerly awaited -- Hanyut, based on Joseph Conrad's Almayer's Folly. U-Wei Haji Shaari took the challenge of adapting to screen one of Conrad's most difficult Malayan novels.
U-Wei, who made his mark with Perempuan, Isteri Dan... in 1993, is currently one of the finest and most audacious directors in the country. He made Kaki Bakar, Joghro and Buai Laju-Laju.
U-Wei learned a lot from the making of Perempuan, Isteri Dan..., one of which is creative control. The film was budgeted for RM1.2 million, but he was forced to work with a lot less. It was the time when even RM500,000 was considered too expensive for a Malay film.
Even today, he believes the film would have had a different look and nuance had he been given enough money. Nevertheless, the film made waves -- it won a commercial and critical acclaim.
He made Kaki Bakar in 1995 with renowned stage actor Khalid Salleh, who was discovered by the late Krishen Jit in the early 1980s. In 1998, he made Joghro based on Juara, a novel by S. Othman Kelantan who later became our Sasterawan Negara (National Laureate). Hanyut is his biggest gamble -- at RM18 million, it is one of Malaysia's most expensive films ever. The budget for the Art Department alone was six times the total amount spent on Perempuan, Isteri Dan....
He fought hard to raise money and he prevailed. He was given a grant of RM5 million from the Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry and a loan of RM10 million from a bank.
He learned something else from the bank. They were using templates from the construction business in dealing with him. They wanted to know whether the film had been pre-sold, just as the number of houses or apartments booked would determine the viability of a development project.
It took him more than a year to convince the bank to part with their money.
The 51-day shoot went well despite hundreds of cast and crew involved. The post-production was delayed as he needed more funds. In all, it took U-Wei three years to finish the film and much anxiety. He is philosophical about it.
"Many legendary filmmakers took longer to do their masterpieces," he told me. "For me, the journey is just beginning."
Why take the trouble to make an expensive movie when horror and gangster movies are raking in tonnes of money? Or when a love story is making more than the cost of producing Hanyut?
U-Wei has no problems with "other films" but he wants to make movies that outsiders would say, "Ah, this is a movie to watch" and locals would be happy to say, "Ah, this is the kind of movie that ought to be made."
He believes it is important for Bunohan to succeed or else serious films would not have a place in the country. If it fails commercially, Hanyut would have a problem, so too the soon-to-be-released Hari-Hari Terakhir Seorang Seniman based on Anwar Rithwan's novel of the same name, helmed by Sabri Yunus, last year's Anugerah Skrin winner of the best director award.
He acknowledges there is a big market for Malay movies now, thus the reason why 50 were made last year. For the industry to survive, we have to provide "different menus". Learn the lessons of Indonesian and Hindi films during their heydays, he reminds young filmmakers.
He wants Hanyut to be perfect. His director of photography was Arkadiusz Tomiak, a Pole. The rest of the crew came from the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia and Japan, not to mention Malaysia.
His leading actor is Peter O'Brien, an Australian, while Diana Danielle, Sofia Jane, Sabri Yunus and Ady Putra are notable local and Singapore stars. He brought in a "scenic artist" from Australia who specialises in "aging" the props. The film was shot entirely with Panavision cameras, for the first time in Malaysia. The musical score would have been done by Ryuichi Sakamoto of The Last Emperor fame had the composer not withdrawn after the tsunami affected him last year.
Hanyut will soon be playing at a cinema near you. Movie enthusiasts are holding their collective breaths to see if Conrad's folly will be U-Wei's. Or if it will make movie history in the country.
If Hanyut is successful, movie-making will never be the same again.
U-Wei Haji Shaari made his mark with ‘Perempuan, Isteri Dan…’ in 1993 and is today one of the finest and most audacious directors in the country.
NOTE: The article was first published on the News Strait Times. The film is scheduled for its world premier at the Southeast Asian Film Festival 2013 on 22 March 2013.