To Malaysian eyes, it would seem like Woo Ming Jin never stops working. When he's not shooting short films or digital features, he's busy making a TV movie. Apart from that, you can usually find him in some film festival.
After years of making short films, Woo debuted with his digital feature, Monday Morning Glory, a film about terrorists in a fictional country, in 2005. It premiered at the 48th San Francisco International Film Festival. His last feature, The Elephant And The Sea, picked up four awards in Spain, Italy and Korea, including Best Director and the Critics Award at the Cine Digital Seoul Film Festival. The film tells the story of a coastal fishing village facing an unknown threat, and is billed as a dramedy. After travelling the international festival circuit, it will finally open in Malaysian cinemas this Thursday.
The Elephant And The Sea has put you on a winning streak. I guess some people would look at this and say "Hey, what took you so long"?
Woo: Haha ... I don't think I took too long ... or that I've "arrived" in any way. I hope I make better films in the future. But I'm quite happy with the film and the reception it's gotten in so many festivals. Now I hope the Malaysian public will come out to watch it!
What inspired Elephant? It seems to have some similarity or link with your short film, what's it called, the one with Pete Teo (singer-songwriter and actor in Ho Yuhang's Rain Dogs and James Lee's Before We Fall In Love Again) and Liew Seng Tat (Flower In The Pocket)?
Woo: What inspired The Elephant and the Sea was the JE (Japanese Enciphlitis) outbreak in Ipoh (my hometown) during the 1999 period, where all the pigs died, and also many farmers. People stopped eating pork for like a year. That was the starting point. I was living in Ipoh then, so it was something I took away.
Yes! I did a "short" version of it, starring Seng Tat and Pete Teo, called Catching the Sea. Seng Tat was supposed to be in Elephant, but we had to fire him for reasons I can't disclose here ... hehe!
"The Monkey Sea" (the film's original title) was a much better and more interesting title, to me. Why did you change it?
You think? I like The Elephant and the Sea. I have an affinity for elephants. They are very tragic giants, when in captivity. That's how i see it. Monkeys, they only want to take your food from you.
Why is it that indie films have to make the festival rounds before they are screened locally? Is it that the films have to prove themselves first by winning awards?
Well, yes, I suppose. If you just release your film locally and you haven't had any festival exposure, what's the press going to write about, if you're not Edward Yang or Tsai Ming-liang?
There's also a practical approach to it. It's much easier going to festivals than to plan a release. That takes a long time, and prep.
Having said that, do you think Elephant would have got a general release had it not won four awards?
I think so. We would've released it anyway. The awards don't really make too much of a difference here, one way or another.
Someone once commented that going by the portrayals in Malaysian independent films, that the Malaysian Chinese are a morose-looking, alienated, lonely bunch who eat noodles and smoke a lot. Why do you think there's so much of this in our indie films?
I dunno. My characters don't smoke, but they do eat noodles and look morose. I eat noodles and look morose sometimes. But i think my films have a little more humor in them. At least to me.
I always thought you have the ability to make a good mainstream action movie. Are you ever going to?
Yes! I totally want to. In fact, we're conceptualizing one right now! It's like I am Legend meets Underworld ... haha!
Everyone loves El Mariachi mainly because it got made under such limited resources. I salute Rodriguez for that. But really, you must admit the film is quite crap, isn't it? (Woo has cited El Mariachi as one of the films that made him want to become a director.)
Actually I quite liked that film. It's a fun movie. like Clerks. And I happen to think it's his best film, with the possible exception of Sin City.
You've made one quickly forgotten mainstream romantic comedy, Salon. Was that a bad experience? Do you want to quickly forget it too? Or did something positive come out of that?
I met my DP from Salon, who went on to shoot Elephant for me. So yea, something positive came out of it. It wasn't a bad experience per se. I was young. The film may not have made a ton of money, but it did launch the actors in the film, and they're now quite big stars. Plus I hear it did well on video. I learned a lot from the film, good and bad things, like always.
But my personality is, I don't dwell on things. Even my art films. Once they're done, I move on. The only thing that takes me back is when I'm at festivals and talk about them, that's it. Outside of that, I try to live my life.
Why are you such an outsider in the independent scene? You've always been doing stuff on your own, while others like Da Huang have come together to help each other out. (OK, you did make a short film with Liew Seng Tat and Tan Chui Mui (Love Conquers All) in it.)
I'm actually quite close to the Da Huang people. Mui and Seng Tat and Amir (Muhammad) are good friends. We hang out and party together. It's just that I have Greenlight Pictures (my production house), and we're a little low profile. But in every project I did, my friends have helped me, one way or another. Da Huang is credited in Elephant, and probably everything I've done. We've also helped them whatever ways we can.
So yea, I am on my own, but not really an "outsider".