1 August 2018

In the Spirit of Kindness • Sharifah Amani and Janice Koh at New Waves 2018

By Priscilla Liew

Welcome aboard SGIFF’s New Waves! For this third annual edition of the screening and dialogue series, we invited bright young minds from the festival’s Youth Jury and Critics’ programme to offer an introductory analysis on the four featured filmmakers, report on each session, and generally guide you on this voyage of artistic discovery.

I couldn’t imagine a more fitting opening to the final night of New Waves 2018. On the evening of 25 July, after actresses Sharifah Amani and Janice Koh introduced themselves to the audience, Amani led us in a brief moment of silence for the late Yasmin Ahmad, as the day also marked the ninth anniversary of the acclaimed Malaysian director’s passing.

The tribute held a strong significance for many of us there that evening—none more so than Amani herself. Ahmad’s decision to cast the Malaysian actress as the beloved protagonist Orked in her 2005 film Sepet (and in her subsequent titles) would not only establish Amani’s acting career, but also eventually lead to her working with one of Ahmad’s fans, Japanese director Isao Yukisada. Yukisada directed Amani in Pigeon, the second segment in the omnibus film Asian Three-fold Mirror 2016: Reflections, which we were gathered that evening to see.

The night’s large crowd stayed after the film for a chat with Amani and Koh. Here are a few highlights of what went down that evening.

Actresses Janice Koh (L) and Sharifah Amani take the stage at New Waves’s final 2018 event, 25 July. Photograph by Dean Koh

  • 1. Between ‘action’ and ‘cut’, prepare for anything

‘I was like “What is he thinking? He hates me!”’

– Sharifah Amani on Pigeon co-star Masahiko Tsugawa

To the Japanese public, veteran actor Masahiko Tsugawa is known as an energetic, humorous old man. But, Amani reported, her time working with Tsugawa-san was spent in so much fear of him that she almost broke down. The reason? The Japanese actor adopted ‘Method’ techniques for Pigeon, immersing himself in his gruff, tired character Ojiichan—a senile pigeon-keeper living far from his native Japan—from the minute he arrived in Penang for the shoot. This led poor Amani to mistake his standoffish demeanour for genuine dislike throughout their interactions off-screen.

Even as she comically fake-cried about the stress of this interaction, Amani never stopped commending the professionalism of the Pigeon team. Tsugawa’s sincere dedication was answered with equal effort from everyone else. The crew carefully accommodated the older actor’s abilities and limitations. For some sequences—such as a climactic fight between Ojiichan and some loan sharks—Tsugawa’s shots were actually filmed separately from the rest of the scene, so that he could retire early to get more rest. This was a tricky acting challenge for Amani and other cast-members, who nevertheless pulled off the pretense that Tsugawa was opposite them.

Amani (as Yasmin) and Masahiko Tsugawa (as Ojiichan) in Pigeon, from Asian Three-fold Mirror 2016: Reflections

  • 2. Cross-cultural collaboration should be diplomatic

‘There is an act of passion… But at the same time, it is an act of diplomacy.’

  • – Janice Koh on films co-produced by different countries

Answering to Amani’s stories from the set of Pigeon, eloquent Singaporean actress Koh encapsulated her own experiences of cross-cultural collaboration in the above quote. To Koh—a former Nominated Member of Parliament who appears in the Singapore-set blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians in August—diplomacy is when artmakers of different cultures come together equally to discover each others’ styles and comfort levels, as they invest an important part of themselves into their shared work.

Passion and diplomacy came together in a powerful lesson for Amani, one she hopes to share with Malaysian culture as a whole. As she watched Yukisada’s crew work with Tsugawa, she realised how deeply respect for the elderly runs in Japanese society. ‘Seeing them treat [Tsugawa] in such a way really educated me as well,’ she told us. ‘I really wish Malaysians would treat our seniors the same way. They created history for us, paved the way for us; this is how they should be treated.’

  • 3. Natural empathy shines on screen

When I watch you, I get a sense of a deep empathy. It doesn’t really matter what roles you play, you’re so open and giving.’

  • – Koh to Amani

In Pigeon, Amani’s character, Ojiichan’s young domestic helper Yasmin, is the only one who can effectively reach out and connect to the old man; she begins to help him as he meticulously trains his homing birds. When asked why she responded to that character, Amani answered that she placed her own personal love and appreciation for older people into her portrayal of Yasmin.

Koh—who previously acted with Amani in the W!ld Rice play Another Country—then chimed in with her own observations about Amani’s unique screen presence:  ‘What I read into [Yasmin] is someone who is open and ready to love. Not necessarily just an old man, but in any situation. And that’s a very charismatic aura to come across. I think your character in this film has that wonderful openness that embraces him while everybody just looks at the relationship transactionally. And this very open, simple connection through the pigeons is all that is needed. Someone is there to listen.’

Amani and Koh have the New Waves audience grinning. Photograph by Dean Koh

  • 4. The great Yasmin Ahmad lives on

‘Be kind. That’s the first [lesson].’

  • – Amani on what she learnt on the sets of Yasmin Ahmad’s films

Throughout the conversation, it became increasingly clear that those who knew the late Yasmin Ahmad continue to hold her very close to their hearts.

The Yasmin character in Pigeon is created of both Yukisada and Amani, brought together by their affinity with Ahmad. Yukisada had written Pigeon in part as a dedication to the late director, and originally named the character ‘Orked’, after the protagonist of Ahmad’s so-called ‘Orked trilogy’ (the films Sepet, Gubra and Mukhsin). Amani resisted, worried that the repetition of the name Orked would be confusing to audiences. So Yukisada let her pick her own character’s name, and, according to Amani, ‘I picked the most beautiful name I know lah: Yasmin.’

Beyond the name, the lessons Ahmad left Amani were just as beautiful. Amani explained how kindness found its way into the family Ahmad created with her on-set collaborators: ‘It was never about getting things done, or money, or what. Those things weren’t important. The important things were, “Have you eaten? Have you solat [done your prayers]?” Things that [put] everybody on the same level.’

Koh chats post-event at *SCAPE. Photograph by Dean Koh

I was moved to see the captivating Koh and Amani so curious and so candid with each other that night. More importantly, the chat tells us that there is so much to look forward to. With Koh, it’s continuing to bring powerful performances to life. For Amani, it’s putting her lessons with Ahmad into practice behind the camera, as she prepares to direct her fourth short film.

New Waves 2018 now comes to an end. Our time together over the past four months has given us a glimpse of the fertility and depth of Southeast Asian cinema. Stay tuned, as SGIFF 2018 awaits.

For full information on New Waves events, click here.

Priscilla dreams of sushi and working for cinema.