The first annual Kopedia Comedy Festival, held in the peaceful coastal town of Koper, Slovenia, a hybrid Italian-Germanic-Slavic port on the Adriatic, featured a special guest who, at least by Slovene standards, qualified as extremely exotic. Sharon Gan is a Malaysian producer, and had brought with her a new film to play in the festival, which features standup comedy, comic film and academic panels on the study and nature of comedy. Men Who Save the World, directed by Seng Tat Liew, tells the story of a father in a Malaysian village who determines to renovate an abandoned house in the jungle that the local believe is haunted. The film is light of tone but powerful of image, with a particularly memorable final scene (spoiler alert) in which the ghost-white house burns – an image that could be mistaken for Tarkovsky. That’s powerful praise for a sophomore director’s comedy, but certainly deserved. Adding to the mix of strong acting, atmosphere and a deft ear for humor is a peppery debut performance by a Tanzanian comedian who happened to audition while studying in Kuala Lumpur, but who had no acting experience. I spoke to Sharon Gan at the Kopedia Festival about Men Who Save the World, in this interview exclusively for Film International.
The Kopedia Festival is brand-new, so we’re happy to learn. Tell us, what’s the process like, from the concept to sending the film out to festival? Could you walk us through the steps you took?
This is the director’s second feature. His first feature, called Flower In The Pocket , gained some profile in the festival circuit. That helped us. We were trying to finance this film and it wasn’t an easy path. It wasn’t an obvious commercial film. We managed to put together funding from seven countries. And it ended up as a co-production with France, Germany and The Netherlands. The development process gave the project a profile. When the film was completed we submitted it to a number of festivals and were really chuffed to get an invitation from Locarno International Film Festival to screen it there. That kick-started it. For a film like ours, being able to premiere at an important festival gave it the push and the momentum it needs. From there it went to Toronto and did the rounds. There isn’t a right or wrong path, however you develop, but we knew that you need to start at a festival of a certain profile in order to gain momentum in Malaysia for theatrical release.
And of course, no film could get a strong profile without debuting at the Kopedia Comedy Festival! We’re happy to help out if we can.
This is the Slovene premiere! We are very excited to screen our film here.
The shooting of the film took us forty days in total. Scouting for location we were lucky to find this place, about three hours from our capital [Kuala Lumpur], and they have little villages around there. The director was able to find all the locations he wanted. That really helped. We shot just a few scenes in Kuala Lumpur, the rest were shot in a few villages. The villagers were very supportive and excited to be the extras. The house-carrying scene in the jungle was one of our most difficult to shoot. First of all, we built the house in the village. We had to dismantle it and transfer it to the jungle. There were a lot of factors to be taken into consideration. And extras are not actors, so they were consciously looking at the camera…and the house is quite heavy, so the scene became real to them, a mission. That helped deliver the performances.
What about the cast? You’ve discovered a talented but unknown African actor.
Most of the cast are all well-known veteran Malaysian actors. The director grew up watching films starring these actors, and wanted to work with them. We approached them one by one, and luckily they were attracted to the script. Pak Awang, the main character, is played by Wan Hanafi Su. He read the script the day we gave it to him, and that night he called us and said he wanted in. Said he’d been waiting a long time for “a script that has social observation, but at the same time can entertain.” In the end it came together well, we managed to built a strong ensemble cast. Solomon, the African character is played by Khalid Hussein and we cast him through an open audition. There are no African actors in Malaysia. A number of people came for the audition, and we were lucky to find him. He was a student in Malaysia, he’s from Tanzania, and he’s also a standup comedian, which really helped his performance. He understood how to perform and has good comic timing.
You’ve been to many festival now. What, for you, makes for a good film festival? This is our first year, so we’re hoping to learn as we go, from veterans like you. And what do you look for when at a festival, in terms of watching the audience’s reaction to your film?
To me it’s always enjoyable to watch the film with different audiences. When we watch films we bring our own personal experience to it, so I’m curious to see which scenes gets the most reaction or are funny – the ones we think are funny or other ones. Comedy is hard to bring across borders. When it works, it’s wonderful. It’s nice to hear laughter. The themes of the film too, getting this film funded, people ask why all these countries support us. One of the reason is the theme is quite universal. I’m curious to hear from the audience if they enjoyed themselves, that’s the most important, and then if they got the social themes. And what constitutes a good festival? A lot of factors, but at the end of the day, every festival serves the local community. It’s a platform to bridge culture. It’s hard for films to get distributed around the world, and festivals are the forefront for foreign language films. Festival-goers are the number one people to serve.
I watch a lot of films, and I usually remember individual images, rather than entire plots. You have some very haunting images, particularly the burning of the white house. Was this a conscious decision to use this resonant image or did it come about more organically?
It’s a combination. The house burning – that was really hard to do! We finally realized that it’s super hard to burn an empty house. Houses burn because of furniture. In an empty house, the fire starts but then burns out, no matter how much fuel you throw on it. We wanted to shoot the scene at sunset, but we couldn’t get it right, so we had wait till sunrise to do that scene.
Noah Charney is a professor of art history who writes regularly for Film International. His latest book is The Art of Forgery (Phaidon). He was a member of the festival’s organization committee in an advisory capacity.