GEORGE TOWN, MALAYSIA
Julian Cheah has a dream. A Hollywood dream.
The 52-year-old Penangite wants to someday produce, direct, act (preferably all three) in a big Hollywood blockbuster.
In the last 26 years, he has produced, directed or acted in over 30 movies, telemovies and television shows.
He remained relatively unknown though until Killer Clown was released in 2010. The slasher flick gained him exposure but for all the wrong reasons.
Killer Clown, released nationwide, was not the hit Cheah had hoped but it gained him a following of “anti-fans.” That did not deter him from continuing with his film-making pursuits though.
A Bachelor of Fine Arts graduate from the New York University, Cheah had dabbled in journalism — writing mainly about the entertainment industry, acted in local TV shows and worked as an executive producer in
Astro while continuing to produce, direct or act in his own mostly action-based independent films.
Recently, a movie he directed and acted in, Infected Paradise — a Rodman Pictures production — was nominated the Best Feature Film —Long Form under the 26th Annual West Australian Screen Awards.
Here, Cheah shares his surprise over the nomination, his ups and downs in the movie industry and how he’s trying to hit the big time on the silver screen.
In his own words:
The other three nominated movies are multimillion big star movies, like international big name movies, Aussie movies that made it to Hollywood and all of a sudden, them, we are up against them, all these giants. Our movie is the only independent movie over there. So it’s a bit frightening, no, not frightening, but surprising. But then that’s life, when you don’t expect it, it comes. And then when you think you have a movie that’s going to be a hit, then it just…(broke off into laughter).
I wish this could be a more predictable business, like the hotel business. The hotels they have their seasons, such as June, July, August, not so good or September, October, will be good, they’ve been in this for years… they know. But in the movie business, you never know.
That’s why most businessmen in Malaysia and Singapore, they don’t want to talk about movies. They want to do something else where they can gauge the results better. That’s always why there’s a problem in funding. And for good reasons, they are right to feel that way about it.
But TV is safe. If you do a TV series for TV1, it’s safe because they’ve already approved your script for 26 episodes. They already tell you, ok we are going to pay you so much for each episode so you already know, TV1 is paying me so much so I can budget. I already know my net profit. But it’s not easy to get into TV or Astro.
I used to work in Astro as executive producer for one year. At that time I was in the TV company, I was on the other side of the fence. I saw independent producers and production companies, veterans, all pitching us ideas of their films. You’ll be surprised that even veterans don’t get the deals. Astro gives it to specific companies whom they like and that’s it. That’s how tough it is. It’s not an easy game. But the good thing about TV is that once you get in, you’re set. But cinemas, it’s a wild game.
I do it because I still believe that I still have the touch. I think every film-maker has to believe that.. that you still have that touch. I believe I am not at my peak. Definitely, where I am now, I’m not at my peak. There is so much more I can be. Even though I’ve been an executive producer at Astro. Even though I’ve made films and cinema films and some of my films have been distributed worldwide in US, Canada, Germany, Japan and Russia. So, I’ve had international exposure for my movies but those are still independent movies.
I’m 52. I’ve got fans on my Facebook teasing me, asking me “Mr Cheah, do you use Botox.” Another one saying I should do Phantom of the Opera and wear a mask. And another one answered, “He doesn’t need to wear a mask, he is the mask” meaning my youth, my face is a mask for my real age. But then, it’s fun. I enjoy it. They start knocking me also. Telling me how s*** my movie is. Calling me a s*** film-maker. And a s*** wannabe. One of them even said, “In the name of all good things, good and holy, change your occupation.” For Killer Clown. Even for Prince of The City. I get knocked for every film. Even in Australia too. I call them my anti-fans. Fans who don’t like me. They still follow me because they don’t like me. One of them told me, “I want to make sure I see your next movie because I want to insult you more”. They are a funny crowd.
We have what it takes to make it big. We have the ability to make good visual effects but… even local film-makers, when I tell them about this American superhero concept that we can shoot in America, then do the visuals here, they would not go for it. They will continue with the local Chinese Mandarin movies. Whether it is the businessmen who are not in the industry or those in the industry, they will not do something new. I’m the only one who wants to do it. I find that it’s a lone ambition to do something different. But that is what I think will take us there.
I am glad Rod Manickam of Rodman Pictures is now doing things that a normal Malaysian film-maker will not do. He’s doing Australian movies with Australian actors… he’s adventurous. Like me. I don’t know why we don’t get more people in Malaysia thinking like Rod and me. We dream and we can do it. I guess it’s a money game in the end, a lot of people may want to do it but don’t have the guts to actually do it.
My strategy now is very simple. You know the movies making it now are visual effects movies, like Man of Steel, Transformers…it’s just visual effects, big animation visuals that people want to see. So a way in is this… I have an animation team in Malaysia that comes fairly cheap and they themselves don’t do movies like that. They do normal things for their corporate clients but they have the ability to do something like Transformers.
Filmmaker Julian Cheah has been building a name for himself in the film industry for years. As one of the few largely independent filmmakers in Malaysia, one can call his products anything but uninteresting.
His last film, "Prince of the City" (2012) was probably his biggest feature film to date. Featuring a cast led by Julian Cheah himself and popular local actors Aaron Aziz and Jehan Miskin, even Hollywood actor Michael Madsen ("The Hateful Eight") was brought onboard.
Sure, the stylish action film didn't make big bucks at the local cinema, but this won't stop the Penangite from making them no matter what people say or whatever the box office returns of his films are.
Four years later, Cheah has his latest gamble ready for the big screen. Instead of going the flashy Hollywood-style route, "Judi-Judi King Boss" focuses on the Malaysian angle in hopes to win the Malaysian crowd.
Cheah's usual modus operandi is to take on multiple roles for his films, and with "Judi-Judi King Boss" this is no exception as he serves as an actor, writer, producer and director for his first ever all-rounded Malaysian film attempt.
Cinema Online: What is your inspiration behind "Judi-Judi King Boss" and how did the idea for the film come about?
Julian Cheah: I was inspired by Stephen Chow's "Kung Fu Hustle", by the comedy of the film and not the visual effects because we do not have the budget to make those kind of effects. The old black-and-white American TV series "The Three Stooges" was an inspiration too, and also the old comedy movies of Tan Sri P. Ramlee.
I thought it would be great to combine all the races and languages of Malaysia. I previously wrote a synopsis of a gambling movie to a producer who did not want it, so I thought I would take the story and do it myself.
What was the selection of the cast like as it seems that most of them are new to the industry?
Since this is a comedy, and generally slapstick comedy does not require intense acting and emotion like dramatic films, I was confident that I can cast newcomers too because it is quite easy for anyone to make funny faces on the screen and people do not need years of acting training to do it. I searched for Gana as I had worked with him on a TV episode years ago in 2002 and I remembered how funny he was, so I searched the internet and made phone calls to find him which took about three days.
The other cast members were chosen based on the languages they could speak, like Tamil, Punjabi, Hokkien and Mandarin. One cast member is a veteran stage actor who has had little exposure on film but his talent and experience as an actor is still in him.
What motivates you to keep making films, as independent filmmakers in Malaysia rarely see huge box office returns?
Even though an independent film, the comedy style of "Judi-Judi King Boss" still makes it potentially very commercial. I believe that there is a place for me out there and I seem to have a force behind me that pushes me to continue though I cannot understand it myself. I think that the error was for me to do English-language films in Malaysia as this is not very well accepted. So, business sense only dictates that I should come back for the attack on the local movie industry the other way round, a 180 degree turn to return with Malaysian languages with not only one or two but with six Malaysian language dialects. From a business perspective, this is also good as we are opening our market up to everyone and all races.
Big companies use TV and radio ads which are very expensive, but thank God now that there are cheaper forms of marketing in social media, like Facebook advertising which gets film trailers directly to the smartphones of people, which I believe is powerful, so we stand a good chance to compete with the big boys.
What are your upcoming projects? Do you have any other Hollywood actors to bring on-board like you did with Michael Madsen in "Prince of the City"?
Yes, I intend to work more with international stars but the tendency is not to bring them to Malaysia to work, but rather for me to go overseas as an actor and producer to work with them.
I have a British love story synopsis completed by my friend and writer Michael Brech to be filmed in Cornwall in England. There was also a project to be shot in America that I tried to activate in 2014 which fell and it would be good to find a way to materialise it one day. Both these films will involve famous U.S. and U.K. stars.
The thing standing between me and the projects is of course finance and lots of it which is near impossible to get in the film business, so I have to finance them myself and in order to do so, I have to venture into other businesses in the hope to realise future dreams for me.
As a filmmaker, can you share your thoughts on the shortcomings of our local film industry and what can be done to improve it?
It is hard for me to comment on local producers. These people know their market and some producers are doing very well financially. For those people who are not raking in profits, I am sure that they will find other means and ideas to do it. It is obvious that many local producers only think of the market here in Malaysia and have no desire to sell internationally, which is fine and perhaps it should be that way for them as they are on safer ground and on a market which they understand very well. I do not think that there are shortcomings here, and I am sure that the veterans as well as new filmmakers will emerge to keep the industry active and interesting in the years to come.
Independent filmmaker Julian Cheah is poised for next-level success with his latest film, Judi-Judi King Boss. He talks about the trials and tribulations throughout his career and the challenges of making it as an action star.
Julian Cheah may not (yet) be a widely recognisable face in the Malaysian film scene, but there’s no doubt that he’s one of the most hardworking.
An actor and filmmaker with over three decades of experience, over 20 films in his catalogue, and a finger in many other pies along the way, Julian works immensely hard to match some of Malaysia’s more bankable talents.
It also doesn’t hurt that the 54-year-old is blessed with the complexion of a man 20 years his junior (“I definitely don’t do Botox!”).
Even if he’s seemed to tick all the right boxes to becoming a giant movie star, in place of a mainstream audience for Julian is a cult following - niche audiences who follow his work religiously, or those who like their movies with a dose of camp.
A peek into Prince Of The City starring Julian himself, Michael Madsen and Aaron Aziz is a good indication of his films. There are cheesy one-liners, dramatic cues to indicate tension, slow-motion pans across a woman’s bikini-clad body, and multiple shots of bullets flying into unsuspecting chests.
These “escapist” films are exactly what Julian gravitates towards, his favourite genre being action-adventure (he’s an ardent fan of the James Bond series).
His new directing effort, Judi-Judi King Boss, is a comedic tale of a zany taukeh, played by himself, who opens an illegal gambling den to the chagrin of his girlfriend. His followers are to call him King Boss and nothing else. “When they call him ‘Boss’ he says ‘Eh, King Boss la’,” Julian says.
The film has six dialects popularly used in Malaysia as well as a multi-racial ensemble cast. “People seem to be really warming up for this one,” Julian says. “I think this could be my biggest, financially.”
While some independent filmmakers are content with making art films and getting acknowledged in the festival circuit, Julian is hungry for large-scale box office success.
“Sure, there are filmmakers that don’t want to reach out commercially, they’re happy with that niche market,” he says. “But that’s not the kind of movies I make. I want to go international; I want to leave something behind.”
“I still don’t feel my base is that strong yet compared to other filmmakers like Syamsul Yusof. He literally has millions of people behind him in Malaysia, but I don’t have that kind of power.”
To tap into Malaysian audiences who favour big budget action flicks, Julian doesn’t mind compromising production value for entertainment value. “I can’t boast that Judi is a great technical film,” he says. “But what it will do is charm the hearts of people. They’re not going to care if we shot it on film. They just want us to crack jokes, they just want to laugh.”
It hasn’t been a walk in the park for Julian and his foray into filmmaking. After finishing a film course in New York University in 1986, his first feature film Retribution was funded by his grandfather and managed a national video release with little fanfare.
He even lived in Los Angeles for a year in an attempt to penetrate Hollywood. But in a cutthroat industry, it’s not as picture-perfect as Sunset Boulevard. “They don’t even want to talk to you unless you’ve done something big, or someone big recommends you,” he says.
With the risk and instability of the industry, Julian’s love for entertaining audiences trumps all else. “No studio executive can say if a movie is going to make money. They may say ‘Yeah it might do well’, but how do they know for sure? How many people can live with this uncertainty?” he laments.
Hollywood whitewashing and Asian stereotypes are also issues actors like Julian are constantly faced with in the West. Hollywood seems to have too strong a hold on the contributions of action legends like Jet Li and Bruce Lee, but Julian asks the question: “Why can’t we go further than that?”
On top of that, funding is a hurdle for Julian, an issue other independent filmmakers can resonate with. “Although it’s cheaper to make movies now because of digital technology, one of the hardest things ever [as a filmmaker], not just in Malaysia, is to raise money.”
This difficulty prompted Julian to make his own films within his own company, albeit cheaply. He’s a one-man production force, with credits in directing, acting, producing, distribution and marketing. But he prefers it this way, making it less of an obstacle to make the films he want to.
Making niche films also invites criticism, some of which have directed nasty names at him and questioned his clout. But Julian, resilient in his endeavour, is unperturbed about them. At the end of the day, his mission is to “make people feel good”.
“If people can go into the cinema and spend 75 minutes to laugh their heads off, I’ve done my job,” he says.
Gambling in comedy
Julian Cheah tries his luck making people laugh with Judi- Judi King Boss.
FINDING it tough to penetrate the local box- office market with English- language Malaysian films, director Julian Cheah decided to make a truly Malaysian film. His latest, Judi- Judi King Boss does not only feature English, but five other languages spoken in our country – Malay, Hokkien, Mandarin, Tamil and Punjabi.
“I found that Malaysian audience is not keen on watching English- Malaysian films even when a Hollywood star is acting in it! Michael Madsen starred in Prince Of The City, which also had top local stars, but it didn’t work,” explained Cheah.
The 2012’ s Prince Of The City was produced by Cheah, who starred alongside Madsen ( Reservoir Dogs), Jehan Miskin and Aaron Aziz.
The 54- year- old added: “As a businessman, it didn’t make sense for me to push forward with making more English films.”
In the case of Judi- Judi King Boss, Cheah was originally asked by a friend to write a screenplay for a film on illegal gambling, with only Malay and Chinese in the dialogue.
When the friend didn’t want to pursue with the completed script, Cheah decided to direct and produce the film himself. That’s when he decided to include the other languages as well.
But then, he was faced with a new obstacle. “There aren’t many actors who can speak Punjabi for example. In the end, I did get 20 people to participate ... most of whom have done some acting, although not in leading roles.
“Also, this is a comedy, so the actors didn’t need to do much intense acting that a drama would require. It was easy for them to be funny,” he explained.
Besides Cheah, the film also co- stars Gana, a local Indian actor whom Cheah first worked with when they both guest starred in a Kopitiam episode back in 2002.
“I had to track him down. Luckily, he was keen,” shared Cheah.
Others in the cast include Zhi Qian, Syalmizi Hamid, Syarmila Rastam, Sean Ho, Al Chan, Franciscus Nithya, Narvinderjit Singh and Tasvinder Sandher.
Since Cheah only speaks Hokkien and English, how did he even write the dialogue in other languages?
“I wrote in English, and let the actors change it themselves. If the other actors who spoke the same language had no problems with what was said, I was OK with it.”
The film marks the first time Cheah is venturing into comedy, something that he said was fun to do. His previous films Killer Clown ( 2010) is a horror flick and The Hired Killer ( 2005) falls in the action genre. Cheah also directed an Australia- made flick ala zombie- style titled Infected Paradise, which was nominated for Best Picture at the West Australian Screen Awards in 2014.
Judi- Judi King Boss revolves around Cheah’s character named Ah Boon, whose primary job is to find work for other people. When temporary work become scarce, Ah Boon has to think of other ways to make money for himself and the people who look at him for jobs.
He then chances upon the idea of starting an illegal gambling den at his neighbourhood.
After some resistance from his family and friends, Ah Boon forges ahead ... only to discover his new business encroaches on another illegal gambling outfit within the same area. Needless to say, things go south pretty fast from that point.
Ah Boon is also in the deep end where his relationship is concerned: his girlfriend finds out the money she gave Ah Boon for the purpose of her new restaurant has been turned into the gambling’s startup cash.
“All these confrontation scenes borne from Ah Boon’s action are presented in a comical way,” said Cheah. “I was going for slapstick comedy for Judi- Judi King Boss, similar to The Three Stooges Show style.”
Filmed in just two weeks in Penang, Judi- Judi features a majority of Penangites – including Cheah. “This is not a complex film,” attested the filmmaker who has been in the industry for 30 years.
“I want to test making a film like Judi- Judi King Boss, to see how it will be received. I have a feeling that it will work.
“From the response I have seen of people watching the trailer, I think I am on the right track.”
In the meantime, he hasn’t totally given up on making English films or trying out other genres. “I want to make an English love story with British actors next. I am developing a story that I want to film in Cornwall ( England),” stated Cheah.
MOTION PICTURE & TELEVISION
29 May 2016