Its 8:09 pm
sunny/spring/RIP Steve Cash
Welcome to *8 Questions with……”
I first met our next guest,film director Michael Wong,a couple of years ago. He had sent me a email me asking if the cheetah and I would review his debut film,”The Story of 90 Coins“. I agreed to take a look and was blown away with how good it was,it made our Best of List for 2018.
But as I often do with actors and directors,I stayed in touch with Michael. Many nights found me chatting with him about film and then life and family. I kept waiting to see what Michael would produce next and last year he finally dropped his second short film called “The Tattooist” which is a 90 second hayride to hell. I had never seen such pure creative storytelling done in a mere 90 seconds but Michael had done it and “The Tattooist” won several awards from around the world and it also made our Best of List last year.
Michael currently lives in Beijing,China and has gotten a front row seat of the Covid-19 pandemic and how China was handling it. Its been a very hard ordeal on hundreds of thousands of folks but they are really doing a great job in staying united and helping each other. I admire his grace under pressure outlook and tremendous courage while sheltering in place in his home.
I thought now would be a long overdue time to do a interview and so I asked Michael if he would like to share his story and below is his response. I hope you enjoy it as much as I liked conducting it…….
Please introduce yourself and tell us a little about you.
I was born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia but I’ve been working and residing in China since 1999. I started off building a career in the advertising industry as a visualizer, then climbed up the ladder as an Art Director and finally a Creative Director; having worked at such leading advertising agencies as Ogilvy, BBDO, TBWA, Grey and Saatchi & Saatchi. In 2010, I made a career jump to be a film director and I’ve never looked back ever since.
My directorial debut short film ‘The Story of 90 Coins’ picked up 60+ accolades from international film festivals; which includes the Best Direction and Best Cinematography at Malta Short Film Festival, Rising Star Awards at Canada International Film Festival, Best Foreign Short Film at Ukrainian International Short Film Festival, Best Drama and Best Cinematography at Los Angeles Film Awards, Best Foreign Short at Los Angeles Independent Film Festival Awards, among others.
My most recent micro-short film ‘The Tattooist’ has been awarded Best Trailer at HorrorHaus Film Festival, Best Gore, Best Editing and multiple nominations at Independent Horror Movie Awards, Most Terrifying award and multiple nominations at Top Indie Film Awards, Best Trailer at Terror In The Bay Film Festival, Best Director at Diabolical Horror Film Festival, Winners at Calcutta International Cult Film Festival and Cult Critic Movie Awards, among others.
Nowadays, I do film projects mainly in Greater China and on and off for Malaysia and the South East Asia region.
What was it like growing up in your home?
I grew up in Pudu, a slumpy district in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. Back then, my mom operates a hair salon in an old shop lot which also doubled up as a home for the family. The place was smacked right in the middle of a huge marketplace; a dense area with a rich potpourri of multi ethnics and assorted of trades. There was this large wet market that sells all sorts of fresh farm products. Encircling the place are pots and pans stalls selling snake oils and cheap goods, holes-in-the-wall dim sum places, VHS rental shops, cheap electronic shops, traditional Chinese medicine stores, sundry shops, etc.
Back home in the daytime, there were lots of activities going on at the hair salon. The customers were mostly shop owners and people from the neighborhood thus I’ve had tons of real-life stories and fascinating gossips to be immersed in. It was such a fascinating place to grow up in!
What three films did you watch as a youth have stayed with you and what made them so special?
Alien (1979): A classic, scary alien movie.
The Thing (1982): Another classic, scary alien movie.
Demons (1985 & 1986): Perhaps my first intro into gory (yet fun) horror flick during the VHS era. For a 13 years old teen, it was truly memorable; with certain scenes that stuck in my mind like an ice pick!
*Note that all 3 titles are R rated. For a 10+ years old child, it’s always a novelty to pick some off-limits genre upon walking into a VHS store.
How did you get your start in the film industry?
After more than 16 years in the ad industry and has won over 50 creative awards, I somewhat found myself getting more involved in a managerial role and office politics and less of the actual creative work.
Initially, I decided to have a long break from advertising and started freelancing as an Artistic Director for film production houses. Basically, my role was to help out with the local Chinese film directors in elevating the aesthetic look of their work. After a few projects, I was pondering if I should be helping myself craft a name of my own.
My first break into the filmmaking scene was as a writer/film director gig on a commercial project for Lenovo; a viral video campaign that was to be used in such markets as India, Russia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Turkey, South Africa, South East Asia, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Finally, I’ve taken a leap of faith and pursue a career as a film director on the receiving end; concentrating on film crafting and artistic expression.
What do you enjoy most about directing?
It’s most enjoyable when you see that the vision is built upon, layer by layer. The creative process from A-Z as your ‘baby’ is being realized; from concept, idea development, script, pre-production, production, and all the way up to post-production.
What are some of the pitfalls young directors should try and avoid?
Try: Doing freebies! It’s the best way to own a new piece of work. Since it’s a collaboration deal, it opens up a great opportunity to push for your wild ideas and have it accepted by the client or producer.
Worth trying: Don’t be afraid to copy and imitate other director’s styles. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.” Remember that!
Avoid: Avoid copying/ imitating directly! Only select things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. Then your work will be authentic.
How did you come up with the idea for “The Story of 90 Coins”?
Well, it started off with a jewelry company client of mine who wanted to jump into China’s digital bandwagon; the mass shifting of the advertiser’s marketing budget from traditional media to internet media phenomenon, and also to leverage the online video craze. Instead of doing a hard-sell advertisement, they wanted a less intrusive yet effective approach in their marketing strategy. The owner of the company specifically asked for a story that touches the heart and our team started off scratching our heads trying to make up some interesting romantic stories. We had a stroke of luck when my writer came across three interesting true stories that happened to her friends. Very touchy stories on their own merits. One of them involved the idea of embedding little memoirs with coins wrapped in small envelopes. The client eventually chose that story and we further spiced it up with our ideas and developed a concrete storyline.
Do you like to handle the casting of your projects or are you okay with casting directors?
Well, it really depends on the budget and the unique situation with each project.
For ‘The Story of 90 Coins’, we initially worked with a casting director. They came back to us with a stack of comp cards and casting videos for the 3 main roles. One candidate by the name of Han Dongjun was highly recommended by the agent for the male protagonist role. Following his ‘The Story of 90 Coins’ role, Han Dongjun catapulted into stardom after appearing in the popular Chinese drama series Wu Xin: The Monster Killer.
For the female role, we don’t have any good candidates as all that was shown to us looked superficial plastic look. Then, we got lucky and came upon Zhuang Zhiqi who was a friend of Han Dongjun’s acquaintance. It was her first time acting in front of a camera! She was in Hong Kong and she e-mailed us a home-made casting video and we immediately fell in love with her earnest performance.
The antagonist José Acosta was an acquaintance of the client and he is a shoe designer in real life.
For ‘The Tattooist’, I handled the casting myself and gotten the amazing ensemble from Troy’s Team Action. They also doubled up as the film production team! Brilliant and crazy-ass talented folks!
What is the relationship like between a director and a producer?
A director handles the creative side and its job is to dream it all up and be extravagant. The producer needs to ensure that it all happen on time and on budget, so their job is to conserve. The director and producer have opposing jobs, and this symbiotic relationship creates an important balance. The little tug-of-war between the producer and the director is necessary and healthy.
Why are cats the perfect pet?
I’ve owned both a dog (he passed away a few years back due to old age) and cats as a pet. Cats are perfect as they demand less attention from the owner. There’s no need to walk the cat during snow, rainy days nor any other days.
If you had a chance, would you like to make a feature for “The Tattooist”?
The idea for ‘The Tattooist’ started off from an escape room business that my business partners and I have created. I wanted a theme that players are yearning for; something that they would love to experience in a controlled environment but wouldn’t want to experience in real life, hence a horror theme.
‘The Tattooist’ which is currently in a micro-film form was written in a way that has the potential of becoming a full-length feature. There is so much potential backstory to build around the antagonist as well as those poor victims. Hopefully, ‘The Tattooist’ will gain enough traction to pique the curiosity of producers (Jason Blum & James Wan, please take note!) from Netflix and film studios alike.
You live in China; how have you been personally affected by the culture?
I arrived in Beijing in 1999 for a job posting in BBDO as a Senior Art Director. The country was pretty backward and raw back then. One of the more memorable snapshots of life back then was a minibus ride I had along Changan Avenue, the main boulevard in the capital. The minibus was kind of a dingy stuffy vehicle ran on diesel. As I stepped in, the bus conductor handed me a foldable wooden stool and mumbled a few words to me. I can’t speak a word of Mandarin during that early years so I can’t comprehend at all what he was saying. He pointed to the rear of the bus and I was flabbergasted to see some other passengers were sitting on stools in the middle of the aisle! Fast forward 21 years later and you can find that all the city buses are running on electricity. No more messy paper ticket but you pay either using a bus card or by tapping the smartphone on the scanner. It’s a crazy pace the progress that’s happening here.
In terms of career, I’ve been fortunate enough to work on some memorable campaigns during China’s best advertising period; the dotcom boom (and subsequent bubble burst) in 1999, the roaring economy from 2004 towards 2008 as brands capitalized on the Beijing Olympics. Then, there was the automotive industry boom in the early 2010, followed by the consumer-driven digital economy and now the Industry 4.0.
It has been a fruitful and amazing journey living through these China milestones and having personally being rewarded spiritually and economically throughout these years. Lots of ups but unfortunately some downsides as well, which includes 2 global pandemic that was SARS and now the SARS-CoV-2.
Do you feel the film industry can bounce back from a pandemic like this?
Even back in late 2018, China’s film industry was already affected by a State Taxation Administration campaign that tightens its tax policies and collection methods within the television and film business. The controls caused investors to pull the plug on new productions and even on-going projects.
To further aggravate the suffering, the Covid19 pandemic puts 5,000 Chinese film and TV firms out of business, as recently reported in Variety.
Being an optimist, I’m sure that the film industry will bounce back from this crisis but will be operating within a new ecosystem. In the near future, there’s no doubt that the film and TV industry will need to accelerate its pace of digitization and shifting online. This trend started a few years ago as the local Chinese players saw the success of Netflix’s major international expansion into 130 new territories (excluding China) in 2016. We have already seen the increase in budget and production quality of these web series and the focus will continue to do so.
Due to the pandemic, cinemas are still shuttered and ticket revenues are badly affected. Looking at all this, investors and studio producers will be more focused on internet-based movie and series.
The cheetah and I are flying over to watch your latest film but we are a day early and now you are playing tour guide, what are we doing?
First of all, the ‘must-see’ is the usual Beijing tourist attractions such as the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, Lama Temple, Drum & Bell Tower plus a tour to the old hutong (alleys) for a glimpse of old Peking. Another must-do recommendation is an overnight stay at the Simatai stretch of the Great Wall of China. Simatai offers a memorable experience of the unrestored part of the Wall with superb vista for sunset and night hiking along the Wall. For night activities, perhaps to catch a Chinese opera show and the famous Peking Duck feast in the capital. Foodies will love the Ghost Street, where a long stretch of restaurants operate 24/7 offering different choices of gourmet from various provinces around the country.
I like to thank Michael for taking the time to chat with me and with the bright hope that he and his fellow peers can get back to making films,look forward to his next project. I know Michael must be chomping at the bit to get behind of the camera once more!!
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Thank you for taking the time to read and supporting this interview.
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