by Yusuf Martin
Perak once again rings to the unique, and some might say quite mystifying, sounds of camera tracks being laid, spotlights being erected, dollies being pushed, best boys, props masters, carpenters, costume designers, an earnest producer wrangling and an eminent director directing. Yes, the illustrious and industrious film people are back in town.
For more than a delicious decade Perak has been a favoured spot for enterprising film crews, be they TV or cinematic. Malaysia’s lushly green and mountainous state draws eagle-eyed location hunters like bees to nectar, mainly due to its immense natural beauty, and because it still has enough antique buildings left standing to represent any number of bygone ages. Though, at the present rate of ‘renovation’ and upgrading, one wonders if Ipoh and its surrounds will have any aged buildings left the next time a film company comes to call.
Back in the early 1990s, a Gitane smoking, baguette munching French film crew descended upon Perak, bringing the illustrious, and, I for one, might also say quite delectable, Catherine Deneuve with them. There they made that masterpiece of French cinema – Indochine (1992). It is rumoured that a certain Robert Raymer, Malaysian writer- par excellence, also had a cameo role in that film. Time moves inextricably on and a little later the English film Director John Boorman brought Patricia Arquette to Perak, to shoot Beyond Rangoon (1995).
Anna and the King with Chinese actor Chow Yun Fat followed in 1999. Local film maker Amir Mohammad made his, subsequently banned, The Last Communist, here, released unseen in 2006, while another local boy, local to Ipoh that is – Patrick Teoh, TV/movie star, writer and former radio personality, starred in Kinta 1881 (2007), also made around Perak. In the very same year Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon man, Ang Lee, got us all hot and bothered by filming Lust, Caution (2007) in and around Ipoh’s old town. Maybe the kopi drew him.
Now it is the turn of local film and TV director Bernard Chauly, Red Communications and Astro TV, who are making an eight-part series concerning the Second World War heroine, mid-wife and resistance fighter Sybil Kathigasu.
Filming started recently in Papan, utilising local traditional houses as well as the actual building where Sybil had set up her dispensary and, later, free clinic. Bernard Chauly, known for his recent film Pisau Cukur (Gold Digger, 2009), and Goodbye Boys (2006) has brought Elaine Daly, former Miss Malaysia (2004), known for her numerous film and TV roles, to play the role of the brave Sybil Kathigasu. This is entirely fortuitous, as Ms Daly is a dim distant relative of Sybil’s.
The Astro Citra eight piece series, of one-hour episodes, which incidentally forms part of the Suatu Ketika (a Time in the Past) sequence, has a working title of Apa Dosa Ku (What is my Sin). This new TV series follows Sybil from the Japanese occupation of Ipoh, to its eventual liberation, by the British. The TV series comes after the enormously successful theatre production – Sybil, which was a two-act play directed by Dato Faridah Merican (2008) based upon Sybil’s collective memoirs – No Dram of Mercy (1954).
In October of 2009 a resounding call went out for local participants to appear at auditions in November. Actors, extras, Eurasians, Chindians, Malays, Indians and an assortment of other races were needed to appear in this new production of the Sybil story. Many came but few were chosen. One local enthusiast, Audrey Poh, Ipoh book club member, part founder of Perak Heritage Society, former committee member and secretary of the Perak Society of Performing Arts answered that call. In the Red Communications production for Astro Citra, Audrey girds her loins to play Sybil’s best friend, and the godmother to Olga, Sybil’s older daughter.
Law Siak Hong, esteemed current president of Perak Heritage Society, creator and curator of the Papan museum for everything Sybil, has been working closely with producer Angela Rodrigues, director Bernard Chauly and their hard working film crew, to make everything run as smoothly as possible during the shooting for the production.
Contrary to what I have written above, the Red Communications film crew have been diligently subtle in their approach to film making, perhaps adhering to Star Trek’s Prime Directive (Starfleet’s General Order #1) of non-interference. Despite the film crew working in the town, Papan is barely disturbed. It is only the interior ‘shots’ which require some minute disruption to daily lives, with puzzled house residents looking on, perhaps somewhat bemused by the coming and goings.
‘Apa Dosa Ku’ (What is my sin) airs on Astro Citra channel in March 2010. It is an eight-part series, of one-hour episodes, under the Suatu Ketika banner.
Who knows, maybe, someday, someone might make a film of Tash Aw’s The Harmony Silk Factory, set in and around the Kinta Valley.