STOP10 Nov 2017: 'Nyi Ma Lay' by Chiang Wei Liang

Commissioned for the 28th Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF), Nyi Ma Lay is the latest outing from filmmaker Chiang Wei Liang which will have its world premiere during the festival, competing in the Southeast Asian Short Film Competition, screened under Programme 1. The Singapore-born director is an alumni of the illustrious Golden Horse Film Academy, mentored by the greats of Taiwanese cinema such as auteur Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Continuing with the rich vein that he started with Anchorage Prohibited, his previous work which won Best Short Film at the Taipei Film Awards, Nyi Ma Lay is a dreamy social realist wordless odyssey that observes the life of a distraught young domestic helper.

SINdie was very fortunate to be granted a chance to speak to the director about his newest work before its slated world premiere at the 28th SGIFF on the 1st of December.

Following Anchorage Prohibited, Nyi Ma Lay seems to be a continuation of your exploration of the travails of migrant workers, what attracts you to the subject matter?

Yes, it is a continuation. We had this opportunity to make this film because of the one I had made last year about migrant workers and I thought it was only right that I should continue to try and highlight the plight of migrant workers in their host countries. As a person from a lower middle-class background, it is difficult to pursue my craft in Taiwan and make a living at the same time but I can only imagine how much more difficult it is for my other Southeast Asian friends who have come here to work.

Nyi Ma Lay speaks from my experience in Taiwan, and you can see that legislation is not very welcoming towards foreigners. It is not in place to protect their rights. I felt affinity for this project and its theme; hence I made Anchorage Prohibited and Nyi Ma Lay. With the latter film, when I was back home in June to discuss with the Festival team what I wanted to make for my next film, there was this incident where a domestic worker leapt to her death and there were videos about it circulating around. My first contact with this incident was this screenshot of a video where she was behind a ledge, looking into the direction of the camera. Even though the picture was noisy and unclear, you could not mistake bleakness and sadness of the situation. It really shook me and I was really angry about it. It is not the first incident this year, and definitely won’t be the last and I feel that this should not be happening for a country like ours.

The film to me is a reconstruction of that picture I had seen and the story behind it. It’s not just a screenshot but also emblematic of that incident, of how we treat people here. This incident happened in June, and with the Festival happening near the end of this year, I hope my film can create some dialogue about the plight of these helpers. It will be hard (to effect change), but this is what I think our films should do – that is why I made it in the first place.

How have you treated the subject matter differently here than in Anchorage Prohibited?

It is not much different except for the execution. The principles I have for making my films remains the same. I try to go for non-professional actors and create real-life situations that they may find themselves in. That aside, everything else is the same. I focus and highlight these issues that people see, but choose to ignore or overlook. My works so far remain consistent in highlighting these issues, so I won’t say there has been much difference as they convey and deliver my thoughts and feelings towards that subject matter.  If you’re interested, you can come and take a look at Nyi Ma Lay, together with other wonderful short films from the region.  

How much personal import do your own experiences factor into Nyi Ma Lay? I’m referring here to your relocation and closeness to Taiwan, how has your time away from home shaped or influenced your views on the topic?

I wouldn’t say my time away from Taiwan or Singapore has shaped my views because I think the issues that the migrants face – discrimination and hardship – are real human issues and real human emotions, which are all universal themes that are consistent with how migrant workers are treated across the world. I’m fortunate enough because I was born in Singapore and that itself is a privilege most of my other friends don’t have. If circumstances were different, I would be just like one of the migrants as well. In a way, I am already like one of them when I’m working overseas or in Taiwan.

I am fortunate enough to be doing white-collar jobs and not suffer so much in that sense. I would say that it’s not easy working or living overseas - I would assume that and do think it’s the same everywhere you go. You’ve once mentioned that your mentor, director Hou Hsiao-hsien, often repeats the mantra that “cinema must come from non-cinema”, a lesson that, judging by the social realism that marks your two latest works, has been well heeded.

Do you intend to continue exploring or telling stories of similar ilk or are changes in order?

As for that saying, I won’t say that I’m there yet, as compared to giants like him. But it’s a teaching I intend to stay true to for as long as I do film and execute it to the best that I can. Whenever I stray, that line would always come back to me, and I will be reminded on what is important in making a film – which are its integrity, authenticity and the realism. Honestly, I think that experimenting or telling stories in that manner is very important and not something I would change. It is something I will hold very closely to myself.

Hopefully, I will not let him, the veterans or even the new wave movement down.  I wouldn’t really say he’s my mentor in that sense, because I feel we are all indebted to him in one way or another. His approach to looking at things, how to shoot and what his notions are about certain things are something that I really agree with and I try and adopt it as much as I can.

Four short films in, your voice as a writer-director is coming along nicely, do you intend to make the leap to feature films anytime soon?

Yes, I would and hope to do so in the next 2-3 years. I would still like to continue making short films. The films I’ve made so far are part of my ongoing project to make 10 short films linking Taiwan to each ASEAN country. I’ve done Singapore, Vietnam, Philippines and will keep continue doing the rest to the best of my abilities. If the opportunity comes along to make a feature, I will definitely take it.

Where do you see your body of work in relation with the rest of Singapore cinema? Do you see Taiwanese cinema as the natural and spiritual home of your work instead?

I was born in Singapore and got my film education in Taiwan. These two points of influence are going be a part of me, so I would not see myself as a Taiwanese filmmaker, or that I make films of Taiwanese or Singaporean nature. I feel all these labels are pretty unnecessary because all the things I have done, I have tried to talk about issues in Asia that are overlooked in mainstream media within Singapore or Taiwan.

I try to see myself as a filmmaker who makes films about universal issues, emotions or themes that are Southeast Asian in nature, as well as the universal nature of the human condition. These things can transcend borders or barriers. I would see myself as a Southeast Asian filmmaker if there is a label but I’m not willing to be co-opted as a Taiwanese or Singaporean filmmaker or even anything – I just want to be known as a filmmaker who tells stories through the prism that is most Southeast Asian.

In that sense, this echoes SGIFF, which is an event, held in Singapore. The films they have and their programming all links back to the region. I hope I can achieve that someday but I’m still not there yet. I’m still learning and we will see where it goes. I take my cues from Edward Yang’s films, where this boy goes around taking photos of the back of people’s heads. When asked why he did that, he replied saying it was to show to others, exactly because the back of the head could not be seen. It's the same with me. I try to show what people see but choose to ignore or overlook, and hopefully create some dialogue to effect change.

Images courtesy of the 28th SGIFF

Catch Nyi Ma Lay as part of Programme 1 of the Southeast Asian Short Film Competition at the 28th SGIFF.

1 Dec, Fri, 7:00 PM
National Gallery Singapore
Various Countries, 2016, 2017, 107min
Various Languages            
Ticketing details here.

Interview by Koh Zhi Hao

For the full list of November 2017's 10 films under STOP10, click here.
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