Review: Kampung Tapir (2018)

Kampung Tapir, directed by Malaysian filmmaker See Wee Aw is a reflective drama about a Malaysian woman who travels to Singapore to work, and seeking a better life for her family. The ritual of travelling back and forth that is shared by countless others, is disrupted one day, when her bus knocks down a stray tapir.

Aw's body of work has seen him focus on  simple Malaysian lives, and a search for identity. His penchant for traffic and vehicles recurs in the film as well, having made an entire film in a traffic jam prior to this and the films climax includes the visual of a congested highway border, that is impactful as well as beautiful. This is juxtaposed shortly after the bus hits the tapir, which have been known to be knocked down by vehicles, or getting lost on highways. 

Thus though the animal is barely on screen, we can infer that there is an implied symmetry of displacement with the main character, as the tapir seeks its home and space in an ever developing countryside.

Whilst the story and themes itself are immediately important, I do personally feel that the tapir's appearance does come somewhat jarring. On a wide shot, the tapir never looks realistically integrated into the scene. I don't presume to know the methods implemented, however, it does look divorced from actuality and truth, for the realistic scenes with emotional moments the human actors are providing, which is a shame. The tapir itself then looks emotionally detached from the sequence, possibly because it was digitally inserted later on. 

This isn't just an issue with the tapir. You see issues of emotional disconnect, whenever you have one actor giving themselves emotionally to a co-actor that simply isn't present in the moment to reflect back within the scene.

There is an interesting manner in which Aw tries to circumvent this issue through the edit, that almost works. Initial shots of the Tapir are extreme close ups and details of the body, fur and eyes. Had he simply left it at that, I feel that somehow the Tapir's presence would have been more immediate and somehow also elevated and magical. Aw only does this briefly but in those moments, it felt larger than life. However, each time it goes to a wideshot, the lighting, the shadows and weight of the creature doesn't seem rooted in the level of verisimilitude required for it.

An odd similarity to this scene would actually have been a film pioneering in visual effects, in Jurassic Park of a sick triceratops. However, they used animatronics and could the scene shot in camera. Whilst it's not ideal to compare apples to oranges of a Hollywood film to a short indie, the sequence is extremely present and strong in the minds of pretty much anyone in the world, and of course sets a high bar in terms of believability, it's hard to then leap over this with Kampung Tapir's scene. In short, we have moved too far on, for the scene not to evoke this reaction.

Another odd Spielberg note, is that the animatronic for Jaws was so infamously unrealistic, that it was decided they would shoot the film as little of the animatronic as possible, which then made the film much better.

Regardless of this particular point of contention, which may or may not work for you, the film is still a timely and valuable portrayal of the struggles of the lower class in relation to concepts of identity and borders.


I was also able to ask Aw some questions regarding Kampung Tapir, to learn more. Here is some of the exchange:

I find myself seeing Kampung Tapir being paired and programmed with another Singapore film regarding identity and displacement, called Permanent Resident by Nicole Midori Woodford. Are you aware of this and have you guys spoken about your respective films?

Yes, I met Nicole since Clermont-Ferrand 2018, and then after Kampung Tapir & Permanent Resident were programmed together at Sea Shorts and the Singapore National Gallery screening. I guess it was frequently put together because of the similarities from a woman character and her perspective to the family? Also about permanent residency in Singapore?

Both of our film also portraits people searching for connection in this modern world. I really liked Permanent Resident and I thought it is a very detailed film, I'm looking forward to watch her future work

I’ve seen that the project was partly funded with some crowdfunding, and in there, you put up a lot of sketches and storyboards. I’m curious if this is a process you normally take and storyboard the entire film and do you tend to share them and pitch with drawn images  or was it part of marketing the crowdfunding campaign alone.

This is the first time I have sketched art for the shoot, as our film went to a Malaysian short film workshop called "Shortcuts", we thought it can give a better idea to the mentors (and also myself) about the visual tone of the film. 

The production designer of Kampung Tapir,  Fisshy Yee Yun Ping who is also a very talented graphic artist, she drew many sketches during our discussion. That's also helps us a lot to show in the crowdfunding page of course!

How much research did you spend on the Tapir itself and how did you go about filming with its scenes in mind? I suppose it would have been one of the hardest logistical issue you’d face?

I took around few months to research the Malayan Tapir, but mainly online information until we went to the The Malayan Tapir Conservation Centre to see the real one. 

PERHILITAN (Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia) did help us a lot & also keen to introduce this endangered animal to us. We decided to shoot it at the centre and using some digital visual effects to change the background in order the match it with the scene. 

First time "audition" for a Tapir was quite a nice experience, they are very tame, but while during the shoot day, maybe with the equipments and more people on set, they seems very afraid of us (because they might think the green matte is a trap, most of the tapirs in the centre were saved by the department from wildlife, they might encounter many traps made by the hunters before.) 

We took one whole daytime to shoot all the footages of tapirs, and used 5 different adult tapirs and 1 baby tapir for the shoot (you can actually check their names in the post credit), what an experience!

Why do you love scenes of traffic and congestion? And how hard is it generally to shoot in moving vehicles and on streets?

Stuck in a causeway to finding a better life, isn't that beautiful? I thought to show this traffic scenery that often happen in the borders could let the audience to have a better understanding of the worker's perspective. We knew that every Sunday night the Johor Bahru- Singapore Causeway will be full of workers going back for work, my producer Ooi Wei Seng found a perfect spot to film the scenery, which is a top floor of one of the hotel in JB. We waited for one whole night and the congestion only starts at around 10pm. I was quite shocked to see that as I never expect it to be so spectacular with people walking, we eventually got the shot around 12am which shown in the film.
The shot from the bus isn't that hard as to shoot in the causeway, as we rented the whole bus and the streets was in a quite rural place with lesser vehicles passed by.

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