Reel Life Stories: Saw Tiong Guan on 'Life in 24 Frames a Second'

John Woo offers pre-Hollywood stories of his life

Malaysian filmmaker Saw Tiong Guan’s recent documentary project reveals a bigger agenda beyond telling stories - a personal social mission. With his last film Wind, he raised money to buy school bags for children from financially-challenged families and sponsor children’s meals in schools. His latest documentary Life in 24 Frames a Second (Life in 24 Frames), will also help raise funds for charity. Life in 24 Frames is TV-friendly, assortment of filmmaker interviews that explores each filmmaker’s early inspirations and moments of epiphany. Every filmmaker featured seems to have had a rough coming-of-age, and a somewhat painful story to tell. In that pain, we see Saw’s genuine sensitivity to the human condition and the film itself also pays more attention to the life lessons within their stories than the art of filmmaking. An interesting counterpoint to this documentary is Southeast Asian Cinema - When the Rooster Crows, by Leonardo Cinieri Lombroso, which explores cinema from a more cultural and artistic standpoint, coincidentally also featuring four filmmakers.

For Life in 24 Frames, Saw has appropriately handpicked a stellar quartet of filmmakers across Asia including Anurag Kashyap of India, John Woo of Hong Kong, Lav Diaz of the Philippines and Rithy Panh of Cambodia. Each of these filmmakers recounts his (yes, the films lacks some gender diversity) experience growing up in adversity. Anurag speaks about enduring sexual abuse as a child and sleeping by the roadside when he moved to find work in the film industry. John Woo spoke of growing up amongst characters who would not look out of place in his films - gangsters. Lav Diaz and Rithy Panh each spoke about oppressive regimes that they survived, Philippines’ martial law in the 80s and the Khmer Rouge in the 70s. 

(Top) Anurag Kashyap; (Bottom) Saw Tiong Guan with John Woo

While the filmmakers recall with graphic memory their respective hard times, they also speak fondly of their escape bubbles, named cinema. Cinema is alluded to by each of the filmmakers as a playground or a religion. Footages from the filmmakers’ works, including Anurag’s Gangs of Wasseypur, Lav’s From What is Before, Rithy’s The Missing Picture interject their personal anecdotes, establishing the inspiration behind the films but also blurring the lines between their personal lives and the lives of the heroes and villains they created. John Woo is reminded of a line in A Better Tomorrow - ‘I’ll never let someone point a gun at my head’, a line that articulated a never-say-die attitude born out of growing up in the rough Shek Kip Mei shantytown. 

We caught up with Saw on the documentary and threw him some questions. And yes in case you were wondering, he is not related to the other Malaysian filmmaker Saw Teong Hin. 

What was your starting point in conceptualising this documentary? Was it led by a theme, a fanboy urge or a certain structure? 

I wanted to make a film about human triumph, how perseverance and hard work will eventually lead to success. As an admirer of John Woo's film, I have read articles about, and interviews with him, thus I know a bit of his background and thought of making a film about filmmakers who have survived tragedies and hardships. I did some research on other filmmakers and became very interested to tell Anurag Kashyap, Rithy Panh and Lav Diaz's stories as well.

Each of the filmmakers recount challenging coming-of-age circumstances. Are you trying to draw a correlation between pain and suffering and filmmaking? 

No, I'm not trying to draw a correlation between pain and suffering and filmmaking. I'm interested in how one's childhood, upbringing and experiences will shape who he or she is today. I did that with Tsai Ming-Liang on Past Present and Christopher Doyle on Wind. I'm keen to explore this further with Life in 24 Frames a Second 

What was your process of getting the filmmakers to share their stories like? Did you spend a lot of time interacting with them or breaking the ice before the actual interview? 

Generally, I didn't spend a lot of time with them prior to the interviews. We met on that particular day and minutes later we start filming. 

With John Woo, I wrote him a letter explaining to him about the theme of this film. I also told him that it's for charity where we will be donating all the money generated by the film to charities to help children go to school and to get nutritional meals. With Anurag Kashyap, I met him in Malaysia two years before the interview. By that time I already knew I have to include him. A common friend introduced us and we had dinner together and I told him about the project and why I want to do it. Two years later, we arrived in Mumbai, met him in his office and started shooting. With Rithy Panh, I wrote to him and met him in Malaysia. Same thing, I explained to him what I'm trying to do. He agreed and a week later we went to Phnom Penh to interview him. With Lav Diaz, I got to him through Khvan de la Cruz, a letter and he replied to say 'yes, see you in manila'. 

The production team with Lav Daz

Cutaway moments in India

Rithy Panh in his studio in Phnom Penh

I'm very grateful that they are so generous in sharing their personal stories and experiences. 

Any interesting parts of the interviews did not make it into the final cut? 

There were some interesting bits like how Rithy Panh escaped from Cambodia and walked into Thailand; more details about the places Anurag grew up in and the people he encountered there; filmmaking tips from master Woo; and more details of the martial law in Philippines from Lav. 

Outside of film, I understand you are a law lecturer, what drew you into filmmaking initially? 

I've always wanted to be a filmmaker. I realised there is this person, known as Director, who is responsible in creating the film. I was about 12 or 13 years then and the film was Terminator 2. I remember watching a VHS tape on the making of the film and there James Cameron was explaining about how he made the film. That got me very very interested and I try to read as much as I can about it. By the time I finished high school, there is still no film school in Malaysia. Even if there is one, my parents can't afford to send me there and I think they won't even if they can afford it. So, I ended up doing law but at the back of my mind, I've always wanted to make films

Interview by Jeremy Sing

Life in 24 Frames was last screened at the Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy.

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