A Little Bit More Me: Catching up with Tan Chui Mui


Saturday. Three days after Barbarian Invasion’s Malaysian premiere at the Lotus Five Star Coliseum Theatre, I sat down and interviewed Mui who was fresh after a birthday lunch with friends. She appeared light and youthful. Jing Xuan, an intern with Da Huang Pictures, brought a banana and placed it on the table. It was a gift for Mui, with a special birthday message carved on its skin.

I switched on my audio recorder and adjusted my phone strategically to my side. It was ready with my drafted questions, so I was fully prepared for a proper interview. Then, I changed my mind and decided to let Mui know that it could just be a conversation. I was hoping that she could share her thoughts freely and intuitively.

Mui agreed, and playfully kicked off the interview herself.

~

Mui: OK! I’ll interview you first - how do you feel after watching the film? What do you think?

Chloe: Oh, alright! First of all, Happy Birthday, Mui!

Thank you. I just realised you’ve known me for quite a long time - six years is it?

Has it really been six years?

Yes, since 2015 until right now.

Wow, that’s quite a while. And yes, I loved the film!

Thank you.

I felt it reminded me of Love Conquers All quite a bit

Really? How come!

It's because of the intriguing narrative style where you seem to make fun of the characters by trapping them in their own plot that is made known to them.

Ah yes, I think after making long films and watching them again I realised I am very interested in narrative and storytelling. Particularly, I like observing how people weave stories of their own lives - you know, how they ‘narrate’ who they are.

In that way, Barbarian Invasion is a bit different from the first two films I had made.

It’s not as compact?

Yes, for example, in Love Conquers All, the girl’s story is told to her in the middle of the film. In that way, Love Conquers All and Year Without a Summer have a distinct and clear structure to them - a first part, a second, and then a third.

In comparison, Barbarian Invasion may not be as clear or rounded in its structure, but it’s still the same thing I was exploring. In this case, the story is told to the audience (and the characters) early in the film and then we see that the film unfolds exactly as it was told to us (and them).

In the first half of the film, we already know what kind of film they were going to make.

I guess it’s a bit Hitchcockian! [laughs] I let the audience know what my characters are going to do…


[laughs] Yes, yes. As I watched the film and recalled back to your previous works, I thought: ‘Oh, Mui is making fun of herself this time, as opposed to her making fun of the characters’.

Oh, now since I am in it and the film is about filmmaking? Yes, I think that largely comes from my deep interest in observing how people talk about themselves. I realised that a lot of the things that people say about themselves are fictionalised.

For example, if I ask you, ‘Who are you?’, you would then tell me a story - about yourself - but it’s constructed. And it’s always really coherent somehow. Like you’d maybe say, ‘I am now a filmmaker maybe because I saw this movie when I was a kid’.

Even me, I always have the same story: ‘I have a sister who was a good storyteller and she used to create comic books’ or ‘she had this idea she wanted to make into a film’. These have sort of been my standard answers.

Somehow, I think, most people, we look for -- because story is cause and effect, right? So we would seek for the cause of our own lives - how or why we become who we are now. In reality, things may not have happened the way we think they did. But we would look back at our past and pick the points to weave into a narrative structure that would make sense to us.

By doing that we’re trying to make our lives seem coherent. But we’re actually just picking the parts we like and fitting them together so it’d form a sort of cause and effect chain…


So-called self-identity is like that. On a bigger picture, history is like that. When we say we are Chinese, it’s also like that. It’s a story we form together.

Like a network or map of information?

Yeah, so for a small unit like the self, it’s like that too. A country is like that. We always seem to need a story. Maybe that’s my obsession - story telling.

I also feel like you’re having a lot of fun in the film.

Yes, I always have fun.

Like, making this film makes you feel more alive?

Mm. I think for a creator or anybody who desires to make something, it is for sure a process we enjoy doing very much. For me it could be a game or something I could have fun doing. I mean, there are not many things in life that can make you feel alive. Some people find that feeling from falling in love. Not many things can replace the emotions felt during the experience. It’s so different. It’s not just the good things, the happiness; it’s the sadness and doubt too, always with deep intensity. Maybe in those states you just feel yourself more. Making films or creating something can feel like that as well.

Definitely, I think, as artists we need that.

It gives you a feeling like you’re slightly floating above the floor.


I mean for sure, you need to be slightly detached from the practical world, watching from an ‘outside’ perspective. It’ll also give you a sort of tool to get away from the trouble in life; you’d see the hardships in life as a subject.

Something to observe? Or to make fun of?

Yes. Maybe people do this detached thing in meditation but I feel we also do that with film. It’s like you’re looking at your life from another place. Yes, you may be able to laugh at it from that position but you’d also be able to reflect. So I think this is one of many attractive things about making films... It could be something useful for your own life. I mean I’m not saying you’d reach a transcendent state, but you would be sort of above all the worldly problems and then you can start making fun of it or see it differently.

Is it like you’re in a different realm or dimension?

It’s more like being able to see things like a game.


When you’re inside the ‘life’ itself and you’re drowning in all the problems [Mui gestures toward some invisible objects next to our table, as if pushing them away], you’re actually quite miserable.

But once you make a film or write a novel or when you create something, this ‘life’ thing [She gestures again toward the invisible objects, this time waving them away] would not be bothering you as much... [realises what she is doing, she laughs at the silliness, continues gesturing at the invisible shapes] … This virtual world...

Yes, I totally understand that. Your comment kind of intrigues me because I think since around 2018 or 2019, Southeast Asian filmmakers seem to be more interested in making ‘self-aware’ films or ‘film-in-a-film’ like Samui Song or By The Time It Gets Dark.

I feel it’s the storytelling style, and not really the ‘film-in-a-film’ thing. Apichatpong’s Mysterious Object at Noon began inspiring me with its narrative and storytelling style. There seems to be something ‘above’ the story and the film itself…

Like an added layer of reality?

Yeah. I think my film and Samui Song are similar in the ‘film-in-a-film’ way, but Mysterious Object at Noon is just on another level, I think. It’s so different.

Do you discuss this with your filmmaking peers or question how or why this particular subject interests you and your peers currently?

I wasn’t really interested in the ‘meta-film’ aspect of it. Instead, I was just interested in myself. I was exploring who I am, reflecting on my own life, and I just happen to be a filmmaker.

I think a filmmaker’s life is just like that - writing a script, talking about film with friends… Then in their film they create a world where there are no other films that exist. It’s not that I want to make a film in a film - it’s just mostly how our life is: we want to make a film so we spend a long time talking about it, preparing for it. Then we shoot it, and the film is finished. If you see it plainly, Barbarian Invasion’s structure is exactly like that, right? It’s really about a boring filmmaker’s life - going to a small town, talking about making this film, and then they make the film, and you see the film pan out and finish. It’s actually pretty flat if you think about it. But because of certain interesting story designs you get excited about it and start associating it with ‘meta-films’ or ‘self-awareness’.

My intention was never to make a ‘meta-film’. It’s just a story about a normal filmmaker's life; our normal lives.

For example, I always find Hong Sang Soo’s films interesting, although they’re all kind of the same.

I remember back in 2018 or 2019, when you were developing your film, you began from the route of mockumentaries. How did that mature into this film now?

I think the whole thing started when Chinese filmmaker Wang Hong Wei, who I think was part serious and part joking, said he wanted to cast me in a female spy movie. This was in Shanghai...

Yes, you mentioned in the latest Barbarian Invasion behind-the-scenes video.

In Shanghai, I already had a rough idea for a small, low budget sci-fi film. Quite similar to this film now in the sense that I wanted to make a genre film with a small budget of just RMB 1M. I even had the title, but it’s a Fassbinder-esque title, ‘I Just Want You to Love Me’. It was about a young girl who invents an A.I. programme and she tries to make the A.I. fall in love with her.

Cool!

Then from there I went to Beijing and during lunch with Wang Hong Wei, he asked me to act in his spy movie. I was interested because many years ago I used to train in Fighter’s Street in Phuket. I’ve always wanted to go back so I asked him if he could send me to Phuket for three months to train for the action sequences.

Then you know, as a filmmaker, I started having an itch after playing around with the idea, and I told him, “I’ll make the film instead and cast you (Wang Hong Wei) as the director!” The film would then be about an independent filmmaker from China who casts an actress who had passed her prime and sends her to Phuket to train. As she goes through the training, the investor pulls out from their investment and the film is cancelled. But the actress with all this newfound skill decides to join MMA and eventually finds herself there. So I went, “yes, I’ll make this film!”

I actually attempted to do it, in mockumentary form. The way I wanted to do it would have been - the director in the film sends a B-team to follow this actress along in her training. But as you know, at the last minute I had to bring my son along which was a proper disruption; so it became a mockumentary with a surprise element.

The whole thing turned into a disaster, we totally lost control. At that time, the title of my film was still I Just Want You to Love Me. But when my son came along and disrupted the shoot, I changed the title to Barbarian Invasion with an added element of the kid.


Now with the new kid element, I changed the plot - so instead of the actress becoming a MMA fighter, I wrote that her son gets kidnapped which leads her to fight gangsters in Thailand.

That proves to be better. 

Yes. So, every time there is a new element, I could actually add it into the plot of the film. It’s quite improvised. I still wanted to make it in mockumentary form. All that was in July 2019.

Well, I continued writing the script. Then I met Ming Jin in October. He read my script and heard my idea and completely objected to the mockumentary form. He thought it would be a waste for my script because he liked the story. He felt I should shoot it properly.

Interesting.

In the end, the film felt very much like a group project. If I just followed my own way, Barbarian Invasion would very much have stayed a mockumentary.

Ming Jin sat with me once a week to help me with my script progress, . Oh, and it was his idea to cast Pete Teo as the ‘director’. If it was still Wang Hong Wei, the role would have turned comedic. [laughs] I talked to Pete a lot too about the film, and he helped me a bit with the script as well!

The ex-husband character in the film was originally supposed to be a director and his name was ‘NYU’ because his biggest achievement was being an NYU graduate.

So, that’s why the character’s name now is ‘Julliard’?

Mui: Yes, but the joke is not as obvious but we just left it in. There were a lot of inside jokes that meant something to us and it was just for fun.

Care to share some of these inside jokes?

Some were just for my own amusement so I’m not sure if it’s worth talking about them… Anyway, I am also a fan of Phillip K. Dick--

Adnan’s t-shirt!

That is the very obvious one. Another one is if you see Adnan’s shop, it is called ‘Ubik’.

That’s cool, I missed that one when watching. Perhaps on second viewing I can catch more of these easter eggs.

The ‘Ubik’ signboard is pretty clear but no one ever talks about it. Ubik is about the afterlife world that is sort of half-life, you’re not really sure if you’re dead or alive; or if things are real. So I thought there’s a bit of that in that part of the film.

There’s a lot of Phillip K. Dick stuff I peppered in the film. I mean if you’ve not read Ubik you might not catch these small hints I left here and there. Because so far, no one has picked it up and talked about it. It was shown in China and maybe the audience there couldn’t catch the english words on the signboard.

Maybe some audiences who get the easter eggs will emerge once the film opens here in Malaysia.

I guess audiences do catch some sci-fi references I made, but just not the Phillip K. Dick ones.

Were you also playing on action or spy movie cliches? And the part of the film with the action movie plot - I was wondering were some of them intentionally made to look fake? Because the pay-off in the end was quite effective.

Yes, we made references to action movies, and martial arts films too! During the martial arts aspects of the film, there were many references to martial arts films. When Master Loh kicked Moon towards the wall, that was from a Bruce Lee scene! We copied pretty much exactly.

During pre-production there were many more scenes where we were supposed to copy all these films especially during the training scenes. We copied Million Dollar Baby’s hairstyle; we were supposed to copy the scene where Rocky trains with a chicken. In the end we took many of these out because it would make the training process too long.

The Bourne Identity scenes were meant to be copied more faithfully but we understood we didn’t have the budget, so we just decided to make it funny.

I love that you’re having so much fun playing around with these references.

Yes, there are many! Like the name of the character I play, ‘Moon Lee’, is an homage to the Hong Kong actress who did action and martial arts films in the 80s. The Sifu (Master Loh) quotes a lot from Bruce Lee too! Like the one about “expressing yourself and being honest with yourself.”

The questions in the film are questions I asked myself too when I read and learned about martial arts. For example, what does it really mean: be honest with yourself?

Moon in the film asks, “What is myself?”, and she gets bashed by the Sifu… So pathetic…

The question is real though, it’s genuinely what I ask myself. I wish to ask Bruce Lee, “what is ‘honestly expressing yourself’ in martial arts? Tell me!.” I am able to see that Bruce Lee is someone who truly expresses himself and he shines so brightly, but I personally have not found the answer yet.

It’s a good scene.

That scene is my own interpretation - what is yourself? The most basic aspect of the self is our survival instinct, our fear of death. Our first instinct is to not want to die, and so we protect ourselves.

Then in another scene where she - Moon - lost her memory, that is another question. Imagine waking up from a coma with no prior memory of who you are, and you wake next to a group of refugees, naturally

You’d assume you’re part of them.

Yes. Although I must admit I didn’t act so well in that scene. It was supposed to feel like she truly thought she was one of them.

I love that scene very much actually.

The shoot was really difficult and we had to cut a scene with dialogue so I didn't express it the way I wanted to. Moon was supposed to wake up and she could already speak the same language as the refugees on the beach… But there were too many difficulties so it didn’t work out well.

That’s a shame

In the script, there was supposed to be a full dialogue scene among Moon and the refugees.

That would have been a nice addition, but I love that whole sequence from when Moon washed up ashore up until when she met Adnan. I loved when he was trying to figure out her identity but she confused him because she could speak so many different languages having retained muscle memory. I really love that.

I lost the details of that part.

Although your film addresses the question of identity in different ways, I just love how you ask that question by your playfulness on language and nationality - the Burmese refugees, Moon subconsciously already knowing many languages, Moon’s racial ambiguity.

Of course there are a lot of copied elements from The Bourne Identity!

I’m glad I have not watched The Bourne Identity yet so I could watch your film properly without the added distraction.

So you missed all of the references! There are a few scenes we copied shot by shot! It really helped us to storyboard the film… Other action movies too...

Wow… A shortcut to make a film.

Yeah, the references might be too much of a distraction…

Maybe it won’t, after the audiences are able to see your intention behind all these playful easter eggs, it might elevate their experience... It is interesting that you seem to meditate on the ‘self’ in several stages or worlds - the film world, the martial arts world, motherhood, spirituality, acting and performance, love, or even life. Are you trying to tell us that for you, finding your voice or your strength in film is parallel with your growth in all these different worlds that you find yourself simultaneously involved in?

I think the real central theme is “everything is a sword”. If we can see life as a film, then you won’t be too miserable or obsessed - we should see how everything is fiction. History- it’s all about interpretation and how you construct cause and effect.

The way I portray Moon - she is walking on water as if she reached enlightenment but the next scene we see she is still stuck in her life problem. I mean I am still exhausted with my own life. I hope I can walk on water but in fact I still have to deal with reality.

But this film state is a state you can use to remind yourself; using it as a tool to look at your life as a film or novel; and understand that it is all constructed. But it doesn’t mean you don't have problems in life anymore. You can go in and out, at least it works like a door you can use to look back and reflect.

I still have anxiety about making my next film! I have a few ideas but I still worry about ticket sales or publicity… and standard practical life problems. But at least I can return to this quote “everything is a sword”.

I enjoy this idea you’re saying that to make sense of the sufferings of real life, you put the absurdity of it on paper. Did you watch Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie?

Yes! Is that the one where they kept looking for a bar or a restaurant?

Yeah, in the end they walk into a stage set for a dinner party. They didn’t know it was all fake.

I like how Luis Bunuel makes films - more freedom. I also like Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence. That one is not really ‘film-in-a-film’ but more like a mockumentary.

I also find it funny how a lot of people who have watched your film are interested to ask questions about feminism and motherhood. In the screening at LFS Coliseum Cinema, I remember you say you don’t identify yourself as a mother, and prefer to identify yourself as a film director. Also, I remember you used to question the act of female directors who document (or use as central subject matter in their works) their motherhood or femininity

I don’t think I was really ‘questioning’ that [laughs] I think I was saying that in Japan, there are a lot more experimental filmmakers and they are mostly female. I think it’s because they are not part of the industry so they tend to make more personal films and film themselves. I love Naomi Kawase for example.

I just don’t really see myself in that way. I am not interested in making films like documenting my childbirth or exploring being a mother. Before this I never really wanted to cast myself in my own film as well. Though I did mention a few times that I have problems seeing myself as a feminist.

In Barbarian Invasion, you can see that the film is not really about me being a mother. It’s just coincidentally part of the story because my kid came in and I thought it should be written in. That part of the film only takes place in the beginning portion as well. I really have no interest to go too deep into that - I mean, I kept the titlebut it’s really not about the kid. I mean, the motherhood aspect of my life definitely opened up something or damaged something that brought me on this narrative search, but in the end my search has nothing to do with the kid or me being a mother.

I mean, I must admit that I complain about it, of course. [laughs] It’s just not the central theme.

Yes, I think that’s an important thing to share and be honest about.

I understand that the film touches on these subjects that relate to many women and their personal struggles; and even men as well - that once you become a parent you have to sacrifice your career or your dream.

But interestingly, what I am currently experiencing now is still the same as what my character complains about in the film - people assume that I should be talking about motherhood or that I should be a feminist. Even producers and sales representatives push the aspect of motherhood and female director just because it

has perceived value?

Yes. It’s not that I oppose it, I just don’t want it to be the focus of my work. I am a woman, I am a mother or I am a Malaysian Chinese for example. But is that everything?

I think it’s great that you’re sharing this because I do want audiences to be able to see the film as more than just about you being a mother coming to terms with this new part of your life. It’s also about your desire for play, storytelling and invention!

I have other interests too! Like my interest in martial arts is real! [laughs]


I understand that, because I can see from the film that there are all these different things you’re trying to show us. I especially love the self-mocking aspects you scatter throughout the film. Maybe you want to show us more, it’s just not enough time. [laughs]

I remember being asked in two interviews about me as a director sharing my intention of the film. I like reading reviews and seeing the many interesting and different interpretations. I don’t think I can really say or talk about everything I meant to do for the film.

I like this quote Bruce Lee says, but it’s actually from a Zen text: “A finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. The finger is needed to know where to look for the moon, but if you mistake the finger for the moon itself, you will never know the real moon.” You know, like, the teacher points to the moon but the students look at the finger instead? So the moon is lost. It’s called Pointing to the Moon…

Another one I really like, in Abbas Kiarostami’s film The Wind Will Carry Us, this character was driving to this village which was in a remote place. He was driving and anxiously calling to ask the villager for directions. The villager just asked him a simple question: “have you seen the big tree?” He then asked them which tree are you talking about? There are so many trees! Then the villager replies, “ah so you haven’t passed the big tree”. So he drove and drove and finally he saw it - the big tree - and there is no question about it.

I want to show you the moon, but you’re looking at my finger… So I just can’t tell you what to look for, really. It will be different.

Then there are these questions about enlightenment or if I’ve found myself--

Do they really ask you that?

Yes! And my answer is - I don’t think I’ve seen the big tree yet. I just often find myself asking - Is this it?

~

The interview ended with this question lingering in the air.

I took some silly photographs of Mui, wished her happy birthday one more time, and bid her goodbye as she left for another party with friends.

All the best, Mui! I hope more people will watch Barbarian Invasion, and that you'd continue feeling just as alive making your next film.


Interview and photos by Chloe Yap.
Film stills courtesy of DaHuang Pictures.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Chloe Yap is an experimental filmmaker and video artist who is curious about the expressions of identity, love, intimacy, as well as their hypocrisies and contradictions.

Barbarian Invasion follows actress Moon, played by Tan Chui Mui, who takes up her old collaborator's offer on a lead role in a do-your-own-stunts film despite having not acted for 10 years. The film, directed Tan Chui Mui, won the Jury Grand Prix at the Golden Goblet Awards in conjunction with the Shanghai International Film Festival. Catch the trailer here.

Barbarian Invasion is screening at the LFS Coliseum, Kuala Lumpur till 31 October, Sunday. You can book your tickets via this link: https://bit.ly/3DruUZr. It will also be screening at the upcoming Singapore International Film Festival. Follow the film on its Facebook Page here.

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