When it comes to making strides abroad in the world of cinema, there are only two candidates that come to mind: Tan Chui Mui and Actors Studio Drama School student Samantha Tan. MC sits down with them to discuss their achievements and aspirations.
TAN CHUI MUI
From her humble beginnings in Kampung Sungair Ular in Kuantan, award-winning director Tan Chui Mui is now a mainstay fixture in the indie film circuit, both locally and abroad. A decade ago, her debut feature Love Conquers All nabbed the New Currents award in Pusan and the Tiger award in Rotterdam. Together with pioneering art house filmmakers James Lee and Amir Muhammad, her works shine as the centerpiece of Malaysia’s modern cinema movement.
Growing up in a small fishing village, Mui had no access to the independent film world. Instead, she resorted to trips to the local video rental store to spark her imagination, which today, translates marvelously onto film. When asked if there was a defining film that shaped her early filmmaking ambitions, she makes a surprising confession: “I gathered inspiration from things I read rather than from watching movies. I actually wanted to be writer more than film director.”
Although, her full-length features have brought her a considerable amount of recognition, Mui still prefers making short films. “When I make short films, there is no commercial obligation. There is no pressure to show in cinema, so you can see it as a personal exercise or experiment to try new things,” she explains. Like most screenwriters, she has a certain way of working. We learn that when writing a script she often writes the ending first and tries to isolate herself from real world distractions. “Sometimes I go to a chalet on some secluded island like Cherating or Tioman for two weeks with no contact from the outside world,” she says. “Although I am not always successful, but you have to try out different ways of working.”
For Mui, growing up in a small town had its limitations, but it served as a rich drawing ground for inspiration in the later part of her career. Her first feature length film, Love Conquers All, tells the story of a small town girl who travels to Kuala Lumpur in search for brighter horizons only to lose herself in the glare of the city lights, while her second feature length film, The Year Without Summer, was shot entirely in her hometown of Pahang. Evidently, as director, she is at her best oscillating between past and present, where her directorial guidance always produces wonderful, compelling narratives about growth and redemption.
In a society where science and math are regarded as the far superior areas of study, Samantha Tan, an aspiring actress, is setting a new standard that proves there is room for success in the arts. Amongst her many achievements, which include performing in the London Olympics closing ceremony, she is the first Malaysian to be accepted into the Actors Studio Drama School in New York, a feat worthy of a nation’s praise.
But the road to success was not an easy path. Upon acceptance in the school, she had to raise $150,000 to be eligible for full enrollment, a sum that she was unable to raise within her own means, but thanks to the quick thinking of her fiancé Ari, she devised a social media fundraising campaign.
“I was pretty cynical to start with because I thought nobody would care, but time was running out and I had heard nothing from my scholarship applications, so I had nothing to lose by trying, “ she says. “Ari spread the word on Twitter that I was the first Malaysian to get into the Actors Studio Drama School and needed help, and eventually people were asking who I was, where they could learn more and how they could contribute.”
In what started as a simple blog with a Paypal button to leverage donations soon grew into a nation wide fundraising campaign, which caught the eye of the national press. With such support under her wing, substantial corporate and public donations came rolling in. In the first 24 hours, the site received 2,000 hits and in three weeks, she raised $105,000, and was able to make it to the Big Apple in time for enrollment.
But there was, of course, a backlash. Some Malaysians were not so quick to offer her words of encouragement. Her fundraising campaign bore the brunt of criticism from cynical Malaysians. Fortunately for Samantha, she wasn’t too bugged by the negativity. “The Internet makes it is very easy for anyone to post anything anonymously without taking responsibility, but I don’t believe in censoring or deleting even the hateful comments, because I trust the general public are smart enough to read it all and make up their own minds themselves,” she explains.
Currently in New York, her course – a Master of Fine Arts Acting – is taught by some of the world’s best teachers, namely Jacqueline Knapp, Elizabeth Kemp and Susan Aston who have collectively taught Ben Stiller, Bradley Cooper and the late James Gandolfini. Much like the school’s esteemed alumni, which also include Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando and James Dean, Samantha is a dedicated student. “Acting requires that you be an emotional athlete, combining discipline, compassion, empathy, a desire to understand the human race and a willingness to be vulnerable in front of an audience or a camera,” she says.
After her studies in the US, she plans to somehow transplant her knowledge back home. Although, she knows the problem starts at grassroots level. “I think there has to be a change in mentality where the general Malaysian parent becomes aware of the arts as a serious tool to educate and inspire, not just as a fluffy vacuous pastime,” she says. As an alumni member of the world’s most celebrated acting institution, you can bet on her to change that.