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James Lee: Of Ghosts and Gangsters


Director James Lee is one of the pioneers of the “Malaysian New Wave”. His feature film Room To Let (02) established the aesthetic of quiet long takes and non-professional acting that other Malaysian filmmakers have since emulated. Yet the filmmaker himself is venturing into new territories with his first commercial horror film Histeria, as well as the newest evolution in his signature style in Call If You Need Me. Raymond Phathanavirangoon talks with James Lee about lesbian kisses, censorship and the disparity between his current film techniques.

You have two films here at the HKIFF this year: Call If You Need Me and Histeria. They are pretty far apart in terms of direction style and subject matter. As the director, how did you approach the two films?

Histeria was quite clearly a mainstream commercial movie from the start, and as such it must perform well at the box office. The concept was for it to be a simple, straightforward scream fest where couples and friends can scream together and laugh later when they are out of the cinemas – something like a roller coaster ride. So as the director it was my job to deliver that within the budget. This was quite a challenge, especially when you have to do something with more parameters than usual. I guess it’s almost like working at a battalion level with more responsibilities and people to deal with. Especially when it’s compared to my personal works where I, as the director, would have more say in production and creative aspects. But don’t get me wrong – even when it’s a low budget personal work, I set my own parameters to make sure I don’t get lost and overindulge myself in the process.

As for Call If You Need Me, the process of it, at least creatively, was entirely opposite to Histeria because the story was actually created and written based on the characteristics of the film’s actors. In fact, it changed a lot compared to the original idea that I had in the beginning. So the influences of the actors contributed to the overall script and movie. And the scope of my job became more interesting and challenging since I had to put all these new ideas and elements into the movie and make it work. But the core theme of friendship, loyalty and brotherhood are all still within the movie.

I think what I personally have learned on the recent set of Call If You Need Me and Histeria as well as the second part of the “love trilogy” Things We Do When We Fall In Love is to trust the people that I work with, from actors to directors of photography and editors and sound and music. I must give some of the creative responsibilities to them, since at the end of the day they’re artists too, and they ended up in filmmaking because of their passion for the medium. There is really not much of a difference between working on sets or productions except in commercial movies, where more people are involved in the decision-making as compared to my independent works.

Would it be fair to say that Call If You Need Me is an evolution of the style you have developed since The Beautiful Washing Machine? Yet compared to your “love trilogy”, Call If You Need Me is definitely more narrative in structure...

I’m not sure if it’s an evolution, but it was always my intention since Room to Let until Call If You Need Me – I’ve always wanted to try different things and experiment with my works. I always try not to repeat my previous works as much as possible. It’s a personal agenda or mindset to keep me on the edge so I don’t get bored with filmmaking.

Did you face censorship with either films? For one, Histeria seems to flirt with the notion of lesbianism...

It was a surprise when we got the public viewing rating for Histeria with only two minor cuts. Basically we expected more cuts. As for Call If You Need Me, I won’t be releasing it in Malaysia but instead I will go back to the original method we used to screen our movies: in venues like film clubs, colleges and schools. I believe it’ll get more audiences than releasing it in cinemas.

Now that you have done TV, commercial horror movies and indie films, how do you see yourself going forward career-wise?

I’m now working on both sides of the world, which seems to be what I had always wanted. I can earn my bread and butter directing mainstream box office films and continue to make personal movies independently.