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Asian Film Academy 2007 – Sharing and Osmosis in Pusan

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The Asian Film Academy (AFA), held in conjunction with the Pusan International Film Festival, is a filmmaking workshop aimed at imparting skills to young filmmakers from all over Asia. Each year, a new dean will be invited to head the academy, and a directing and cinematography mentor will be appointed.

afa.jpgThe dean, together with the mentors, will guide 24 fellows selected from a pool of applicants all over Asia to make 2 short films. In turn, the fellows are supported by distinguished members of the Korean film industry in the making of their film.

This year, I was selected as a fellow for the AFA 2007, together with fellow Singaporean filmmaker Eric Youwei Lin, who had just won the Mark Aslam Award at the Planet In Focus International Film Festival in Toronto for his documentary “Remember Check Jawa”.

The current president of the Asian Film Academy, Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, apparently thinks that one can’t teach a person to become a filmmaker. Filmmakers are born, and then evolved. To quote Makhmalbaf’s letter to the fellows of AFA 2007: “The pen and paper that he (Hemingway) had could be found everywhere, but his talent and passion for writing were rare and outstanding.” This is especially true in this digital-anyone-can-make-a-film age. Just like how anyone can become a writer, now anyone can become a filmmaker. But Makhmalbaf believes that to make the film 8 1/2, you have to be Fellini first.

So, what were we all doing at AFA 2007 if the dean believed that filmmaking cannot be taught?

More than just a workshop, AFA 2007 brings together more than 30 filmmakers young and old from all over the Asian continent to share our lives for 17 days. In these 17 days, we were supposed to get to know each other, learn something about life and films, and then make one. When so many people come together for such an intense period of time, we inevitably rub off on each other’s lives and everybody walks away a million times richer.

Many people have asked me “How was AFA?” upon my return from Pusan recently. The answer from me has so far been an immediate “F**king wonderful.” Then comes questions about the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’, followed by my inadequate attempts at relating my experience there. Although I realised that it is impossible for me to fully convey to you what it was that made AFA 2007 so “f**king wonderful”, this article strives to give you at least a feel of what impacted me during those 17 days of sharing.

So what did we share?

Among the long list of things are personal stories of how each of us started in filmmaking. These, I felt, impacted me the most. So although I am known for my shorter-than-short term memory, I will attempt to recall the details to you—so expect some minor inaccuracies.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf made his first feature film without any knowledge of how. Right after that, he gathered all the books he could find about filmmaking, holed himself up for four months, read about every aspect of filmmaking, and made his own notes. These notes, plus the experience he gathered from each subsequent feature film he made, served as the foundation of all his subsequent works.

Eventually he got so good at filmmaking that not only did he become a critical member of the Iranian New Wave, he went on to set up the Makhmalbaf Film School and passed his skills on. Among the stellar filmmakers he groomed are his 2 daughters Samira and Hannah Makhmalbaf, and his wife Marziyeh Meshkini. To make the kind of films he wanted, without being oppressed by the censorship in Iran, Makhmalbaf left his country. These days, Makhmalbaf lives wherever he’s making his film. Which director (with the exception of Hollywood biggies) these days can claim to live on their film sets?

When Japanese cinematographer Kurita Toyomichi made up his mind to pursue cinematography, he plotted for 2 years to get close to his role model Shuji Terayama. When he was finally introduced to his would-be mentor, he waited a whole month to get an appointment with him. When he did, he was appointed 4th assistant to the Director-of-Photography (DOP). By the time he became first assistant, it was already 8 years later. And by that time, the Japanese New Wave cinema was already on the decline. However, Kurita-san understood one
thing: unlike writer-directors who could create their own projects, DOPs had to be hired.

Kurita-san knew then that given the decline in the Japanese New Wave, in order to work as a DOP, he had to leave Japan. He studied the situation of many countries and decided upon America. But he had no contacts whatsoever, so he figured that the best way to get into the circle was through film school. So Kurita-san, who by that time is already a well-qualified DOP, chose to start from scratch. He studied many film school programmes and settled on the Center For Advanced Film Studies at the American Film Institute Los Angeles, California, because the programme would only take him 2 years.

In those days, according to Kurita-san, if you didn’t do well in first year, no directors would ask you to shoot their year 2 projects and you would be kicked out of school. So Kurita-san devised a plan: whoever asked him to help out in their school projects; be it just being a grip, a best boy, a gaffer, a camera assistant, camera operator, etc., he would say yes. And he will deliver each role to the best of his abilities, always with a positive attitude, so that each student director will remember him, and ask him to be on their project again.

It was a strategy that paid off. By the time year 2 came, Kurita-san was in great demand among the seniors. He continued his strategy of delivering to the point of being unforgettable, and it paid off. Word got to American director Alan Rudolph, and Kurita-san got his first chance to shoot his first feature film out of school.

“The first question he asked me was: ‘Do you work fast?’ To be honest I think he really needed someone cheap,” recalled Kurita-san. He grabbed the opportunity and the rest is history. Kurita-san lensed “Trouble In Mind” – a 1985 “new wave” gangster film directed by Alan Rudolf, which won him the Independent Spirit Award for Best Cinematography. Then came
“The Moderns”, also with Alan Rudolf, and the chance to collaborate with legendary directors such as Robert Altman and Takeshi Miike.

Other than personal stories, we also shared a physical space at the Arpina Youth Hostel. When so many people live in such close proximity to each other, we inevitably learn something about each other.

For example, I had to remove Kurita-san’s laundry from the dryer to insert my own – I saw the kind of underwear he wore! The HD instructor Mark Carey then had to remove mine to dry his own. He saw all of my underwear. I can’t tell you exactly how this impacted me, but somehow it made my experience at the AFA extra unforgettable.

More unforgettable than that, I think, has to be the reaction of everyone at AFA upon the sight of Eric Lin’s thighs.

All of us also had access to the nude sauna and jacuzzi pools at the hostel – so you get an idea of what we shared. It was me who initiated one of my roommates, Indian fellow Namrata Rao into the nude bath. She was uncomfortable about her body and had cold-feet before, but after the first initiation, she wondered what she was so self-conscious about. It was also I who taught Korean fellow Kweon Hae Min, my other room-mate, how to alternate between the hot and cold pools to get the best therapeutic effects. Within a short period of 17 days, these kinds of sharing made us friends for life. I still can’t forget the chats we had every night before bed, but of course I was always the first to be inducted into dreamland.

Similarly, it was the members of the Korean film industry—lighting designers, production designers, sound engineers, film scorers, etc. who showed us that each member of the filmmaking team is a maker of the film, not just units of a single herd.

Lee Cheungmi, production designer of Korean blockbuster “The Host” told me: “If I can have an opportunity to make a film like “Lord of The Rings”… I can be one who makes the ring, or a sword, I don’t have to be the production designer… I will be very happy.”

This humble lady is but one of the many Korean industry greats who put in her 100 percent in the making of our little short film. No film is too small for her, no scene unimportant.

Finally, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, our directing mentor, is one of Thai cinema’s leading “New Wave” auteurs who trembles at the thought of Mohsen Makhmalbaf watching his new film “Ploy”. He also has no qualms about fetching a knife for me, an unknown fellow at AFA, when I was missing one at the breakfast table.

Someone once said to me that real learning occurs through osmosis. We learn just by being in close contact with good people. We tend to forget that the young are highly impressionable.

There was a discussion during one of our sessions about whether the current AFA program has succeeded in training young filmmakers like us. For me, it was not merely the programme which taught me something – it was just by being there and having gone through such an intense time with all these great people that I come off a lot richer for it.

Recalling an email exchange with Mark Carey, the HD instructor from the UK (who’s a decade older than me), we both confessed that we came off feeling younger and somehow different from before. Needless to say, we both hope this feeling lasts.

As one gets older in life, how often can one say that about anything anymore?

The Asian Film Academy accepts applications from April to May each year. More details can be found at the official website.

Caption (From left to right): Asian Film Academy Fellows Kweon Hae Min (Korea),
Namrata Rao (India) and Sun Koh (Singapore).

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3 Comments

  1. 8 December 2007 at 5:40 pm

    […] Sun Koh provides a glimpse into the the Pusan International Film Festival’s talent camp called the Asian Film Academy. Young people interested in filmmaking are invited to be part of this event, a residential camp (17 days). Every year different Asian faculty are invited to teach, Hou Hsiao Hsien, Penek were involved. Sun writes about her experience and talks about Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s underwear and Penek’s fork “Many people have asked me “How was AFA?” upon my return from Pusan recently. The answer from me has so far been an immediate “F**king wonderful.” Then comes questions about the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’, followed by my inadequate attempts at relating my experience there. Although I realised that it is impossible for me to fully convey to you what it was that made AFA 2007 so “f**king wonderful”, this article strives to give you at least a feel of what impacted me during those 17 days of sharing.” Click here for more No Comments so far Leave a comment RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI Leave a comment Line and paragraph breaks automatic, e-mail address never displayed, HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong> […]

  2. 1 December 2007 at 4:08 pm

    i love you Sun Koh, more power Bed Room Dancing!

  3. Hok Nus
    1 December 2007 at 2:57 pm

    why must sun koh purposely use the F word? Why are filmmaker4s purposely doing things that are seemingly cool to show that they are different when most of the local audience don’t even give a shit??

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