Tunku Mona Riza On Crossing The Cultural Hurdles

Her first feature film dealt with a heavy subject, of parents dealing with an autistic son, and director Tunku Mona Riza is set to release a Cantonese film that had her facing a completely new sets of challenges.

The last time we met Tunku Mona Riza, which can be read here, we discussed her beginnings as a commercial director and venturing into a feature film, Redha, which is not exactly commercial. Redha is soul crushing enough to make audience leave with teary red-eye. At that interview session, she mentioned her next flick, Rain Town, an all-out Cantonese film, which is not – again – commercial either.

The article also mentioned that she had wrapped up the shooting of the second theatrical film, Rain Town – in Cantonese nevertheless set in Taiping (where the title came from) and “set to release next year”.

She was quoted there saying: “When shooting this, a journalist from a Malay media asked how many awards was I aiming for this film,” she recalls. “I said, I had forgotten about the awards. I just want to do this film the best way I could.”

Tunku Mona with Her Super Talented Cast
Tunku Mona with the super talented cast of Rain Town

Whether she cares or not, awards are in the horizon, if the reception of her film that had made rounds in the international circuit are anything to go by. Hollywood wunderkind Quentin Tarantino, first exhibited his film in the Pulp Fiction in Cannes film festival before he became Hollywood darling. Well, commercial darling. Not exactly the letterbox Tunku Mona would be slotted in. Yet. One never knows.

Before nationwide release for Chinese New Year, it had been exhibited around many film festivals and needless to say, the audience, critics and fellow filmmakers raved.

Tunku Mona with Producer and Husband Harris Sulong in Los Angeles to Promote Rain Town
Tunku Mona with producer and husband Haris Sulong to promote Rain Town at the Asian World Film Festival in Los Angeles receiving rave reviews

Tunku Mona On Rain Town Elsewhere

“My biggest worry was India,” she said. “As far as I know Indian audience are open to western films. If at all oriental, it would be Korea or Japan, but never Malaysian Chinese films.”

Yet, in Goa, she was surprised to see the filled seats. “They loved it. I hope the Malaysians would feel the same way too.” That speaks volumes on her worries about today’s Malaysian audience.

Malaysians should, if one were to see from the reactions of audiences elsewhere during her tour of the international circuit, embrace it. The recently released Malaysian film Abang Adik was received enthusiastically by both critics and audience (you can never box these two groups together, or the Vin Diesel films would be at the Oscars).

Mona felt that the success amidst the international audience out there was not surprising. “They could relate to the conflicts in the film which is universal. At the end they were very positive.”

The only stumbling block she encountered was the audience in Xiamen which had split opinions about the ending, and actually demanded a different climax. It anything, it showed that at least they cared about the characters enough to want to decide on the denouement themselves.

“But in India,” she noted, “when asked about the ending, they said they liked it as it is because of the bigger spectrum of emotion.” The Indian audience are already heavily invested in cornucopia of emotions, for ages their films are always neatly packaged with navarasas (nine emotions), and naturally Rain Town readily fits into that mould. With or without subtitles.

Which, incidentally, was a bit of a bother in, of all places, China. “In China they (the festival crowd) couldn’t understand Cantonese, so we have to add subtitles,” she noted.

Adding to that was the audience group, as when the film was shown in Fuchow, Mona noticed that the audience was very young causing her to be anxious. This is not the folks who’d be appreciating a melodramatic heavy storytelling in “family” genre and definitely not a Jackie Chan slapstick action flick. “But they sat through the film. In fact, they asked so many questions.” It touched them. The young ones were able to relate to the film saying that the characters could have been someone they know in their own family.

Cantonese or Mandarin?

But what was the deal with China not wanting Cantonese?

“Originally I wanted to do in Mandarin,” Mona noted. “The problem was despite Mandarin covering a bigger market, the people I work with couldn’t speak Mandarin.” So she did some googling and found out that Cantonese is among the many dialects that is losing out to Mandarin. “When I went to Penang, I saw majority speak in Mandarin. I even asked if they speak Hokkien any longer. They hardly do.”

Down south, Singapore too is Mandarin-heavy. That’s some swimming against the current the director has to face up to.

But forget language, what about traditions? On the house which she used for the shoot; the owners laid down few pointers she had to follow. There were few no-nos, in fact.

“Simple traditions like not painting your house or knocking nails into the wall when someone in the family is pregnant,” she noted, adding that if she wanted to be difficult, she could have fought against it. “I could be debating about it. But it won’t make a difference, at the end of the day, you have to respect the traditions.”

The biggest headache was during the post-production, the posters for example. “Initially I thought the scriptwriting was tough, it was not. Then, I thought the shoot would be tough. Alhamdullilah it was not. You know which is the toughest part of the whole process?”

in Directing Rain Town, Tunku Mona Had to Bridge One Too Many Cultural Divides - Tunku Mona Fb Pic
In directing Rain Town Tunku Mona had to bridge one too many cultural divides Tunku Mona FB pic

Now, she says, the hardest part was the promotions and marketing.

Not Chinese Enough

She had to deal with critics who says the posters are not Chinese enough, and why it started with Malay version of the promotion first. Change this. Add that. Indeed, she foresees more issues to crop up when the film is released to the mass.

“But to me it won’t matter. There will always be those sorts of debates; some people asking ‘what does a Malay know about Chinese film’. You can’t stop them from talking,”.

What rumbling would there be? She predicts that some will whine that why can’t she just do a Malay film. “But I tell you this, if I am Melayu, and I am able to direct films of other languages, I will get more brownie points. In fact, that makes me a better Malay”. – NMH

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Rakesh Premakumaran Kumar
A movie buff, as opposed to film connoisseur or aficionado, because the last two words are hard to spell, Rakesh has been in the field of writing for more than two decades and hopes that one-day movie “buff”ing is lucrative enough to afford him a Batmobile, the Michael Keaton one.

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