Cinematic Goals
Lavonne Cheah 
Ola Bola appealed to all Malaysians

Established in 1996, Astro Shaw produces movies in the Malay, Chinese and Indian languages for the local and international markets. Over the years, the production company has won more than 120 awards at various film festivals, including three Best Film prizes at the Malaysia Film Festival for KL Menjerit (2002), Kala Malam Bulan Mengambang (2008) and Papadom (2009).

Apart from acclaim, some of them were bona fide hits at the box-office, most notably The Journey (RM17 mil), Ola Bola (RM15 mil) and Maindhan, which made nearly RM1 mil, impressive for a local Tamil film. Both The Journey and Ola Bola were directed by Chiu Keng Guan, who also has a new release by Astro Shaw this month.

As head of Astro Shaw, Najwa hopes to see more of its productions gain a wider audience beyond these shores

Success, however, is more than monetary gains to Astro Shaw. “You can look at success in terms of box office performance or critical recognition. We’ve been very fortunate to have had both,” says Najwa Abu Bakar, head of Astro Shaw.

Najwa admits that they don’t really have a formula for making hits. She adds that there is this perception that if a film earned many awards, it would not make money at the box-office, and vice versa.

“But we don’t just want to make commercial films. Our focus is finding new stories, support new talents and make films of good quality.”

Last year, its well-reviewed Abang Long Fadil 2 became the highest grossing Malaysian film of all time (RM18 mil), surpassing Police Evo, which Astro Shaw also produced. In the same year, critical darling You Mean the World to Me, Malaysia’s first movie entirely in Penang Hokkien, was a modest success.

You Mean the World to Me was filmed entirely in Penang Hokkien

Clearly, Astro Shaw is not shy from taking on risky and meaningful projects. “There’s no one single winning formula for all films. If there was, things would be easier. But some things are just out of our control,” she says.

According to Najwa, Astro Shaw wants to make films that present not only the best of Malaysia but also have their own unique voice. “If they can travel to other parts of the world, all the better,” she says.

Najwa is a strong believer in having a good promotional and marketing plan. “We take marketing and promotions seriously to ensure the movie has a good run at the cinemas. Sure, there’s always pressure to do better than the last film but it takes a lot of time, money and effort to produce the next Ola Bola.”

Even harder is to make a film like Ola Bola that had massive crossover appeal. “Our viewing habits are still very vernacular,” observes Najwa. “It’s rare that a local film attracts a large audience of mixed backgrounds.” Then again, many in Malaysia can relate to Ola Bola’s central theme, which is football.

Having had fruitful working relationships with him a couple of times before, it is no surprise that Najwa feels that Chiu’s films have greater crossover appeal. “His films have simple storylines and talks about family and relationship in a relatable manner.”

Najwa reveals that other filmmakers have approached Astro Shaw for collaborations. “Some filmmakers are quite protective of their projects, but they want you to finance them. For me, it’s important to build a relationship and provide added value by helping them in their creative process. Our collaborations don’t start and end with investing the money.”

For more niche films like You Mean the World to Me, Astro Shaw was ready to take a gamble because it had a good script and a good pedigree. Najwa also believes it was one of those films that worked best when it was done in its original language.

“We thought we could release it in other markets by dubbing the dialogues but there was a lot argument about how it would lose its essence if that happened.”

Najwa also thinks that the Malaysian audience is savvy and ready for more such ‘risky’ productions. Although local films will inevitably be judged against Hollywood, Hong Kong and South Korea productions, local filmmakers have the advantage of being able to tell uniquely Malaysian stories that resonate with the local audience.

“Everything we do is a learning experience. One of the key areas for improvements is storytelling. We always struggle to find good writers and why the characters are not properly fleshed out,” Najwa observes. She adds that she is working on exposing scriptwriters on the international platform by having them meet and interact with writers from other countries.

“When people talk about Astro Shaw, I want them to think of good films. We want them to think of us as innovative, that we tell good stories, and that we know how to make the right kind of buzz for our films. We want not just Malaysians but also people from all over the region to take notice of Astro Shaw.”

Speaking of which, the company has been looking to invest in more regional projects. In 2015, it collaborated with Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul on Cemetery of Splendor. Last year, it invested in Indonesian filmmaker Mouly Surya’s Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts and Hong Kong’s Jenny Suen and Christopher Doyle’s pet project, The White Girl.

Currently, Astro Shaw is working with HBO Asia on the film adaptation of Tan Twan Eng’s Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel, The Garden of Evening Mists. It tells the story of a woman who lost her sister during the Japanese occupation of Malaya and who later becomes the apprentice and lover of a Japanese gardener in Cameron Highlands. The book was awarded the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012 and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction in 2013. No release date for the film has been set yet.

Chiu (far left) and the cast at the movie’s press conference

Big Heart, Big Dreams

As a child, Chiu Keng Guan had always been fascinated with outer space and the mysteries it holds. After reading I Can Do It, So Can You, an autobiography by Chinese-born American Taylor Gun-Jin Wang, who became the first ethnic Chinese to go into space, Chiu was inspired to be an astronaut.

That didn’t happen but it didn’t stop Chiu from pursuing his dreams. In fact, he recreated it in his latest movie, Think Big Big, which features an astronaut as the lead character.

No wonder that he is most excited about a scene set in space. “It’s a pivotal scene in the film but I don’t want to give away too much at the moment,” he quips.

Produced by Astro Shaw, Golden Screen Cinemas, Multimedia Entertainment and MM2 Entertainment, Think Big Big tells the story of Moon, a confident plus-sized girl who dreams of becoming an astronaut. She lives a carefree life, enjoying her job as a mascot talent as she likes to bring happiness to everyone she meets.

Then reality hits. Weighed down by mounting debts, Moon is forced to participate in a slimming competition that requires her to share her fitness journey on social media. With the encouragement from her friends, she embarks on the month-long challenge. The movie opens in cinemas nationwide on Feb 15.

“This is a story about loving yourself unconditionally, regardless of how you look physically. I hope Think Big Big will resonate strongly with the audience as it highlights the ridiculous beauty standards set by the society. As the story develops, I hope it will spur the audience to believe in themselves and their dreams despite what other people think,” says Chiu.

Moon is played by three actresses at different stages of her weight loss. Moon Yoong and Joanne Lau portray the heavier Moon, while Miss Astro Chinese International 2016 Serene Lim plays the slimmed-down Moon.

“It’s about female friendships as well. Working with the actresses made me realise that women form strong bonds. Unlike the male bonding in Ola Bola and The Journey, this was very new to me,” adds Chiu.

“I feel very lucky to be able to work with Chiu. It was tough to get the role. I had to go through three auditions to get it. I enjoyed myself and made lots of friends while making the movie,” enthuses Lim, who was acting for the first time.

Lim loves the message in the script. “I can relate to Moon, especially the part about revealing your personal life on social media. After the pageant, I became more conscious about how I behave in public. It was uncomfortable at first,” she shares.

Chiu reunites with cinematographer Yong Choon Lin and art director Soon Yong Chow, both of whom he worked with on Woohoo! (2010) and Great Day (2011). The crew also boasts Elaine Wong, Malaysia Film Festival 2016 Best Costume Designer. Singers Nicole Lai and Bell Yu contributed to the movie soundtrack with the songs Dà Dà (Big Big) and W Men (We) respectively.

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 271.