Lights, Camera, And Action: When Life Imitates Art

Dec 12, 2014 1 Min Read

I have always believed that Malaysia is never short in producing local-gone-global talents in various industries, including the movie industry.

As challenging and arduous as it is to make good movies in Malaysia, I have to say that I admire individuals who continue to make independent films.

One such individual is James Lee Thim Heng, whose breakthrough film The Beautiful Washing Machine won the Best ASEAN Feature Film and FIPRESCI award at the Bangkok International Film Festival 2005, thus paving a way for the independent film movement in Malaysia.

Tracking him down, I was grateful when Lee graciously responded and opened up about his journey as an independent filmmaker here in Malaysia.

The storyboard

“I was formally trained as a graphic designer, but always had an interest in acting and directing. It prompted me to take up an acting course with Joe Hasham of The Actors Studio,” shares Lee of his background in the industry.

“I later went into television productions doing Chinese drama series where I eventually picked up the art of filmmaking,” says the multitalented Lee, who also dabbles with acting, producing and writing, as well as taking on the role of a director of photography for other independent filmmakers.

Asked what sparked his passion for filmmaking, he responds, “Above all else, it was the love for the craft. Back in the early 1990s, filmmaking was an expensive affair, so the closest thing to directing was theatre, which I am still doing.”

“It is also an immense joy to be able to create a world of visuals and characters to convey a message and a story,” enthused Lee.

Setting the scene

According to Lee, he draws inspiration of great stories from real life events and news. He says that even a simple hangout session at the mamak can churn out inspirational ideas and concepts.

“One needs to be sincerely interested in the subject or character. You will need to do some investigative work during ideation and scriptwriting,” clarifies Lee, who has done a range of film genres himself, including horror and sci-fi films, which cater to a variety of audiences from different languages.

“The part I enjoy most about filmmaking is the opportunity to work with different people. I love the fact that by doing so, you learn to see things from different perspectives and angles,” continues Lee.

Axis of action

James Lee
As a filmmaker, Lee (right) needs to be an attentive communicator, observer and listener.

For someone outside looking in, I often wonder what it is like to be in a film director’s shoes (or rather, in this case, the director’s chair), except for the director to often say “Action!” and “Cut!”

“As a film director, I have to work closely with many stakeholders, including scriptwriters, actors, department heads of photography, art directors and stunts people. I also draw my own storyboard too,” explains Lee.

“Basically, I have to shoot and edit the whole movie in my mind during pre-production stage. In fact, it’s one of the most important stages in movie-making, but also the most overlooked one in the local scene,” says Lee.

On the type of skills needed to be a successful filmmaker, Lee notes:

“I believe one needs to be an attentive communicator, observer and listener. That is because a good director observes, listens and guides his or her actors, not through means of commanding or ordering.”

“The collaborative nature and involvement of everyone in the film is very important. That is why I personally think everyone on the set is a “filmmaker” in their own right. They just work with me, not for me,” comments Lee.

When there is no filming project, Lee occupies himself with reading, writing and gaming. He also thoroughly enjoys martial arts as it helps him with the grueling physical work demands of filmmaking.

Point of view

I asked Lee for his thoughts about the future of film industry in Malaysia, and this is his opinion, “A large chunk of the local market share has been taken by Hollywood movies. In a way, we do feel the pinch in terms of promotion and marketing.”

“Thus, it is a great challenge to compete in the old distribution system and model. Moreover, the censorships and the declining interest of Malaysians in local films are also discouraging the industry.”

To overcome these stumbling blocks, Lee advises filmmakers to continually seek and create another level-playing field where it will be more favourable to independent films.

“In fact, I actually left the conventional film industry in early 2013 and have since ventured and explored the online platform.

“I have just completed the second season of short horror films comprising three stories by three directors, available on YouTube this December. There are other online projects in the pipeline too,” says Lee.

The director’s cut

“Start working in an actual production set at the lowest position, which is usually the production assistant, even though your aim may be directing,” advises Lee to young and aspiring filmmakers.

According to Lee, it is from there that they learn the ropes on how a production set is run and managed.

“If you can be promoted into the director’s team as an assistant director, that’s a good indication that you have the chops to become a filmmaker,” quips Lee.

These days, Lee has been working a lot with younger people to share his knowledge with them, and vice versa.

“You know, young people may lack the experience but the way they see things is always fascinating. At the same time, I hope to instill a healthier filmmaking culture, i.e. a culture of sharing, collaboration and respect among the people you work with,” concludes Lee.

It’s a wrap!

At the end of the day, it is every filmmaker’s dream to share movies with their appreciative audiences. After all, films are just one of the many available media to allow a storyteller to share their stories.

With this, I wish Lee the best in all his endeavours, as I hope to follow the local film industry more closely.

Lay Hsuan can’t help but listen to Radiohead’s Exit Music (for a Film) while writing this article.

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Lay Hsuan was part of the content curation team for, playing the role of a content gatekeeper as well as ensuring the integrity of stories that came in. She was an occasional writer for the team and was previously the caretaker for Leaderonomics social media channels. She is still happiest when you leave comments on the website, or subscribe to Leader's Digest, or share Leaderonomics content on social media.

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