Quek Shio Chuan

Guang cortometraggioAfter the amazing Return to Murder presented at the Far East Film Festival in Udine, Malaysia returns with yet another surprise. A deserved first prize this time at the sixth North Vicenza Short Film Festival with the excellent Guang. A runaway success, streets ahead of the rest. Quek Shio Chuan is a young 26 year old director with a steady hand, a name to watch in Malaysian film circles. He seems to possess an instant ability to wriggle free of compromise and conventional rules, without neglecting the true language of the cinema. Just how much he cares for the subject of autism is clear right from the very first camera takes. Guang is in fact the account of the sensations and emotions of Wen Guang, a young autistic, inspired by the lives of the director and his brother. Wen is the victim of everyday life which fails to understand him. No-one can find a reason behind his unending search for the missing glass in his collection. To make the boy’s interior universe tangible and true, Quek uses the interplay of light, colours and sounds to amplify what the boy perceives. Smooth, precise camera movements focus on the objects which capture Wen’s attention. The echoes and reverberations which reach him are filtered and distorted. What he manages to perceive from the complex environment surrounding him goes to make up the world which is his and nobody else’s. Quek only needs an exchange of glances between the two brothers to outline the relationship which links them. Without portraying brotherly love as trite, or forcing the audience to compassion, the director presents us the impossibility of coming to terms with a situation which is difficult to explain. Guang makes excellent use of the short time at his disposal to give a quick but clear cross-section of autism in Malaysia. Quek is not in search of drama at all costs, nor does he particularly stick to accurate realism. The story he tells seems like a fairy tale, its tone wandering indistinctly between thoughtlessness and grief. This provides the short with interesting depth and shows an extraordinary ability of psychological investigation. Details which at first sight may fade into the background are those which enrich Wen’s life and experience. His enthusiasm for music, central in this short film and in the life of the director, comes from the notes of the soundtrack and the images in Wen’s camera. When he is the one at the end of the short who plays the notes, they softly, softly mingle with those in the soundtrack, which magnifies and transforms them into the exact sensation of joy and peace which Wen is experiencing in that precise moment. Guang is promising, very promising. It is to be hoped that we can expect great things from Quek Shio Chuan.

(English translation by Graham Reynolds)


Interview with Guang's director Quek Shio Chuan

AsianFeast: You are very young, could you tell us more about where the idea for Guang came from and how much of the story is autobiographical?

Quek Shio Chuan: I am 26 years old this year. My elder brother who is 2 years older has Autism and we grew up and lived together till today. Guang is loosely based on him. My brother also has absolute pitch and is able to identify musical tones with ease.

A few years ago, my brother retracted the keys from a broken piano and used silicone sealant wedges to make the keys playable. However, there were no tones produced, but he plays it continuously anyway as he alone can hear the musical notes. Astonished by the situation I briefly asked him how he can enjoy his "silent piano". He said to me coyly “I hear them in my head”.

My brother also found love in Mathematics from a very young age and is currently pursuing his Master's in Science Mathematics at the University of Malaya. During his degree course, he came across several very difficult hurdles for an autistic person with three core subjects. In Malaysia, it is compulsory to study core subjects including Muslim & Malaysian civilization, which he had failed several times before finally passing them by a small margin.

He has social difficulties like any other person with Autism, his employment came at a very late age. As part of his Master's course, he was given a chance by his institute to be employed part-time as research assistant with a struggling salary. However, in November 2011, he made a personal breakthrough and was promoted tutor at the University of Malaya. Today he teaches Mathematics, which is what he loves most, with a decent pay and spends his free time conducting researches for his Master's degree.

Combining these facts the idea of Guang came out. The challenge was to make people understand a small insight of how an autistic person would feel. And what joy would mean to them. And we couldn't do that with just a silent object. And thus the idea of using wine glasses was implemented.

AF: How is Autism seen in Malaysian (and/or Chinese) society?

QSC: Judging from the past experiences that I have shared with my brother, it is sad to say that the knowledge on Autism in Malaysia is very low. Since his younger days, people have been calling him names like “retard” and “freak” and refused to work with him in the same project group. Some of his teachers in high school had even claimed to give up on him. In the Chinese community however, the term "children from the stars" is used to associate with people with Autism, suggesting the interpretation that they are from another planet.

Things are slowly changing, however. As time goes by, more and more people understand what Autism really is, and any other mental illness for that matter.

AF: It seems to us that in Guang you play with light and color to appease the dramatic tone of the story. How did you come up with this solution? Is it in any way related to the title (光guang = light)?

QSC: The name Wen Guang is actually made up of two syllables taken from the names of my two best friends who have played a huge part in my filmmaking journey. Guang also means "bright" in Mandarin. The title only came much later on after the movie was finished. So in no way did the title dictate the colors of the film. We toyed with many titles but in the end, we realized that Guang would say it all, and it fits the mood and tone of the whole film beautifully.

The usage of light and colors to dramatize the joyful moments in the film is a very subjective and a personal touch. In fact, a large number of my team members find the striking colors representing the joy of Guang finding each glass "a little too much" initially, and has requested for me to tone them down. However, after much discussion we have decided to keep them as they are fitting into the name Guang= Light / Bright. It’s very hard for a viewer to feel an autistic persons joy. So I used rainbow colors only at moments of Guang's joyful past to enhance the feeling of emotion.

AF: We also found that music plays an important role in your film. What is your relationship with music?

QSC: Both my brother and I have passed ABRSM piano grade 8 with distinction at quite a young age (me at 13, my brother at 14). Although I have not pursued into classical music since then, they have played a very large role, especially in my adolescent days with my brother. My co-writer/producer and I decided at the very beginning that no other musical piece could portray the story better than my brother's favorite Aria, Nessun Dorma. It invokes an emotion that is transcendental and larger than life itself, and was perfect for the end piece. If you notice, Guang is also a fan of classical music. He has musical notes pasted on the walls of his room and old tapes of Mozart and Tchaikovsky.

My younger sister (22 this year) has found greater heights with music, having passed ABRSM grade 8 piano at the young age of 9 and ABRSM grade 8 violin at the age of 15. She is currently pursuing her degree in contemporary music and has played a huge role in composing songs for my films. In Guang, she has dedicated a waltz piece to our beloved brother.

AF: Where does you passion for cinema come from? Did you receive formal training (university, college, etc.) for it?

QSC: I graduated from Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman with a degree in Communication Broadcasting in 2009. I was a dropout doing my secondary school and my results were so poor that it was impossiblefor me to take up my dream course, which was Architecture at that time. Working in a cyber cafe, indulging into computer games after high school, my parents handed me a do or die last chance to turnaround my life.

To enroll into UTAR, the only courses that I could qualify for were Broadcasting, Public Relations, Advertising, and Journalism. Without a second thought, I decided to take on Broadcasting and gradually my passion for cinema formed to shape and I have never looked back since then.

AF: Is there any director in particular that you feel has influenced you? If so, who?

QSC: Without a doubt, Christopher Nolan. He has proven time and time again to be an excellent storyteller. From his indie movie days all the way to his big budget Batmans: how he gets into the deep intricate psychology of each character in all his films and how it all makes sense always amazes me. To me, how he reinvented Batman was just pure genius.

I try my best to follow his examples especially in character building.

AF: What are your future projects? Are you planning on directing a feature film?

QSC: I am currently working at Reservoir Production, a TV commercial production house where I have found love and trust from my employers. They recognized my potential and have been pushing me up ever since. Our aim is to build me up as an established TV commercial director.

As for a feature film, we are exploring the possibilities and are looking forward to face the challenges to produced the first feature film. We are currently writing the synopsis and are already in the talks with some of the big studios here in Malaysia. I would however love to one day direct a feature film in Europe. That would be my ultimate dream.