Johor-born director Chiu Keng Guan revisits family relationships in latest film, ‘Ma, I Love You’

The Astro Shaw Lunar New Year offering opens in cinemas on Jan 22.

Chiu is drawn to stories that speak to him and aims to address something new in each movie (All photos: Astro Shaw)

Chiu Keng Guan has a simple answer to whether bringing out another family drama may typecast him as a film maker who flogs the same storyline. He directed The Journey in 2014 and On Your Mark two years ago. Both focus on parent-child relationships.

“I like one quote from a famous Japanese old-time director, Yasujirō Ozu [who likened himself to a tofu maker]. He said, ‘I only make tofu because I am a tofu maker.’

“If I were a char kway teow man, I would do just that. I wouldn’t try something I am unfamiliar with because audiences will look for what they want. If you come to me for char kway teow and you find laksa, ‘Hello? What is that?’”

Chiu’s seventh movie, Ma, I Love You, an Astro Shaw Lunar New Year offering, opens in cinemas on Jan 22. It centres on control freak Mei Ling who, upon learning that her daughter wants to further her studies in Paris, signs up for a French course and takes on more work to earn money so she can accompany Kiki there.

There are ample choices for people to watch what they want, says Johor-born Chiu, whose last local release was Ola Bola in 2016. On Your Mark was shot in China and produced by various organisations there. A Chinese producer had approached him with the script after watching Ola Bola at the Shanghai Film Festival.

“If audiences prefer love and tears, they will come to Ma, I Love You. Every director has his or her own set of skills and interests. Because we spend two to three years on each project, we have to do something we like. I like to tell stories that are close to my heart and try to address something new in each movie.


Ong Ai Leng portrays a mother who finds it hard to let go in ‘Ma, I Love You’

“You have to watch the show to see what’s different. You will feel warm and [recognise] something like your own journey in life, things we learn through the years.

“When we are young, we say, ‘I don’t want to grow old like my father or my mother. When you keep growing, you realise you’re changing and you start to understand,” says Chiu, 50, who has a good relationship with his 70-year-old mother.

“I’m quite lucky — she just lets me do whatever I like. That allows me to not worry and just move forward. My family has given me very strong support.

“In Ma, the mother and daughter are like mirror images of each other. Seen from Mei Ling’s viewpoint, Kiki is like her past self. From the latter’s direction, the mum is her future. Both can learn from each other. I think letting go is very important in this relationship. You have to leave your comfort zone. When the time is right, you have to let go.”

Ong Ai Leng and Hazell Siow Li Xuan play the mother and daughter, respectively, in Ma, which has dialogue in Mandarin, Malay, English and French. There are cameos by newsreader Siow Hui Mei, director Ho Yuhang and Endy Law of LaLaLa Channel, which introduces real estate with humour, “to have more familiar faces and use their expertise to add value to the movie”.

Interest in local films goes beyond familiar scenes and dialogues, observes Chiu, who came up with the storyline for Ma, after which four writers stepped in at different stages to complete the script. Audiences want to see more professional productions and a different type of storytelling, he says. More importantly, they want to leave with something from the shows they watch.

Of late, Malaysian filmmakers have been getting attention by winning awards: Tan Chui Mui for Barbarian Invasion at the Shanghai International Film Festival, 2021 and Lau Kok Rui for The Sunny Side of the Street at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards last November. Yet many in the industry continue to struggle with budgets and gathering support.

Chiu says this problem is not peculiar to Malaysia; it happens across China, too — where the huge market means even more competition — because it takes a lot to make a movie, from selling one’s idea to getting funds and overcoming various hurdles to take it to the screen.


Family relationships are close to the heart of Chiu

As such, any support the filmmaker gets is welcome. Awards and film festivals are important platforms for people to discover new talent and exchange ideas. Many good productions are also streamed on the internet, allowing them to travel and be seen.

For Chiu and the friends he works with, the starting point is always the desire to “tell a story and do something we love. Everything else is just a bonus. That’s easier than trying to guess what audiences want or which movie will be a blockbuster. It’s slow-going, but everyone keeps trying because we need to watch movies”. He himself goes for different kinds of shows. 

Working on On Your Mark with a Chinese team got Chiu noticed by companies from the region and he has two projects lined up: one on Alzheimer’s and the other, fishing.

The first is about a family rallying around a father who has been diagnosed with the ailment. Clearly another love and tears story. With script ready, casting is next and shooting will begin around June, in China.

Filming on the second project should start at end-2023. It is a road-trip kind of story involving two guys from two generations and people they meet on their journey.

“Fishing is like life: You have to keep casting to catch something. Every time you cast a line, you’re not sure if you will get anything. At least you try.

“That has been my life — I try so hard. But I’m lucky and I appreciate that,” says Chiu,  who started working on TV 25 years ago, and made his first feature, WooHoo!, in 2010. 

He enjoys fly fishing. Unlike regular angling, you do not throw the worm out on a line and wait the whole day. You need to keep casting the line and modifying the bait so it looks like real fish to attract the big fish. You keep only what you want and set the rest of your catch free, he explains.

There have been film offers from Thailand and Taiwan too, but nothing concrete as yet. “For me, the story is the main thing. I need one that really touches me and makes me feel, ‘Let me do it’. You can only make one film a year, so it’s important to choose the right one.”

This article first appeared on Jan 16, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.


Follow us on Instagram