At roadshows to promote On Your Mark, his directorial debut in China, Chiu Keng Guan would stand somewhere obscure to watch the reactions of the Chinese viewers to the movie. “When the credits come out at the end, many of them are really shocked to see that the director is from Malaysia.”
Viewers feel that the film appeals to local tastes and they can relate to the characters and their lifestyles, says Chiu. “That, to me, is a good response.” As well as the cinema receipts, of course. On Your Mark topped the Chinese box office at RM8.7 million when it opened on June 18 and had collected about RM24 million as at June 20.
Opening over the Father’s Day weekend was deliberate as the release, titled Liao Bu Qi de Lao Ba (Mandarin for “Amazing Dad”) in China, centres on Xiao Daming, who is against his son becoming a marathon runner like his late wife. Fearful that Erdong may have inherited a disease that caused his mother to go blind, the taxi driver tries to prepare the boy for dark days ahead. Then tragedy strikes, pitting the pair into a race against all odds.
“I wanted to show the love of Eastern fathers, who don’t openly reveal their feelings. They keep everything inside, but you know they really love their children. They do a lot behind [the scenes], which we don’t see. When I read this story, I was really touched by all the small ways through which you could feel an Asian father’s love,” says Chiu, 49.
“I also wanted to show the characters facing obstacles in their life, their positive thinking and how they overcome the difficulties.”
His own father, now in his seventies, is no different from Xiao Daming, adds the Batu Pahat-born director behind local hits such as Woo Hoo! (2010), The Journey (2014) and Ola Bola (2016). “He has supported everything I’ve done. I studied fine art — which was difficult for parents to accept — and moved to graphic design, then films. I made my first film in 2010 but was in the industry from 1988, doing TV broadcasting, programmes and dramas. I really appreciate my family’s support all these years.”
Ola Bola, inspired by Malaysia’s national football team that qualified for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, was what got the ball rolling in China. When the Astro Shaw/Woohoo Pictures production showed at the 2016 Shanghai Film Festival, a Chinese producer watched it, loved it and approached Chiu with the script for On Your Mark.
Chiu retained the framework of the father-and-son and marathon storyboard but changed a lot of things such as the plot, the back stories of the two leads and even some character design. To get an authentic feel of Chongqing, where the movie is set, he stayed there and visited places frequented by the locals, like the market, to learn more about the people and grow closer to them.
Chiu, who also pored over documentaries on the people’s lifestyles and culture, is modest about his pre-production preparations. “From the art director to all the actors, we put everything together. It’s not only one person’s contribution.”
But those familiar with his work will recognise and gravitate towards the enduring themes of family, friendship, love, patriotism, unity, overcoming strife and discord, and understanding and acceptance. “The themes I like are a reflection of myself at different stages of life. They’re a sort of realisation for me and come automatically, like this story,” explains Chiu, a father himself.
Does he approach filmingmaking in a disciplined and consistent manner, like an athlete training for the marathon? “I follow my mood. I may work long days, late into the night, or just a few hours.” When not behind the camera, he likes to sleep or go fishing.
But the marathon reflects his thoughts about life. “It’s a long journey and you have to keep going and not give up. Sometimes, you run very fast; sometimes, you slow down a bit. You must have the mindset that you need to continue until you reach the final destination. That’s what the runners I spoke to said.”
On Your Mark is produced by Jiangsu Maoyan Culture Media, Wuxi Cangsheng Film, Tianjin Maoyan Weiying Culture Media, Jiangsu Hao Di Cultural Development, Sports Culture Development Center of the State General Administration of Sports (China Sports Museum), as well as Astro Shaw, which will handle the distribution in Singapore and Malaysia.
In the lead roles are Wang Yanhui and Zhang Youhao as Xiao Daming and Erdong respectively. Beibi Gong plays the latter’s marathon coach, Xia Lu. The film will premiere directly to homes on Astro First (Channel 480) from Aug 26.
Filming in China was a whole new ballgame for Chiu, who learnt immediately that “you need to earn the trust of the cast and crew. To be honest, it was not easy”.
What helped was knowing that everyone was there to make a good movie, not to challenge him. “They asked a lot of questions: ‘Why do you want to do that? Why shoot from this angle? Why should I say that?’ I remember the first week was quite tough. I needed to discuss every shot and scene and persuade them to do things this way and that way.”
After a week, he says, “Everyone really went out in full force. From there, we worked happily together. I was quite lucky to earn their respect. That’s important because if they don’t believe in you, it can be very tough. Filmmaking is a journey; if you have to argue and fight over every shot, the show won’t come out.”
Working with a big team and a big budget in a mature industry that has a huge market, compared with Malaysia, was quite an experience for Chiu. When people are assigned to fewer tasks, they can focus their efforts on what needs to be done. Multitasking, which often happens here, broadens one’s knowledge and helps with communication, he agrees, but a bigger team usually means work gets done faster, easier and better.
Now that he is off the blocks, Chiu is set to keep going. He has stayed back in China after promoting On Your Mark to develop the script for another joint project. Things are still under wraps but he hopes to start work on it in December or in early 2022.
“It’s about friends in their twenties going through things together and two generations facing a new world — how things are very fast with computers and now, Covid-19,” he shares. However, he shies away from telling more because sometimes the themes become clear only after the whole picture is finished.
“I am just a storyteller who wants to share meaningful stories with people and I feel happy every time viewers share that something from my films really touched them. For On Your Mark, we went to universities in China. Some young people told me they wanted to call their fathers after watching it. Some even did so on the spot.
“As a filmmaker, I try to look for a very small story and share it with viewers. If they are inspired by a part or scene, I think, thank God. That makes me want to continue making movies.”
Demand in China is huge and enticing and Chiu says if he gets a good script and feels he can make the film, he will. “But I still love to have our own local stories as well.”
For some years now, he has been developing a script that covers the history of Malaysia from the 1980s to the present, but is still not satisfied with it. Echoing the spirit of the marathoner, he continues to keep at it and hopes to complete the “really Malaysian story” soon.
Meanwhile, on top of his busy schedule, Chiu is involved in a programme Astro started five years ago to help students set up video teams, teaching them to create storyboards, write scripts, shoot and edit.
“We want to share our experiences with youngsters and show them how to make movies and tell stories. Schools are where it all starts. It’s important for the young to know how to watch movies. They need to learn what a good movie is, or a bad one, and from there, how to act.”
Watch the trailer for 'On Your Mark' here:
This article first appeared on Aug 9, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.