HKIFF Collection Updates: B2B – Tan’s latest film BARBARIAN INVASION – Tan Chui Mui in conversation with Shelly Kracier.
Barbarian Invasion is Malaysian independent director/writer/producer/actress Tan Chui Mui’s third feature film, and it’s quite a surprise. Filmgoers familiar with Tan’s previous work may not have expected her to direct and star in an out-and-out martial arts film, a Kungfu action picture with exhilarating fight scenes, as well as Tan’s more expected formal self-reflexive plays and puzzles. To find out where the film came from, and why Tan cast herself as an action star, I talked with her in June, 2021, before the film’s world premiere.
Shelly Kracier: Most people who know your work as a director and producer think of you as an independent “art film” director. Your feature films Love Conquers All (2006) and Year Without a Summer (2010) featured contemplative, thoughtful stories about women tinged with mythology. Your new film, Barbarian Invasion, starts that way, but morphs into a full-throated, magnificently choreographed action picture. This is delightfully unexpected. Is this a new direction in your work?
Tan Chui Mui: I don’t see this film as being so different from my first two feature films. I am intrigued by narrative, in particular storytelling and storytellers. In the middle of my first film Love Conquers All, the male protagonist reveals to the woman how he is going to trick her into prostitution. In the second half of the film, you see that what happens is exactly what he said would happen.
In Year Without A Summer, two men first talk about their sweet memories of childhood; the second half shows that their childhood was not really as sweet as they remembered.
In Barbarian Invasion, Roger, the director, tells us about the film he wanted to make, the Southeast Asian Bourne Identity, and then we see the film he described.
I don’t know if I see films as art films or non-art films … I make personal films. And my films are usually about something I am concerned with at a particular period of time: something that makes me feel anxious, or amused, or obsessed, or troubled.
My films usually start as a question. The characters in my films are really just myself having conversations, trying to answer that question, but they always end up with more questions.
SK:Can we say that question that inspired Barbarian Invasion is “Who am I”?
TCM: What is “I”? My body? My mind?
Who am I? I am very aware that I am always wrong at describing myself. It is usually different from how others perceive me. And I have many personalities and like to change characters. I am not “consistent”.
After I became pregnant, I was only aware of my body. Aware of how I lost control of my body. Motherhood is loss of control of my body, because not only the child, but society itself suddenly has power or control over you, from the moment you become pregnant and become a mother.
“Every generation, civilization is invaded by barbarians – we call them ‘children’.”― Hannah Arendt
Who is the barbarian? My child? Or me? All of us?
For a long time, I had been asking myself what am “I”. How much of “I” is predetermined, and how much is the consequence of choices?
Martial arts are an interesting way to meditate on this. For me there isn’t really a separation of body and mind. I think the mind is still an activity of our body, of electric signals responding to some chemical reactions … Learning about our body through martial arts is better for me than sitting and meditating.
I remember in 2007 I asked Bruno Dumont, “What is cinema?” “That is a metaphysical question,” he answered very seriously, “That is like asking what is life?”
Maybe with this film I am still asking the same question too.
SK:What inspired you to make and cast yourself as the lead in a martial arts film? You play a dramatic actress who has to undergo martial arts training to be able to do her own stunts. This must have been quite a challenge.
TCM: Moon Lee was a Hong Kong action actress in the 1980s. I am sort of paying tribute to her here. I even used her name for my character Moon. You can her posters on the wall of Master Loh’s gym where my character trains.
I grew up watching Hong Kong wuxia TV series in the 80s. Moon Lee starred in one called The Supersword Lady, which was about an unknown girl from Yue Country with a very high level of swordsmanship. And I fell in love with her image.
At first, I thought of casting the Malaysian actress Yeo Yann Yann. I thought she would fit the role very well: she is a mother herself, and she has acted in martial art films. But when I thought about letting someone else have all the fun of martial arts training… I decided to do it myself. Because that is what I would enjoy.
In fact, my motivation for making this film is so that I could have martial arts training!
SK:I understand that you didn’t approach the role completely “cold”: you’ve had experience with martial arts training before?
In 2014 I trained in Muay Thai and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, but stopped after three months.
TCM: After I gave birth in 2016, I felt like my body had been damaged: I felt like a ruin. I decided to build myself back with martial arts. It was difficult for the first three years because my son was so clingy and I hardly had any time of my own. I started training in martial arts two years ago when my son turned three. I love the training. I’m particularly addicted to Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
But to really explain it, I need to go back. My late father was a martial arts enthusiast before he was married. He studied Silat, Muay Thai, and Shaolin sticks. He used to spar with his friend in the sea, in chest deep water to test out different martial arts.
We were the only Chinese family in a Malay village. Although my father was well respected and the villagers were friendly, I remember he kept a parang (a traditional Malay machete) stuck into the bedframe next to him. Yes, he slept next to a parang all his life.
SK:And who was in charge of the action design in Barbarian Invasion?
TCM: Our martial arts design research started with The Bourne Identity. Apparently, Matt Damon trained for three months in kali (a Filipino martial art) and Krav Maga. So that was the choreographic style we want to copy. In January 2020, I flew to Cebu for an intensive 10 days training course in Filipino martial arts.
Our original action director was Sunny Pang from Singapore. He came to Malaysia in February to assess my “fighting” capabilities and decided I need a lot more training!
But when the lockdown started in March 18th, 2020, we had to switch to an exclusively local Malaysian crew. Sunny suggested James Lee as action director, a great choice. James, who also plays Master Loh, has a martial arts background. He learned taekwondo when he was young, and later learned Muay Thai and boxing, and he was the first person I knew who studied Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
With James, I did twenty hours of action training, focused on how to strike and how to receive blows. James is a very good director, but many people forget he was first of all a very good actor.
SK:Where did you shoot the film? And what languages do we hear in the dialogue?
TCM: The dialogue is mainly Mandarin, Cantonese, and Malay, with some Tamil and Burmese.
The film was mainly shot in Kemaman, Terengganu, Malaysia, a small town close to my seaside hometown Sungai Ular.
SK:One final question: The sea is a strong presence in most of your shorts and features and shorts. In Barbarian Invasion, Moon practices by the sea. She’s almost drowned, then reborn in the sea, and there’s an unforgettable sequence at the end isolating one character on the sea.
TCM: I grew up near the sea. My house is just twenty metres away from the beach. Until I was seven years old, the only world I knew was the South China Sea. For me the sea is natural. It is a state of being.
I think when you reset something, and start over again from the beginning, the setting for this for me will be the sea.