Director Quek Shio Chuan Tells Deeply Personal Stories Through His Films
Wen Guang—the protagonist of Quek Shio Chuan debut short film Guang in 2011—is shown sitting on a bus on his way to an upcoming job interview, scratching at the label on the inside of his collar as he recites under his breath a script his younger brother bade him to remember for the interview itself, which is written on the centre of his palm. The beginnings of Wacko’s Waltz begin to play in the background—a musical piece that the director’s sister, Quek Shio Yee, had composed for the film.
“Hello, my name is Wen Guang,” he carefully reads in Mandarin. “I’m 27 years old. I’m from Mantin, I have two years of working experience in a pub. I’m very friendly, approachable, cooperative.” The scene changes, and he’s seen walking in the middle of a bustling marketplace still muttering the words under his breath, eyes never once straying from his upturned palm. “Sometimes I may seem a little weird to you. But I really hope you can understand,” he continues.
“I have autism.”
Invested in emotion
Stories of heart and home almost always strike a resonant chord with us, especially when they depict instances where we can’t help but empathise with the characters. Whether it’s the underdog that everybody roots for, the villain with a tragic backstory or the hero that constantly gets the short end of the stick in life, the key as to why we get emotionally invested in their stories is because we find them relatable. And for Quek’s works, this all-too-human aspect is apparent and is what makes them so compelling.
Before its feature film adaptation in 2018, Guang (which translates to mean ‘light’ in Mandarin) was already an award-winning short film with international acclaim; not only had it won the grand prize at the 2011 BMW Shorties, it had also earned itself a place in film festivals such as the 6th Alto Vicentino in Italy and the 7th Leiden International Short Film Experience in the Netherlands.
Described as a story of two brothers, Guang centres itself around the varying perspectives of autism; its main character, Wen Guang, the older of the two siblings, has ASD (autism spectrum disorder), thus giving us an insider’s look as to what he sees and experiences as a person on the spectrum.
In a 2014 interview with Tatler, Quek mentions that “it was easier to tell stories from the heart”, as they didn’t need to craft a fictional storyline. And while it’s a known fact that Guang was based on the director’s older brother, who has autism himself, the reasoning behind Quek choosing to tell his brother’s story was this: “Growing up, my parents would tell me that my brother was special—that he was different. And he is. He’s the most interesting human being that I’ve ever met.
“The things he enjoys, the things that he finds interesting, the way he reacts to negative experiences. There were times when I saw that it was hard for him to express his feelings, and that made me realise that he was a hero in his own way. Which is why I thought to myself that if I had to tell a story, then I’d want to tell my brother’s.”
A voice for the unseen
But before Quek’s career as a renowned director in films took off, he was a broadcasting student at Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman — while filming a documentary for his final year assignment with some friends in 2009 (entitled Tidal Tales and records the daily lives of fishermen in Segenting, Batu Pahat), he realised that he had a love for storytelling.
“At the time, I realised that it was a really good way to express emotions,” Quek, who also co-directed the Netflix series The Ghost Bride, shares. “Whether it’s for entertainment or sending a message, you really get to connect with your audience. And back then, my friends and I thought that shooting documentaries were really fun because we got to shoot stories that were truthful and real.”
It’s this very eye for the comings and goings in life that led Quek, 34, to direct his second short film, Sunflowers, in 2014 after Guang’s success. Depicting the tale of a struggling make-up artist who unknowingly lands herself a job at a mortuary, this 30-minute video was inspired by the passing of Quek’s own grandfather, revolving around topics that hit closer to home: the death of loved ones, and how the living move on in the aftermath.
As it was a delicate subject that required careful execution, Quek and his colleagues at Reservoir Productions had set out to research the inner-workings of a funeral home, which at one point found the team in a small-town funeral parlour at 2am, allowing them to witness the intimate proceedings of a person’s passing.
“I was on call that night,” Quek explains, “and one of the funeral homes that helped us with our research had someone who just died in an accident, so they had morticians help give the body some touch-ups... and this person had a split face.”
It was evidently a sobering moment for the filmmaker, who continues with a faraway expression: “At that moment, we got to witness the undeniable fact that everything is uncertain—you won’t know what will happen tomorrow.”
Despite the negative connotations that surround the topics he’s done for both Guang and Sunflowers, Quek doesn’t perceive them as such, and instead sees them as life lessons. “To me, not talking about it doesn’t mean it’s not there, and the less people talk about things, the more I gravitate towards them. If I can help get these little voices out there into the world, I will have done my job as a filmmaker.”
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Paving passion with perseverance
I realised that (filmmaking) was a really good way to express emotions.
Having been in the business for a decade since joining Reservoir Productions in 2010 as a production assistant, the now-director Quek refers to the late Yasmin Ahmad’s works as the benchmark for any local filmmaker, whose larger-than-life legacy leaves behind a multicultural nation united by real life stories tinged with humour.
“I think part of why I film these niche topics is due to Yasmin’s influence really,” Quek says. “When I watch her films, they touch me. Which is why I enjoy them so much.”
However, much like the start of anyone who’s had to begin from the ground up, behind the cheerful director whose clientele today includes Petronas, Nissan, TNB and Volvo, was once an uncertain youth like any other—who wasn’t even sure if he’d ever get to direct.
“I think,” he muses thoughtfully, “that one of the highlights of my career would be when I got my first official job as a director. And I’m not going to lie, this isn’t the easiest career path to choose. There are lots of ups and downs in filmmaking, and while you can call yourself a director, you never really know when it’ll actually become a career until someone says, ‘Okay, we’ll pay for this director.’”
Quek equates his love for filmmaking to his passion for cycling, describing both interests to be a “voluntary suffering” that he enjoys. “Here’s the thing—you have to really, really like something to grow passion from it, to grow an undying relationship with it, because only then will you be able to better face the moments where you’ll think it’s really hard.
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The way forward
You have to really, really like something to grow passion from it.
One such challenge that he took upon himself during the lockdown was to create a stop-motion video of cycling indoors; a six-day project that took over 2,000 selfies, a camera rig made out of broomsticks and an array of household items to recreate the great outdoors (which includes clouds made out of the insides of butchered pillows, roads made of cycling jerseys and a bamboo skewer rainshower in the middle of the video).
“Six days fly by real fast when you’re doing something you love,” Quek says, chuckling as he recalls the project—dubbed the Stay Sane series by the director himself. The first episode he’d done for the series was a spinoff from the trending Coffin Dance video, where he would re-create the song using only his biking gear as well as the bike itself. Both videos became overnight sensations on the internet, amassing over 100,000 views on Instagram.
The director’s good cheer quietened, however, at the ever-present reminder of a world thrown off balance by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“In all honesty, being under quarantine makes you reflect on a lot of the things — for me, at the end of the day, film is pretty much non-essential. You’ve got so many platforms out there, and not once during the MCO had people complained about having a lack of shows to watch. But even so, it’s kind of my calling. At a time when people are stuck at home and feeling stressed out about the news, as a filmmaker whose purpose is to entertain the people... If I can make five people laugh with my video? That makes me happy.”
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- Photography Khairul Imran