KUALA LUMPUR, June 12 — These days, paintings don’t just hang on the walls of galleries. They can come alive, after a fashion, serving as a muse for other artists to create new forms of art. Malaysian film-maker Ho Yuhang clearly has this in mind as he embarks on his next short film, to be based on the painting Aku by Malaysian artist Latiff Mohidin.
Ho is the award-winning director of films such as At the End of Daybreak (which won the NETPAC award at the 2009 Locarno International Film Festival and was nominated for the Asian film award at the Tokyo International Film Festival the same year) and Trespassed (which won the inaugural FT/OppenheimerFunds Emerging Voices award last year).
No surprise then that the National Gallery Singapore chose Ho to represent Malaysian film-making, as part of their celebration of South-east Asian art. The project, titled Art Through Our Eyes, is a first-ever collaboration with five acclaimed ASEAN film directors — the others are Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand), Brillante Mendoza (Philippines), Eric Khoo (Singapore) and Joko Anwar (Indonesia) — to create short films inspired by the Gallery’s South-east Asian art collection.
The Gallery’s Director of Education & Programmes, Suenne Megan Tan, explains their selection, “We recognise Yuhang not only for his strong talent in film-making and broad international experience, but also his nuanced ability to develop content that reflects his Asian heritage and homeland. Ultimately, this regional focus is essential to what we want to achieve for this project.”
Each director handpicked a masterpiece from the 19th and 20th century as inspiration for their short films. Ho says, “The five directors all have different styles and interests so I’m sure our films will all be very different. I, for one, can’t wait to see what they make. I had Googled the artists and their works but I soon realised I had to see the paintings in person. This was a good decision because it feels so different, viewing the paintings in front of you; they’re more alive.”
Ho already had a prior connection to Latiff Mohidin’s work, just not in the most obvious way. He explains, “I like Latiff Mohidin’s poetry a lot. In fact, I first connected to his work through his poetry, not his paintings. His poetry — wow — it struck me! There was something I didn’t understand but it grabbed me immediately.”
The film-maker managed to meet the painter-poet, serendipitously enough, through a film the former made of the latter. Ho says, “The last time Latiff Mohidin had an exhibition of his new work in KL, the organiser asked me to shoot a documentary on him. I was fortunate enough to visit Pak Latiff — that’s what everyone calls him — at his home in Penang.”
The pair hit it off immediately, through a shared love of the arts. Ho says, “I had interesting conversations with him. We ended up talking about literature and music. By some coincidence, we happened to have similar tastes. We are both fond of Chopin, for example. I used to play classical music and Chopin was my first love. We also liked Latin American authors such as Gabriel García Márquez and European poets such as Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire.”
Ho notes that he learned a lot from observing Latiff Mohidin and from their conversations. “I discovered things that inspire his artwork such as Nature. I rarely have this kind of conversation; it’s a rare pleasure. It’s not like doctors and lawyers who share a certain knowledge and have a common topic to talk about. It’s harder to connect with other directors because we all have our — sometimes vastly different — styles and interests. We have different sensibilities.”
Getting closer to a fellow creator does come with its own inherent anxieties. Ho says, “Just last night, Pak Latiff texted me as he just found out that I was the director. I didn’t tell him earlier because I wasn’t sure how he’d react. He was very happy so that is a relief!”
Ho — whose next feature film, Mrs K, is a mystery about a woman with a past, partly inspired by Kafka – had also vexed over which of Latiff Mohidin’s paintings to select. He says, “I like the Pago-Pago series a lot but it was too abstract, which I felt would be difficult for me to get into for a film. Then I saw Aku. He had painted it based on the cover of Indonesian author Chairil Anwar’s Aku Ini Binatang Jalang. I like Chairil Anwar’s poetry as well — you can feel its flesh and blood, and it’s very readable — so there’s an appeal.”
Ultimately the it boiled down to... size. Ho explains, “I thought to myself, this is humble enough. Aku is a small painting. Sure, it’s not ‘grand’ like Pak Latiff’s later works which were more epic in scale but there’s something about it. The image has a certain defiance to it. A sense of pride, of a person simmering with emotions.”
Because of the painting’s simplicity, Ho wants to translate it into film simply. “I’ll likely film it in black and white, and maybe it’ll be a silent film too. That’ll make it more direct and expressive. I’m not sure yet whether I’ll collaborate with Pak Latiff on this since he’s a very private person. I was very lucky to have been invited into his home and workspace. He showed me some of his notebooks and sketches. They were very beautiful, absolutely beautiful, but for him, those are like his private thoughts, not meant for public consumption.”
Ho is a big fan of the current Reframing Modernism exhibition at the National Gallery Singapore. He says, “The paintings ‘talk’ to each other, even though some are from Asia and some from Europe. As you walk from one gallery to another, you take the imprint of the earlier set of paintings with you and experience the next set of works with different, informed eyes. The flow that this layout creates is wonderful, full of energy.”
While the affable film-maker may have been concerned with how his short film, which will be filmed in Malaysia and released later this year, is perceived by the artist from whom he’s “borrowing” the original work, he’s is more relaxed about public opinion.
“I think art belongs to the masses. Take my work, for example. I may have made these films but the work itself, as art, belongs to the public — depending on how they see it or interpret it, the film is theirs, in that specific way. Art has this power and we always underestimate it. I hope, with this project, that I am morphing Pak Latiff’s painting into film, but the viewer can take it any way they want.”
Reframing Modernism — Paintings from South-east Asia, Europe and Beyond
City Hall Level 3, Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery, National Gallery Singapore, 1 St Andrew’s Road, Singapore
From March 31 to July 17; Sun-Thu: 10am to 7pm and Fri-Sat: 10am to 10pm
Admission: S$15 (adult) and S$10 (child) for Singaporeans; S$25 (adult) and S$20 (child) for non-residents