And we’re not talking about the kind that has loud music, good food, great company. On the contrary, it’s about a funeral wake – the centrepiece of a noir comedy shot in a historical building in Penang.
SINGAPOREAN filmmaker Glen Goei is back with his second movie – a decade after his debut – in a “politically-correct” Singapore-Malaysia co-production entitled The Funeral Party.
Brushing aside my cynicism, the youthful 45-year-old quickly explains: “No, no ... it’s true. This is truly a joint effort between our countries. I could not have made this movie without the Malaysian actors and crew. Everyone is nice and I am just so comfortable here that I don’t even miss home.”
The director has just wrapped up a six-week shoot of the movie held entirely in the 19th-century Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, one of Penang’s historical landmarks. It is located in George Town, a newly proclaimed Unesco World Heritage Site.
“Half my leads are Malaysians and the whole production crew is from Penang,” Goei tells The Star during a break in shooting at the mansion recently. “I am very fortunate to have actors like Louisa Chong, Huzir Sulaiman, Patrick Teoh and Claire Wong with me. They all come from theatre backgrounds like me, so working together is easy. More importantly, they are really intelligent actors.
“Malaysian model Steve Yap is also in it – and, yes, he can act!”
On how the prominent blue-hued edifice in Leith Street, now a museum-cum-boutique hotel, came to be the location for his sophomore effort, Goei says: “I had been staying at the mansion since mid-June as a tourist. I was in Malaysia to check out the various heritage buildings in Penang, Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur and Malacca, looking for a place to shoot the movie. I ended up falling in love with the Blue Mansion.”
The building bears the name of the wealthy and influential merchant who constructed the stately home for his family in the 1880s. A typical rags-to-riches story of his time, Cheong came to Malaya as a penniless 16-year-old from China. The 38-room mansion boasts five granite-paved Chinese courtyards and 220 windows. It was restored to its former glory in the 1990s, and accorded a Unesco Award for Culture Heritage Conservation in 2000.
Goei, who virtually disappeared from the film industry after Forever Fever (1998), a dance flick loosely based on John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever, says a good script eluded him. He had kept himself busy with other things until he got a scriptwriter to work on an idea of his.
“About 10 years ago, I attended a funeral wake and it was just so hilarious. All the relatives were busy gossiping and bitching about each other that they forgot the main purpose of being at the wake – to mourn the death of someone. There was just so much going on that it was funny.
“That’s how The Funeral Party came about,” says Goei who doubles as the movie’s executive producer.
Costing about US$1mil (RM3.4mil), The Funeral Party is said to be “The Godfather in a Peranakan (Straits Chinese) setting,” a dark comedy where British irony and Asian values collide.
“Everything takes place over the course of three days after the death of the family patriarch (played by Teoh). The rest will be a surprise. Hopefully, we can screen it at international film festivals by April next year,” says the man who once shared a stage with renowned British actor Sir Anthony Hopkins. In fact, Goei started his career on a London stage and was based there for 18 years.
It is hoped that the splendour and charm of Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion will be captured on the silver screen by the international crew who includes Ian Bailie, the production designer who did last year’s period drama Atonement (starring James McAvoy and Keira Knightley). Also on board is the cinematographer Larry Smith, who worked on the late Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 thriller Eyes Wide Shut (starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman).
The Funeral Party, says Goei, revolves around an older generation of Anglophile Asians with very English humour. “Which was why I wanted someone who is English who ‘got it’ and could help me interpret it to audiences.”
How did he manage to recruit the international talent?
“It was serendipity. I just called up their agents and they agreed to come on board based solely on the strength of the script ... very brave of them,” he laughs.
Citing acclaimed directors Zhang Yimou, Ang Lee and Wong Kar Wai as early influences, Goei says his main inspiration is 1970s movies.
“Bruce Lee and John Travolta were a big part of my youth. I am a seventh-generation Peranakan and I want to make movies that are about my culture. My work will always have an Asian context because that is what I know.
“I want to tell Asian stories that have universal appeal. Life, to me, is bittersweet and I like laughing at our imperfections. My work celebrates not only the strength of our spirit but also pokes fun at our shortcomings,” says the history graduate.
His philosophy in filmmaking is straightforward: “When I do something, I never worry about profits or whether the movie will sell. I am an idealist; I believe that if you concentrate on making a good film, everything will fall into place.”
Besides being a moviemaker, Goei’s resume is as colourful as his personality.
He has dabbled in interior design (he was invited to decorate a suite at Singapore’s posh New Majestic Hotel), but says it is not something he would do for money.
“For pleasure, yes! I did that because a friend had asked me to.
“As for being in front of the camera, I have hung up my acting shoes. I am a control freak and much prefer being behind the scenes. However, due to necessity, I will be making a cameo appearance in The Funeral Party,” he laughs.
As creative director for the Singapore National Day Parade in 2003, 2004 and 2006, Goei has been credited with bringing about a hipper and younger feel to the celebrations.
“I would love to work on your Merdeka Day celebrations because you guys have so much history, culture and natural beauty. One of my main themes would definitely be ecology since there is so much greenery and beautiful beaches here.
“My dream would be to hold a free ecology concert for 10,000 people in Kuala Lumpur,” he says, adding that Malaysian singer Zainal Abidin’s Hijau is among his favourite tunes.
“Next year, I may be directing a movie in Australia about an aboriginal boy – it’s something close to my heart because it centres on nature and people’s prejudice.
“And between The Funeral Party and that, I hope to work on another project to be shot in Penang and Ipoh,” says the 1990 best newcomer nominee of the Laurence Olivier Awards (for London theatre practitioners) before being whisked away to guide his motley crew of thespians.-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
I can't hardly wait to watch this movie. I bet it's a nice touch!
P/s: This remind me of my American friend who died years ago in Thailand. He loved heritage building so much :(