For a director whose most notable films typically make people cry, Quek Shio Chuan is a man surprisingly cheerful in nature.
In fact, the mastermind behind some of today’s most notable ads of the nation, as well as a few short films that have garnered awards and recognitions in places as far as Europe and the United States, seems to have made it a habit to punctuate his sentences with a good-natured chuckle.
In the past few years, Quek’s name, tied along with that of his production company, Reservoir Productions, has been making waves in the film-making industry, whether locally or abroad. His achievements have even managed to draw the attention of giant whisky brand Johnnie Walker, who appointed him as one of their 'Keep Walking' ambassadors for his uplifting spirit of determination and perseverance earlier this year.
The first ever short film directed by him when he was fresh out of college, "Guang" was one that went on to sweep multiple international awards worlwide, among them including Best Film for the 7th Leids Film Festival in the Netherlands and 6th Festival Alto Vicentino in Italy. Today, his portfolio of clientele include some of the biggest commercial names in the country, like Nissan, Samsung and the national oil and gas company, Petronas.
Renowned for their ability to pull at the tightest heartstrings of viewers and touch a variety of emotions, his works have been compared to those of the late Yasmin Ahmad’s. It is no coincidence that he has taken over the reins of directing the much-anticipated annual Petronas commercials come every festive season.
"I just want to tell a story"
Like his predecessor, his formula for success sees the clever employment of everything Malaysian to tell his tatler_tatler_stories. Usually deemed unglamourous locations like wet markets and cramped hospital wards have been featured in his films and in his most recent short film, a funeral parlour is the main backdrop. Glamourous or not, the hundreds of thousands of views on Reservoir Productions’ Youtube channel speak for themselves.
Perhaps a reason why he can tell a Malaysian story so well is due to his own childhood.
“I come from the rural village of Batu Pahat in Johor and grew up a kampung boy,“ shares the 28-year-old graduate from University Tunku Abdul Rahman. “A lot of my life while growing up was influenced by local cultures and contents. It’s the only thing I know.”
Well-versed in the way of life of our country's people regardless of race, religion or gender, he manages to capture Malaysia in a way not many can. He can pick out the smallest, seemingly insignificant details that make us uniquely Malaysians – like our love for fish head noodle soup and the often hidden but very existentially real squatter houses in the poorer parts of the city – and make them something to celebrate.
“When I make a film, I don’t focus on making it Malaysian actually. I just want to tell a story,” divulges the director good-naturedly. “I look for things that are interesting to me – things that even I didn’t know about– and share that with others. There is a lot to our country that people don’t know about.”
He adds, “I like to think our tatler_tatler_stories are the sort that can appeal to people of many levels, including the international stage.”
His name may be a resident in the local film industry now, but that isn’t to say he hasn’t tried his hands in filming something else that is more experimental.
“I’ve done a few films that stray away from the local context, but it didn’t work very well,” he admits with another chuckle, albeit sheepishly this time. “I still feel that there are a lot of Malaysian tatler_tatler_stories to be told and it would be a shame not to share them.”
A small town boy with his eyes on the world stage
Lucky for him, his source of inspiration for his films sits in abundance all around him, which makes his goal of constantly bettering his story-telling techniques a lot more achievable.
“I draw my inspiration from everywhere,” he says without missing a beat. “It comes from the immediate people who I interact with everyday, my family, my home. Most of it comes from my own experiences.”
It reflects directly in his work, which is slowly but surely garnering a huge fanbase solely because they ring so close to home. Unlike the latest onslaught of local feature films hitting the silverscreen that choose to feature gangsters and ghastly ghosts and ghouls, Quek prefers to focus on everyday trivialities of real life, something that most might consider mundane but, in actual fact, are what genuinely draws and interests people.
Through his eyes, his viewers get the chance to see the hidden beauty in the most inanimate trifles of life. More importantly, they are getting the chance to witness just how beautiful some aspects of our country that they’ve been taking for granted can be.
“I find it easier to tell tatler_tatler_stories that you hold close to you,” he says. It’s easier to tell something from the heart. You don’t have to craft a storyline that’s fictional. I prefer something more real, something with truth in it.”
When it comes to sharing the true essence and soul of Malaysia with the rest of the world, Quek is hopeful because he believes our country, her culture and her people have something to offer that no where else has.
“There is a lot that we can offer to the international market that they’ve never seen, something that would be new, therefore more interesting to them,” he expounds. “I’m not against the formula of Hollywood feature films, but if we can use that formula but patch with local contents, it’ll become something very fresh, something no one has seen before.”
In how he’s going to achieve that, Quek is leaving it all to Malaysia herself and everything she already has that makes up this nation.
“For me, to bridge Eastern and Western cultures is to magnify the small details in daily life,” he explains.
“These things are already there to begin with; I just try and find it and use it in my scripts and films.”
Below is the film "Guang' that won Quek his first internationally recognised award, the BMW Shorties Malaysia 2011.