It's somewhat uncommon for an individual like James Lee to go into the arts. The 43 year old from the small town of Ipoh was a good student and was even elected the head prefect at school. He found his love for comic books at a young age and wanted to tell stories through drawings. Life's funny ways then took him down a different direction and made him an auteur in a different medium of storytelling. Today, he is a pioneer in the Malaysian Indie film scene, having won numerous awards internationally for his cinematic works and helps to nurture emerging filmmakers in the country.
I understand that you did well in school. How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to go into the arts?
At the time, I've already done graphic design. I got a diploma and have been working for five years towards becoming the creative director of a company. So when I wanted to go into theatre, they were shocked. They thought I was crazy because I was earning a four figure salary which back then is not an easy fee. To Chinese parents of their generation, they have this assumption that the entertainment industry is not appropriate because of the news, gossips and scandals we hear. They didn't really encourage us to go into the arts. My parents might not be as open minded but they always let us have our say. There was no confrontation. I'll say I have it easy - I'm quite lucky.
You started off with the performing arts which isn’t an easy field. How was the transition like?
The thing about theatre is that even as an assistant director, you don't earn much. You can't really say it's a salary because the industry itself doesn’t make much money. I had to work to sustain a living. I was still doing graphic design on the side and was working part time at different places. When there were no productions, I would end up working at the SS2 Savemart as one of their store guys. I was there for a couple of months. I've also worked at an Italian restaurant in KLCC for six months. It was difficult.
"When there were no productions, I would end up working at the SS2 Savemart as one of their store guys."
You later co-founded Da Huang Pictures which played a key role in launching the first wave of independent Malaysian filmmakers. It’s also a pioneering company, considering that there wasn't anyone else making films like this at that time. How was it like starting something from nothing?
Anybody can be a pioneer. That is the thing that a lot of people need to understand. You don't have to wait for somebody to teach you. Back then, making short films were super expensive. We shot in Beta and other formats and they were quite troubling to work with. Looking back, I spent 3 months editing a five minute film. There were no online film festivals and I remember having to get the festival’s information from the embassies. We will mail the tape without knowing if it got to the destination. Six months later, we'll get a letter informing that the film didn't make it into the festival. Those were the things we dealt with but we kept on going because of our passion and having to walk the talk. Don't say "I'm passionate about filmmaking" and you give up halfway. In a way, I think I've been very consistent because when I started, I knew this is what I wanted and I'm still doing it now even though I'm not making enough money to fund my Youtube channel.
I see. Speaking of your Youtube Channel, can you tell us a little more about it?
Doghouse73 Pictures is the only Malaysian channel to produce independent short films and narrative films. When I first did this, people were saying that there isn't a market for long contents on Youtube. Nobody can watch more than three or five minutes. There are those who would but the number is small. If you look at the viewings on my short films, they are slowly growing everyday. Although it's hard to maintain, it's still a platform for me to showcase my work and help produce young directors who rarely get chances to showcase their works on cinema or TV. So I eventually hope when people talk about Malaysian films, they'll also know that there are independent short films being made available online, free, twenty-four hours, seven days a week.
The film "The Beautiful Washing Machine" that you directed in the early days of Doghouse73 Pictures became the first recorded Malaysian film to win an award at an international film festival. Did the win change your life?
I think it's important to know that the award isn't something that determines how I continue my career, my journey and my life. Humility is very important when it comes to recognising that. I try not to let it influence me and say "my life has changed". In fact, it didn't change much because the award doesn't mean much to me, seriously. With most awards, you are very happy when you receive it but they are not important in the next five to ten years. You are as good as your latest films. Awards come and go. I don't want it to get me stuck in a mindset that prohibits change. As a filmmaker, that's what I'm most afraid of because I won’t be able to learn anything. That was when I purposely made sure that with my upcoming independent films, there are going to be differences. You explore, you learn, you screw up and find new things rather than just churning out.
When showing your work to an audience, there will always be criticism. Can you share a little on how you deal with your critics?
Understand that they might critique your work, but if they make sense and they are right, then you take it. I've learned to absorb those that are positive. If the critics are constructive and intelligent, I’ll read and further think about it. If they critique your work and you don't agree with it, then it's okay, just leave it out. If they are merely dissing and trashing your work then you can just forget about it. If they compliment your work, enjoy it and thank them. Always remember that as an artist, you need to know how to filter your comments and critics. Don't take it too personally.
What would your advice be to aspiring filmmakers?
Start making films. Get a camera and start shooting even if it's just an iPhone. Film with whatever that records. Try making films with as little resources as you can. The mistake with most young filmmakers is they want the full set of gears and crew, only then do they think they can make a short film. It's not about the crew, the camera or the number of lights used. It's about the story and how you handle your craft; learn to master it first. The crew is just to assist you. Don't let it or the brand dictate you. Screw up at the early days of your career and screw up as often as possible. As long as you learn and make sure you don't screw up next time.
"Anybody can be a pioneer. That is the thing that a lot of people need to understand. You don't have to wait for somebody to teach you."
It was inspiring to sit down with James and hear his story. The session was filled with wisdom from his 25 years of experience in the film industry. I learned from his hardships and understood the true price of passion through his perseverance. Despite everything he’d gone through, what’s gripping was his ability to stay nurturing in his effort to selflessly help the country’s up and coming filmmakers. For that, he’s setting himself to be remembered as a much endeared figure that played a key role in the future of Malaysia’s film scene.
"Screw up at the early days of your career and screw up as often as possible. As long as you learn and make sure you don't screw up next time."