A family affair

Neo with child star Gregg as mother and son in a scene from Ýou Mean the World to Me'.

LOCAL director Saw Teong Hin’s latest film, You Mean the World to Me, is something very close to his heart. It is based on his family, especially his contentious relationship with his mother.

In addition, it is the first Malaysian-made Hokkien movie.

You Mean the World to Me centres on Sunny, a filmmaker who returns to his hometown in Penang to shoot a new film.

Playing Sunny is Malaysian actor Federick Lee, while Singaporean actress Neo Swee Lin plays his mother.

Others in the cast include John Tan, Yeo Yann Yann and Tan Ai Suan, while Penang boy Gregg Koay takes on his first film role playing the young Sunny.

Saw, who was named best director at the 18th Malaysia Film Festival for his work on 2004’s Puteri Gunung Ledang, says: “I have [had] some success in my film career, [but none] of the work I was doing was truly reflective of me.

“I wanted to do something meaningful for myself.”

So, Saw set out to write a script that featured more of his ‘voice’, including characters based upon himself, his siblings, and his mother.

Saw was the youngest of six children. His mother came from a rich family, and she married his father, who was wealthy in his own right. However, the family soon fell on hard times.

“[Going] from having money, to not having money, must have been hard on her,” he said.

To make matters worse, one of his older brothers suffered from psychological issues.

“He was a disruptive force in my family,” Saw remembers. “But my late mother was constantly defending him.”

There were plans to commit his brother to an institution where he could get help. But his mother would not accept the suggestion.

“I could not understand how my mother chose to love one child more than the others,” he says. “I always thought my mother never loved me. And I resented her for that.”

Saw insists that he has no intention of painting his late mother as a villain in the movie.

He says, in his youth, he let his resentment rule him, adding: “I did not put myself in her shoes, and I just judged her. When you have resentment, you have no compassion.

“I was not good to her when she was alive. But over the years, [maturity] allowed me to see my mother in a totally different light.

“I made this movie because I wanted to highlight her sacrifices, and to make a public apology for all the wrong I had done to her.”

Saw admits that he took some creative liberty, adding doses of fiction into the otherwise autobiographical story.

“For example, I had five siblings but in the movie, my lead character only has an older brother and sister,” he says.

Saw admits that directing the film brought on several challenges.

He had designed the set to look like his childhood home. When he arrived to shoot the movie, it brought back all the raw emotions surrounding his past, but Saw managed to hold himself together and continue working.

He also faced opposition from his siblings. “Most Asians do not like talking about the ugliness and the flaws in their family.”

Thankfully, his siblings managed to put aside their reservations and trusted him to tell their story fairly.

Saw wrote the script in 2010, but securing financing for the film turned out to be an arduous task.

Some said they would only invest in the project if he changed the language spoken to Mandarin.

“Language is an important element in understanding a person’s personality and character,” Saw says. “Every language is structured differently.

“If you are a native Hokkien speaker, your nuances will be different from a Mandarin speaker. I can’t really imagine my characters speaking Mandarin.

“It was a very personal script to me and I was not ready to make that change.”

In 2014, he presented the work as a stage play, which received rave reviews. The success of the play helped open doors for him to get funds to turn the play into a feature film.

Saw also managed to rope in international cinematographer Christopher Doyle (who worked on Wong Kar Fai’s In the Mood for Love and Zhang Yimou’s Hero).

He also got Taiwanese singer Zhao Chuan to sing the movie’s theme song.

“When you watch the film, you will realise that I love my family, and I am proud of where I came from,” he says.

“I am hoping my audience will walk away feeling grateful for their family, and their parents.

“Your parents had to put aside their dreams, [in order] to put food on the table for you.”

You Mean the World to Me opens in cinemas nationwide on May 4.