Talks with directors: Edmund Yeo

Introduction

Many people would argue that Japan is a homogenous country, yet such thought is beautifully contradicted by daily societal reality. The prevalence of such thought in foreign people is undeniably function of how ‘Japan’ represents itself in film and drama, but those take the plunge and explore Japanese cinema more deeply will be confronted with an explosion of conflicts between sub-cultures, generations, … etc.

In recent years, a different kind of cultural diversity has beginning to manifest itself: foreign directors creating Japanese narratives. One of those directors is Edmund Yeo, a director who proves that one can harmoniously pursue one’s own personal artistic tendencies with the traditions and idiosyncrasies of Japanese film industry.

Interview

Psycho-cinematography: Thanks for making time to answer some questions. Let’s jump right in our interview about Moonlight Shadow. So, something I want to know, what were some of the challenges you faced while filming due to the covid pandemic?

Edmund Yeo: There were a couple of challenges I had to deal with. The pandemic happened just when we were about to begin writing and preparing for the project, so there was a lot of anxiety and fear that I wouldn’t be able to fly into Japan during late 2020 to shoot the film.

Thankfully, for a couple of months, Japan opened its borders to Southeast Asian business travellers, so I was able to quickly sneak in. Right in time for the world premiere of MALU (2020), and for the preproduction of MOONLIGHT SHADOW (2021).

Prior to that, throughout 2020, my discussions with the producers and the writer Takahashi Tomoyuki-san were conducted mostly over Zoom. Production meetings, script meetings, etc. While we were able to get a lot of things done, we were still getting used to the whole concept of remote meetings, I guess.

During the film shoot itself, we went with a relatively small crew, and had our masks on the whole time. Except for actors, who took down their face shields or masks before each take.

We tried to be super careful when it came to the SOPs, having three temperature checks a day, maintaining some sort of social distance as much as we could in a situation such as this. It was quite scary since I was hearing news of how some crew members in other film shoots were infected during production.

P-C: Even without the covid-pandemic, being a foreign director in Japan is not that easy – maybe I express it a bit lightly. What are the difficulties for a foreign director to realize a film in Japan? Please, don’t hold back.   

E.Y.: It’s always challenging to work in a foreign country with a culture and language different from your own. Not only do you have to adapt and be respectful towards the working styles of the people in that particular country (be it cast, crew or producers etc.), you also need to ensure that the Japan and the people that are depicted in your film are not merely surface interpretations of the Japan in your own mind, or not make caricatures out of the (Japanese) characters. Japan has a long and rich cinematic history. I try to honour it.

I’m quite conscious that there’s a unique rhythm and pace I needed to adhere to when making a Japanese film, which is different from when I’m making a film in Malaysia with a Malaysian team.

While I’m from Malaysia and nor is my regular cinematographer Kong Pahurak (who is from Thailand), we are both rather familiar with Japanese culture and the workings of a Japanese film set due to the fact that we studied in Japan and stayed in the country for a couple of years. It helped that we both grew up watching many Japanese films and anime, but it helped more that we have spent years in the country.

One thing I always made clear, from my early Japanese-language short films like Kingyo to doing Moonlight Shadow, was the fact that all members of the cast and crew are requested to voice out if they felt that something I intend to depict in the film feels inauthentic. I am open to revising dialogues or changing certain scenes to find the right balance.

Ultimately filmmaking is a collaborative medium, so I wanted to ensure that all these creative input from everyone would help us make the most emotionally honest film we could and not, as I mentioned, a surface interpretation of Japan and its people.

P-C: The choice to adapt Moonlight Schadow to the silver screen was, as I presume, a very personal one. Can you explain what makes Banana Yoshimoto’s short-story so personal to you?

E.Y.: I think It had a lot to do with my own memory of reading the short story, and the exact time and stage of my life when I read it. I read it when I was in my early 20s just when I started discovering Japanese literature. The short story was among one of the early works of J-Lit I read then, its themes of grief and life after-loss had long characterised some of my personal favourite Japanese creative works (be it film, anime or literature) that I’ve experienced and the understated subtle beauty of this melancholy depicted in Yoshimoto’s story is something that I can find only in Japanese works. So even though the short story had faded slowly in my memory, the memory of reading the story itself was vivid.

After that, as I started making my own films, many of my works were influenced by Japanese literature, so I thought it would be coming a full circle, or somewhat poetic, to be able to adapt the very first written work written by Banana Yoshimoto, considering how I started my own filmmaking journey with it.

Edmund Yeo

P-C: Adapting a beloved short story into a feature length film is not simple. How did you approach this challenge?

E.Y.: I personally feel that adapting a short story is easier than a novel since you get to expand and reimagine certain elements, instead of removing or streamlining things from the source material.

While preparing for the film, I have revisited many of my favourite film adaptations of literary works. Often trying to compare both the film and the original text. Ang Lee’s Lust Caution and Brokeback Mountain, Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, Todd Haynes’ Carol, Pedro Almodovar’s Julieta, Lee Chang Dong’s Burning etc. (Note: I have yet to watch Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, but I was reading a lot of interviews about his process)

Sometimes, when you love a work of literature too much, it’s very hard for anything to live up to the characters and the world that you have constructed with your own imagination. I can entirely relate to that.

But my favourite adaptations are the ones where the film is able to stand on its own as a unique work of cinema, while preserving and distilling the original essence of the text.

I feel the same way with superhero films, I tend to prefer the ones that I can enjoy for its own merits, and not the ones that stick too closely to the comics.

P-C: How did you make sure that your script captured the soul of Banana Yoshimoto’s short story?

E.Y.: Since film and literature are such different mediums, I think making a faithful adaptation of the text wouldn’t necessarily make a good film. So I have to reinterpret and reimagine the events and characters for the screen, while making sure that I don’t betray the very soul of the original.

Despite the many creative liberties we took, I was constantly looking at Yoshimoto’s original short story for clues and inspiration. Certain text or sentences may not appear in the film, but they were used by me and the cast and crew for different aspects of the production. So I had the book with me at all times during the shoot, looking at it and the script.

Banana Yoshimoto and Nana Komatsu

P-C: To play Satsuki, you cast Nana Komatsu. How did you come to realize she was perfect for this role? In your opinion, what differentiates her from other actresses?

E.Y.: Nana is a very versatile actress who brought something different to every single role in every single film she had done. I noticed her since her breakthrough in ‘WORLD OF KANAKO’ (2014), and followed her career since then. The characters she had played and the materials she chose had been so varied.

Aside from her incredible screen presence, there’s this inner fire and steel that keep her characters unpredictable and emotionally layered. So, definitely, Nana Komatsu was the first one I had in mind for Satsuki.

P-C: Was casting the other roles was as easy? For example, the casting of Hio Miyazawa as Satsuki’s boyfriend Hitoshi.

We went through a rather long process to cast the other roles, together with the producers and casting director, we looked through the many candidates for other roles such as Hitoshi, Hiiragi, Urara etc.

When I flew into Japan late last year, I met some very incredible actors for Hitoshi. And had auditions for Hiiragi and Yumiko. I myself watched the previous works of these candidates too, for research. Before we finally picked our final candidates for the film.

Edmund Yeo

P-C: How did you ensure that the cast had the right chemistry with each other? Are there any particular ‘techniques’ you utilize?

My film sets are generally quite easygoing and laidback. I tend to give actors the space to explore their characters after having some in-depth discussions with them about their characters during rehearsals. Ultimately I just try to direct their creativity and give them the most comfortable environment to perform their best.

I also try to keep some things spontaneous for the shoot, and not do too many camera rehearsals, thus their performances can be more natural, instead of being overly rehearsed or calculated. I was lucky to work with a great cast, a mixture of veterans and newcomers who seem to complement one another.

P-C: Your works have certain poetic flavour – you can bring out the poetry out of the mundane. Can you reveal for us some of the directors or films that influenced your style?

Hmmm, I guess Andrei Tarkovsky, Shunji Iwai, Edward Yang, WKW and Fellini might be the ones who influenced me the most during my early filmmaking career, their influences persist even today. But if it’s more specifically [about] Moonlight Shadow, I say Almodovar and Kieslowski and Luca Guadagnino are some of my closer influences

P-C: One final question. You’ve already adapted two stories written by Yasunari Kawabata and now one by Banana Yoshimoto. Are there any other stories you want to adapt in the future?  

I’m quite curious about Yasunari Kawabata’s posthumously published book, Dandelion, because it was unfinished and it left so much to our imagination. Yukio Mishima’s SPRING SNOW was adapted by Isao Yukisada, but I’ve often [imagined] what the 3 other books in his Sea of Fertility tetralogy would look like if they became films too.

I would love to work on another Banana Yoshimoto story, or attempt a Haruki Murakami short story if I can. I’ve recently been reading the works of Yoko Tawada and found myself quite fascinated by the evocative imagery of her stories.

P-C: Thanks for your time.

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