Dain Said is telling a story about a man he met during his time as a shoe shop assistant in London during the 1980s. He says the man was a customer and had come to the shop for repairs.
“This old man said he has had this pair of leather shoes since the World War. I asked if it was World War II,” the 59-year-old director shares with journalists during an informal meet recently.
Dain changes his voice to sound like an older man with a more prominent British accent before continuing the story: “‘World War I!’ he said, and I laughed. Can you imagine that this man has had the same pair of shoes since the first World War?”
Dain is still laughing. With his dishevelled grey hair, black-rimmed glasses and white linen shirt, Dain looks the part of a mad scientist. Truth be told, he could well be one.
At times contemplative and serious, Dain is a man who likes to converse, share ideas and, most of all, have a laugh. Maybe this personality is the result of not being in one place for too long when he was growing up.
Although born in Kuala Lumpur, Dain followed his parents to Tumpat, Kelantan soon after. It is the memories of this kampung in the East Coast that Dain holds dear of his childhood days.
The family then moved to Cairo, Egypt, before settling down in London, which explains Dain’s light British accent.
In 1990, Dain graduated from the University of Westminster in London in Film and Photography. Since returning to Malaysia, Dain has directed shorts films, televsion shows and advertisements. He has also done two films – the infamous Malaysian supernatural film Dukun (completed in 2007 but never released) and the internationally-acclaimed Bunohan (2012).
His latest project is titled Interchange – which is currently making waves in the international film festival circuit – and right now the director is recalling how stressful the production was. At one point during filming he told producer Nandita Solomon: “Why are we doing this? This is madness. We’re not going to make a lot of money from doing this.”
According to him, during his stint at the shoe shop, he was offered a chance to learn how to be a shoemaker. From time to time, he does wonder what his life would have been like if he had accepted that offer.
“I don’t regret it, but then I would think about how I could be like that Jimmy Choo guy and make lots of money (laughs).”
The man then tells why he continues to direct anyway: “To tell stories.”
The story that Dain wants to tell through Interchange is inspired by an ancient belief that a human spirit can be trapped in photographs. He says, it all began with a photograph he saw over a decade ago while doing research for Dukun.
“There was about 20 women. It was a wide shot. The women were bending over and it looked like they were washing their feet. The caption for the photo was: ‘Women washing themselves from the evil effects of being photographed’. It was taken by a Norwegian ethnographer who travelled to Borneo. I thought it was really interesting.”
Through extensive research, Dain discovered that some local tribes believe humans have totem spirits which are symbolically represented by an animal.
Dain says that in Sarawak, a person’s totem spirit is widely believed to be the hornbill. This spiritual link between animals and humans is a cultural aspect that he explored in Bunohan.
“In the movie, the spirit of the main character’s mother appears as a crocodile – it’s about land spirits. These are our stories. It’s part of our culture. I don’t know why we don’t use them more often.”
Dain admits that he couldn’t write the story for Interchange until he was holed up in Bangkok, Thailand, for post-production work on Bunohan. “I wrote the story flow. Showed it to Nandita. She liked it and we began writing the first draft for a script.”
In Interchange, human blood, ritualistic feathers and antique photographs form the basis of a mystery set in a fictional city. A forensics photographer (Adam played by Iedil Putra) is haunted by images of a crime scene and isolates himself in an apartment. He strikes a friendship with neighbour Iva (Prisia Nasution) who draws him into a supernatural world. The RM3.5mil film shot in the Klang Valley also stars Shaheizy Sam, Nicholas Saputra and Nadiya Nisaa.
When you ask the director what the film is about, he offers this cryptic summary: “It’s a tragedy. It’s a story about two worlds with tragic and horrifying consequences.”
One of the challenges that came up for Interchange was shooting in the city. Comparing the laidback village setting for Bunohan and Interchange’s concrete jungle atmosphere, Dain states Interchange was harder to shoot. For one, gang members in locations like Kuala Lumpur posed a major problem for the director.
“When we were shooting at this location, supposedly controlled by a gang, a different gang came and wanted some form of payment. I told them to talk to each other because I don’t have time.”
Then there were the parking issues, security clearance and noise pollution. It made Dain miss filming in the kampung as no one had a problem with his presence.
But it’s all history now, with Interchange is complete and ready for screening. The film premiered at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland in August and in September, it was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in Canada.
In December, Interchange will be the opening film for the Singapore International Film Festival. The film is scheduled to open in Malaysia on Dec 1, with GSC Movies as its official distributor here.
Dain describes Interchange’s international reception as an honour. “This is encouraging for me. You see stories from around the world. Not just X-Men, Batman and all the superheroes,” says Dain.
While real-life gangsters couldn’t get Dain riled up, poor storytelling does. Recently, he says, he watched a film directed by a friend that depicted a woman being treated violently. Fifteen minutes into the film, Dain walked out of the cinema.
“Is that supposed to reflect my culture? I got so angry. There must be other ways to tell the story. You want to say a character is a bad person, work harderlah. Don’t write your script in two weeks. Take two months to write for (expletive) sake.”
He adds: “I’ve seen at least three movies like that. Let’s not even talk about movies where the woman marries her rapist.”
If anything, Dain says he’s not trying to go against mainstream offerings by being “artsy”. He explains his stance using fast food as an analogy.
“You can make a burger. I can make a burger. There is no difference. I’m sorry but I like having options. Sometimes I feel like having Malay food or Chinese food. I mean you can stick to what I call the McDonaldisation of culture. But I prefer to do something else.”