When she was cast to star in a Japanese film, Sharifah Amani was elated. But not so much when she arrived on set in Penang where the film, Pigeon, was shot entirely.
In fact, Sharifah cried at work. Her co-star, Masahiko Tsugawa was unfriendly and cold towards her. The actress voiced her concerns to director Isao Yukisada, who assured her this was completely normal in a Japanese production.
“The director told me during the shooting that Sharifah cried because of me. And I wondered why,” Tsugawa, 77, said during an interview in Tokyo ahead of the premiere of Pigeon.
“It turned out she didn’t think I liked her as I was not friendly at all. But the truth of the matter is I am a cheerful human being but for the character of a lonely old man in Pigeon, I had to surpress my personality to stay in character which she mistook as my true feelings towards her.”
But it was exactly this level of professionalism that impressed Sharifah so much during the seven-day shoot. The 30-year-old actress found the Japanese cast and crew to be wholly dedicated to their craft.
“I feel very fortunate and blessed to get the chance to experience what it was like to work with a foreign crew. I saw how focused and how they knew what they wanted from the project. When they give 110% of their efforts, I feel the responsibility to do as good as well,” Sharifah said.
Pigeon was one of the three films in the Asian Three-Fold Mirror 2016: Reflection series which was shown at the Tokyo International Film Festival in October. It is a co-production by Japan Foundation Asia Center and Tokyo International Film Festival.
In the film, which is based on Yukisada’s grandfather, Sharifah plays a caretaker to a Japanese army veteran (Tsugawa) who resides in Malaysia.
Although the director doesn’t speak English or Bahasa Malaysia and Sharifah’s understanding of Japanese is minimal, that didn’t cause any problems on set.
“You would think that language would be an issue but – apart from having a translator on set – I think we, filmmakers, have a ‘language’. So, at the end of the day, Yukisada and I understood one another,” Sharifah offered.
Sharifah is best known for her role as Orked in the films Sepet and Gubra, directed by the late Yasmin Ahmad. The actress won the Best Actress award at the 2006 Malaysia Film Festival for her portrayal of Orked in the second movie.
1. You’re no stranger to working in a Japanese production. In 2011, you starred in the Japanese flick, Redemption Night. How different was it this time around?
The difference is the character. Huge difference. In Redemption Night, I played a prostitute who is also an abusive mother. In Pigeon, I play Yasmin, a character who is much closer to who I am in real life.
Playing a dark character (in Redemption Night), you constantly have this dark cloud around you, to be stern and mean … that’s the kind of vibe I went through in the first movie. Yasmin was much lighter, she was the sunshine in the house.
2. Pigeon might not get a theatrical release in Malaysia. Why accept this project?
When I accept an offer, it is usually because of the story. But for Pigeon, I was lucky because apart from the story which I like, I got the chance to work with a crew from overseas. Plus, the director is a fan of Yasmin Ahmad. So, it was an opportunity I can’t refuse.
3. You seem to enjoy working with the Japanese this time around, although you cried at first. Can you talk about the working experience?
At first I thought Tsugawa-san didn’t like me. But he is a dedicated and passionate actor, so he stayed in character all the time, even after the cameras stopped rolling.
We may not always be appreciated or made to feel worthy as an actor in Malaysia, so working in a production where we are able to feel like an actual actor, and given the respect, was an amazing feeling. And when you are given such appreciation, your only way to respond is to give that much back. There was pressure (working on this film) of course, but I work well under pressure.
It reminded me of the time when I worked with the late Yasmin Ahmad when actors were highly regarded.
4. Does that mean you will actively pursue opportunities in Japan?
I just wanna act and tell story. So, it doesn’t matter where (the project is from) as long as I like the story.
My life purpose is to learn from other people, experience other cultures, be it in work or just everyday life.
Maybe, someday I will get to make Yasmin’s dream come true by making a Japanese film. Before she passed away, we were supposed to make a Japanese film, Wasurenagusa; we had done recee, taken photos, cast our hero …
So, perhaps one day I will be given the opportunity to come back to Japan to make a film, instead of just acting in it. Because, ultimately, I want to be a director. To tell stories, Malaysian stories to the world.
It won’t be Wasurenagusa of course; no one could ever take the place of Yasmin. She’s one in a million.
5. What’s your upcoming projects for 2017?
In 2016, I shot two zombie films. The first one is an omnibus called KL24: Zombies and it features three directors – James Lee, Shamaine Othman and Gavin Yap. It will be released on YouTube (on Jan 8).
More and more filmmakers are moving towards digital release because you bypass everything and get a wider audience.
The second one is titled Zombietopia which stars Bront Palarae and Shaheizy Sam. Hopefully it will be released this year.