Man On Film

19 May 2016

Independent filmmaker Julian Cheah is poised for next-level success with his latest film, Judi-Judi King Boss. He talks about the trials and tribulations throughout his career and the challenges of making it as an action star.

Julian Cheah may not (yet) be a widely recognisable face in the Malaysian film scene, but there’s no doubt that he’s one of the most hardworking.

An actor and filmmaker with over three decades of experience, over 20 films in his catalogue, and a finger in many other pies along the way, Julian works immensely hard to match some of Malaysia’s more bankable talents.

It also doesn’t hurt that the 54-year-old is blessed with the complexion of a man 20 years his junior (“I definitely don’t do Botox!”).

Even if he’s seemed to tick all the right boxes to becoming a giant movie star, in place of a mainstream audience for Julian is a cult following - niche audiences who follow his work religiously, or those who like their movies with a dose of camp.

A peek into Prince Of The City starring Julian himself, Michael Madsen and Aaron Aziz is a good indication of his films. There are cheesy one-liners, dramatic cues to indicate tension, slow-motion pans across a woman’s bikini-clad body, and multiple shots of bullets flying into unsuspecting chests.

These “escapist” films are exactly what Julian gravitates towards, his favourite genre being action-adventure (he’s an ardent fan of the James Bond series).

His new directing effort, Judi-Judi King Boss, is a comedic tale of a zany taukeh, played by himself, who opens an illegal gambling den to the chagrin of his girlfriend. His followers are to call him King Boss and nothing else. “When they call him ‘Boss’ he says ‘Eh, King Boss la’,” Julian says.

The film has six dialects popularly used in Malaysia as well as a multi-racial ensemble cast. “People seem to be really warming up for this one,” Julian says. “I think this could be my biggest, financially.”

While some independent filmmakers are content with making art films and getting acknowledged in the festival circuit, Julian is hungry for large-scale box office success.

“Sure, there are filmmakers that don’t want to reach out commercially, they’re happy with that niche market,” he says. “But that’s not the kind of movies I make. I want to go international; I want to leave something behind.”

“I still don’t feel my base is that strong yet compared to other filmmakers like Syamsul Yusof. He literally has millions of people behind him in Malaysia, but I don’t have that kind of power.”

To tap into Malaysian audiences who favour big budget action flicks, Julian doesn’t mind compromising production value for entertainment value. “I can’t boast that Judi is a great technical film,” he says. “But what it will do is charm the hearts of people. They’re not going to care if we shot it on film. They just want us to crack jokes, they just want to laugh.”

It hasn’t been a walk in the park for Julian and his foray into filmmaking. After finishing a film course in New York University in 1986, his first feature film Retribution was funded by his grandfather and managed a national video release with little fanfare.

He even lived in Los Angeles for a year in an attempt to penetrate Hollywood. But in a cutthroat industry, it’s not as picture-perfect as Sunset Boulevard. “They don’t even want to talk to you unless you’ve done something big, or someone big recommends you,” he says.

With the risk and instability of the industry, Julian’s love for entertaining audiences trumps all else. “No studio executive can say if a movie is going to make money. They may say ‘Yeah it might do well’, but how do they know for sure? How many people can live with this uncertainty?” he laments.

Hollywood whitewashing and Asian stereotypes are also issues actors like Julian are constantly faced with in the West. Hollywood seems to have too strong a hold on the contributions of action legends like Jet Li and Bruce Lee, but Julian asks the question: “Why can’t we go further than that?”

On top of that, funding is a hurdle for Julian, an issue other independent filmmakers can resonate with. “Although it’s cheaper to make movies now because of digital technology, one of the hardest things ever [as a filmmaker], not just in Malaysia, is to raise money.”

This difficulty prompted Julian to make his own films within his own company, albeit cheaply. He’s a one-man production force, with credits in directing, acting, producing, distribution and marketing. But he prefers it this way, making it less of an obstacle to make the films he want to.

Making niche films also invites criticism, some of which have directed nasty names at him and questioned his clout. But Julian, resilient in his endeavour, is unperturbed about them. At the end of the day, his mission is to “make people feel good”.

“If people can go into the cinema and spend 75 minutes to laugh their heads off, I’ve done my job,” he says.

Judi-Judi King Boss is showing in cinemas now.
By Surekha Ragavan

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