Malaysian-Chinese filmmakers find success in China – On Your Mark is the latest hit – thanks to their movies’ universal themes and visual storytelling

Wang Yanhui (left) and Zhang Youhao in a still from On Your Mark.

Film director Chiu Keng Guan, born in Johor state in Malaysia, is well-known in his home country for blockbuster films that touch on themes of friendship, family and patriotism.

His first box office hit came in 2014 – The Journey , the story of a Malaysian-Chinese father who lets his daughter marry an Englishman if the latter accompanies him on a cross-country journey to deliver the wedding invitations. The Journey grossed 16.87 million ringgit ($5.43 million), becoming the 10th highest-grossing Malaysian film of all time.

On Your Mark , Chiu’s latest and his directorial debut in China, is an uplifting tale of a father who helps his son, who has multiple sclerosis, prepare to run a marathon. The film topped the Chinese box office on its opening day on June 18, and has earned the equivalent of US$12.1 million at the box office since then.

The film was produced by, among others, Jiangsu Maoyan Culture Media, Jiangsu Hao Di Cultural Development, the Sports Culture Development Centre of the General Administration of Sports (China Sports Museum) and Astro Shaw. The latter is the sole Malaysian producer, and will soon distribute the film throughout Southeast Asia.

Chiu was first pitched On Your Mark when he presented the sport-themed film Ola Bola (2016) – the true story of how the Malaysian national soccer team qualified for Moscow’s 1980 Summer Olympics – at the Shanghai Film Festival in 2016.

“A producer [who is also the main creator of On Your Mark ] came to me with this story after the Ola Bola screening, and I found it quite interesting,” Chiu says in an interview with the Post . “The plot and the characters are very intriguing. I was really moved by the story and decided to take part in it.”

In On Your Mark, which was shot in just 55 days, Xiao Erdong (played by Zhang Youhao) aspires to be a marathon runner just like his late mum. His dreams, however, are opposed by his taxi-driving father, Xiao Daming (Wang Yanhui), who tries to prepare him for the frustration of living with multiple sclerosis – a medical condition Erdong has recently been diagnosed with.

Chiu is not the first Malaysian-Chinese director to gain impressive commercial success in China: his achievements come on the heels of Sheep Without A Shepherd (2019), a Thailand-set thriller directed by Penang-born Sam Quah.

A remake of Indian Malayalam-language film Drishyam (2013) by Jeethu Joseph, Sheep Without a Shepherd became the ninth highest-grossing film of 2019 in China, earning a staggering US$190 million.

Malaysian film director Chiu Keng Guan.

“Local producers and creative talent in both Malaysia and China are very similar in terms of their passion for producing good films,” Chiu says. “But as the market in China is huge and mature, the production teams there are obviously bigger, with crews of more than 200 people, and each team member focuses on a specific role ... to help execute the production very smoothly,” he said.

The Chinese success of Malaysian-Chinese filmmakers like Chiu, Quah and even Tan Chui Mui – whose Malaysian-shot, Hong Kong-produced art house film Barbarian Invasion won the Jury Grand Prix at Shanghai’s Golden Goblet Awards on June 20 – may be less related to where they come from and more to the universality of their stories.

“Just how ‘Malaysian’ can these blockbusters be when the actors are well-known East Asian film stars, and the stories universal enough to be set anywhere [as is On Your Mark ], or adapted into any cultural context, as is the case of Sheep Without A Shepherd ,” says Gaik Cheng Khoo, professor of film and television studies at the University of Nottingham Malaysia.

According to Thomas Barker, another professor of film at the same university, Malaysian-Chinese filmmakers are capable of navigating China’s industry and networks.

“They know how to hustle,” says Barker. “And they can apply their visual storytelling skills. Being behind the camera is less of a problem too, because they don’t need to be 100 per cent fluent in Mandarin, whereas Malaysian actors have struggled to get a foothold in China because of their accents.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.