Why this Malaysian movie was filmed entirely in Penang Hokkien

It takes a brave filmmaker to take one of the darkest stories from his past and make it into a film for the whole world to see. But that's exactly what director Saw Teong Hin has done with You Mean The World To Me.

The Hokkien-language film is a very personal, semi-autobiographical story based on Saw's own family history as well as his estranged relationship with his late mother.

During a recent interview, it was clear that the subject is still one that really affects him emotionally.

As he spoke in depth about how the film came about, there was a distinct melancholy in his eyes, and he even sounded a little choked up at one point, as he struggled to keep his emotions in check.

"I've already said to myself that I won't watch the movie during the media preview, so that I'll be coherent for the press conference!" he joked during the interview at Menara Star, which also included two of the film's stars, Frederick Lee and Chelsia Ng.

You Mean The World To Me is based on Saw's own family, played here by (from left) Evan Chin, Eng Yee Min, Gregg Koay, Neo, Steve Yap, Tan and Ng.Photo: The Star/ Asia News Network

Set in Penang and filmed entirely in the Penang Hokkien dialect, You Mean The World To Me is about a Penang-born filmmaker named Sunny (played by Lee), who returns home to make a film about his dysfunctional family, which is linked to a shocking incident he witnessed as a boy and caused resentment towards his mother (Neo Swee Lin) and his older, mentally-disabled brother Boy (John Tan).

The cast also includes award-winning Malaysian actress Yeo Yann Yann, and cinematography by the internationally-acclaimed Christopher Doyle, who is best known for his work with Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai.

Saw first wrote the story in 2007 as a cathartic exercise to exorcise the darker parts of his past and confront his own feelings towards his family history.

Then, came an opportunity to stage it as a play during the 2014 George Town Festival.

After the success of the play, Saw began getting offers to turn it into a film. With the help of Astro Shaw, he finally began filming in 2015, and finished it in November last year (though the release was delayed to May 4 so it could coincide with this year's Mother's Day).

"Doing the play really helped the film," said Saw, who is best known for films like Puteri Gunung Ledang and Jejak Warriors.

"The writing was crazy because it was the first time I was confronting the past and writing about it. That was the toughest time for me. The second time was during the rehearsals. When I saw the play being staged, every night, I was a mess," he remembered.

(From left) Ng, Saw and Lee, have an easy camaraderie, having worked on You Mean The World To Me since it was a play.Photo: The Star/ Asia News Network

It was the same while doing the film, he said. "Every time we went to shoot, I said to myself that I would be objective and not let it get under my skin, but every time, invariably, it did.

"Even now, every time I watch it, it still affects me at a very deep level. It's all still very raw for me," he said.

The story is mainly about Saw's relationship with his mother - who passed away in 1991 - and his brother, who died in 2003. He sees the movie as a way of honouring as well as apologising to them.

"As a kid, I was very selfish and worried about only what impacted me, and did not think about what others went through. Now, when I look back I realise that I could have done better," he said.

"I wish I knew what I know now back when my mother and brother were still alive. Then, I could have been a better son and brother.

"I know I've made mistakes in the past, and it's easy to say that I was young and did not know better back then. But how do you apologise to someone who is already dead?"

The Penang Hokkien connection

At this point, the sombre atmosphere was lifted by the sound of laughter, as his two stars entered the room. The three of them have a close, easy camaraderie that was quite apparent during our session, chatting and teasing one another in Hokkien and goofing around during the shoot.

Lee and Ng were also in the play, so it made sense that the three of them would be close friends.

Mother (Neo Swee Lin) and little Sunny (Gregg Koay) in You Mean The World To Me.Photo: The Star/Asia News Network

However, according to Ng, filming the movie was completely different to the stage version, as there were certain subtleties that just can't be translated the same way as on stage.

However, she was grateful to Saw for believing in her.

"A day before we started filming, he came to me and said, 'I know you know your stuff, because you've done it before'. It was very reassuring to know that he completely trusted me with the character," Ng said.

The story of You Mean The World To Me is set in two time periods, and Ng plays the aunty to the younger version of Sunny, the filmmaker who essentially represents Saw in the story.

Lee, who plays Sunny, said he was not under pressure to base the character on the director's actual personality.

"At first I only knew that the story was about him, but the first time I saw the script, I got really nervous because I didn't know whether I could do it justice," said the 41-year-old actor. "But (Saw) gave me a lot of freedom to decide how to play the role. He basically just let me do what I wanted with it."

Saw interjected: "What I liked about Lee's performance is he came up with the characterisation of Sunny based on the script. He is not there to imitate me."

Award-winning Malaysian actress Yeo appears in the film You Mean The World To Me.
Photo: Astro Shaw

Filming the movie in Penang Hokkien was very important for Saw because of the whole context of the story and where it takes place. In fact, he has mentioned in earlier interviews that he turned down some offers to film You Mean The World To Me because he'd been asked to change the language to Mandarin.

"My parents spoke Penang Hokkien. All the characters speak Penang Hokkien. If you change that to Mandarin, you might as well be changing it to Tamil! It's just not the same!" Saw stated.

The film's Hokkien title is Hai Kinn Xin Loo (which literally means "new road by the sea front"), the old Hokkien name for Penang's Victoria Street (now known as Lebuh Victoria), where Saw grew up.

Recreating his childhood home

The home he lived in was recreated for the film, and Saw was moved by how much the set looked like his old home.

"The first time I walked onto the film set, I felt a deep sadness … my old house is no more, and this was a confirmation of all the things that happened before.

"I could see vividly in my mind what happened in the living room, what happened in the airwell …" he said.

"In the beginning (of the shoot), I would go in early before anyone else and walk around … then I would have to go somewhere quiet to snap myself out of it and stop thinking about the past," he revealed.

While he still has mixed feelings about putting such a personal story out there for the world to see, Saw has a very clear purpose for the film - to really drive it into people not to take their family for granted.

"If anybody watches this film and picks up their phone to call their mother after that … I think I would be a very happy person!" Saw said.