Even before the shoot for the Malaysia-Vietnam production of Moonlight Saigon began, it was already an uphill struggle.
Datuk Nancie Foo and Datin Wendy Wong of Produksi Seni 2020 – the production company behind the series – shared that there were many issues that needed to be ironed out before they began developing the script.
“Just to get that door (for a collaboration) opened was difficult,” said Wong.
Over a period of time, the duo attended various industry events held in France, China, Hong Kong and South Korea to pitch ideas and establish networks.
“We found Vietnam and Malaysia had many cultural similarities. We made many trips to Ho Chi Minh City before a deal could be struck,” she added.
They eventually signed with a Vietnam TV station to co-produce the 26-episode series, whereby filming locations, cast and crew were divided between them.
This was three years ago. Since then, both Foo and Wong took turns to be based in Ho Chi Minh to work on the script with their counterparts.
Last year, the shooting began. At this point, the duo discovered more hurdles in the form of language as well as filming style.
“If you’ve watched Vietnamese series, you’d notice that sometimes the actors’ lip movement and the dialogue don’t really sync. We’ve
learned it’s because they don’t record live sounds.
“Instead they rely solely on dubbing. Mark Tham, the Malaysian director, had to explain to the cast and crew this is not how we work. But it wasn’t an easy process,” explained Wong.
Foo added: “It came to a point of a misunderstanding between the teams.
“We couldn’t convey what we wanted to them, and they had problems meeting our needs … we were running behind schedule and had to cut out filming some scenes we had planned.”
Nonetheless, the company was determined to make the joint-venture work. Compromises were met from both sides, and a harmonic rhythm was achieved.
Foo is grateful that the series got full co-operation from the Vietnam government to shoot at public areas like the police station, airport and hospital around Ho Chi Minh City.
It was filmed over four months – two months in Ho Chi Minh City, and two months in Kuala Lumpur – with two directors: one from Malaysia, and one from Vietnam.
Foo said that this is to ensure that both countries keep to their values and there are no sensitive scenes that would get the production in trouble with their respective censorship board.
“The reason why we wanted this (joint-venture) to work is because Malaysian artistes have little opportunities to work overseas,” said Foo.
“We know Korean artistes, Thai actors, but they don’t know ours. So, through Moonlight Saigon, we want to give our artistes exposure overseas.
“We believe Moonlight Saigon can travel not only to Vietnam but also to other countries.”
National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (Finas) director-general Datuk Fauzi Ayob, who attended the launch of the series, lauded the collaborative effort.
He said: “We hope Moonlight Saigon will encourage other production houses to work together with neighbouring countries for their series.
“With a collaboration like this, both sides can learn from one another’s expertise and experiences, as well as have an exchange of artistes and crew.”
Moonlight Saigon centres on a love story, touching on cultural and geographical differences between the characters. Driving the story along, too, is a crime-drama.
Heading the cast are Malaysian actors Jonathan Lee and Evan Sia, as well as Vietnamese actors, Yu Duong and Hoang Kieu Trihn. It features Mandarin, English and Vietnamese dialogues.
“There are also some Malay too – for example when the characters interact with Malaysian police officers,” mentioned Wong.
Actor Lee who plays one of the lead characters, found the two months he spent filming in Ho Chi Minh City to be an interesting experience.
“Most of the Vietnamese actors and crew don’t speak English, so sometimes I had no idea what was going on when I was on set.
“Out of desperation, I used Google Translate to communicate with them.
“I also found that the catering business in Vietnam is very competitive. The food they provided on set had to be healthy. Fried rice is a no-no,” said the 34-year-old actor who starred in the Chinese series The Memoir Of Majie.
For actress Angela Chan, who appears in 15 episodes, Midnight Saigon holds a special place in her heart even though all her scenes were filmed in Malaysia.
She said: “This is the first time I got to play a villain. I enjoyed playing such a role.”
Moonlight Saigon premieres on Sept 3 on TV2 at 11am.