When director Woo Ming Jin attended the Rotterdam International Film Festival for the premiere of his film The Second Life Of Thieves early this year, he was approached by a delegate from Busan International Film Festival who wanted to know if he was interested to make a documentary about Malaysian cinema.

This was in conjunction with the festival’s Power Of Asian Cinema series, in which 10 Asian filmmakers are commisioned to present their respective country’s cinema scene during the annual festival in Busan, South Korea.

Among the countries that participated in the series in the festival, which ended last week, include Japan, Iran, India, South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, Philippines, Kazakhstan and China.

Woo’s documentary, Return To Nostalgia, focuses on the search of a local film made in 1947 titled Seruan Merdeka, which is said to be missing. A press release from film producer Greenlight Pictures describes Seruan Merdeka as the first post-World War II film made in Malaya, comprising Malay and Chinese actors.

According to producer Lim Ying Xian of Greenlight Pictures, Woo was told that he was free to make his documentary on anything about Malaysia cinema.

“When contemplating this topic, Woo realised that there was much that he did not know about his own country’s cinema despite having been in the film industry for a significant amount of time. He also realised that this was very much the case for most people in the country,” said Lim in an e-mail interview.

Malaysian filmmaker Woo Ming Jin. Photos: Greenlight Pictures

Malaysian filmmaker Woo Ming Jin. Photos: Greenlight Pictures

With just four months to make the documentary, Woo and his production team started their research in April on this lost film. They travelled to various locations including Perlis, Penang, Malacca, Negri Sembilan and Singapore in search of this piece of history.

“Along the way, we interviewed many people such as Hassan Abdul Muthalib, Amir Muhammad, AR Mustafar, Toh Hun Ping, Karen Chan and other film experts/specialists/academics,” said Lim. “We got in touch with several World War II survivors. Perhaps one of our most important leads is Wan Khazim Wan Din, who was among the audience when Seruan Merdeka film was released. He too is a World War II survivor.”

While on this mission of finding information on Seruan Merdeka, the crew gained insight into our nation’s turbulent past during the Japanese Occupation via the interviews they’ve conducted.

“We found out many things about our cinematic history,” said Lim. “In fact, because the film was based on real life events, we were able to highlight atrocities that happened during the war inflicted by the Japanese on the Malayan population.

“At the same time, what seems to be prevalent amongs Malaysians was the sense of nostalgia and a longing for the past – the old theatres that have long since been closed and more importantly, for a period where life seemed simpler.”

Return To Nostalgia was screened at the festival on Oct 4 as the opening film for Power Of Asian Cinema series. Also in attendance at the screening were Finas director general Datuk Kamil Othman and Finas assistant director, Faridah Jaafar. Return To Nostalgia received support and endorsement from Finas.

Return To Nostalgia also features actors Iedil Putra and Jasmin Chin for the reenacment of the film’s final act. In a press release, Woo said: “It is my desire to showcase a part of my country to the world, a part that many of us may have already forgotten.”

Woo – who recently directed Mamak Cupcake and KL Zombi – discovered that he can’t really control all the elements when making a documentary. Lim explained: “Unlike in a fiction film where you have a script and actors, a documentary is a free for all. We had to chase leads and we had no idea where they would take us. It was a steep learning curve in an extremely limited amount of time.”

After the screening at the festival, Woo was asked several questions on Malaysian cinema in the 1940s and certain aspects of films made during that period. Lim added that the audience was also interested in Woo’s interpretation of Seruan Merdeka, especially the reenacted scene.

“It was very well received,” answered Lim on how the documentary did in the festival. “The audiences in Busan are informed and cinephiles, and they have a high appreciation for films and cinema.”

Lim said the film will be shown in Malaysia sometime next year, perhaps with a tour to academic institutions nationwide.