Place: New York

A World Without Nationality

Art Categories:  Film, Movie

From December 5th through 22nd, Brooklyn’s Spectacle Theater screened “Fly Me To Minami” “Magic & Loss” and “After All These Years”, three works by director Kah Wai Lim, a cinema drifter from Malaysia who creates “nationless” films. During the series, Mr. Lim stepped onto the land of New York City for the first time to join post-screening Q&A’s.


What was 2016 like? “Aggressive” should be most appropriate. Collisions between groups, like the Democratic and Republican parties, and blaming certain groups, like immigrants and Muslims, have been spotlighted in 2016. However, Mr. Lim journeys on a path completely different from the choices of society—a path of nationlessness, in which you don’t belong to anything. This in other words means you belong to everything. How can this world of not belonging which only exists in his films echo in our current society?


COOL met Mr. Lim on December 9th in New York City’s Greenwich Village to discuss his films and ideas.



“My identity as a filmmaker is nationless”


You are from Malaysia but currently live in Japan. How did you end up working in Japan?

I went to Japan to study after graduating high school in Malaysia 25 years ago. In Malaysia, ever since former Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad came up with the Look East Policy, there was a movement in the country to go to Japan to learn their skills. So, inspired by that movement, I went to study electrical engineering in the School of Engineering Science at Osaka University. After graduating, I started to work at a telecommunications company in Tokyo.


In Tokyo, you get to see films from all over the world, like you do in New York. It’s like heaven for film fans. I especially like old Japanese films, and I used to visit the movie theaters that had special programs of master directors such as Yasujiro Ozu, Mikio Naruse, Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasuzo Masumura, even though I had to take a day off from work. I was living in Tokyo like that, but I began to understand that I didn’t fit in my job. So I was thinking to do something else, and the idea to be a filmmaker grew more and more in me.


"After All These Years" © Cinema Drifters

However, it’s not easy to start a career as a filmmaker right away, so I wanted to go to film school. I was yearning to get in a school in New York or Europe, but their tuitions are very expensive. But around that time, interesting new Chinese independent filmmakers like Jia Zhang-ke and Wang Bing were introduced in Japan. They attended the Beijing Film Academy and lived in Beijing making films. The tuition and living expenses were much less expensive than New York schools. So I thought China was the perfect place for me to study.


I attended Beijing Film Academy, and after making “After All These Years” and “Magic & Loss,” because I received a grant from Cineaste Organization Osaka (CO2) to make “New World,” I went back to Osaka.


Do you see any difference between when you lived in Japan the first time and now?

The scenery and atmosphere of Japan haven’t really changed, but I think Japanese people back then and now are very different. What is different? Japanese people now have lost interest in other countries. But, as if inversely proportional to that, more and more tourists are coming to Japan. More Europeans and Asians have visited the country in the past twenty years. But people in Japan are not interested in them and don’t really have interest to go abroad either. Twenty years ago in Japan there were many families who welcomed foreigners to stay with them, and there was a great environment for foreign students, but I think those kind of opportunities are decreasing.


Like England which has decided to leave the EU and the result of the U.S. presidential election, we live in a global society that is becoming more conservative. What do you think about this phenomenon?

"Magic & Loss" © Magic and Loss Film Partners

I believe what happened to England and the United States is the outcome of globalization that has advanced. In the case of the United States, labor costs are cheaper outside the country, so American industries are dependent on foreign countries. That’s why the population of unemployed people has grown and the gap between rich and poor has become wider. I think that’s the reason why people have been looking and thinking more inward. Globalization is not a bad thing, but it can become excessive. And if it becomes excessive, it can exploit developing countries.


It’s been one month since the presidential election ended in the United States. I think the result of the election will affect the whole world. As an artist, do you feel anything being here in America?

Probably because New York is liberal, I don’t really feel the effect of the election here much. Honestly, rather than that, I’m happier that I came to New York.


Maybe people pretend that nothing has happened. And that happened in Japan as well. When 3/11 (Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami) happened in Japan, people still tried to live like nothing has happened, without facing what happened.



“There is no Malaysian point of view is in my films.

Moreover, there is no point of view of

Japanese, Hong Kongese, or Chinese”


In your films, travelers are the lead characters. And you used to be a backpacker yourself. What impressed you while on your journey?

"New World" © Cinema Drifters

The world is really big; I’m feeling this at this very moment as well. My journeys as a backpacker deeply reminded me that there are various people in the world, and I didn’t know about the world at all. But at the same time, while traveling, because the world is so big and there are so many things that I don’t know about, it’s impossible to know everything. So, there might be things that you should know and that you don’t have to know.


What does journey speak to you?

Because I’m a filmmaker, I can basically develop scripts and ideas even on my trips. For example, even if we plan to shoot in Beijing, I don’t have to live there. I can prepare the film shoot in Beijing after completing the script in Yunnan. People who believe that they have to live in Tokyo or New York to work have not realized things like that yet. And surprisingly, living like that could be cheaper than renting an apartment or a house. That was my discovery through my journeys. Also, meeting different kinds of people while traveling will develop my ideas more.


Did you have yearning for the outside world when you lived in Malaysia?

"Fly Me To Minami" © FLY ME TO MINAMI All Rights Reserved.

I wasn’t really curious about the world while I was in Malaysia. When I think about your question now, I think I became interested in the world after moving to Beijing because, even while I was living in Japan, I was just a student and salaryman.


There were many foreigners near my school in Beijing, so around the time of the 2004 Beijing Olympics, I had more opportunities to see foreigners there than in Tokyo, although Japan is now totally different from back then.


Before going to Beijing, I was thinking that Tokyo was a very international city, but when I moved to Beijing, it was much more international. If I didn’t go to Beijing and was still working as a salaryman in Tokyo, I would have never had the idea to live like a drifter.


I don’t think it’s the right thing to know about the outside world, but knowing the outside can allow you to know more about the inside. When you stepped out of Malaysia, did that somehow change your acknowledgement and impression of the country?

I’m from Malaysia, but I perhaps have spent more time in Japan. I’m 43 years-old now. I moved to Japan when I was 19. So in that sense, leaving Japan allowed me to be able to know about the outside rather than leaving Malaysia.

Malaysia is a multiracial nation. There are people who have different roots such as Malays, Chinese and Indians, also people speak different languages and various cultures and religions live together. In terms of politics a lot has happened, but there seems to be not much difference between when I was living there and now. However, Japan when I was a student and Japan after coming back from Beijing are completely different. I think I got to know Japan more once I left the country.


You make films with no specific nationality. How did you end up with that style?

I wasn’t intentionally making that kind of film. It naturally happened. I feel like the process of my filmmaking brings that style; I call it “nationless films.”


"After All These Years" © Cinema Drifters

For example, “After All These Years,” the first film that I made in Beijing: my staff and cast were people from all over the world like Hong Kong, Japan, Bolivia, the US, China and Korea. Because I went to Beijing and met them, my team became so multinational. If you make a film in Japan, your team would be pretty much all Japanese, wouldn’t it? Though I guess the system has changed a lot these days.


“Magic & Loss,” the film I shot right after “After All These Years”, also had a sense of nationlessness. The lead actress Kiki Sugino is like a woman who is floating on the border of Japan and Korea, and we made this film with her in Hong Kong. So “Magic & Loss” is neither a Japanese nor a Korean film. I think it’s appropriate to call it nationless.


Kiki Sugino works internationally and she gives me a sense that her style is also nationless.

"Magic & Loss" © Magic and Loss Film Partners

She does make films in many different countries. Her team is very international too. She recently went to Bulgaria to work on a film as well. So she is an outstanding international filmmaker, but I wouldn’t say she is nationless like I am because the strongest identity of her is Japanese. For instance, she made a film called “Taksu.” The film is shot in Indonesia, but the story is told from a Japanese point of view. My case is different; there is no Malaysian point of view is in my films. Moreover, there is no point of view of Japanese, Hong Kongese, or Chinese.


“Fly Me to Minami” is like a compilation at this point of your life as a filmmaker: the locations and languages are mixed together. What is your wish for nationlessness? What can you achieve in nationless films?

"Fly Me To Minami" © FLY ME TO MINAMI All Rights Reserved.

Actually after “Fly Me to Minami,” I shot a film in China, with a Chinese staff and cast. The film has already opened in China. That is not nationless. It’s completely a Chinese film. However, that wasn’t a project that I drew up. But if I want to start a project, I will direct it towards nationlessness, because my identity as a filmmaker is nationless.


I’ve been planning to make a film in Osaka again. The story takes place in Osaka, but characters are international; there are African, Eastern European, and of course Asian. I would like to make an Altman-esque film with an international cast.


I believe that nationlessness is possible because of freedom of expression. However, today there are people who feel uneasy that freedom of expression even exists, and therefore society is becoming more and more suffocating; even political jokes are not easy to say in public.

On social media, I especially have political comments on the situations of Malaysia and Hong Kong, but the society is surely not bright. Hong Kong has been China-ized so much, and freedom and democracy have faded. Malaysia is a democratic country on the surface, but kind of like an authoritarian regime continues. America and Europe are about to have drastic changes, and it seems to be not bright either.


But I’m basically an optimist. You get anxious when you look at a short period of time, but when you look at the past 100 years, we’ve had less wars than before. Nothing changes so quickly, but I believe that things are becoming better little by little.


You are visiting in New York, so did the thought of making a film here ever occur to you?

Kah Wai Lim

I’m actually staying at my friend’s place in Brooklyn. It has a great atmosphere; the ceiling is high and windows are large. Probably there are many places like that in America that used to be warehouses. I find those places very cinematic. I think there are many cinematic places in the city of New York.


The atmosphere of a space is very important to me. If the atmosphere of a space is great, I can make a film there without a doubt. New York is a mecca for indie films, isn’t it? I’ve found many amazing places in New York, I would like to make an indie film here, by any means.



text & interview by Taiyo Okamoto


Cinema Drifters Website

“Fly Me To Minami” Official Website