One man's passion for film is translated on screen, writes MICHELE LIAN.
NOT many people can lay claim to having four professions at one go – accountant, businessman, filmmaker and, now, acting coach – these are the professional hats Ike Ong wears with ease.
The 50-year-old Malaysian shuttles between London – where he lives with his 45-year-old psychotherapist wife and four daughters – and Kuala Lumpur to teach aspiring filmmakers and actors the finer aspects of his craft.
If you think his name resonates well within the local literary circle, you are right. Ong is also the pioneer of the second-hand book haven called Skoob Books, which opened its doors in Kuala Lumpur 14 years ago.
"I started Skoob Books in Covent Garden, London, in 1979, Skoob Two near the British Museum in 1986, Skoob Books in Brisbane, Australia, in 1988, Skoob Books in Singapore in 1989, and Skoob Books in KL in 1990.
"Thor Kah Hoong (director of Skoob Books, Kuala Lumpur) was told that he was not allowed to smoke in the bookshop one day so he bought the shop. Now, I'm not allowed to smoke in the shop," says Ong, displaying his candour via an e-mail interview.
Ong now runs Skoob Books in Russell Square, London.
Born in Penang but raised and schooled internationally, Ong's passion for the arts is the result of being exposed to the cultural melting pots of Britain, Australia, Greece and Malaysia.
"I had wonderful teachers like Joseph McNally, Colin James Andrews, Bosco de Cruz and an amazing storyteller in Penang named Chong Chiang Chee.
"My teachers in Britain were the unsung heroes who took me to Barcelona to study Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, and Amsterdam to study Vincent van Gogh. Basically, we experienced what is expressed in (playwright and Booker prize-winning author) John Berger's Ways of Seeing. We learnt what beauty is.
"This is the inspiration that makes us want to know more. It resulted in my reading philosophy. I extended my studies to indulge in accountancy as a departure from a spartan existence," he explains.
Ong's father, now retired, taught Business Studies while his mother "researched the game theory particularly in its application to mahjong".
As he was an only child, his brothers and sisters were the characters found in books, and writers such as Hermann Hesse and Sylvia Plath.
While growing up in London and Brisbane, Ong soaked in the different cultures and nurtured his love for rock ‘n' roll, British pop, film and literature.
"One film that will remain with me is Vittorio de Sica's Bicycle Thieves, a landmark of Italian neo-realism. We used to frequent a cinema in St Lucia, a suburb of Brisbane where deckchairs were available at the back of the cinema for the dads to snooze while the mums went shopping, and the kids kept out of mischief. The afternoon repertoire usually was limited to swashbuckling fandangos and Tarzan adventures," he recalls.
Fuelled by a passion for film, Ong wrote his first script, which he describes as "a film without dialogue based on a song about a man who is depressed, and found the cure in a woman." Later, he wrote – and sold – two feature film scripts: Assassination in Suzhou, and Dr Sun Yet Sen.
Assassination, a thriller inspired by (Dutch diplomat and author) Robert Van Gulik's Judge Deestories and Ong's own visit to Suzhou, China, was sold to film producer Thomas Tang who made it into an action flick.
Dr Sun, he says, is a historical drama hinged on the main event of Dr Sun (pioneer of the Chinese Revolution) being kidnapped in London in 1896, and the political intrigue that followed. Negotiations for the film, to be made in Hong Kong, are still in the works, and as Ong puts it: "I live in hope that, one day, the film will materialise."
Ong and his wife also spend much of their time in Greece ("My wife is very fond of the islands") and Spain, where he recently produced two local films. One of them, Pequena Paloma Blanca (The White Dove), was the Official Selection for the Venice Film Festival 2003 in the New Territories Section.
Pequena is about a young Chilean woman who goes to find her brother in Barcelona. Along the way, she discovers that her brother has a gay relationship and is a male prostitute. She has her own problems as she is recovering from an abortion. An incestuous relationship adds the twist to the story and, to complicate matters, the brother's boyfriend falls in love with her.
There is a particularly erotic scene in the film, which caused certification problems in some countries. Ong says that it was the result of "Extreme Theatre being carried away in the application of the Method."
"They (the actors) were supposed to represent various couples in a public park in intimate relationships. To achieve spontaneity, the couples were selected at random from the theatre company. A young actor chose to be in the heat of passion and descended on the actress on the lawn. She got into the swing of things and encouraged him.
"We are having problems with certification and most countries would rate this film as a triple X because of this scene. I have been told that they have pulled such stunts on stage. They have also asked me if I could take them on a tour of Malaysia. My reply was that such stunts are no longer sensational in Malaysia."
The most stimulating aspect of labouring over a film, says Ong, is working with actors.
"Film is a collaborative process and the actor is an assistant storyteller who is in charge of only one character in the fictitious world we are creating. The actor is in control of the character, and he has to source from his emotional memory and experiences to simulate the emotions re-quired in the scene. Some actors bring with them their personal experiences, which contribute to the character, and enhance the emotional charge of the scene beyond the expectation of the writer.
"This is movie magic. There is no greater joy than the self-gratification achieved in the creative arts. Some see it as a religious experience."
It is this magic which Ong wants to share with budding filmmakers and actors in Malaysia.
"The students in KL are amazingly good and have the potential to succeed anywhere. Some of them helped me out by demonstrating in a workshop in Singapore, and they were surprised that they were offered jobs in the TV industry. I have been asked to teach in KL again this year, and I look forward to dealing with students of a similar calibre."
Name: Ike Ong
Education: St. John's Institution, Kuala Lumpur; apprenticed in Calder & Co, one of the oldest Chartered Accountants firms in London; studied filmmaking at the National Film and Television School, Beaconsfield, Britain.
Current base: London
Years abroad: 35 years