Running Down the Hidden Valleys of Rain Town

Tunku Mona Riza and Susan Lankester on their sophomore collaboration.

In a far corner of the wet-weathered Taiping lives a family whose unassuming façade comes crumbling down when the possessive nature of the patriarch pushes the clan over the edge. The rough-hewn Choo, driven by his own pride, strong-arms his three children into walking a path of his choosing and suppressing their dreams. His iron-fist ruling is only relieved, if transiently, by the calming presence of his wife Aileen. But a tragedy that soon befalls her threatens the family to drift further apart.

Rain Town is an emotionally charged domestic drama that dissects the meaning of disconnection and generational gap. After premiering at the 10th Silk Road International Film Festival, the picture has been making its rounds in the international film circuit including the 27th Vancouver Asian Film Festival and the 54th International Film Festival of India. It is Tunku Mona Riza’s latest directorial outing and it is a history-making one as she becomes the first Malay woman to direct a Chinese language film.

“Making a Cantonese film was a self-challenge to tell a story differently, and I find languages very fascinating,” said Tunku Mona who had previously directed commercials and telemovies in languages that are foreign to her like Mandarin, Javanese, and Khmer. “Telling a story that is not necessarily familiar to you is interesting because it helps you understand the world around you,” she added before emphasising the importance of respect in adapting said stories, which is something she deemed to be lacking in our industry.

Going beyond her comfort zone is a winning praxis for the filmmaker if Redha, her feature debut that chronicles the challenges of raising a child with autism, is any indication. “I am especially attracted to stories that carry social importance because it’s something without an expiration date,” she said. The statement is par for the course for the filmmaker as she cited Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay!—a film that sees a 12-year-old boy navigating life among drug dealers, pimps, and prostitutes in the underbelly of India— as an all-time favourite.

Having said that, Rain Town is a whole new ball game for Tunku Mona. “I had a translator add the Chinese characters and Hanyu Pinyin (phonetic symbols for Chinese characters) to the dialogues on the pages and record what those words sound like. By the time we had the table reading, I already got the keywords down and all the cast members followed the script to a T,” she recalled. But the real challenge, as she later found out, was to gain the same control once the film went into production.

“It was the first day of shooting and my actors started improvising their lines and ad-libbing. I was like, ‘Hang on a minute! I don’t remember hearing that word during table reading?’” she said. Although she is not averse to actors taking creative liberties, acknowledging that it could even elevate the source material, a compromise is crucial, particularly for a project such as this. “I needed to make sure that we didn’t lose the key elements of the script so I had to constantly check with my translator,” she continued to add.

To her credit, she had put together a stellar cast who not only poured their heart and soul into the film but also were respectful of the process. Susan Lankester is especially astounding as the matriarch of the family, the glue that keeps everyone together. “She had to go through four rounds of audition even though we had worked together on Redha,” said Tunku Mona on their latest collaboration. “I just needed to be sure that I was making the right choice since the role is unlike anything she has done before,” she clarified.

“I have taken on a handful of ‘mother’ roles but they were all quite thinly written; never with this kind of intensity,” Lankester commented. She then added that playing Aileen was also her way of paying homage to her late mother. “Being able to make Aileen like her in some scenes where I’d go, ‘What would mommy do?’ was therapeutic for me,” she divulged. It is especially poignant considering the parallels between the character and the actress, whose mother, despite her reservations in the beginning, was supportive of her career choice.

Going in on her approach to the character, Lankester shared that there were steps that she had set for herself. “I would talk to Tunku Mona and the screenwriters Azril Hamzah and Zac Omar, and ask them about the motivations behind the character’s actions,” she said, adding that she would create a backstory for Aileen whether or not it’s written in the script. It was an important part of the process for her to gain an understanding of Aileen’s thought process. “I felt like I would be failing her if I didn’t understand what I was doing,” she admitted.

It is the same work ethic that Lankester has applied since her breakthrough in Othman Hafsham’s Mekanik four decades ago. Sharing the secret to her longevity, she noted that choosing the right role is imperative. “I will not accept roles that I have done countless times before because it’s going to be relatively similar,” she mulled. “It is also good to know the director beforehand and what they have done in the past to know their style,” she added.

When asked if payment is a major concern for her, the actress responded: “I will put my foot down if the money is not what I deserve. I promised myself, starting last year, that I would no longer do ‘favours for friends’. Enough is enough,” she said, her voice stern. She then proceeded to condemn the industry’s treatment of seasoned actors at large. “It’s very sad. You are trying to get these actors because you know they can turn in good work but you are not willing to pay them. Just go for the second-rate ones then,” she added.

It also was not lost on her that studios have no grief over spending a pretty penny on influencers. “That still irritates the s**t out of me. They may have a large following but I promise you that it doesn’t do s**t half the time for the viewership. It’s absolute rubbish,” she said. Lankester, however, is optimistic that the audience’s taste is maturing with the global influx of quality content on streaming services. “Our filmmakers are capable of producing similar content. You just have to give them a chance,” she added.

The conversation naturally progressed to the state of the local film industry, which has had its ups and downs in the past year. Along with our own Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh’s triumph at the 95th Academy Awards came some unsavoury headlines and think pieces. These included the strict nature of our regulatory bodies like the Film Censorship Board of Malaysia and the lashings of homegrown films that dared to colour outside the lines. Tunku Mona, who admitted to having to remove a scene from Rain Town, offered her opinion on the matter.

“Here’s the thing: You live in this country, you know the regulation, and you know you can’t fight it—if you want to screen your film domestically. But what you can do is work around it,” she said. The director then referenced the Iranian film industry, which has garnered international recognition despite the harsh treatment from its administration. “Filmmaking is all about the interpretation of the captain of the ship. If you want to sail across the Devil’s Triangle and get sunken down the ocean, I can’t stop you,” she added.

Things don’t always work out for Tunku Mona either. Although the award-winning Redha has more than proven her worth as a filmmaker, she still struggles to get her follow-up projects off the ground. “Nothing has changed. While I did receive the funding for Rain Town from the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia, getting sponsorships from other organisations is tough due to their scepticism,” she said. “They want a guaranteed return on investment but there is no such thing,” she added.

Speaking of which, with Redha grossing under RM500,000 against the RM3.5 million price tag, one wonders if Rain Town is destined to suffer a similar box office haul. “I’m always worried. I don’t know how the audience is going to react and we’re going against a couple of other Chinese language films,” she said. Tunku Mona, however, supposed that Redha would’ve done better business if it were released today. “As Susan had mentioned earlier, the taste of our moviegoers is changing with the rise of streaming services,” she explained.

Rain Town, which is slated to hit local theatres on 8th February, is the antidote to the glut of superhero movies and uniform dramas in cinema today. Its incisive look into stilted family dynamics promises an engaging story for the senses and performances to marvel at as it feeds the uber-talented ensemble with plenty of meat to gnaw on. Just like Choo who often participates in rain betting—an age-old pastime among Taiping folks who would place bets at the first drop of rain—you will want to bet on Rain Town.

Photography: Chuan Looi
Styling: Sarah Chong
Art Direction: Shane Rohaizad
Hair and Makeup: Eranthe Loo
Photography Assistant: Richy Chye, David Ong, Peter Wong
BTS Video: Lorraine Chai