Interview with British-Malaysian Chinese filmmaker, James Lau

Emmanuelle Khoo – Film and Entertainment Editor 

This month, Nee Hao introduces five British-Chinese talents in the entertainment industry, discussing a range of topics such from their journey to the challenges they face.

Now, our interview series ends with young aspiring British-Chinese filmmaker, James Lau who takes the time to talk to us about his interests in making short films, challenging current narratives on British East Asians, promoting people-of-colour (POC), and social media.

Born in KL but raised in Manchester, James Lau is a Malaysian-Chinese filmmaker who has always been passionate about unravelling day-to-day situations and issues through the narratives of his films. Inspired by Asian YouTubers like NigaHiga and Freddiew, James has been exploring filmmaking since he was in primary school. Now at 19, James is ever more passionate about the art of filmmaking and has attended several workshops to develop his filmmaking and editing skills, notably chosen as one of 60 applicants for the 2015 Regional BFI Film Academy and selected out of over 300 applicants for the 2016 National BFI Film Academy. Through these courses, he was recommended to work as an Assistant Camera for Northern Lights (2016).

Other than having the experience of a Production Assistant and Assistant Camera, James also make short films based on his own personal experiences as a British-Chinese. On his YouTube channel, his short films, Outsider (2017) and Reset (2017) were not only inspired by his surroundings but also revealed his interests in exploring British-Chinese and POC identities in Britain. A strong voice to British-Chinese community, the narratives in his work explores very real and very relatable situations he and other British-Chinese would face at home, at school and on the streets; the problems being both British and Chinese is one that James constantly wishes to make known through his works.

How did your interest in filmmaking begin?

My interest in filmmaking began when I watched Nigahiga’s “How to be Ninja” video on YouTube. After seeing a young, Asian guy have so much success on this new platform, it inspired me to go and make videos with my friends in primary school.

We had a lot of fun, however, one cheeky sketch we made got us into trouble. Someone’s parent was unhappy and sent the video to our headmaster. Oops! In hindsight, it was not the brightest idea, but I have definitely learnt from it.

After that, I discovered Freddiew on YouTube, another figure of inspiration to my young mind, that seldom saw successful Asians in the media. His action and visual effects blew my mind, inspiring me to learn After Effects. I started making short little action films, just like a lot of young kids do. I managed to get an action short my brothers and I made together called “Call of Dom Dom” onto Machinima! We made two sequels to it, which also got on the channel! It made me so happy to see people really liked what we had worked so hard on. From then onwards, I decided to pursue a career as a filmmaker.

What are your favourite films of all time?

My top 5 favourite films are: Police Story (1985), Infernal Affairs (1990), Fight Club (1999), Kung Fu Hustle (2004), and Hot Fuzz (2007).

In your opinion, what do you think are the most important qualities of a good filmmaker?

Communication of your vision to your crew, actors, and audience is vital. You need to be able to tell your crew and actors what you want, so they can collaborate with you to help bring your vision to life. Moreover, being able to get a point or your perspective on something across to your audience through storytelling is really important – what are you trying to say with your films, and is it clear? Above all though, it is about having fun, you should not take yourself too seriously in my opinion, everyone does their the best when they are enjoying themselves.

At 18, you have worked as Assistant Camera for Northern Lights (2016), an indie film written and directed by Nicholas Connor! What a feat! Do tell us about your experience.

It was a fantastic learning experience, was great to work with such talented people, and I am grateful to have been a part of that project. I have learned about the taboos that you should never ever do on a film set, such as going on your phone on set (even if it is important), or to keep everyone waiting before a take.

Social media has been a game changer in this century, including the way filmmakers, such as yourself can reach an international crowd. Does the social media play a part in your outreach and the promotion of your work? If so, what advice would you give to young filmmakers on utilizing social media to their advantage?

Social media absolutely plays a part in promoting my work. I am grateful that I have somewhere to put my work, where it can be seen by others online. I would advise young filmmakers that on social media, nothing is free. You have to engage with other people’s posts, and show your interest in them. If you do not, and you just come along shamelessly self-promoting, people are usually not going to want to check you out if you have not engaged with them in the past.

What is the best thing someone commented on your YouTube channel?

“Shoutout to Mr Davies for showing this in English instead of reading Macbeth”

You also have a YouTube channel, @JmesLau where you would publish your short films. Tell us more about Outsider (2017) 

“Outsider” is about exploring the identity of BBCs (acronym for British-born Chinese). Racism, prejudice and being seen as a perpetual foreigner can cause you to feel like you are not a true part of British society. I found a majority of my BBC friends and family said they felt more Chinese than British, despite having lived here for most of, or all of their life. I definitely came to the same conclusion based on my personal experiences. There have been many times around Manchester where my English has been complimented, even though it is my first language! I have heard cries of “Ni Hao!”, “JACKIE CHAN”, or worse “chink”. I felt that if I could translate the BBC experience to film, I could have something unique to us, something that could spark a discussion. I thought it would be especially pertinent in our current society, because anything to do with Asians in general is not explored often (or at all) in the media.

BBCs who cannot speak the language, who are not in touch with their culture, or are just very Westernised in general, are often dubbed “bananas” (yellow on the outside, and white on the inside). Perhaps it is a combination of racism, stereotyping, language barrier, or radical differences between Western and Eastern culture that puts a good number of BBCs in this weird position. In some sort of limbo, not really belonging anywhere – too Asian for the whites, and too white for the Asians. This is what I wanted to delve into in “Outsider”. Moreover, I wanted to emphasise that just because you are Chinese, does not mean you are guaranteed to be 100% connected to the culture.

On the flip side, if you feel like you are connected to both cultures, you can experience the best of both worlds, and I know some people who feel that way. I think this is the ideal position for BBCs to be in, and what we should strive for, but I wanted to acknowledge the disconnection some of us feel, as the first step to improving our position. I think it is important to keep in touch with your culture, and be proud. Hopefully, positive representation in the media will allow Asians to become more of a part of British society.

Being a British-Chinese, how important is it for filmmakers, such as yourself to challenge the existing narrative of what the West thinks of “Chinese”?

I do think it is important to challenge the existing narrative that the West have created for us, to push for a change in perspective on the preconceived notions of East Asians, such as the hypersexualisation of Asian women, and the emasculation of Asian men. I think that narrative is already starting to change, companies like 88Rising, who have acts like Rich Chigga and the Higher Brothers are already making waves overseas.

What themes would you like to explore in your next project?

For my next major short film, I hope to explore the theme of expectation and pressure for certain career choices that is especially prevalent in Asian families.

If you could give advice to younger self from five years ago, what would you say?

I would tell myself to be resourceful, stop making excuses and go make something. Reverse engineer your scripts – write a script based off the resources you have access to. You will learn a lot more by doing lots of little projects instead of one massive project to hone your craft. It is also a lot easier and cheaper. Make your mistakes, experiment, and fail now when nobody expects anything good from you, so you will be in a better position when people do expect you to produce good content. Never stop learning. You do not know what you do not know, so sit down, and be humble.

To find out more about James Lau:

YouTube: JmesLau
IG: @jmeslau

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