The Apprentice 学徒 (HD)
The Apprentice marked the beginning of a collaboration between myself and a close friend, John W.J. Cho in the world of documentary and fictional filmmaking. What started out as a passion project eventually turned into a minor success which brought us across the globe to film festivals and opened doors for future projects.
I chanced upon Mr.Low, the owner of Pak Tai Photo Studio as I scoured around town for someone who could process black and white medium format film. Perched in top of a pet shop, I found his old studio, complete with creaking wooden staircase and fading signboards. He guarded his studio with a rusty, steel gate and all dealings were to be done through it. I passed him my roll of film and came back 2 days later to pick it up.
This continued for many months before I brought up the idea of doing a feature on him. Even when I did, he was slightly reluctant but he agreed to meet on a Sunday. That Sunday I brought my friend John along and another friend who would conduct the interview in Cantonese. Fingers crossed.
Much to my surprise he let us in and gave us a grand tour of his space. We saw the space he worked in; a small room full of old pictures and equipment connected to a store room with a cabinet overflowing with old negatives and prints, belonging to his customers from the early 1940’s. Further inside the studio was the actual space where portraits were done, complete with different backgrounds and lighting fixtures. Somewhere in the back was the washroom and darkroom where he processes his films, although he only shoots digital these days and rarely bothers with the ageing film.
We spent a good 2 hours with him, watching him work, interviewing him and admiring the sacred space that he calls his own. Before leaving we had our portraits taken by him in his studio, ignoring his insistence that our cameras were better than his.
Many months later we completed the editing of the film and started submitting it to film festivals internationally. Unexpectedly, we were snubbed by the smaller festivals and instead got picked up by the bigger ones. We were invited to the Short Shorts Film & Asia Festival in Tokyo and to the Guanajuato Film Festival in Guanajuato, Mexico, both Academy qualifying film festivals. Going up against some incredible short films we knew we never had the chance, but to represent a Malaysian film on such an endearing subject was a real honour.
For many years that’s exactly what I have been inspired to do. To document and tell Malaysian stories both locally and internationally. The simplest things that we so often take for granted can have the most interesting stories to tell, if only we knew how to see and listen.
As a follow up to the short film, I was commissioned to travel the entire Malaysia to document the most fascinating subjects I could get my hands on in every state for a local satellite television network, of which I will talk about in upcoming posts. I will also be sharing other short documentaries I’ve had the pleasure of working on in recent months.
Meanwhile, enjoy the film.
Official selection and in competition under the Asia International category at the Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia 2012 in Tokyo, Japan.
Official selection and in competition under the Short Documentary category at the Guanajuato International Film Festival 2012 in Guanajuato, Mexico.
Official Selection at the Interfilm Short Film Festival in Berlin, Germany.
“–enigmatic and surprisingly charming. A really simple subject, shot beautifully.” – Robert Ong, Electric Shadows
Low Kok Kee is 67. He runs a print shop in Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Foto Pak Tai has been faithfully serving the photography and printing needs of the local community since the 1940’s. With the advent of the digital age and a rapidly fluctuating appetite of the young and hip, Pak Tai is a business in decline. Increasingly dependent on his longstanding arrangement that for the time-being still sees the continual patronage from law enforcement for their official photographs, Low is somewhat philosophical about the day when he will be forced to draw the curtains on Pak Tai.
Inspired by the work of California-based duo Drea Cooper and Zachary Canapari.
A documentary by Mahen Bala and John W. J. Cho.
Interview and translation by Alicia Goh.
Special thanks to Mr. Low Kok Kee of Foto Pak Tai.
Gear: Canon 7D, 50mm f/1.8 and Canon 5D Mark 2, 50mm L f/1.2.
Music: April Kisses by Eddie Lang.
Edited and colour graded by John W. J. Cho.
Cantonese with English subtitles.