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How did 5 Malaysians end up making Netflix’s first-ever Chinese original series?

When we say Malaysians in Hollywood, you may think of Henry Golding, Datuk Michelle Yeoh or film director James Wan. They’ve done amazing work, but THIS time around, we wanna highlight 5 incredible Malaysians behind an exciting new original Netflix series called… jeng jeng jeng… The Ghost Bride! 

The show is actually based on a real, supernatural, ancient culture originated from China… and, oddly enough, it managed to make its way to Malaya!  😮  Ghost marriages, sometimes also called spirit marriages or ‘mínghūn’ in Chinese, is a marriage where either the bride or groom, or both are, well, dead. This tradition dates back to the first Chinese dynasty, making it at least 2,200 years old, while others even note that it’s roughly 3,000 years old! (We wrote about it in a separate article – click here to read more.)

As for The Ghost Bride series on Netflix: it’s a story of Li Lan, the daughter of a bankrupt family, who has her fate twisted when she receives an unusual proposal from the wealthy and powerful Lim family. They want her to become a ghost bride for the family’s only son, who had recently died under mysterious circumstances. And oh, it’s set in the 1890s Melaka. 😀

You can check out the trailer here:

We were so grateful to have the chance to talk to some of the Malaysians behind the series, starting with…

 

1. Yangsze Choo, whose friend’s uncle got into a ghost marriage 30 years ago

The Ghost Bride novel written by Yangsze Choo. Img from Hype

The Ghost Bride novel written by Yangsze Choo. Img from Hype

Yep, this Netflix series is based on the the very book she wrote! If you’re a bookworm, you might be familiar with the cover of the book (in the image above). But if you’re not then you oughtta know that this book has several recognition including a New York Times bestseller!

We were lucky to be able to talk to Yangsze Choo, who is currently based in California btw, and found out that she was actually writing a different story – about an elephant detective – before she got the idea to write The Ghost Bride.

I was looking up old newspaper articles when I happened to see this other article which referred to something like, “The incidences of spirit marriage among the Chinese has declined”. And it was a very matter-of-fact statement. And then I realised – oh, it’s the marriage of the dead, and that was something I’d heard about growing up.” – Yangsze to CILISOS.

While interviewing, Yangsze shared with us a freaky story of how her friend’s uncle got into a ghost marriage in Singapore some 30 years back. In that story, her friend’s uncle, who had passed away, came to his mother’s dream to ask his mother’s permission to get married to a deceased girl. He gave an address and a family name.

So his (as in Yangsze’s friend) grandmother got up, went to the street and knocked on all the doors and found a house with such a family and the mother said that she also had a dream where her daughter who passed told her she wants to marry the son. And so they had a ghost marriage,” Yangsze continued.

Excuse me, what? Gif from Tenor

Excuse me but wat? Gif from Tenor

And stories like that inspired her to write The Ghost Bride. In fact, most of her research came from talking to her parents and friends who have heard about this, and, of course, her creative imagination la. This may be why when she first started writing the book, she didn’t even think that it would get published… let alone be turned into a series.

“I thought no one was going to publish this. Who’s gonna read about some obscure custom set in a Southeast Asian country? Nobody. Besides, most books are not picked up by TV or movie.

But, a couple of years ago, Netflix got in touch with me through my literary agent. I was actually in the grocery store, pushing my shopping cart around when I got the text from my agent saying, ‘By the way, Netflix is interested (to make a show out of The Ghost Bride).'” – Yangsze to CILISOS

So, of course she got pretty excited when she heard that. And although she wasn’t directly involved with the whole production process, the team behind it had consulted her to check for historical accuracy for the series by sending her a few early drafts of the script.

This gets even more exciting seeing how it is directed by…

 

2. Quek Shio Chuan, former transport assistant who directed Guang and your fav Raya ads

If you enjoy those quirky and heartfelt ads played during Raya, CNY, Deepavali and all that, one or two (or ten) had something to do with this dude:

Quek Shio Chuan. Img from The Star Online's YouTube

Quek Shio Chuan. Img from The Star Online’s YouTube

Quek Shio Chuan, who’s from Batu Pahat, wasn’t even a film or ads director before he started at Reservoir Production, a Malaysian production house well-known for festive TV commercials in Malaysia. He used to be a Transport Assistant before he was discovered by one of Reservoir’s founders through a documentary about fishing.

Quek was then hired as a production assistant in 2009 where he learned the fundamentals of production. He eventually started dabbling with more experimental video techniques, and when Reservoir decided to do a short film in 2011, they pushed Quek to write and direct it.

“We told Quek to write a script that was close to his heart, and if it was good we would fund it. He took on the challenge, spent days and nights developing the script in between his busy production schedule, and when he finally showed us, we bowled over. Without thinking twice, we knew had to produce it.” – Ryan Khoo, founder, Reservoir Production to CILISOS.

And that was how Guang was produced. The short film was based on Quek’s own experiences with his autistic brother. The 14-minute film received international acclaim and eventually won the BMW Shorties 2011, among other international awards. It was then turned into a movie that premiered last year. We’ve written about him and if you wanna know more, just click here.

Guang the movie. Img from xinemas.com

Guang the movie. Trust us you’d bawl too. Img from xinemas.com

Well, thanks to Guang, he was approached by the Netflix team and was given the opportunity to direct his very first series!

“It was around the time when Guang was doing the festival run at the Thai film festival… We met up with them (Netflix) and they informed us that they were interested to make a series in Malaysia […] without informing me that it was The Ghost Bride, just to see if we were interested.” – Quek to CILISOS

Since Quek isn’t really familiar with the ghost marriage tradition, a LOT of research was put into making the series. Interestingly enough, Quek told us that he only directed the first three episodes of the series which heavily involves – #spoileralert #ihatecilisos – the living world.

A lot of the research he made was on how Malaysia looked in the 1890s. “But it isn’t 100% historically accurate like how exactly it (Melaka) used to look like,” Quek said. He added that this was done to fit in the art department’s creative input (which we’ll be talking about in a bit). 

The other three episodes, on the other hand, were directed by…

NAH, BACA:
In the past two weeks, petrol went up by 14 cents. How does the gomen decide on a price?

 

3. Ho Yuhang. A former engineer who consulted professional ghost whisperers to shoot this series 😮

Yuhang Ho. Img from Malay Mail

Ho Yuhang. Img from Malay Mail

Ho Yuhang was a former engineer before he became a film director. Heck, he was even featured in several ads… like this one! And just like Quek, Ho has also directed several ads and films. You can check them out here and here. In fact, he directed a film called Min which featured the late Yasmin Ahmad. And although that was his debut film, he won the Special Jury Prize at Festival Des 3 Continents in France.

But it was reported that both Quek and Ho have very different working styles. Ho is known to have an odd liking towards the dead like watching movies with ghosts.

And this may be why he directed the final three episodes of The Ghost Bride which involves the underworld. Part of Ho’s research about the underworld includes getting help from his friends who are professional ghost whisperers to find out what it looks like.

The answer is very interesting. Yea, it is like our world. It’s like the Matrix. That’s what he (Ho’s friend) told me.” – Ho told CILISOS.

Ho directing The Ghost Bride. Screenshot from Netflix Asia YouTube

Ho (wearing the cap) directing The Ghost Bride. Screenshot from Netflix Asia YouTube

But what intrigues him the most when he first started this project was how bright the set should be considering how the story is set in the 1890s… when electricity was still foreign to Malaya.

That period you don’t have electricity and it’s not powered this way so I was asking myself how bright was it then. That was something I was very interested in – the lighting and scheme. So, I did a lot of research and find reference on this.” – Ho.

He had also consulted Leslie Ewe, the art director of the series, to find a balance between being factually accurate and, at the same time, allowing the audience to watch the whole series comfortably.

And speaking of sets…

 

4. These two Malaysians were the art and costume directors for… Crazy Rich Asians!??

Remember the beautiful scenes and costumes featured on Crazy Rich Asians? Well, you gotta thank these two Malaysians for being part of the award-winning movie. Allow us to introduce you to Art Director Leslie Ewe and Costume Designer Muel Yow.

L-R: Leslie and Muel. Screenshot from Netflix Asia YouTube

L-R: Leslie and Muel. Screenshot from Netflix Asia YouTube

Leslie started in the film industry, dabbling in reality shows and events at a very young age. He gained a lot of experience from many international Production Designers and used to hold various roles behind the scenes. Leslie was said to have worked with directors of movies like Dark Night and GI Joe, and reality shows like… Asia’s Next Top Model!

Muel, on the other hand, has been a freelance costume designer since 2006. In the meantime, Muel has worked as the Principal Costume Assistant for another Netflix series called Marco Polo and Costume Buyer for Crazy Rich Asians!

And if you’ve watched the trailer for The Ghost Bride, you’d have seen the incredibly detailed costumes and setup. Not only that, you may have also noticed the vast differences between…

The living world. Img from Malay Mail

The bright and lively living world and… Img from Malay Mail

The dark and gloomy underworld. Img from Malay Mail

…the dark and gloomy underworld. Img from Malay Mail

The inspiration of turning the world the other way around was a little bit like Dorian Gray. Everything in the living world was all nice, fresh and green but everything in the underworld was all decayed.” – Leslie in an interview.

When it comes to designing the set and costumes, the art department were given plenty of creative room because the team wanted to incorporate more fantasy elements in the series. They wanted to add a modern touch when designing the set and costumes, despite the story being set in the 1890s. What’s even more interesting was how the art department built the underworld from SCRATCH, all shot in a studio in Johor.

Muel also added that because she needed to portray the two worlds differently, she had used different and unexpected materials in designing the costumes. She used warm tones and bright colours to costumes which looked more oriental to portray the living world. But she used a different approach when it comes to portraying the underworld.

“Details start looking less oriental, and in its place, is a look that’s more western and Gothic with some characters wearing outfits with unexpected materials.” – Muel in an interview.

 

It took them over a year to complete the series… and now it’s ready in all its mystical glory!

According to Quek, the team got together for the pre-production process in October 2018 (yes, you read that right) and began shooting the series two months later. Quek added that the post-production process is still ongoing as we were writing this article.

The series was shot in various places in Malaysia and you may notice some familiar places like…

this. Screenshot from Netflix Asia YouTube

…the one in this scene… Screenshot from Netflix Asia YouTube

…which was actually shot at the Blue Mansion, Penang. Oddly enough, Yangsze had written the book based on this mansion itself. But the real reason the team had chosen the Blue Mansion is because it is an iconic Peranakan mansion in Malaysia. “One look (at the mansion) and (you would think) wow it’s really, really grand.” – Quek said.

Besides the Blue Mansion, the team has shot in several other places like the Old House Museum (where they found a snake’s egg and skin #freaky), Taiping, bamboo forest and even in kampungs to portray Melaka in the 1890s. And this is done because, well, the Melaka that we know now looks different from the ones back in the 1800s la.

And you gotta admit how awesome it is to be able to watch a Malaysian-made series on a global platform that airs shows like Narcos and The Witcher. According to the series’ producer, Zainir Aminullah

 I think that there’s pressure to deliver up to their (Netflix) expectations […] this is because they’re gonna put us next to Money Heist and Narcos so whatever we do we have to be sure we can sit next to these shows.” – Zainir to CILISOS.

But he also pointed out that Netflix has been helping the team throughout the production process besides giving them the flexibility to direct and produce the series. And, according to Quek, this can be seen from the subtle hints that will remind you that this series is made by Malaysians.

 

As you watch the series, because it’s such a supernatural story, there will be a lot of hints and you’ll always be reminded that this is a Malaysian production and you can recognise that this is in Malaysia. We put a lot of things that you’re familiar with.” – Quek.

We’re not gonna spoil it for you tho so if you’re wondering what kind of hints he’s talking about, then catch The Ghost Bride, which will premiere on Netflix come 23rd January 2020Also, do let us know what kind of Malaysian hints y’all find within the series in the comment section. 😀

In the meantime, you can check out how the Malaysian team has brought the book to life here:

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