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How This Filmmaker Infuses TCK Life in His Movie “Shadowplay”

Of all the places I’ve lived as a Third Culture Kid (TCK) — Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and the International School of Kuala Lumpur (ISKL) was where I discovered my love for the arts and where I felt most myself. With rock candy breath and dark skin from days of playing outside with kids from the Philippine Embassy, the Peace Corps and the Mal-Fil community, I grew up making batik, binding my own storybooks, playing Stars Wars on the recorder and being in five school plays with the only international cast I’ve ever worked with. It was a thrill, therefore, to discover a fellow ISKL alum recently made his debut as an independent filmmaker. His friends from ISKL may remember him as Tony Pöhlsen, but he is now introduced to the world as Tony Pietra Arjuna, creator of what’s fast becoming an Asian cult classic film called Shadowplay.

Arjuna indulged me with a session where I picked his brain as an avid film geek and TCK who soon realized I was talking to a professional artist who created his space in a world where some of us are often “too foreign for home, too foreign for here, never enough for both.”

This is why transnational cinema is so important to me; it’s the perfect storytelling medium for the Third Culture condition.

Tony Pietra Arjuna

Tony, first of all, I just want to give you an e-fist bump! Thanks for representing ISKL, also my alma mater, and thank you for representing Malaysia in the indie-film genre. Malaysia happens to be where I lived the longest. I have to say Shadowplay is the first film I know made by a TCK that has come out of Malaysia, so it was really exciting for me to learn about your film. Before we dive into your film, what is your TCK story – where have you lived and how did you find out you were a TCK?

I spent significant years in these cities in the ‘80s—’90s: Jakarta, Bombay, Kuala Lumpur and Boston. I was already a recipe for the Third Culture Club before I became an expat kid: Born to an Indonesian dad and Malaysian mom and raised by a German stepdad. I guess year zero for my transformation into a westernized TCK was in 1984, when we moved to India and I entered an American international school. I somehow overcame the culture shock quickly, which probably enabled me to adapt to the nomadic lifestyle as I grew up. It dawned on me that I was a true TCK after college in the U.S.A., while returning to Malaysia to work in the real world. It felt like I was FOB (fresh off the boat or a newly arrived immigrant) in my own home country.

Ah, yes the “hidden immigrant” experience. Is being an expat kid and a TCK the same thing? How is being a “westernized TCK” different?

I basically became a TCK as a result of growing up as an expatriate, so I don’t mean that interchangeably. I used “westernized” because prior to becoming a global citizen, I was 100% Indonesian culturally with no exposure to foreigners. An American scholastic system, a German guardian, American/European friends and of course a serving of American pop culture shaped me into the confused individual that I am now [laughs]. However, I’m not confused about my Asian heritage of which I’m proudly connected to, as well.

I appreciate that you created the film out of Malaysia. Shadowplay was released on Aug. 27 internationally. Can you tell us about it?

Our L.A. distributor released it digitally stateside (Amazon Prime Video, iTunes, VOD), but the platforms are available worldwide. We’re working on a theatrical run in Malaysia or a deal with streaming services. In a nutshell, it’s an indie thriller that’s best described as a dark fairy tale reimagined as a neo-noir mystery. The “knight” is a private eye on a surreal mission to rescue a missing girl (a “princess bride”) but must slay a dragon in the form of his past trauma. That’s the basic premise and it gets phantasmagoric. It’s like David Lynch making The NeverEnding Story if Dashiell Hammett adapted it.

It really is a unique film. I believe anyone up to the challenge of joining a ride into a mystery that you not only watch unfold but participate in will enjoy Shadowplay. The audience participates in piecing together different aspects of the main character like a puzzle. The use of the choose-your-own-path books popular in the 1980s, now echoed in some of today’s game culture, becomes an integral part of how the story line unfolds. Why did you choose this era and plot structure?

Those fantasy game books were a sentimental part of my childhood in the 80s. Pop culture in that decade shaped me as a Gen X geek, so nostalgia is one of the reasons why I integrated a relic of that era into the narrative. I also realized that many of the beats and tropes in fantasy quest story lines correlate with those of detective fiction, which I got into as a grown-up. So the fusing of these genres echoes the protagonist’s struggle to reconcile his youth with his adulthood and the “Choose Your Own Adventure”-type MacGuffin in his hand is an “inner child” manifestation of that labyrinthine journey.

The ’80s neon color themes and soundtrack throughout the film helps the audience to let go of today’s timeline. I think when we watch a film outside the geographical setting where a film genre is expected, it helps the viewer to open more and not be tied to expectations — for those who get the film’s references to control, this is important. The neon colors and treatment of color in general, the use of texture — like the oily face of…

“… Slick,” a modernization of Orang Minyak or “oily man” in Malay mythology…

Shadowplay

Yes, the use of color and texture throughout the film also make the scenes easily imaginable as a comic book storyboard. The few blood scenes were part of this comic book-style use of color, adding layers to the storytelling feel of the film. There’s even an origins subplot. If I hadn’t known the filmmaker was a TCK, I would have guessed it because there was an Easter egg in one scene that gave a strong clue. Can you tell us how much of your own story is in Shadowplay? Is it somewhat of an origin story as the first solo film after directing segments of Cuak and Train Station?

You’re on the money with all of the above because as a filmmaker, I’m visually informed by comic books and graphic novels as much as other movies. That’s an important part of establishing a signature in my first solo feature (after several co-directing or collaborative efforts), but in order to create a true directorial statement, I had to forge an identity from my personal experiences. Indeed, 50 percent of this flick is a concoction of boyhood events and my current, ongoing attempts at “adulting.” Much like Anton in the movie, I’m an “overgrown adolescent” who’s still learning to navigate through life.

One of the parts I found interesting is the use of dual or even, towards the end, triple layers of identity. As you progress in the film, even though the film is not linear in time — there is an unfolding of identities. The toggling between identities on many levels is described as “unstable and lost,” both figuratively and literally. Can you tell us the process of how you as an artist came to funnel all the angst, confusion, sense of being unsettled — typical experiences many of us TCKs go through? How did you go from where you were to where you are now?

Even though I had my share of growing pains, my Third Culture childhood was generally positive, but in retrospect, many of those mixed emotions that you mentioned were real, and I channeled them for the protagonist’s crisis. Anton is a being of two worlds, and as you pointed out, he is lost in a purgatorial state between them, as he is trapped between the past and present. Identity is at the core of his introspection, even if it’s on a metaphorical level. Yet it still reflects my unresolved issues with who I want to be: Malaysian or other? The dilemma even affects my career as I continuously wrestle with my desire to make films with a western flavor or to conform to local demands. Nonetheless, that’s my true voice and I discovered it after years of practicing my craft in various projects.

That brings me to my next question. Regarding the theme of how the outside world can view an individual’s internal precious journey of navigating a mystery as unstable and crazy, is there something about the value of “dream- walkers” that speaks about the value the world doesn’t see and understand about TCKs? I think some might see TCKs as flighty, or like the Ijeoma Umebinyuo poem, “Diaspora Blues,” just too much and yet not enough.

Shadowplay

The “dream-walkers” in the story are children of two realms — the real and the unreal — so they have the gift of traversing both. It’s a veiled analogy for TCKs because we regard the world as borderless, and our intercultural molding enables us to empathize with east and west (speaking as an Asian TCK). I’m not saying that it makes us special, but it does mean that we have a unique viewpoint and it is rich with stories. This is why transnational cinema is so important to me; it’s the perfect storytelling medium for the Third Culture condition. I wish to make that my forte as a filmmaker.

The title Shadowplay refers to the shadow puppet plays in Malaysian culture and art, correct? “Wayang kulit,” as I recall. There is one character in the film that acts like a puppeteer. I noticed it right away, and I wonder if other TCKs will because the desire to be in control was sort of “childhood global nomaded” out of us each time we moved after happily settling in one place. What message or story is connected to the reference to Wayang kulit and puppets?

Yeah, the title alludes to Wayang kulit to ground the film in its Nusantara roots (spelling out that this is a Malaysian movie) and to convey the subjectivity of reality: The silhouette on the screen or the puppet behind it? What do we see first and which do we choose to believe when presented with a tale? Anton and the audience that he represents are challenged to decipher what is tangible and what is a projection. Who is the true puppeteer of this shadowplay? Just like the dance teacher who believes that he is pulling his pupils’ strings, we’re not always the tellers of our own stories. Oh, the title is also a tip of the hat to a song by one of my favorite bands, Joy Division.

Creating a Third Culture subgenre for cinema was among my objectives and mission accomplished, hopefully. I’d encourage my fellow TCKs to find similar ways to tell their stories for posterity. The world needs to know more about the Third Culture experience.

Tony Pietra Arjuna

That is a deep message TCKs and non-TCKs alike can reflect on, and I’m sure individuals in the overlapping fandom of music and indie films just felt a positive disturbance in the force. I don’t want to forget the statement in the film about how children learn resiliency. I won’t repeat it word for word here because I want other TCKs to look for it in the film, but for me, I connected to it because whenever I was homesick for Malaysia from a small stateside (U.S.) town where I went back and forth to sometimes, I would dream about literally flying thousands of miles through the clouds to visit KL. That line had a double meaning for me.

That line refers to a rite of passage that children of the Senoi (an indigenous tribe in peninsular Malaya) undergo in their dreams. It’s absolutely key to the meaning of the film.

And that’s another layer! This film just oozes TCKness, and I really think TCKs will catch a lot of the TCK Easter eggs. I caught six solid tangible TCK Easter eggs, represented in visual images, song lyrics, and characters’ lines, including the one I just mentioned about resiliency. Would you agree there are about six TCK Easter eggs that TCKs can usually relate to?

You are totally right about the Easter eggs (i.e. the theme song, “Homecoming”), although I must admit that half of them were latent.

Shadowplay is a permission-slip free invitation to join an adventure adults were supposed to have outgrown but is too fun to ignore, yet professionally challenges the boundaries between film genres. More significantly, Shadowplay is a demonstration of how a TCK can turn the mud that can come out of mixed definitions of home and identity and fire it into beautiful art. The sheer amount of symbolism of the TCK identity in the film is enough for even someone who isn’t a fan of mystery-fantasies to watch it for just how you practice your craft as an Adult Third Culture Kid. Any life advice you want to leave with?

Creating a Third Culture subgenre for cinema was among my objectives and mission accomplished, hopefully. I’d encourage my fellow TCKs to find similar ways to tell their stories for posterity. The world needs to know more about the Third Culture experience. In keeping with the retro spirit, I’ll leave you with a rallying cry that TCKs of my generation should know: “Goonies never say die!”


Watch Shadowplay on Vimeo to update your membership as a cool film geek, Goonie or TCK. Keep your eyes open for updates on Arjuna’s follow up to Shadowplay, Devoted — a drama/thriller series about a cult that is streaming on OTT platform Viu Malaysia. Arjuna was the main director and show-runner for Devoted. Arjuna also recently co-directed Red Storm (a Chinese actioner) and two upcoming horror flicks: The Dark Eye and Safari Mall. Collab feature film Train Station, involving 40 filmmakers from all over the world, received multiple film festival awards in the U.S. and internationally.

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