Guest in Focus: Kah Wai LIM


In the 2023 edition of the Nippon Connection Film Festival’s NIPPON VISIONS section, we are presenting Kah Wai LIM‘s film YOUR LOVELY SMILE.

Kah Wai LIM, born in Kuala Lumpur in 1973, graduated in electrical engineering and worked as a network engineer in Tokyo for six years. He then studied at Beijing Film Academy. In 2010, he made his directorial debut with AFTER ALL THESE YEARS. He has made films in various Asian and South-East European countries with multi-national casts and has presented his works at numerous film festivals. His film LOVE IN LATE AUTUMN was a box office hit in China and Hong Kong in 2016.

We thank Kah Wai LIM for this interview.

YOUR LOVELY SMILE reflects on the situation of indie filmmakers and the predicament of mini-theaters in Japan. What was your initial motivation to choose this setting for the film?

At the beginning, I wanted to make a road movie about a film director who is involved in trouble during his visit at a film festival in the Balkans where he is asked to transport marijuana to Istanbul. So, the overall concept was a road movie about a film director. Since I could not go overseas, I was thinking about how to transfer this concept to Japan while also having the opportunity to receive funding for the film. And all of that during the pandemic. It was a very difficult time for film makers and small theaters. On the one hand, because it was not easy for film directors find sponsors to make a film. On the other hand, mini-theaters were not able to attract an audience. Suddenly though, I had the idea to create a road movie about an independent film director travelling from Okinawa to Hokkaido to sell his film to different mini-theaters. I asked Hirobumi Watanabe to play the director’s role. He was happy to join the project when he heard about my ideas. I always thought that Hirobumi Watanabe was a great actor, and I asked him to act as himself to make the story more interesting and convincing. Although the main character and the mini-theaters are all real, the ending sequence and the whole film is fictional.

What was it like working with the lead actor Hirobumi Watanabe?

It was easy to work with him. Basically, he could not make any preparations for acting and didn’t know what he had to do on set since we didn’t have a script. I like to make use of what’s happening on location as an inspiration for the plot, to form an idea for further developing the story and then improvise to give directions to the actors and the crew. I already used this improvisational style to make several road movies in other countries, but wasn’t sure if he and the Japanese crew could adapt to it. Luckily, they believed in me. Our whole team just consisted of six people: Hirobumi Watanabe, me, a camera man, a camera assistant, a production assistant, and a sound recorder. We rented a car and travelled around different places – it was like an exciting and unforgettable journey for us.

(Nippon Connection 2023 – Nippon Visions: YOUR LOVELY SMILE by Kah Wai LIM)

In search of venues for his films, the character of Hirobumi Watanabe travels from Okinawa in the south all the way up to Hokkaido in northern Japan. Which filming location(s) did you find to be the most intriguing?

There are seven venues in this film. Before the location scouting started and preparations for the film were made, I only knew the Toyonaka Theater because my films have already been screened there. I’ve had the same experience as Watanabe in this movie: Not many people in small towns are interested in watching an independent film and they don’t care about the director. The original idea of this film also came from this experience. When I decided to make this movie, I started with doing some research by asking the owners of the small cinemas for permission to film. That’s when I found out how charismatic and interesting they were. At the same time, each theater has its own history and is unique in its design. To me, it’s very difficult to say which one is most intriguing. I’m very sad to tell you that the owner of the Shuri Theater in Okinawa passed away and the Showakan Theater in Kogura burned down last year…

YOUR LOVELY SMILE is a film that is part documentary and part comedy – why did you choose this kind of approach?

As I told you before, most of the cast and the setting are real, but basically YOUR LOVELY SMILE is a fictional film. However, one difference is that the real Watanabe is a humble and nice guy, and not aggressive and a liar like in the film. The main reason why I use the real person and setting as a basis, is because I didn’t have enough budget and no full script. This way, it was easier for me to organize the shooting and create an convincing film. Also, it will be very fun when the audience can’t identify where the documentary ends and fiction begins.

Have you ever been interested in expressing your creative vision in a medium or profession other than film?

Yes, but I personally couldn’t find another medium which motivated me more and channelled emotions as much as film. The effect of film is very direct.

(Nippon Connection 2023 – Nippon Visions: YOUR LOVELY SMILE by Kah Wai LIM)

Japan 2022, 103 min
at the 23nd Nippon Connection Film Festival

Check out the trailer here

The complete program and tickets are available on the festival homepage.

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