King Yaw Soon grew up in a modest Malaysian town called Tawau as the oldest of three sons to a single mother. Compared to many metropolitan cities, Tawau is underdeveloped and has very limited platform for art, creativity and entertainment. As a young man, Soon took a rare opportunity to go beyond his humble beginnings and move to America.
Now 25, Soon is an undergraduate Cinema major who last year made Something Carved and Real, a short documentary about how three people got their scars. The film won not only at SF State’s Campus MovieFest, but earned him Best Picture at the competition’s national level, a spot on Virgin America Airlines’ on-flight picks for “Best of the Web” and the opportunity to show his film at this year’s Cannes Film Festival in France.
Soon took time to answer questions about dealing with the steep learning curve of American culture, how SF State gave him a voice to combat his insecurities and how his childhood experiences in Malaysia influence his latest directorial work.
How did you come to the United States?
When I was 18, I had the chance to be an exchange student in North Carolina for six months through the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) Program in 2010. It broadened my horizons regarding the possibilities of making art as my living. And that’s why I was keen on coming back to the USA to study.
I studied digital animation at The One Academy, an art school in Malaysia, for three years before I graduated with an associate’s degree equivalent and decided to transfer to SF State to study film.
How did you get interested in filmmaking?
I found passion in film through editing my animation projects in my art school. That’s how I got started — editing. But eventually I found greater satisfaction in writing and directing my own stuff. And that’s the goal of my future career — to be a film director.
What inspires your films?
Looking back on the things I’ve written and made, I definitely draw a lot of inspirations from my real life experience or stories of people around me. Growing up in Malaysia, I watched a lot of stuff both from the West (Hollywood films, music videos) and the East (Hong Kong dramas, Chinese films, Japanese anime). This gave me a wider palette to pick from in producing my own films — almost like having more colored pencils when drawing.
Who influences your films?
I’m a huge fan of Wes Anderson’s imagery and use of color. Pete Docter, who directed my favorite films of all time, Up and Inside Out, always astounds me with his ability to write good tear-jerking moments. Recently, I watched A Gentle Night by Qiu Yang and I can say that it is the most powerful short that I’ve ever seen. I’m amazed by how much tension he can achieve on screen with minimal camerawork. It has influenced my recent work definitely.
What was the process making Something Carved and Real?
Three weeks before [Campus MovieFest], I had a conversation with my American housemate Jesus Verduzco, who was part of the documentary cast. He told me a very personal story about his scar that he is ashamed of. I was very moved by his story and I wanted to create a film to tell him that his scar is beautiful.
I started drafting my film and searched for potential cast. I didn’t have a great filmmaker network so getting crew members for the shoot was challenging. I finally found Cameron Tuttle to be my cinematographer but I had to do everything else by myself — producing, writing, directing, sound and picture editing.
I had no budget for the film, too, so I had to work with what I had. We filmed it in my room with windows facing the highways (a very bad idea for sound editing), using all the furniture I have including the gold dinosaur lamp that I made myself. I asked my supervisor at work if he could lend his voice for my project. It was a very rushed project trying to put all the puzzle pieces together but I believe we accomplished something beyond my expectation.
How did it feel winning Campus MovieFest and all of the perks that came with it?
It was a total surprise. When I first finished the film, I didn’t even think it was good enough to win the jury award on campus. When I was on stage, I was so overwhelmed with the sudden outpour of honor and blessings on an insignificant short film that was made in my room with only two people. It was just a simple documentary compared to other finalists that were much higher in quality and production value. It was truly a humbling experience.
How has being at SF State helped you grow as an artist?
When I first started as a film student here, I struggled a lot with insecurity — my skin color, my accent, my art and my ideas as if they were never as good enough as [those of] other students. It took me a long time to find like-minded filmmakers who appreciate my art and not how well I can speak and make extensive comments on film in English.
The whole experience at SF State has helped me to find my voice and be firm with it. Support from the faculty whom I truly respect has been a huge confidence boost. I know things are going to get real hard after I graduate but at least I know I have the potential to achieve something good if I put my mind and soul in it.
What’s your newest project and how can other people get involved?
I’m in the year-long undergraduate thesis film class now. We are in the preproduction for a short, coming-of-age drama capturing a series of conversations between a son and his single mother who considered murder-suicide when he was 5. And it’s going to be in Mandarin language, which I’m very excited about. My first film in my own mother tongue! People can be updated on the project’s development and fundraising opportunities by following the film’s official Facebook page.
— Gospel Cruz
Photo: Actress Naomie Harris (right) presents King Yaw Soon (left) with Campus MovieFest’s award for Best Picture. Photo courtesy of Terminus Conference and Festival.