Wednesday, December 6

Lights, camera, action – the day Hollywood came to Sarawak


(From left) Morgan, Nolte, Head of State Tun Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud – who was then Chief Minister, and Milius during a dinner at Taib’s residence.

THE latest buzz in Hollywood this past two weeks has been a feature film called ‘Crazy Rich Asians’, which was released on Aug 19 and has topped the box office in the USA and many other countries. It has to date grossed well over US$120 million, turning a massive profit on a modest budget of US$30 million to produce.

What’s so strange about all that you may ask?

Well it’s been 25 years since the last time a movie from Hollywood featured an all-Asian cast and scored big at the box office – that was ‘The Joy Luck Club’ in 1993. That movie had cost US$11 million to make and grossed US$33 million.

‘Crazy Rich Asians’ was shot almost entirely at locations in Singapore and Malaysia (Ipoh, Penang and Melaka), and the audience could easily recognise the local landmarks and film sets throughout the entire movie.

It stars Henry Golding, a first-time big screen actor, born in Betong, Sarawak to an English father and an Iban mother. The main actress Constance Wu is American Chinese, and the supporting actresses included Malaysian Michelle Yeoh and many popular Singaporeans. Singapore-born Kevin Kwan wrote the original book and Jon Chu directed. Already there is talk of making a sequel.

The success of the movie will serve as free advertising for Tourism Singapore and to a lesser extent Tourism Malaysia for many years to come. Such will be the enduring effect of a major feature film, which has captured the imagination of a global audience.

It is well documented that the film set locations of the highly successful TV series ‘Game of Thrones’ and in earlier years ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy were instrumental in the boom and manifold increase in tourist numbers to the countries where they were shot. Success breeds even more success.

Whatever happened to the Hollywood movies that were shot in Sarawak?

Hollywood’s first big entry into Sarawak came in 1987 with Orion Picture’s ‘Farewell to the King’. It was produced by the team that made Oscar-winner ‘The Godfather’, Al Ruddy/Andre Morgan, and was directed by John Milius of ‘Conan the Barbarian’ and ‘The Wind and the Lion’ fame. It starred Nick Nolte, Nigel Havers, and Aki Aleong.

Local scouts found at least 17 unique locations for the film production to use and they all turned out beautifully shot by Dean Semler (who was to win an Oscar for Kevin Costner’s ‘Dances with Wolves’ two years later). The film was edited by Anne V Coates, who herself had already won an Oscar for ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.

Milius, the director – when I had asked why he chose Sarawak and not someplace like Hawaii – pointed to Mount Santubong in front of us, “Look at that jungle, I can see eight different shades of green; in Oahu I only saw three!”

He also mentioned that for the cast, we had all the right faces – the look of the extras, Chinese, Dayak, Malay, Eurasian.

However, when ‘Farewell to the King’ was released in 1989, the wind of fortune was not with them, as the studio, Orion Pictures, was undergoing bankruptcy proceedings in the United States and they couldn’t find the money to promote it, thus it quickly died at the box office. But I have since heard stories that in the UK, the movie is still shown on TV networks during Christmas. (If you have seen the movie you’d probably understand why.)

In the year 2000, Fine Line Features (which became very famous for ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy) shot ‘The Sleeping Dictionary’ in Sarawak, and built an entire Iban longhouse set along the banks of the Lemanak River near Batang Ai at a cost of almost RM250,000 (only to tear it down three months later after they had finished filming with it).

Sarawak furnished the film production with many other stunning and natural sets, including Matang, Buntal, Satang Island, Pandan Beach, Wind Caves, Bau, Siniawan.

The film starred a then 19-year-old Jessica Alba, fresh from her success on James Cameron’s ‘Dark Angel’, Hugh Dancy (who later became a household name in TV’s ‘Hannibal’), and Golden Globe winners Bob Hoskins and Brenda Blethyn. It had also featured a young Emily Mortimer, and rising young Sarawak actress KK Moggie (daughter of Tan Sri Leo Moggie).

The story involved a young British colonial officer sent out from England to serve the colony of Sarawak; who was presented with an Iban-English maiden (Alba) who was supposed to teach him the local language, thus his ‘sleeping dictionary’. Obviously they fell in love but she was already spoken for. Heartbreak, human drama, and betrayal ensued.

Unfortunately, as luck would have it, the Hollywood studio during the same time was heavily involved and had placed all their financial resources, marketing efforts and promotional machinery into the very first ‘The Lord of the Rings’ feature, which was simultaneously being shot in New Zealand. They kept delaying the release of ‘The Sleeping Dictionary’ until they simply decided eventually to release it straight on DVD.

However, the movie was given a limited release in countries like Japan, Thailand and parts of Europe and the USA, where Jessica Alba had huge fan followings.

On its DVD release, ‘The Sleeping Dictionary’ did make quite an impact, as at the very first DVD Exclusive Awards inaugurated in 2003, it was nominated for six awards and won three acting awards for Hoskins, Blethyn and Alba. Alba went on to become an A-list actress, who could command a top US$5 million per picture fee and went on to star in the series of Marvel’s ‘Avengers’ movies.

Sarawak has seen a handful of other feature movies and full length documentaries being filmed on location here – here’s a list of the more famous ones which you can check out on

• ‘Welcome Home’ (1989)

• ‘The Intended’ (2002)

• ‘Bugs!’ (2003)

• ‘Sacred Planet’ (2004)

• ‘The Fruit Hunters’ (2012)

The exciting news of course is that the big one, ‘White Rajah’, is now being prepped for pre-production and is scheduled for an April 2019 start of shoot. We can hardly wait for that to materialise.

Could this be the big break that the Sarawak tourism industry needs – to finally be on the world stage as an attractive filming location that Hollywood will consider for their next big feature movie?

Your guess is as good as mine.

Comments can reach the writer via [email protected].