IN 1963, the only few rare occasions when anyone anywhere else had heard of or seen Sarawak on the silver screen were short snippets of news and any world-shattering events taken mainly by news agencies and film studios such as Pathe (UK) and the BBC. They were filmed in black-and-white as colour was not the dominant choice till the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Way back in 1936, the swashbuckling cinematic actor of Hollywood, Errol Flynn, had intended to star in a film of James Brooke’s life called ‘The White Rajah’ for Warner Bros, based on a script that he had written himself.
Although the project was announced for filming, it was never made.
The Hollywood story had it that Lady Sylvia Brooke, the wife of the third Rajah Vyner Brooke, had insisted that the storyline must include ‘the historical reality that Brooke was uninterested in women’ – Flynn had wanted to portray Brooke as a romantic hero, ‘irresistible to women’, as was his strong forte.
Lady Sylvia had vetoed the proposed Brooke movie; the studio Warner Bros gave up the rights to it in 1968, and Lady Sylvia died in 1977.
It is believed that in 2000, then-Sarawak minister of tourism Tan Sri Datuk Amar Dr James Masing had optioned the rights to a screenplay of James Brooke, which was ‘in cold storage’ awaiting for a suitable Hollywood studio to propose a major motion picture to be made in Sarawak.
At the same time, Hollywood producer/director Chandran Rutnam, who had happened to be in Kuching prepping ‘The Sleeping Dictionary’, had also presented a new script called ‘Brooke’ written by Gavin Scott for a possible joint-venture co-production with the state.
Scott was known for having written many episodes of ‘The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones’ (1999) and had a success with ‘The Mists of Avalon’ (2001) – a television series of the story of the women behind the legendary King Arthur.
It was only in September 2016 when a collaboration with the support of the Sarawak state government with writer/producer Rob Allyn and director Michael Haussman had eventually released a similar-titled ‘Rajah’ (retitled for a re-release in 2023), which had originally premiered in 2021 as ‘The Edge of the World’.
In Errol Flynn’s original role was Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers of the ‘Tudors’ television fame and who had played the role of Elvis in a 2005 telemovie.
Throughout the last 60 years, take a guess at how many ‘international’ feature movies and television shows have been actually shot here in Sarawak, which are worthy of being listed in the film industry’s bible of the ‘Internet Movie Database’ to be found on www.imdb.com.
The actual count, up to date, is 47.
Space constraints do not allow me to name them all, but I have taken an arbitrary list of the Top 20 movie/television productions that have been shot on location in Sarawak, and which are noteworthy with brief mentions of each title.
It was only in 1987 that the very first major Hollywood feature film was shot entirely on location in Sarawak – the reality of how that had actually happened was due to a most lucky break that had made it possible.
Based on a French bestseller called ‘Farewell to the King’ by Pierre Schoendoerffer, director and writer John Milius (of ‘Conan the Barbarian’ fame; he had won an Oscar for writing some of ‘Jaws’) had always wanted to shoot the movie authentically – at its place of story origin, which was Borneo.
The film studios, however, insisted that he would check out locations first in Hawaii (which he did and turned them all down), and then in Sri Lanka (where Steven Spielberg had just successfully shot scenes for ‘Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom’).
At the time, Sri Lanka was a high-security risk region with the Tamil Tigers at civil war with government forces, and the local ‘natives’ faces were not suitable to be cast as ‘extras’.
Fortunately, Milius and producer Andre Morgan met famous producer/director Chandran Rutnam, who had brought Spielberg to Colombo.
Rutnam, in turn, took the movie to Malaysia, initially trying out Penang and Ipoh locations which, again, did not meet with Milius’ approval.
As a last resort, they decided to check out his original most desired location, which was Kuching. Milius immediately fell in love with the Borneo jungles when I had taken them to recce locations at Mount Santubong in March 1987 – his exact words to me were: “I can’t get this eight shades of green in your Borneo jungles anywhere in Hawaii!”
Between 1987 and 2010, I was personally involved in the production of 10 of the Top 20 movies on the list – and they are, in chronological order as follows:
- 1987 – ‘Farewell to the King’ – director John Milius, producer Andre Morgan, starring Nick Nolte, Nigel Havers, Marius Weyers, and Aki Aleong;
- 1989 – ‘Welcome Home’, director Franklin J Schaffner, starring Kris Kristopherson, JoBeth Williams, and Sam Waterston. Shot on location at Prisons Golf Club, Siburan and Serian/Bau;
- 1991 – ‘Camel Adventure Gear’, an international commercial shoot, with Kuching standing in for Papua New Guinea (we flew in six Papua New Guinea’s natives for the shoot);
- 1995 – ‘Happy Holidays!’, a Swiss/German co-produced television series with a famous European cast of actors (Peter Mueller was also involved in this shoot);
- 2000 – ‘The Sleeping Dictionary’, director Guy Jenkins, producers Simon Bosanquet, Chandran Rutnam and Frank Hildebrand, starring Bob Hoskins, Jessica Alba, Hugh Dancy, Eugene Salleh, Brenda Blethyn, and Emily Mortimer;
- 2001 – ‘The Intended’, director Kristian Levring, producers Marlene Blenkov and Patricia Kruijer, starring Janet McTeer, Olympia Dukakis, Brenda Fricker, JJ Field, and David Bradley (there were three Oscar winners in the cast – I still consider this to be the best movie ever made here);
- 2002 – ‘Sacred Planet’, an IMAX/Disney co-production directed by Jon Long, shot for IMAX cinemas worldwide, narrated by Robert Redford, and had featured Mulu and Sipadan prominently.
- 2010 – ‘The Fruit Hunters’, directed by Yung Chang (Golden Horse 2007 winner for ‘Up the Yangtze’ documentary) based on the bestseller by Adam Gollner. We went in search of the rare ‘kura-kura wild durians’ and extinct mangos.
- 2012 – ‘Dangerous Grounds – Borneo’, with television personality and presenter and famed coffee aficionado Todd Carmichael from New York, in search of the rare ‘elephant’ Liberica coffee bean in the depths of Sarawak, from Lundu to Lemanak. Today, 11 years later, there is a revival in interest in this ground globally;
- 2014 – Sir David Attenborough’s ‘Conquest of the Skies 3D’, the very first 3D movie shot at Bako in Kuching, with over a ton of camera and lighting equipment from UK/Kuala Lumpur being imported. They had caught the flight of the flying squirrel (colugos), a ground-breaking feat in itself, at close range; indeed, an award-winning and much-acclaimed series. Over the years, Attenborough and the BBC. and many other channels like Discovery, NatGeo and Animal Planet, have shot in Sarawak, mainly in Bako, Mulu and the Niah Caves;
- 2015 – ‘NOTA’ by director Yasu Tanaka, and producer Bea Tanaka, starring Maya Karin, Ramli Hassan, and Hans Isaac. Shot entirely at Bako National Park and Kuching. Won ‘Best Screenplay’ for Tanaka at MFF 2016. Actor Ramli Hassan, who passed away in May 2015, was from Bako; he also acted in 1999’s ‘Anna and the King’ shot in Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur.
Other productions that had met with great international acclaim or had influenced cinema-goers, television viewers and some others, with limited degrees of success and global recognition, have included:
- The world’s famous television celebrity and writer/chef Anthony Bourdain, who had visited Sarawak twice, once in 2005 for an episode in Travel Channel’s ‘No Reservations’ (won two Emmys) and again, in 2015, for CNN’s ‘Parts Unknown’ (won 12 Emmys). Bourdain had singlehandedly made famous Sarawak laksa throughout the foodie world, and he had an Iban floral tattoo hand-tapped onto his shoulder to boot. May he rest in eternal peace;
- 2018 – First released under the title ‘The Edge of the World’, it found a re-release in Singapore in August 2023 under ‘Rajah’. It was directed by Michael Haussmann and produced by Rob Allyn, financed and supported by the Sarawak government through the Sarawak Tourism Board and MOTEC. Unfortunately, it failed to perform as well as it should but undoubtedly, it would find its niche in television repeats and one could still look forward to a definitive Brooke movie sometime in the future.
- 2006 – the very popular and highly-watched reality television show ‘Amazing Race Asia’ came to Sarawak, and there was an episode successfully shot here.
- Not many cinephiles are aware that one of the earliest IMAX documentaries ever was shot in Kuching: it was called ‘Bugs! – A Rainforest Adventure, in 2003, and it was narrated by Dame Judi Dench.
- Internationally-acclaimed director and writer, Kuching-born Tsai Ming-Liang, had migrated to Taiwan in his teens, had found fame in arty insightful movies (all made in Mandarin), and had won a cupboardful of awards in Europe. In 2013, he made a movie about his childhood in Kuching and it’s called ‘Past Present’. Within a career spanning 33 years (his first feature was out in 1989), Tsai has directed 46 films, and written 28 of them himself.
- There are two really local films that found some fame outside the country – local born film maker Bjarne Wong whose 2006 movie ‘Possessed’ in the very popular horror genre was a huge success by local standards – shot mainly in and around Kuching. Another was Stephen Teo’s ‘Bejalai’ in 1989, which was the first Malaysian film to be selected for the Berlin Film Festival that year. It was described as an ‘experimental feature about the custom among the native Iban community of Sarawak for young men to ‘bejalai’ (go on a journey) before attaining maturity’. It was also the first feature film to be shot in the Iban language.
For the other 27 movies and television shows that are not on this Top 20 list, please do pay the www.imdb.com a visit, and type in under the search column these words: “Title with location matching ‘Sarawak’ (sorted by match descending).”
Happy cinema-going, television-viewing and device-watching!
Roll on the next 60 years – hopefully even more local productions would be forthcoming!