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The Appetite of "Vinegar Baths"

An Interview with Amanda Nell Eu

Emily Liu

Ainsley Chac

Too much. Not enough. It’s always something or another that is a problem. I still remember the day I said “fuck it” and bought myself a box of McDonald’s chicken nuggets, after something like a decade of abstaining from fried foods. It was all downhill from there. Thank god. Vinegar Baths is about a woman who does what she wants. She’s hungry, and she eats like her life depends on it. She rocks to trashy pasar malam techno music. She admires her body – which bears the scars of motherhood – in the mirror, really feeling it. She is a monster, but gosh is she alive. Maybe that’s why men are so scared of women who know what they want and aren’t afraid to do what it takes to get it.

Emily Liu: I really liked Vinegar Baths. I think what struck me was that Chin’s really feeling herself and having so much fun being horrible. I think it's so rare that we allow women that space. Could you talk a little bit about the original story?

Amanda Nell Eu: I grew up in the UK and when we moved back to Malaysia, I looked at these folk stories that I grew up with when I was a kid. And they were stories that I was really terrified of. It was very strange, because when I returned back to it as a grown woman, I realized that I was one of those. 

Growing up in the UK, because I spent my teenage years there, I was pretty much British to Asian people. And then in England, I was very much Asian. I was like - what the hell am I? And so when I moved back to Malaysia, it was so weird, like no one believes that I was from there. They all called me banana and all that bullshit. There were language barriers, and there were even personality barriers. And then I started to relate to these monsters. These female women. I dissected all these stories and realized that these are the women that I feel close to, these are really strong women who just don't give a fuck.

But honestly I was just like, no, these women are so badass. So I want to tell their stories. And retell it in a way that I feel really closely about. There’s one that’s actually a quite terrifying creature. In the daytime she's a normal woman, and then at night, she flies out of the body and she's like a disembodied head. She leaves the body behind and flies out, and she hunts for food at night. And she eats baby fetuses or pregnant woman's belly, or blood from pregnant women raising children or babies. There’s loads of different stories about how you become one. Every culture has their own thing about it. 

When I thought about it, it was a very clear image of a woman who was separated from her body. And then it brought me back to the care of yourself, and the fear of your own physical body. And I think women go through that a lot. Whether it's hating your physical self. Or the extreme sense of not having the rights to your own body, and policies that don't give you those rights in a lot of societies and a lot of cultures. It was a clear image from a woman who wanted to separate herself from it. We wanted to explore this idea of the love of your own body, and also the hatred of it. So I deal with themes of abortion or pregnancy in Vinegar Baths. And so that was really what started the idea. Having this Penanggalan, who absolutely finally embraced her body, what she had to go through to get there. And so now she helps other women to kind of get to where she is.

EL: What is it about horror that attracts you to that genre? 

ANE: When I was a teenager I just loved being terrified. I love the adrenaline of it. I love not sleeping for days, and having the lights on. I don't know why it's like this weird thing that I like. But I also love the imagination of horror. This idea of how horror can be used to tell a lot of important things about what's happening. Because what's happening in real life is so fucking scary. It is terrifying. The horror genre could mask it in a way where it's almost like this very hilarious joke. That's how I approach it. This is how fucking awful it is that women do not have the right to their own fucking bodies. So in my really dark sense of humor. Make it so violent, that it's almost insane. And I think that's what I like. What horror is like. They are metaphors of what really happens in the world. At least the horror that I like is.

EL: What was it like moving back to Malaysia? Why did you move back?

ANE: I kind of didn't feel like I belonged too much. In the UK I have so much love for the people, I have so many family and friends that are family there. But I didn't know what to do in terms of my film, like what I wanted to say. And so I was a bit lost. And then I was like, oh I will go back to Asia and check it out. But I didn't want to go back to Malaysia, because I'm so scared of it, like returning and being such an outsider. When I went back, I was supposed to go back for a few months. But then I met the people that I met. You know, the creative people, like musicians, writers and artists. And I was like, holy crap, you guys are doing something really important that I was not aware about. You know, I was so distant from it in London. I knew about it, but I didn't know that there were people actively fighting for things they wanted to say. I think it's really important to stay and tell stories from growing up. 

EL: What is it about eating that is so central to Chin's way of being herself?

ANE: I'm kind of obsessed with eating. But I don’t feel like eating is such a strange thing. Like again there's so many layers to it. Of course, as women, there’s comments about what you eat dadada. But then there's so much comfort in it, and so much hatred in it, but then at the end of the day, it is sustenance. And in this genre format as well. The monster always has to eat. You never see a genre film, where the monster's like "nah I'm full, it's fine". You know what I mean. So there is this thing that's very exciting, when you have a character that is a monster that is hungry. Monsters are always hungry for whatever it is, it is a constant thing. So of course, I start introducing her not as a monster, but she's always the king and she finds so much joy. And that is just me being part of the genre. 

EL: I noticed that she doesn't have an origin story. She does it and really enjoys it. I was wondering if there’s a story behind that that you intentionally left out, or you just wanted her to be that way.

ANE: In terms of the origin story, it is something that’s never bothered me. You know, I just really wanted to talk about the steam of body and the fear of it. And the abuse and violence of the body. And that's really my intention of it. There's no sense of an origin story. There's no sense of why. It doesn't matter to me because I'm telling you my own emotions in 15 minutes. 

EL: Do you think there's a distinct identity to Malaysian film?

ANE: I see myself as a Malaysian filmmaker, but then within that, I also very strongly see myself as a Southeast Asian filmmaker. And so I see my film, not in a bubble of Malaysia, but within the context of the region. So that's how I identify my films. I don't want to just pinpoint myself as the only story. All these myths and issues that I talked about very much relate to the heat and humidity of Southeast Asia and the people there. I think we do share this very common ground. I am so proud of being a Malaysian filmmaker, so proud of representing Malaysia, but also within the context of filmmaking identity, it is definitely belonging in Southeast Asia.