Long road to success

Long road to success
Pop Aye, about a man and his elephant, opens in cinemas here tomorrow.
PHOTO: Giraffe pictures

Kirsten Tan makes for a great Singaporean case study.

The local director pursued her dreams despite her parents' misgivings and won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in January for her debut feature film Pop Aye.

Her success story was mentioned by the Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung in Parliament last month, where he highlighted the need for parents to allow their children to pursue their interests.

Said Mr Ong: "There are so many aspects of her story that are relevant to our education system. Kirsten had always wanted to make films, but her parents, in her own words, 'die die wanted her to go to a university'. So she went to study literature at the National University of Singapore (NUS) but never gave up on film."

Her perseverance has paid off with Pop Aye, a road trip film about a disillusioned middle-aged man who attempts to take his long-lost elephant from Bangkok to the rural village where they grew up together.

It is the first Singapore feature film selected to compete at Sundance, the largest independent film festival in the United States.

Opening here tomorrow, it is executive-produced by local director Anthony Chen under his film company, Giraffe Pictures.


Tan, 36, told The New Paper how her struggles were finally validated when her parents attended the recent Singapore gala screening of Pop Aye.

She said: "They were initially hesitant to attend, as they had not been to a cinema for seven years.

"Their presence meant a lot to me. It is a kind of tacit support - it is them approving what I do for once."

Writer-director Kirsten Tan Photo: Giraffe Pictures and Golden Village Pictures

Tan, who is now based in New York, said her parents, who are in their 60s, had never done anything excessive to show encouragement while she was growing up.

"We are a traditional Chinese family... no big hugs, no words of 'well done'. Showing up for my film is a subtle cue that they now accept my career," she said.

After graduating from NUS, Tan went on to study film-making at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

She hopes to see more young people pursue film-making, and more parents changing their "one can't survive pursuing the arts" mindset.

She said: "The main problem in Singapore, I think, is pragmatism. To groom a film-maker is like growing a tree. It takes at least a decade of training to become decent at the craft.

"Most people don't have the luxury of time and patience to see if the tree will amount to something. Film-making is a high-risk career."

Tan hopes that her experience and that of Chen, who won the prestigious Camera d'Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival for his heartwarming drama Ilo Ilo, will spur parents in their 40s and 50s to be "encouraging towards the arts".

"I felt like a misfit growing up. I felt bad that I was so interested in the arts.

"I was the black sheep in my family in a way because I didn't find a 'proper job'," said Tan, who is planning to shoot a Teochew short film while she is in town.

Acceptance may have come 15 years late, but she is proud that she stuck to her guns.

"I'm not good at that many things in life. It is not like I'm good at film-making, but I'm familiar with it. There is nothing else that I'd want to do.

"Oftentimes, I'm completely spent and drained, but it is very fulfilling."

This article was first published on Apr 12, 2017.
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