Anthony Chen: I can't keep my distance

Anthony Chen: I can't keep my distance
Chen Bo-lin (foreground) plays a young man visiting his friend, played by Tony Yang, in prison in one of the segments of Distance.

Award-winning film-maker Anthony Chen is not the director of his latest work Distance, but he admits that he could not help but play backseat driver from time to time.

Chen, who is executive producer of the upcoming omnibus project, tells Life! with a laugh that during the shoots held in Taiwan and Singapore, he felt the urge to constantly give fellow Singaporean director Tan Shijie words of advice.

Says Chen, whose debut feature Ilo Ilo (2013) bagged a string of international awards including the Camera d'Or at Cannes and a Golden Horse for Best Feature: "I'm super hands-on on set. I'm literally standing next to the monitors every day and watching everything that's going on, and I often question and challenge the director.

"Like, I would ask, 'Do you want to go again? Do you want to try this?' I don't direct the actors - that's not for me to do - but I'll mention some other things to the director."

Tan, 33, is helming one of three segments of the film, which just wrapped shooting around Taiwan and in Singapore. Distance is slated for a release late this year or early next year.

The London-based Chen, 30, adds with a chuckle: "I cannot help myself. I'm a bit of a control freak. Luckily, Shijie has been great."

The other two segments of the project, to be filmed in Thailand and southern China in the coming weeks, will be taken over by Thai director Sivaroj Kongsakul and Chinese director Xin Yukun.

The three stories are separate but will all star Taiwanese A-lister Chen Bo-lin and deal with different aspects of the theme of distance.

Tan certainly does not mind Chen's intrusions. He tells Life! in a separate interview that he finds the close collaborations "more helpful than anything else" - though he confesses he found the experience "weird at first".

The film-maker had previously helmed short films such as Not Working Today (2014), which won the Best Singapore Short Film at the Singapore International Film Festival last year.

He says: "I used to make student films, so this is the first time I have an actual producer on set who keeps offering me his opinions.

"Some people may see it as controlling but I think it's good to have a second pair of eyes. Anthony and I worked on the script together from the start, so we have the same understanding and the same vision for the film."

His segment of the film is a story about friendship, and will also feature Taiwanese hottie and Golden Horse- winning actor Tony Yang Yo-ning in the role of a prisoner.

Yang, 32, best known for his roles in hit Taiwan movies such as Formula 17 (2004) and Zone Pro Site (2013), was a recent addition to the cast which also includes Malaysian-born star Yeo Yann Yann as a prison officer.

In the film, actor Chen, 31, is seen visiting his long lost-friend Yang in prison. It is the first time the two old buddies are meeting after 15 years, so unsaid things from their past come up in their conversation.

Both producer Chen and director Tan say they were moved to tears by the duo's performance.

Chen says: "They were just so good. It was a very intense scene and we were all so moved by it. Imagine a bunch of crew members in a dark room watching them from a monitor, and all crying at the same time."

For the prison scenes, Chen, ever the perfectionist, built a prison set from scratch in an office building in the eastern part of Singapore. When making Ilo Ilo, he famously scoured through 500 Housing Board flats before deciding on the one to be used in the film about a Filipino maid living with a Singaporean family during the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

He says of Distance: "We're obviously not allowed to shoot in the prisons in Singapore, so we scouted locations everywhere. But we couldn't find anything that I felt would be realistic enough.

"So we decided to build a prison set, with visiting areas and corridors and rooms. It's a simple set but I think it looks great."

yipwy@sph.com.sg

Follow Yip Wai Yee on Twitter

@STyipwaiyee

This article was first published on Mar 2, 2015.
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