For his new horror movie Bring Back The Dead, local writer-director Lee Thean-jeen says he was handicapped by a double whammy when casting for the main character of a mother in her 30s who mourns for her dead son.
"Some actresses we approached were kind of like 'Well, I don't do horror'. Some were also kind of hesitant about playing a mother as they weren't ready to start playing mother roles."
Finally, he landed former MediaCorp star Jesseca Liu, 35, to play the mother who makes the momentous decision to bring back her dead son.
While she had encountered the genre before, including in the horror comedy Greedy Ghost (2012), this marks her first time playing a mother.
Lee, 46, tells Life!: "With a character like this, after the first 10 minutes of the film, you're basically dealing with grief, rage, fear. It's very easy to go into a very histrionics-driven performance. But what really impressed us was her nuance and her control over her performance from scene to scene."
It was the emotional underpinnings of the story in the film, which opens in cinemas tomorrow, that appealed to Lee in the first place.
He recalls coming across the short story Bringing Back The Dead by Singaporean author Wong Swee Hoon in a bookstore in Penang seven years ago.
"I was drawn to the story not because of the supernatural element, but there was a very strong underlying emotional core about a woman trying to reconcile with the loss of her son."
Part of the reason it has taken the project so long to realise is because Lee has been busy with work for the small screen.
His well-regarded TV output includes legal drama The Pupil and AlterAsians, a series of TV movies based on the works of local writers such as Colin Cheong and Simon Tay.
In 2011, he made his feature film debut with the Chinese New Year comedy Homecoming.
"It was only after the relative success of Homecoming that I was asked what kind of movie I wanted to do next."
His answer was horror.
Citing Poltergeist (1982) and The Orphanage (2007) as examples of movies he likes, he says: "Over the last few years, horror has taken different twists from comedy- horror to creature features. And I wanted to try and make a horror movie that reminded me of the kind of films that I like, which are more characterdriven."
The challenge with Bring Back The Dead was not physical.
Rather, it was about striking the right tone.
"It's not just ghosts flying out at you on the screen and bloodletting everywhere. I really wanted to make a horror film where you enter the horror through someone's perspective.
"It was a question of how to get the tone right so that we wouldn't alienate horror fans and also audiences for whom the family drama might appeal," he notes.
While Lee, who is married with two sons, adds that the story resonates for him as a parent, he stresses that its appeal is more universal than that.
"To anyone who has suffered any kind of loss of someone who is beloved, you can understand. Whether it's a relative, a friend or a pet, you can relate to the idea of what it might be like if you lose someone too soon and you just want to have a final moment with that person."
He is developing two film projects, one an action movie and the other is about a World War II heroine.
He notes wryly: "These are both genres that demand quite a significant amount of resources, both money and logistics."
Lee, who had also helmed the social comedy Everybody's Business (2013), certainly seems to have no problems moving from genre to genre from film to film.
The fan of both Hollywood flicks and European fare says: "I don't classify films according to genres. There are good movies and there are bad movies; there are movies you like and movies you don't."
Bring Back The Dead opens in cinemas tomorrow.
Moving tale of a mother's love
BRING BACK THE DEAD (PG13)
85 minutes/Opens tomorrow/
The story: Jia En (Jesseca Liu) loses her seven-year-old son, Xiao Le, in a car accident and she withdraws from the people around her, including her husband (Jacko Chiang).
When nanny Madam Seetoh (Liu Lingling) offers to help bring the boy's soul back, Jia En readily agrees.
But strange things begin to happen soon after and she starts to wonder if it is really her son who has returned.
Based on the short story Bringing Back The Dead by Wong Swee Hoon.
This marks a good start to a year that has a bumper crop of local films slated for release.
Writer-director Lee Thean-jeen's third feature film after the comedies Homecoming (2011) and Everybody's Business (2013) is easily his best work to date.
He keeps a tight focus here, effectively dispensing with the back story in sepia-tinted flashbacks over the opening credits.
The characters are quickly sketched out and introduced: Jia En can be a stern mother, but she loves her son and losing him on his birthday hits her hard; her husband tries to be supportive, but is soon defeated by her overwhelming grief.
Madam Seetoh is something of a wild card, appearing almost a little too conveniently just when she is needed.
Doing well to carry the movie on her shoulders alone as Jia En, former MediaCorp star Jesseca Liu goes through grief, desperation, hope, suspicion and mounting terror, taking the audience along on her roller-coaster of emotions.
Bringing back the dead involves a ritual with all manner of instructions to follow strictly and any detail could easily go wrong.
Most crucially, Jia En asks: "How will I know if he returns?"
"You'll know," is the short answer from the medium.
Horror flicks often require one to suspend disbelief because of too-convenient or ludicrous plot twists.
Not in this case - the story logic is impeccable and devastating.
Lee does not go for cheap scares, instead he builds tension with quiet moments and assured pacing.
He wants to fill audiences with dread of a malevolent spirit, but he also wants them to be emotionally invested in the story.
For, ultimately, Bring Back The Dead is a moving tale of parental love and the twisted lengths it can compel one to go to.
This article was first published on January 7, 2015.
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