Overseas inspiration for Singapore filmmakers

SINGAPORE - The recent crop of prizewinning Singapore filmmakers have something in common - they have spent years living away from Singapore, in the West. London, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York are where they have called home and where some are still based.

But these global - some would say bicultural - screenwriters, directors and producers make films that are set in their adopted cities and here.

It is not just the settings of their stories that are influenced by the cities - living abroad can have a deep and lasting effect on their artistic output.

Film-maker Wong Chen-Hsi, 35, spent 12 years in the United States, in New York and Los Angeles, before returning in 2007.

Last month, the assistant professor at the Nanyang Technological University's School of Art, Design and Media scored big at the Shanghai International Film Festival with her debut feature, Innocents.

With it, she won the Best Director award in the Asian New Talent section.

The film is set in Singapore and centres on two children who find a storm drain and, in it, create a refuge from a harsh world.

Like the other film-makers Life! interviewed, Wong has made films in two countries and sees how one's immediate environment affects story direction.

The deserts around Los Angeles and its "elemental" nature showed in her 14- minute fiction short Who Loves The Sun (2006).

"It was dirtier and a bit more violent - handheld stuff, grainy, video-y, with more physical confrontation, like fights," says Wong, who studied film at the University of Southern California.

But in Singapore, it was subtext - the meaning below the surface - that became crucial. Her output here has a "clean, perfect, pristine" look and feel, one that invites deeper inspection by the audience.

"There's a lot that is under the surface, and so the surface becomes important," she says.

To that end, Innocents employs still frames and each shot is composed carefully, she says. The film will open here on Sept 26 at The Arts House.

In a previous interview with Life!, Wong, who is single, said she had started plans for a feature work in the US, but realised she really wanted to make her first feature film in Singapore. "It's my home and I just wanted to be part of the conversation here."

If one imagines the signature look of a city on film - New York's skyscapers, Hong Kong's neon canyons, Los Angeles' freeways and Tokyo's teeming streets - Singapore's visual imprint, according to film-makers Life! approached, would be its boxed-in look.

Wong calls it "the lack of a visual horizon" in that there is always something - a tree or a block of flats - obscuring a long-distance view.

Anthony Chen, 29, would agree. The writer-director, who has lived in London for six years, made a short in England, the family drama Lighthouse (2010), which features something he found hard to get in Singapore - vistas.

"It was liberating. For the first time, I had space. I could shoot landscape," he says with a laugh. He made full use of the open spaces with wide-angle lenses.

He wanted Lighthouse to be quintessentially English, so much so that his demands caused friction with the film's producer, who was helping him find locations.

The colour green, which to Chen was redolent of tropical Singapore, was banned. So the unhappy producer had to search out fields of golden grain and the like. Any sort of landscape, as long as it was not green.

"For the first time, I was making a film outside my comfort zone. It was not going to be about my Asian-ness. I was running away from everything," the director says of the 23-minute short.

It was screened here two years ago as part of a short film festival held at Sinema.

Chen, who is married, won the prestigious Camera d'Or award for Best Debut Feature Film at Cannes Film Festival in May with his debut feature Ilo Ilo, making him the holder of the highest-ever film honour won by a Singaporean.

He moved to London to get a master's in film directing at the National Film and Television School six years ago and has not left the city.

He came back to Singapore to make Ilo Ilo, a drama about a family and their Filipino maid set during the 1997 financial crisis.

Film-maker Yong Mun Chee has lived in Los Angeles for more than a decade.

Unlike Chen and Wong, the 30something Yong chose to set her debut feature, the drama Where The Road Meets The Sun (2011), in her adopted hometown.

Living in Los Angeles, she is able to tap a talent pool of cast and crew far deeper than what she would find in Singapore.

She left Singapore after her A levels to study economics at the London School of Economics on a MediaCorp scholarship.

She worked at the broadcaster as a journalist, during which she won an Asian Television Award for her documentary work, before leaving for University of Southern California's film school in 1999.

"Everyone converges here to make it big and they are all hungry to be a part of something good. It's great, it makes the work exciting," she says in an e-mail interview.

Where The Road Meets The Sun, about fate, loss and redemption, won prizes at the 2011 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival for Outstanding Cinematography and Best Ensemble Acting for the four leading men in the movie - Hollywood actor Eric Mabius of TV series Ugly Betty fame, Mexican actor Fernando Noriega, Korean-American actor Will Yun Lee (currently seen in The Wolverine) and British model-actor Luke Brandon Field.

In an interview with Life! last November, Yong, who is single, said it is "a very LA story", which was largely shot in her neighbourhood". "It was important for me that my first film is a story I know well and care about," she had added.

Unsu Lee, 40, is a film-maker who shuttles between Singapore and San Francisco. He likes how straddling two cultures has given him "outsider status" in both of them, allowing him as an artist to see them in ways their members cannot.

He produced the dramedy Valley Of The Sun (2011), about an adult film star (played by Johnny Whitworth), through his production company Hotbed Media, a firm he co-founded in 1999 in San Francisco with two classmates from the city's Academy Of Art College, where he studied film-making.

He agrees with the notion that large urban concentrations are magnets for creative talent - up to a point. What is more important than size is "diversity of mindset", a trait that grows in a climate of tolerance and freedom of expression, he says.

"I visited Iceland earlier this year. I was really impressed. They have a population of around 300,000 and yet their artistic output would blow us away. Look at their musicians - Sigur Ros, Bjork and they have so many writers."

Lee, who is engaged, has directed two features, both set in the US. The first is Confessions Of A Burning Man (2003), a documentary on the arts festival in the Nevada desert, and the second is the romantic comedy Happily Even After (2004).

He adds that there is a lesson filmmakers could learn from the global breakout hit, The Raid: Redemption (2011), made in Jakarta. Made for just over US$1 million, the action movie about a police raid of a building teeming with criminals has earned worldwide grosses of four times that amount and a Hollywood remake is in the works.

Its success rewrites the rules that say that globally marketable genre films can be made only in Hollywood, Lee says.

The film was written and directed by British expatriate Gareth Evans - an outsider straddling Asia and the West.

"I hope that being an outsider gives me the chance to see things that someone who's lived here all his life might overlook," he says.


Ilo Ilo opens on Aug 29. Innocents opens at The Arts House on Sept 26.

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