Q&A with Award-winning “Ilo Ilo” Director Anthony Chen
By Kar Yin Tham, Thursday, March 20, 2014
They say all good directors are perfectionists. That may be true of rising star Anthony Chen, whose first feature “Ilo Ilo” won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes in 2013, and has since been garnering awards from every festival it enters. The film follows the relationship between a family and their newly-arrived Filipino domestic worker.
The film is being distributed in over 30 markets around the world—a remarkable trajectory for a rather “humble” film about one family on a small island in Southeast Asia. We caught up with Singaporean director Anthony Chen in between a bit of sightseeing at the Ferry Building in San Francisco for an in-depth conversation about his filmmaking process and the incredible journey of “Ilo Ilo.” The film recently won the Remy Martin Filmmaker Award at CAAMFest 2014, which honors and nurtures talent from across the globe.
How did you come to be a filmmaker?
I think I knew at 15 that I wanted to be a filmmaker. I went to film school at a very young age, at 17, in Singapore. I made my first short at 19. By the time I completed my feature film, I had made 10 short films.
It came to a point where I couldn’t make shorts anymore. It was very hard for me to get funding because my shorts had done very well in festivals—they were in Cannes and Berlinale. After a while, funders were asking “why are we funding your shorts?” It was time to make a step up.
Tells us about your writing process.
It’s very organic. I’m not sure if I’m a good writer. It’s so bizarre because I’ve won a few screenwriting awards for this film but I’ve never considered myself a good writer. I don’t really know where I’m going with the story. I would go with a bunch of characters, I would just write and write, let it evolve and ask questions. I can’t even write a treatment. I hate treatments. So I just go from draft to draft.
Is it the characters then that drive the narrative? Or is it an idea?
For me it’s the characters. I’m more interested in characters rather than plot. The way I find my stories is less about “Oh, I need to twist the plot here.” Rather, it’s more about where the characters are going. I think films need to be motivated by characters.
Are these characters facets of people you know?
For all my films, I’m always inspired by life, by memories, things I’ve observed. “Ilo Ilo” was inspired a lot by childhood memories. The film is set in 1997 during the Asian financial crisis. I have a lot of deep memories of that because it was quite a depressing time for the country, for the whole of Asia. Stock markets crashed and a lot of companies closed down. I remember that very well because my dad lost his job. And he never found a good job again.
I think that a film is very much carefully selected slices of life. You may say we’re capturing reality on film. If it’s capturing reality, that’s a documentary. Yes, you have all these ideas from real life. You have things that come out from your imagination. Filmmaking is about connecting those dots and finding the poetry in life and in the visuals. I think that’s when reality actually becomes a piece of work.
Did you enjoy the filmmaking process of making this feature?
I think it’s a huge step up. Even though I’ve made a feature film, and people think it’s very successful—it won 28 awards, did very well, sold to a lot of places—but I’m not sure I know how to make a feature film. I know the medium of short films so well that I could literally write a short today and shoot it next week. I can’t say that about feature films because it’s a medium that’s so hard to grasp. What making a long feature has given me is just more confidence to make another film. But I don’t think it really tells you how to make another film. I wish I knew how because if I knew, I’ll be making another one right now.
I think it’s important to be fearful of the process. I’d be very, very wary of myself if one day I decide that I can make anything in the world. Because I think I would stagnate, I would stop growing, I’ll stop maturing. It’s so easy to get it wrong. You see it still in films these days like it’s working, it’s working and then, what’s wrong with this scene? That’s the thing with the magic of cinema. All it takes is for one scene for it to fall apart.
How do you feel about Singapore now that you’re living abroad in London?
That’s a very crucial thing looking at this film. I think if I hadn’t left, I don’t think I would have such a clear sense of observing society in Singapore. The further you are, the clearer you see things because you start to see it from an objective point of view.
Some people who leave are not objective because they have a nostalgic or romanticized view of the country instead.
One key thing that I do in my films is I never judge my characters. I think cinema has come to a point where judgment is placed on characters so much that 3 minutes into a film and we know who’s the good guy, who’s the bad guy, who’s going to die. It’s all black and white, but humanity isn’t black and white, people are not black and white. We’re all in different shades of gray.
How do you expect audiences to react to this film or your characters?
I’m not sure. What’s been very special about this film—I’ve traveled so much with it—the film has played very well in different places. I was very amazed by how universal the film actually played even in places like Mongolia, Kazakhstan, India, and Russia. There’s something about this film that I’m just trying to grasp as well. People seem to relate to it in a very consistent manner. Even though the film is rooted in a specific Singapore culture, people are reading it and seeing themselves. I remember when I was in Busan, I asked my Korean distributor “Why did you buy my film?” And he said your film has Korean emotion. I have no idea what he meant but I think there’s a universality in the film which is why it’s translating so well whether in the West or in the East.
Did you expect this level of acclaim? Did you make this first feature with certain ambitions?
That’s the crucial thing about this film—it was born from a very personal place. I just wanted to make my first feature and I wanted to make it as honest and sincere as I could. So it really came as a big surprise that the film has sold very well. In terms of box office it did well not just in Singapore and France but in many countries. Now it’s doing very well in Sweden, I’m not sure why. It’s winning awards in every festival it goes to. Did I expect that? No. In fact, when the film was selected at Cannes, I was quite worried to be honest.
What changed everything was during our premiere (at Cannes). We had a full house audience, 800 strong, first floor, second floor completely full. It was a disaster to begin with because the film stopped in the middle of the screening. There was a storm and there was a power cut. And the film didn’t stop once, it stopped three times. The first time 10 minutes, the second time 5 minutes, the third time 3 minutes and I almost cried. It was so painful. I know how the Cannes audience works and if they hate the film, they’ll walk. Or they’ll boo or throw tissues, I’ve seen all kinds of things happen. That’s how brutal it is. But every single audience member stayed. When the film ended, there was a standing ovation for 15 minutes. I looked around and people were in tears. That was the moment that I realized that there’s something really special about this film that people got it. Whatever it is, it moved them. That was the turning point.
Seems like you had a lot of doubt. Did any of it propel you to do certain things?
For me filmmaking is all about obsession. You’re grabbing on to a certain theme, a character, a certain location, or certain emotion and you’re fueled by that obsession. Even when I was cutting the film it was like that. Two months into editing, we were more or less about to picture lock. But I only locked the film two months later because I wanted to be sure about one shot. I was still debating and discussing and asking my editors and people I trust. “Should I keep it, should I take it out, what does it mean?”
I’m completely obsessive compulsive when I make my work. And until I’m sure, I don’t let go. In the end, we left the shot in—it was the very last shot in the film.
Featured Film: “Karaoke Girl”
By Ravi Chandra, Thursday, March 20, 2014
Sa Sittijun sings in the karaoke clubs of Thailand, opening the film with a teary ballad. Born to hard-scrabbling farmer parents in rural Thailand, Sa is devalued from the moment of her birth, living on the downside of gender and class social hierarchies.
In this inviting film that’s part-documentary, part-fictionalized account of her story, we follow Sa as she makes her way to Bangkok to find work. Poverty and desire tangle to create intractable situations that leave her suffering—from breaking eggs in a cake factory to throwing herself in the arms of strangers trying to find love. Yet, there is a charming hope for Sa to emerge from this hidden life as a survivor and heroine.
“Only your tonight, not your forever … How does a karaoke girl find love?” A touching question, sure to stir compassion.
Originally posted at CAAMFest.