This year's Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF), into its 21st edition, runs from 4th to 14th April, and features an unprecedented 13 local feature films and documentaries in a Singapore Panorama section.
Award-winning photographer and filmmaker Sherman Ong will present his latest movie Hashi in an International Premiere in this year's SIFF. Shot during his residency with the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan, his debut feature in the Japanese language, going by the stills and behind the scenes snapshots, look incredibly gorgeous, in a story that ”weaves around issues of love, relationships, insecurity, death and the blurring between dreams and reality”. I got acquainted with Sherman last month during a retrospective of Yasmin Ahmad’s films here in Singapore, and recently caught up with him again to talk about Hashi.
Stefan: Hello Sherman, I guess we're all curious to know how you got offered the opportunity of making a feature film during your residency with the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan. If you could share, what the offer encompassed, and whether there were any strings attached?
Sherman Ong: I applied for the residency when the museum had an open call for Asian artists. I was there as an artist working in photography and film (moving images). More info at: http://faam.city.fukuoka.lg.jp/eng/residence/rdc_index.html
They cover flight, accommodation, monthly expenses and an exhibition of works produced at the end of the 3 month period.
I didn't set out to make a feature film as the museum has no funds nor the capability to support a feature film production. I started with the initial idea to make a film without knowing the final duration. So I had to work with full knowledge of the limitations in terms of crew, budget, actors, and languages. Like life, we make decisions every step of the way given the set of variables before us.
Stefan: You had started with a script, and then it seemed like a very organic process when you decided to conduct auditions for the lead actresses, before incorporating the experiences of the chosen ones into the storyline. What made you decide to develop the story in this manner, and was it an arduous process in trying to gel them all together?
Sherman Ong: Not really, it depends on how you look at it. For some people or those who treat the script as being set in stone, it could be a nightmare. For me, the script was just a roadmap to a vision/objective… there are many roads to Tokyo - by land, by air, by sea... you decide... In fact it was quite liberating actually to work in this manner.
I try to work with 'typage' or casting by type. Typage refers to the selection of actors on the basis that their facial or bodily features readily convey the truth of the character the actor plays. Usually associated with the Soviet Montage School, these filmmakers thought that the life-experience of a non-actor guaranteed the authenticity of their performance when they attempt a dramatic role similar to their real social role. Typage is related to the use of stereotype in communicating the essential qualities of a character. [http://classes.yale.edu/film-analysis/htmfiles/mise-en-scene.htm]
Not knowing who I could get from the auditions, I wanted to make the story as fluid as possible, and changes to the script are still made during the shoot depending on the location and how the actors mould to the space. For me, the script can and should never be set in stone. It will be the death of the film, unless you are making a studio/Hollywood production where the whole film is completed at the storyboard stage.
'Typage' allows me to get a more natural feel with the actors, there are really no acting involved because they are doing the same thing in real life (except for one character which requires some acting). It was more like a documentary but even documentaries are almost always crafted and influenced by the agenda of the makes, very much like fiction films. For me, film (documentary or fiction) is never an objective medium.
I share Robert Bresson's idea of the director: the point is not to direct someone, but to direct oneself. The inputs and ideas from the people who come for audition form the collective experiences from which I could select and mould into a cohesive whole which finally ends up in the film. The process is no different than writing a script by oneself.
S: You had to rely on interpreters as you didn't speak Japanese (Do you now? :). Did you feel, during the making of the movie, that this served as a form of barrier for direct communications between you and your cast and crew members, or did it allow an opportunity for you to take a step back and look at things from a very neutral eye?
SO: I don't speak Japanese. Not knowing the language also has its advantages. In fact, it worked wonderfully for me. Not having to rely on language, allows me to use others forms and methods of communication during the filming process. I think language itself is a barrier to 'true' communication.
Humans at our most basic level, can sense fear, danger, sadness, happiness, of another individual just from the tone of the voice or from the presence/aura of the individual. You know/sense the state of being of the other even if you don't understand what he/say is saying. Animals are the clearest examples of this - dogs can immediate sense if we have good or bad intention towards them. Without language, I had to rely on my instincts, intuition, feelings which I don't have to rely on so much if I had the capability of language. It was liberating to work this way.
If you reflect on the writings of Gertrude Stein - I think it is not what you say, but how you say it which matters. The audience will get the meanings from the tone of voice, posture, facial expression - the whole being of the individual. Words fail humans, because language acts like a mask, a barrier to the real intentions of the individual.
[Increasingly, she developed her own highly idiosyncratic, playful, sometimes repetitive and sometimes humorous style. Typical quotes are: "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose"; "Out of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid same question, out of an eye comes research, out of selection comes painful cattle"; about Oakland, "There is no there there"; and "The change of color is likely and a difference a very little difference is prepared. Sugar is not a vegetable." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gertrude_Stein]
Using interpreters also mean that the process is slower which is not actually a bad thing, like editing on the Steinbeck. I guess you slow things down and choose simple words to convey your thoughts. I think during the pre-production/rehearsal periods where I have to rely on language to convey my initial ideas and concept, there was some miscommunication but once the actors get the essence of my ideas it was smoothly sailing. I gave the ideas/essence of a scene to them and they would write the script in their own words.
I watched Cafe Lumiere and realized that Hou Hsiao-hsien didn’t understand Japanese when he made Cafe Lumiere.
S: You once cited Taiwanese directors Tsai Ming-liang and Hou Hsiao-hsien as your influences. I haven't seen Hashi yet, but does the movie exhibit any obvious tribute or pay homage to the works of those Taiwanese auteurs?
SO: Not consciously, I think. Obviously there are influences from the Taiwanese New Wave and Japanese cinema like Ozu, Naomi Kawase, etc but mainly because being of Chinese descent, I am drawn to the essence of what constitute the East Asian culture in general. I think East Asian auteur cinema share so much similarities with other auteurs of world cinema from Europe, Central/South Asia, Latin American cinema or the American indie, which also form part of my influence.
S: And I'll be asking all filmmakers in this interview series the same last question, what do you currently feel about the Singapore film industry (if we can already start to call it so!) at this point in time, given that the SIFF has finally enough material to come up with a Singapore Panorama section, with an unprecedented vast spectrum of 13 features and documentaries making their respective premieres in Singapore?
SO: I think the 'industry' has definitely increased in output and with digital technology, the barriers to entry are lower. However, I think the main problem holding the industry back, at least in the beginning, is that we lack a local market to support the local films. As a small country, the small market is part of the DNA of Singapore. You can't change it without repercussions. To succeed as an industry, we can learn a lot from the history of Singapore Airlines.
But it is a different story for individual Singapore filmmakers trying to make their films. I think we still lack the full budget support schemes for emerging or budding filmmakers to make their first few films. Of course this is not a birth right but given that Singapore, categorized as a developed country, is no longer eligible for film funds available to filmmakers in developing countries, the local filmmakers may not be able to raise the rest of the budget to make their films. And private financing schemes are still patchy at best. Local filmmakers could still make a decent film with just a digital camera and a laptop. With enough indie films, maybe we could have an 'indie film' industry, but it will not make a film industry like Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia or even Malaysia.
If the Singapore film industry takes the route of Singapore Airlines, you don't really need local pilots to fly the planes, do you?
S: Haha, I think that’s a very succinct analogy you provided! You’ve got a point there too! Thank you for your time and for the sharing of your valuable insights, and I look forward to the screening of Hashi this weekend!