I was invited to the Pleasure Factory press conference held at the Mandarin Oriental this afternoon courtesy of Shaw, and it was quite a cosy set up in the small room, almost half of which is occupied by the stage. Before you proceed any further, please note that the following may contain spoilers, so please steer clear until you've watched the movie, or don't mind certain discussions into various scenes.
The host/moderator for the session was Peifen (of local Chinese radio 933FM) and the usual cursory introductions actually paved way for plenty of information shared by the attendees, starting with Ekachai Uekrontham the director, Brian Gothong Tan the director of photography, and lead actors Loo Zihan and Ananda Everingham.
Ekachai Uekrongtham had actually lived in Singapore more than in Thailand, and revealed that when younger, he was working with a trading firm which represented the beverage Red Bull, and his first foray to Geylang was to follow the sales people at night to the place because they thought their target audience who needed the energy boost were there! Initially he thought the place as seedy, but after a few visits, he started to look at it very differently.
Brian told Ekachai about the story of a young army boy who lost his virginity in Geylang, and visited the location for the very first time with Ekachai as part of research. There are 3 separate sections in the movie, which were The White Tower, which tells of innocence and its loss, The Wallet being the transactional basis, and The Song on the Other Side, where Ekachai was interested to examine what happens when the pleasure factory stops; where humans stop being pleasure seeking/giving machines. It was not supposed to be narrative driven but rather mood driven to capture Geylang honestly.
There was the inevitable question about the cuts that the movie received, in that the version screened here was different from the Cannes version. Ekachai revealed that they didn't censor themselves during the production of Pleasure Factory, and neither were they trying to be bold. The Cannes version can be considered as the Director's Cut though. Over here, Shaw and Innoform weren't interested in losing potential audience, and told him that if it has to be R21, then so be it. The censors however requested for some cuts to the version they submitted, and in total the duration was 2 minutes being shaved off from the movie. But Ekachai was quick to certify that there's nothing lost in terms of the story, but it was nonetheless painful to be removing every second of them. I thought he had a very realistic approach with regards to the current state of censorship here, in that he compares it to "Immigration", where different countries have different levels of tolerance, and Singapore can't be compared to Europe at this current point. He assured everyone that he did the adjustments to the movie himself (similar to Ang Lee for Lust, Caution I may add), and that the film still captures what they set out to achieve, though he was prepared for the worst in the event that it cannot be screened here. But luckily it will be, starting from this Thursday.
One of the key messages that Ekachai wanted to bring out was that pleasure is very transient, that red light districts were probably not the right place to find true pleasure, even though some characters manage to tough it fleetingly, or not at all.
Brian, who had made a number of short films, was on hand to share the more technical aspects of the shoot. Calling it a "small movie", it was shot in 2 weeks, and edited in his room, and little did he expect that it be screened at Cannes and other film festivals around the world. The style adopted was more indie with natural lighting, and to try to be as honest as possible without romanticizing or judging the subject.
Besides Ekachai, Loo Zihan had a lot to share as well, especially when his role had called for full frontal nudity. He confessed that he was a little apprehensive at first, but trusted the director and DOP as he knew it will be well and tastefully done. As some of us would know by now, Zihan is also a director, and has directed various short films and co-directed Solos with Kan Lume. He took on the role because he wanted to learn from Ekachai, who is an established theatre director, and wanted to know how an actor functions, as well as to learn from Brian and his unique style.
As for his much talked about scene with "Xu-Er", the scene was shot almost like real life mimicking the reel one, and there was plenty of apprehension and tension just like his character Jonathan experiences during his "first time". In fact, he only got acquainted with her only just before the shooting took place, so I bet you can imagine what he's going through! Zihan did recall quite candidly and with good humour that the room they shot their scenes in was pretty small and intimate, and the crew was sweating bucketloads, except him of course, since he didn't have any clothes on!
Ekachai interjected at this point, on the request of Zihan, to explain that the process of making Pleasure Factory was quite different from conventional filmmaking, that the 2 keywords best describing it were "Spontaneity" and "Organic". They wanted the camera to discover and experience what happens at about the same time as the characters, and hence you find that the camera sometimes are a moment slower in revealing scenes. There were some specific lines to be spoken, but the actors were not given scripts, and were told of their characters without knowing the story of the other character they're interacting with. Like in Yang Kuei-Mei's case, Ekachai explained her character's story, starting from a young age until now, when she was being made up for the role.
Finally, Ananda Everingham, who is no stranger to local audiences for his breakthrough role in Thai horror movie Shutter, and more recently in the romance comedy Me, Myself, shared that this wasn't the first time where he had made a film set in the red light district. At about the same time as the shoot for Pleasure Factory, he had also acted in "Bangkok Time" where he played a male prostitute in Thailand, hence crossing over to the other side in the Thai movie. His character in Pleasure Factory represents the view of the audience, of a foreigner who has lost his way and finds himself in Geylang. In the movie, he only had 3 lines, and felt the challenge of using body language and sounds to communicate. However he's quite comfortable with a role that doesn't require him to talk much as he's a bit reclusive himself, and through communicating using body language and emotions, the preconditions disappear. Speaking of his co-stars, he waxed lyrical about the aura that Yang Kuei-Mei exudes, and that Isabella Chan (local blogger whom you will know for blogs like Sarong Party Girl, MissIzzy.org and now blogs at Wyafer.org, where you can some comments she has for the movie here) was totally different in terms of the personality of her character and her real self.
Zihan was asked how he prepared for the role, and what was his mother's reaction to it. He shared that his mom followed the Chinese newspaper articles about Pleasure Factory quite closely, and he's actually quite glad that his family is supportive of him. There was actually one test shoot before the actual one, and of course he had to prepare himself emotionally for the nude scene. Again Zihan reiterated why he wanted to take on such a role, was that 1. For himself to learn as an actor and director, 2. His belief in the vision and story of the movie, and 3. For the industry to mature, he felt that there was a need for a variety of movies, and hope that with more movies around, they can inspire more people to make better films. This I believe were similar sentiments shared by his co-director for Solos Kan Lume, where he explained to me about the need for a critical body of local movies.
Ekachai was also asked why he made the switch from theatre directing to become a movie director. He explained that while theatre was a way to express himself aesthetically, he cannot have made movies without the theatrical training in Emotional Honesty. Theatre tends to be text based, while a movie is visual based, and it was a dream come true when he was asked to make Beautiful Boxer. He joked that he was asked to make Pleasure Factory 2 in Thailand's Patpong, but why he chose Geylang was that it was like a labyrinth in a Singapore which is all about patterns and straight lines. He mentioned that you can tell a country not from where and what the tourism board wanted to show you, but from what they don't want you to see. Ananda thought that Ekachai had put a good spin on the film with it avoiding the usual sentimentality or presenting the obvious sordid side of things in a movie like this.
You too can decide if the movie avoided cliches with movies about or set in red light districts, as Pleasure Factory opens this Thursday at cinemas near you, and you can read my review of it here.