Sunday, March 30, 2008

[SIFF08] An Interview with HAN Yew Kwang, Writer-Director of 18 Grams of Love

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.

Back in 2006, HAN Yew Kwang released a wacky comedy called Unarmed Combat which combined armed wrestling and the fantasies of a middle aged married man. And who could forget that wonderful theme song too? His latest movie, 18 Grams of Love, shot in High Definition, has been making it’s award winning rounds in the festival circuit overseas, and now is due back on home soil for the local premiere. I've caught up with writer-director Yew Kwang for a short interview:

Stefan: I've seen the trailer for 18 Grams of Love (18g), and I'm sold! With the movie billed as "A Delightful Comedy", and your earlier debut movie Unarmed Combat being a comedy as well, do you feel that comedy is a genre you would like to develop your craft in? Not to forget that you did make a contemplative and moving dramatic short with The Call Home, but there were the others in the comedy genre like Pinball and Tie Nan, the short film version of Unarmed Combat.

Yew Kwang: Yes, at the moment, comedy is still the genre I really enjoy making films in. I love doing different forms of comedy, be it romance, horror, satirical although I think action comedy is out of my range. I hope to make a couple more creative, quirky, feel-good and touching romance comedies where I can make people laugh and touch them at the same time. Most importantly, I think the general audience can relate to comedies easily.

Stefan: Some would suggest that comedies are difficult to deliver because amongst those in the same audience, each will have different thresholds to having their funny bones tickled. Do you face any such undue pressure when you craft your stories, or worry from time to time that what you deem as funny, might not be appreciated by the audience?

Yew Kwang: Yes, it is difficult to make everybody laugh at same jokes. Some people didn't find Unarmed Combat funny. 18g is not the laugh-out-loud kind of comedy, but I hope the audience will find the overall situation and story funny.

It feels great when the audience laughs but if they don't, I will work on it and make my next comedy better. I tell myself I can't be worried about the audience not appreciating the humour, because once I am worried, I can't make people laugh. Most importantly, I think I must also find my own comedy funny. I am curious to discover if one day, the audience finds my comedy funny but I don't, whether that will be a terrible feeling? If so I probably won't be making that comedy in the first place.

Hopefully, I can create a brand of humour of my own which audiences will warm to and gradually like, just like Stephen Chow's "wu li tou" style of jokes, Michael Hui's visual jokes, or Woody Allen's neurotic gestures. I think it will take time but hopefully I can achieve that one day.

S: With the two feature films to date, both are romantic comedies and you seem to have crafted your stories around married people with desires. In Unarmed Combat, the male protagonist Metal harbours a secret desire for Marilyn Lee's Ping Mei. In 18g, the married wives start responding to the love letters they get. What serves as your inspiration to these unfortunate souls who aren't contended with the lives they lead? You seem to have some keen insights and observations on these infidelity type issues to have them as central themes in your movies.

YK: I am always intrigued by this "infidelity" thingy. We all love different kinds of food, drinks, movies, clothes, cars, etc… how can a person love just one person throughout his/her life? It takes a lot of "discipline" for one to remain faithful. When we quarrel with our partners, we tend to think of the bad things he/she has said or done to us. We seldom think of the good things. These are issues in modern relationships which are worth exploring. Romantic comedies allow me to touch on all these. The good thing is the most important aspects of a good romantic comedy, such as the cast and the script, are things that a filmmaker can really "control". This is unlike action, horror or sci-fi etc, where you really need lots of technical support to make a good film.

S: You have worked with established actors in your feature films. What was the experience like working with the cast of Adam Chen, Alaric Tay, Magdalene See and especially Yeo Yann Yann, hot off her previous feature film 881?

YK: I love working with established actors. As for Adam, Alaric, Magdalene and Yann Yann, I auditioned them myself by acting with them. I will improvise and say things differently from the script and see how they react. The experience is very fun. I wrote 18g myself so I thought I have already known all the characters inside out but they never fail to come up with new things, new questions and new suggestions about their roles. Adam is our Mr Calm as he always brought about some sort of calming effect to the set. Alaric is a crazy fellow which is why he played his role very well. Magdalene is a surprise! I think most audiences will be impressed by her acting range in 18g. I knew Yann Yann in 1998 when we worked on television's Channel 8 sitcom "The Right Frequency". She acted as Sharon Au's sister and I was the writer of the show. So, it has been 10 years since we last worked together. What can I say about her? She is every director's dream actress.

S: 18 Grams of Love has won 2 awards at the 13th Lyon Asian Film Festival, and now has its only screening at SIFF sold out. Many have been asking if there is any chance of a commercial theatrical release. After all, Unarmed Combat did enjoy a theatrical run at the cinemas here.

YK: 18g won 3 awards so far. We won the Public Award at the Ofensiva international Film Festival in Poland. The fact that having 2 out of 3 awards being voted by an audience, we are confident that this film will appeal to the audience. Yes, there are interested distributors and exhibitors who want to bring 18g to the big screen. The thing now is we need to transfer 18g from HD to 35mm print. This requires a bit of cash. We are now in the process of talking to interested parties and raising funds for the transfer. Well, we try our very best!

S: I hope that becomes a reality, especially for those who didn't manage to secure a ticket for the SIFF screening! One of the most distinct elements from Unarmed Combat was its catchy theme song. Will there be yet another out-of-this-world, hummable ear-worm for 18g? Is it the same one as in the trailer?

YK: The audience's ears get a rest this time. Not more bugging theme music but there are a few prominent music pieces in 18g. I work with a very talented composer Neil Lim on 18g. He created a few whimsical pieces which I find very pleasant. The one in the trailer is the "loudest", the rest are quirky and sweet. Hope the audience will like them as much as I do.

S: Moving onto your future projects, can you provide us some updates to Taller Than Yao Ming (TTYM), and what the plans are for the feature length version of Pinball?

YK: We have dropped out of the TTYM project last August. Originally, my partners and I wanted to start a company last year. But we didn't do so when we did TTYM. So once the production got delayed, it was not doing us well financially because I was the only one getting paid during the script development stage. At around July 2007, the production date was still not fixed and we also needed to start on Folks Jump Over The Wall (TV series) production soon so we opted out after submitting the first draft to Raintree (a local production house). I think things might have been different if we signed as a production company with Raintree, then we could have requested for a production house fee to keep the team going. Pinball has been put into the KIV cabinet as it is really too personal. It is really hard to get people to invest in Pinball. I am planning to do a more commercial film this year. Hope the deal will go through and then I will announce my plan.

S: Hope to hear about that upcoming project soon! 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?

YK: I think the local commercial films are getting more successful commercially and the local indie films are getting more indie. The gap is widening and I feel that the industry is slowly dividing into two. Yes, there are more films, but the difference in terms of marketing power, box office and style between commercial and indie films are so, so, so big. Can't exactly tell what will be the consequence but I am looking forward to see more 250-500K indie films being made with stories that the general audience can relate to. Films that are in the mould of Amelie, Shall We Dance (Japanese version) and Thank You For Smoking, entertaining yet stylish indie films that will probably do well in both festivals & commercial theatres. Yes, those films definitely have a bigger budget but I do believe we are capable of doing something close to that.

S: Thank you for sharing your thoughts Yew Kwang. I look forward to the premiere of 18 Grams of Love at the SIFF!

18 Grams of Love has SOLD OUT its only screening at the SIFF. Keep your fingers crossed for a theatrical screening!

The SIFF Singapore Filmmakers Interview Series
Kan Lume, Writer-Director of Dreams From The Third World
HAN Yew Kwang, Writer-Director of 18 Grams of Love
ENG Yee Peng, Director of Diminishing Memories II
Sherman ONG, Screenwriter-Director of Hashi
James LEONG and Lynn LEE, Directors of Homeless FC
Lionel CHOK, Producer of To Speak
Harman HUSSIN, Director of Road to Mecca

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