Thursday, March 27, 2008

[SIFF08] An Interview with Kan Lume, Writer-Director of Dreams From The Third World

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.

One of Singapore’s more prolific independent directors, Kan Lume, will debut his latest movie, Dreams From The Third World, in a World Premiere, and I’ve managed to catch up with him for an interview prior to the start of the Festival.

Stefan: Your feature films to date, The Art of Flirting, Solos and Dreams From The Third World, have made it consistently into the official selection of the SIFF, and I feel that's quite an achievement in itself. While the first two were not world premieres (yes, we all regret that Solos had a Jury-only screening), how does it feel now to have your latest movie, make its World Premiere on home ground?

Kan Lume: It's very timely for "Dreams" to have its world premiere at SIFF. Solos was pulled from its World Premiere screening and this feels like a restoration. Furthermore, when Solos was announced at last year's SIFF press conference, someone mentioned how lucky I was to have another film so soon after The Art of Flirting. Now, having three consecutive feature films at SIFF, it validates beyond luck my principles and process of making films in this region. The "World Premiere" status is significant because it shows the importance I place on SIFF as the festival that is instrumental in my development as a filmmaker. I would also like to stress that Dreams From the Third World is a highly flawed film. I do not expect many people to like it. However, even though it shows how far short I am as a professional filmmaker, it also shows certain areas of growth for me.

S: In the local independent film scene, it's rare (and I think you might be the first!) in recent years to find a filmmaker churn consistently, one feature film after another, and you've done so with 3 feature films in 3 years (2006-2008). We've spoken in 2006 about your future film plans then, and it looks like you have really achieved what you had set out to do. Could you tell us about the sweat, blood and tears (if any!) that you've experienced with this consistency?

KL: I've observed that established film industries around the world all start with good and bad films being produced until a critical mass is achieved. That is why at this early stage of my career, I push myself to make films constantly. Furthermore, many of these pioneer filmmakers broke traditions and mindsets. I've taken great delight in doing things that people tell me cannot be done. With The Art of Flirting, I set out to prove to myself that it was possible to make an award-winning feature (80 min) film with next to nothing. With Solos, I set out to polarize an audience over a Singaporean-made movie. With Dreams From The Third World, I wanted to incorporate metaphysical elements into a film. I'm satisfied with the results. Goals play an important role because the temptation is to get overwhelmed by ambition, get impatient and give up. Many Singaporean independent filmmakers are either too perfectionistic or are afraid to be disliked, which is why compared to our South East Asian counterparts, were are producing so few independent narrative films. I am a fool in a sense, because I believe in growth through failure, which causes me to produce a lot of flawed films. I just hope that I can produce a bona fide masterpiece someday. I admire the Malaysian and Philippines New Wave Filmmakers. Some of them started out same time as me and are on to their 5th film!!

S: Yes, I do recall that many eyebrows were raised when the audience learnt how much it actually cost to make The Art of Flirting! With The Art of Flirting being an extremely talky-piece, and Solos went to the other side of the spectrum in being an almost dialogue-less film, what could an audience expect from "Dreams"?

KL: Dreams from the Third World transcends language altogether. It brings the viewer into the realms of reality, fantasy and dreams, and allows them to see the sharp contrasts between each. It is about a dreamer who is caught between his fantasies and reality. It portrays to a small degree what being an artist is like in this part of the world. In the film, although not explicitly said, money is king and economic development is top priority. Although there is wealth everywhere you look, it remains on the facade, with people struggling under the weight of progress. Our protagonist is an idealist. He loses his job, his dignity, cannot fit into society and tries to carve out his own niche by giving his wife the most typical excuse - he is an artist! A filmmaker to be more precise. What good can art do to his life? It doesn't feed him nor save his marriage. It leads him to abandon his values and become a hypocrite. Eventually, he comes to the end of himself and finds solace in nature. Nature does not judge him. What I can say is, it isn't going to be comfortable spending 90 minutes in the shoes of a loser. Furthermore, there are no stars in the film except Marilyn (Lee), so it is going to be a tough film to watch!

S: I hope that doesn't mirror your current dilemma with filmmaking in our little island state, and the constant difficulties and challenges that indie filmmakers like yourself face most of the time? Could you elaborate a little more on the metaphysical aspects in Dreams From The Third World, if it dived deeper into your subconscious, and how it served as a restoration to Solos?

KL: "Dreams" was never meant to happen. My third film was meant to be a profit making film. However, I found myself unable to turn out an original script with global sensibilities - a script that had international distribution potential. I came face to face with my limitations as a filmmaker and had to force myself to back away and reexamine my goals. Although I attended one year of film school, I have never been formally trained in scriptwriting nor directing. "Dreams" is a film that expresses that frustration and self-doubt. It also demonstrates the difficulty of pursuing the craft in our tiny country. The women in the film each represents different challenges to the artist. I express the feeling of being unwanted in this country. The longer I stay here, the greater the danger of losing my childlike sense of hope and turning cynical. Although there are many brilliant self-taught filmmakers in the world, I feel that all that I can learn on my own living in this environment is reaching its end. I am at a crossroads now that every filmmaker in Singapore faces, which is, do I make independent "art-signature" films for the rest of my career? Or do I make the jump to commercial profit-making filmmaking? And if I decide to make commercial films, do I even have what it takes? It takes a certain ability and conformity to be able to make good commercial films. Do I have the talent for it? Independent films do not have to be judged according to popularity and is usually judged according to awards. But commercial filmmaking is a popularity contest. If I persist in my goal of wanting to make commercial films, I may need to study filmmaking again, possibly in the States. But again I come back to the question, "do I really have what it takes?" "Dreams" is a prophetic dream that I released to answer my own question of whether I have a future doing this. The answer lies in where I see the protagonist go in the end. Does he disappear forever? Or does he receive answers about what to do next. But for now, my profit-making dreams have to be put on hold. For now, I release a dream into the world that few will understand and even fewer will hear of. But if I succeed in my quest to make internationally distributed films, this little watched film will bear testament to an important crossroads in my career.

S: Well, profitable movies in recent local context to date have been numerous comedies, a horror and a musical. Do you see yourself going into those genres, or as I remember, you did mention something about making an action film too? Your last statement rang a bell with regards to Marilyn Lee. I recall in an earlier interview we had that The Art of Flirting would serve in a similar context for her, in being a showcase film for her talent. She has gone on to act in other local indie movies, and now you have casted her again in your latest film. Perhaps you can share with us her character in Dreams From The Third World, and how was the experience like working with the two leads - Rodney Olivero and Marilyn Lee - whom you've collaborated with in an earlier short film 5 Steps To Becoming An Actor?

KL: I would love to do an exploitation action splatter movie however there are many constraints that I face. I cannot find a pyrotechnic or prosthetics expert with the level of artistry required to make the film. I might have to do it myself. Whether commercial films or art-signature films, there are always limitations. But a big difference is that in commercial films, the budgets are significantly bigger and can solve some of those problems. In art-signature films, you often have to make do with what you have or else not make the film at all! At times, I don't know which is the better alternative. For example, in "Dreams" I was looking for an established actress who was willing to take off her clothes but there were none. I could either give up on the film, or make the film using those around me who were willing and enthusiastic.

By the way, it wasn't Rodney in the lead, but Leon Yong, a relative unknown. (Stefan - Oops, that was my bad!) The two actresses are Marilyn Lee and Edgealle S. Dreams From The Third World is a film I shot with a two-man crew. I operated the camera, recorded the sound and had an assistant carry the tripod for me. It wasn't my intention to make the film this way. In fact I was in talks with a music composer, a digital cinematographer, a production designer, and a well-known actress, all at the top of their game. However, I wanted to make the film without a script. I had reference films for them to watch, namely my two short films 5 Steps To Becoming An Actor and Love At Keong Saik. I wanted to make a feature film out of those two short films. Ultimately, I was not able to fully convince my actress to take the leap of faith with me. She was not motivated to work in a free fall fashion and I eventually let her go. At that point, I was not going to proceed with making the movie because my story was created around that actress. I had to call off the shoot and my collaborators went on to work on other things. A week later, I suddenly had the inspiration to make a film without stars, and go wherever my inspiration would take me. I decided to make use of Leon Yong as my lead, who was willing to do just about anything I asked him to. As for actress, I decided upon a newbie with no prior acting experience to act in a major role, simply because she was willing and available.

Marilyn came into the picture because I wanted her elegance as a counterpoint to what I knew would be a raw, sexy performance by the newbie. Once the three actors were in place, I knew what the film would roughly be about. The locations remained the same, but once these three characters inhabited the locations, the story took on a completely different path. Marilyn has a definite quality she brings to her character that cannot be created. She brings a certain glamour and classiness that few can imitate. She also knows my working style and is able to adapt to it. By the time I decided I was going ahead with this new story, my collaborators were already engaged in other projects. I decided to go ahead and shoot it on my own. The film ended up being reflective of my feelings towards filmmaking in Singapore.

S: I note that with your features, they somehow evolved from your shorts. The Art of Flirting was the feature length version of I, Promise, and Untitled was the seed for Solos. As you mentioned you had originally intended to make a feature film out of 5 Steps To Becoming An Actor and Love At Keong Saik. I'm going to tangent off for a bit here - do you feel that it is necessary for local filmmakers to hone their craft and ideas with short films first, before jumping in to make their feature, even though, as you have demonstrated, it is possible to make an acclaimed feature with an extremely small budget?

KL: I'm not an immensely talented director and so I make use of short films to inform me of what works and what does not. Every director, based on his upbringing and personality, has certain themes they deal with very well and storytelling style they tend towards. The short film is a platform for me to discover these things about myself. In an environment with so much scarcity such as ours, there are only certain genres in fiction filmmaking that one can tackle effectively without big budgets. Therefore I find myself returning to certain genres, regardless of the length of the film. I am still interested in exploring other genres and styles and I will do so with more experience and when resources become available. I am certain that no two filmmaker's journey are alike. There are filmmakers who can express themselves fully with short films and I admire that.

Obviously, there is no better way to learn filmmaking than repeatedly making films. Short films can act as the cheapest, easiest and least risky way for filmmakers to learn their craft.

After the experience of three features, the best advice I can give to beginner filmmakers is to never compare yourself with others. You must only compete with yourself. If you achieve your goals with each film, there will be tremendous satisfaction. There will always be someone in a more favorable position than you. You can never control such circumstances, but one thing you can do consistently is to push your limits to the fullest with each film. That is the key to longevity. The fastest way to burn out is to compare and compete with others.

S: Very sound advice there! 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?

KL: When I stated with great enthusiasm in 2005/6 about a sudden wave of locals films, some people gave me a look of disbelief. Now nobody doubts it.

S: Yes I recall that I too was somewhat apprehensive though eager that the wave does come about, and come about sooner! I recall that you were passionate about the emergence and movement of films from this region. Would you like to elaborate on that a little?

KL: I have travelled to various festivals and have witnessed in these last three years the rise of importance of South East Asian independent films. The films currently coming from Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand are particularly special. They reflect the environment they are crafted in and speak in a new cinematic language. Economy, beauty in poverty, simplicity, unpretentious, meditative, spiritually vibrant, racially radical, these are some of the words that spring to mind. This current movement will stand the test of time and go down in the history books as an important era in filmmaking in this region. The next phrase in this movement will be the intellectuals in these countries choosing to do filmmaking over medicine, law or engineering, and thereby giving the films credibility and much needed intelligence. Like the French New Wave filmmakers who were all thinkers, philosophers, writers, critics. This movement will last for a further 8 to 10 years, after which greed will completely destroy the integrity of the movement. Thus history will repeat itself.

S: Thanks a lot for your time Kan Lume. I guess we've got to watch Dreams From The Third World to find out more about your feelings toward filmmaking in Singapore! Check out the trailer below!

There will be 2 screenings of Dreams From The Third World at this year's SIFF. The first screening on 6 April is already SOLD OUT but tickets are still available for the second session on 12 April (Saturday) 11am at the National Museum Gallery Theatre is still available (but selling fast!)

Book your tickets now by clicking on this link!

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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