People of the Arts | Renowned for films like “Ilo Ilo” and “Wet Season”, Anthony Chen talks why he can and only will tell stories that are personal to him. 

What makes a great filmmaker? With his stellar body of work and meticulous approach to filmmaking, Singaporean director – and overall national treasure – Anthony Chen might just be the ideal illustration of one.

Renowned for his films like Ilo Ilo and Wet Season, he has made an indelible mark in the world of cinema through his poignant storytelling. Here, he talks about the challenges that come with COVID-19 and why he can and only will tell stories that are personal to him. 

What was the first film you watched that had a significant impact on you growing up?

The very first film I remember watching at the cinema was The Last Emperor by Bernardo Bertolucci. The film came out in 1988, so I must have been about four. It’s a three-hour film, and this was the first time a foreign crew shot in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China.

As a kid, seeing visuals for the first time on the big screen left a very strong impression on me. Everything was so lush and opulent. There were all these period costumes, and the film had a grand score as well. The seed of love for cinema was planted in me then.

Was there a defining moment in your life that made you want to pursue film-making as a career?

From the age of 10, I was always involved in children’s theatre and acting and performing on stage. I thought my future was in theatre. In school, however, I found Shakespeare so tough. If I couldn’t even connect with the world’s greatest playwright, how could I pursue theatre?

But somehow, around the age of 15, I started watching a lot of foreign language films. Italian films; French films; Taiwanese films; Japanese films; even some black-and-white films. I discovered the works of Yasujirō Ozu, Federico Fellini and Françoise Dupré.

Because I grew up on a lot of Hong Kong and Hollywood action films, discovering this other world really changed my perception of what the shape, texture, feel and pacing of cinema could be. It really excited me, and I thought film was something I’d like to do.

You attended the School of Film and Media Studies (FMS). How did that experience help shape you as a filmmaker?

At the time, there was only one film school in Singapore, and that was the School of FMS at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. I wanted to do a Diploma in Film, Sound and Video (FSV), but if I wanted to apply, I had to submit a video.

So in secondary four, I spent $850 of my savings to buy a second-hand camcorder. I used that to shoot my classmates for a whole year and made a forty-minute documentary. That became my first piece of work that I used to apply for the FSV course – and I got in.

I learnt everything from screenwriting and lighting to cinematography and sound. That gave me the basic tools to put a film together. With this skill set, I made my graduation film G-23. It was played at about 50 to 60 film festivals and won quite a number of awards.

Were you surprised by the amount of international success “G-23” enjoyed?

It still surprises me that a short film I made when I was 19 won a lot of awards in places like Europe, Korea and Malaysia. I currently teach filmmaking, and sometimes, I’d screen it to my students to show where I came from. When I watch it now, I cringe. It’s so pretentious.

G-23 is set in an old Indian cinema in Woodlands that has been completely demolished. The film is really about loneliness and people searching for their existence. It tells a story of how three lonely individuals go to this cinema in Singapore to watch Tamil and Hindi films.

The first award I won was at a Korean film festival that was sponsored by Korean Air. Apart from the cash prize, I also won two return air tickets to Korea. I gave them to my parents for their very first Korean holiday. That’s when I realised you could do something with your films.

In 2013, you rose to international fame after the release of “Ilo Ilo”. Tell us more about your debut feature film.

After I finished my two-year Masters in Directing in the UK, I knew I wanted to make my first feature film. I’ve never actively pursued ideas; ideas just come to me. And I’m not sure why, but I started having all these dreams about my childhood.

When I was a kid, my family had a domestic helper named Theresa. I called her Aunty Terry. She came to Singapore when I was four and returned to the Philippines when I was 12. I remember crying so much at the airport; I was in complete tears when she left.

At the time that I had those dreams, I still wasn’t sure what my debut feature film was going to be about. I just knew I needed to write this story. It turned into a very personal film that’s very much inspired by my childhood, although it isn’t exactly an autobiography.

You won really prestigious awards for “Ilo Ilo”. What did the recognition from the industry mean to you?

It was awarded the Caméra d’Or award and became the first feature film from Singapore to win at the Cannes Film Festival. I remember friends were texting me the next day as though Singapore had just won the World Cup.

We also won four of six awards at the Golden HorseBest Film; Best New Director; Best Screenplay; and Best Supporting Actress. I’m grateful because Cannes is like the Olympics for filmmaking, and Golden Horse is like the Oscars for Chinese-speaking films.

Anthony Chen arrives at the award photocall after receiving the “Camera d’Or” prize for the film “Ilo ilo” during the 66th annual Cannes International Film Festival in Cannes, France on May 26, 2013. UPI/David Silpa Photo via Newscom/upiphotostwo241810/1305262218

The film continued to gain traction and I was just playing catch-up with it. And suddenly, there were a lot of offers from the East and the West to direct certain projects. When I say one film can change your life, I really mean it. Ilo Ilo really launched my career.

Did you make a conscious decision early on in your career to only tell stories that are personal to you?

After I made my second short film Ah Ma – it’s about my grandma’s passing and it won second prize at Cannes – I realised that my films are very personal. They might not be about me exactly, but they involve emotions that I understand from my own life experiences.

I’m represented by agents in the US and the UK, and I’ve said no to a lot of big projects that would have made me a very rich man. That’s because I can’t just close my eyes and do something that I don’t understand or feel for. That’s the worst thing that could happen.

To me, a big part of film-making is about searching for the truth. When I’m making a film, I’m really trying to understand things that I don’t understand. So writing a script and shooting a film is me working towards understanding why – that’s my process; that’s just who I am.

You’re currently based in London with your wife and kids. How has living in the UK helped you as a filmmaker?

We’ve been in London for 14 years now! I went to the National Film and Television School in the UK, and when I graduated, I was signed to an agency in London. At that point, my wife had just finished her Masters and was starting her PHD, so it made sense to stay. 

I’m still attached to Singapore. I make a lot of my films in Singapore and my stories are very Singaporean. But I think the space and distance has been very helpful because I get to see things – the people, the culture, the country itself – with more clarity and perspective.

In what ways has COVID-19 impacted you professionally?

We had three lockdowns in the UK because the COVID-19 situation was pretty bad. Cinemas had to close for a long time and many industries had to stop. I had an existential crisis thinking about the state of my industry.

When this is all over, will people still go to the cinema? Will people still appreciate film? Will people only go to the cinema to watch Marvel films? Because if they do, I’m not that sort of director. Does the world still need me then? Do people still want to hear my stories?

How did you overcome that existential crisis?

I made a short film called The Break Away last year that really saved me. It’s part of an anthology featuring six other award-winning directors. We were all asked to make a film in response to the pandemic and have it premiere at Cannes.

Mine was about how a family struggled through the lockdown. We made the film in Beijing but I was directing it from London, so it was really challenging shooting it remotely.

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I’ll also be making another film next year in Singapore which is going to be the third and final part of my growing up trilogy after Ilo Ilo and Wet Season. It’s called We are All Strangers and it’s mostly set against the pandemic. 

Is being a filmmaker hard? What’s the harsh reality of this chosen profession?

There are so many sacrifices you have to make, especially when you’re starting out. I had to use up my own savings as an independent filmmaker. I didn’t even have enough money to top up my EZlink card. There were times where I just had to walk home.

Imagine being married and in debt. I’m not a religious person, but as I was making Ilo Ilo, I remember telling my wife, whatever divine God there is up there, please give me a sign to continue doing this because it’s so painful. I wouldn’t wish it upon my own son.

What keeps you motivated to stay on this path?

I’ve always been quite a rebel. The more people talk me down and tell me something won’t work, the more I want to try it. I think Singaporeans are very good at obeying and behaving, but my whole life has been about proving people wrong. 

Even when I made Ilo Ilo, a lot of friends – good friends – told me, “Anthony, no one wants to watch a film about a Filipino maid and a Singaporean boy. It sounds so uncommercial. Who will go to the cinema and pay to watch it? And which festival is going to screen this?

What advice or pearls of wisdom do you have for aspiring filmmakers out there?

Just be honest with yourself, and your work. Whether it’s an arthouse or a commercial film, people can smell right away how much you care about a piece of work, and how much effort went into it.

And you have to be in it for the right reasons. If you’re in it for the glitz, glamour and red carpets, you won’t last long. There’s just too much pain and suffering to get there. Building a career in filmmaking is hard, so only do it if you really love story-telling and cinema.

Interview by: Arman Shah

*We Are All Strangers was one of 19 films selected for the Berlinale Co-Production Market. The annual affair in Germany connects producers with co-producers, sales agents distributors from around the world.