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Anthony Chen, the first Singaporean to clinch a top award at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, had his fair share of challenges growing up, but what set the 29-year-old apart was his extraordinary dream.
In a recent interview with Yahoo! Singapore at his film distributor’s office, the “Ilo Ilo” filmmaker, dressed in a simple t-shirt and jeans, recounted what set him off his path and how he got to where he was now.
Chen said that he decided when he was in secondary 3 or 4 to go to film school.
“People were mugging for ‘O’ levels and I was always in the library. I was reading books about film directors, their careers and what they do to make it,” he recalled.
But Chen said seeing Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor”, the first film he ever saw on the big screen, when he was four years old was the defining moment for him.
“It was very luxurious, with very huge sets and beautiful cinematography. For a boy of four, it literally swept me away,” said Chen.
He added that unlike most children of that age, he had quite a “peculiar” taste.
Chen wasn’t interested in the Hollywood mainstream movies or Hong Kong comedies and crime films that were popular at that time.
Instead, he ardently followed the early works of Zhang Yimou and Ang Lee, such as “Raise the Red Lantern” and “The Wedding Banquet”. He was also a big fan of Gong Li.
Being from a good secondary school (the then The Chinese High School, now known as Hwa Chong Institution), everyone expected Chen to go on to study at Hwa Chong Junior College.
So when Chen broke the news to his family and relatives that he was enrolling at the School of Film and Media Studies at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, he met with opposition.
Some of his relatives even told him “you shu bu hao hao lian”, which is a Mandarin phrase parents tell their children when they don’t take their studies seriously, implying that his pursuit of filmmaking wasn’t something that was comparable to academic education.
Chen continued to struggle even after he started making short films towards the end of his three years in film school.
“I can be quite obsessive when I start making my films,” said Chen. That obsession led him to pump in all his savings into his films.
Chen recalled a particular Chinese New Year eve night, his first time wrapping angbao after he got married, “So I went to the ATM, I drew out S$100-200. I looked at how much I had left, and it was like S$1.25. I think that was the lowest point in my life.”
But Chen knew that there was nothing else he wanted to do, so the next thing he did was to move on and dedicate three years of his life into making “Ilo Ilo”.
The film was funded by the Media Development Authority’s (MDA) Singapore Film Commission, Ngee Ann Polytechnic and some private investors.
Chen said a lot of his films come from a very personal place, from a mixture of observations, memories and imagination.
He said he’s less interested in events, dramatic turning points or plot, but would rather focus on characters and real people – not the “Hollywood cardboard version”, but real genuine flawed people.
“What interest me are the connections, dynamics and relationships between people. I think my primary concern in filmmaking is humanity and exploring human condition,” said Chen.
The director said it was his relationship with a Filipino maid, Aunty Terry, whom his family had for eight years, which inspired “Ilo Ilo”.
Aunty Terry returned to Ilo Ilo, a province in the Philippines, when Chen was twelve and his family lost contact with her after that.
He said memories from his childhood came surging back three years ago, “I remembered that one big emotion when I was at the airport, she was about to go, and it was just so painful. I was 12 and I was just crying and crying and crying, it was just so unbearable, so painful.”
Chen said at that moment, he couldn’t remember much about her, not even how she looked like anymore, but there was one thing that registered in his head, and that was where she is from – Ilo Ilo.
Chen and his youngest brother have since reunited with Aunty Terry in Ilo Ilo after a man, who was so touched by the trailer for the film and has some contacts at Ilo Ilo, managed to get in touch with her.
Aunty Terry will also be flying to Singapore to attend the premiere of Chen's film.
After his success at Cannes, Chen said he’s open to doing all sorts of films, and would not want to pigeon hole himself into making only family dramas.
He added that he’s reading a lot of scripts now, which he received through his producers and his UK agent (he is based in London).
After the promotions for “Ilo Ilo”, he intends to make his second film, in UK or Europe.
“I very much want to try and challenge myself to be a more international filmmaker, not just an Asian filmmaker, but something more international,” enthused Chen.
“I’m a huge fan of Ang Lee, his film actually transcends beyond language, genres and different time periods. If I could have a quarter of his career, I’ll be very pleased,” added Chen.
But that won’t be anytime soon, as he’ll be flying around for the next one and a half years – “Ilo Ilo” is going to about 20 to 30 festivals for the next two years.
Chen said he’s very grateful and thankful for the success his film has achieved as it’s very rare that a “small little Singapore film about an ordinary Singapore family” could actually touch the heart of so many people elsewhere.
“Ilo Ilo” is out in Singapore on 29 August, here’s a shoutout from the director himself:
Check out the trailer for the film:
Roller-coaster ride for Singaporean director Anthony Chen since Cannes success
Singaporean filmmaker wins Camera d'Or at Cannes for "Ilo Ilo"
S’pore film to debut at Cannes Film Festival