INTERVIEW: Filmmaker Ng Yiqin on why some tough questions are worth asking

Local filmmaker Ng Yiqin directing her short film "Something I Wanted to Ask". (PHOTO: Viddsee)

SINGAPORE — Singaporean filmmakers may have made waves in the global film industry in recent years, but even with the success of these homegrown talents, being an indie filmmaker in Singapore is still considered an unorthodox career.

Nevertheless, filmmaker Ng Yiqin still believes that it’s something worth pursuing. “I think we’re still in the baby stages,” she said when we met up in the offices of Optical Films, where she works, “but I think it’s also great that other filmmakers have made it.” She lists fellow Singaporean directors Anthony Chen and Kirsten Tan as examples of those who have won international praise, and comments that it’s good to see more and more interest in our burgeoning local film industry.

As a child, Yiqin loved movies and would watch the same scenes over and over again to relive the moment. When the opportunity came for her to intern at a video production company during her university days, she jumped at the chance.

After working on commercial and corporate projects, Yiqin met a photographer who was heavily involved in NGO work, and who gave her a chance to direct an overseas documentary about a migrant worker going back home. The resulting short film, Beyond the Border, Behind the Men, is a poignant look at how Bangladeshi workers struggled to keep in touch with the families they left behind, and helped to shed light on their hopes and dreams.

Her latest short film, Something I Wanted To Ask, tackles the topic of masculinity from a child’s eyes and deals with the issue of domestic abuse.

Yiqin sat down with Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore and shared her thoughts about working as a female director, and tackling an aspect of our society that is still seen as taboo.

Why do you find film attractive as a storytelling medium?

Versus something like writing or reading, where everything is in your head, film is something that is very visual, it’s very vivid. Because of the audio and visual aspect of things, you could transport the viewer from one world to another world.

A fraught family dinner in “Something I Wanted To Ask”. (PHOTO: Viddsee)

What is it like to work as a female director in such a male-dominated industry?

When I first started, there were quite a few female producers, but in terms of auteurs and creative leaders, we are only seeing more and more female directors recently. But I think we can have more of it.

It can get a bit intimidating at times, but I think that I’ve been lucky so far in terms of the people I work with. Maybe because they’re younger or don’t really see that line. But I think that we can still do more in terms of getting more female voices in. When we talk about directors or writers, it’s still quite male-dominated. But there are a lot of female producers.

Your work is very thoughtful and atmospheric, almost like you can feel that Singaporean afternoon haze that people have lived and experienced. Where do you draw your inspiration from?

I think, maybe it’s because of my day job, I’m very used to having branding messages. There must be a particular purpose. So these independent projects are a treat to me. It’s like my creative expression where I can do anything that I want. So maybe because of the limitations that I had then, when I have a chance to do indie projects, I go crazy.

Is there anything special about the stories you want to tell?

I can’t really pinpoint anything. I don’t have a political message to share, so it just comes from my personal experiences growing up in Singapore. I guess this is my context. I’m quite an average Singaporean. It’s just personal experiences with friends. Maybe because I like to read, I am drawn to the more alternative voices. The books that I like to read tend to be more like that too.

Choreographing a fight scene in “Something I Wanted To Ask”. (PHOTO: Viddsee)

The issues in Something I Wanted to Ask can be quite sensitive, especially in Singapore and most Asian societies. What were some of the difficulties or challenges you encountered during the filming?

I went to talk to people and I was surprised by two things. The first was how easy it was to reach a person who had lived an experience of domestic violence. I thought maybe I would have difficulty finding people, but i was really surprised by the prevalence of it. It just kind of troubled me, in the sense that there are people amongst us that have these kinds of stories. I tried my best to portray a more layered, more nuanced portrait of a family.

The other difficulty was when I first passed my finished script around and looked at some of the comments. It’s very interesting to see the reactions from male readers and female readers. I’m not saying that they’re correct or wrong, it’s just their interpretation. Male readers would usually come up with an excuse for the behaviour (of the father in the film). Then the female readers said, why is (the mother) so victimised, why did she never stand up for herself? These are just very different readings. I’m not saying that it’s correct or wrong but it’s actually very gendered, the way we read things, the way that we write and take in the message. So I had to try to work around it. I had to take all these responses and decide is this really what I want to do, and made some changes to the final production script.

Would you also say that current affairs, like the #MeToo movement, influenced the film as well?

The film doesn’t exist by itself, of course we have to take note of what is happening around the world. So I think it just came at a very timely point, it was very timely that it got published. I thought that the #MeToo thing would stop, because it’s been about one or two years already, but it just kept going. I was quite surprised by it. I would say I’m definitely influenced by that. I feel that maybe people should start talking about it more, and when you start talking about it, we can try and reach a compromise or we can try to really understand like why is it so prevalent.

A scene from Singaporean filmmaker Ng Yiqin's “Something I Wanted To Ask”. (PHOTO: Viddsee)

So with the title of the short film, “Something I Wanted To Ask”, what is it that you would want viewers to ask themselves after watching?

From the film’s point of view, we try not to say who is right, who is wrong, I try not to be too forceful and say that the guy is in the wrong, I didn’t make a conclusion about that. But I used the teenage boy’s point of view of someone who’s growing up and someone who is still trying to understand where he stands in the world, (and how he tries) to understand why is this happening.

I thought that that was an interesting point of view to approach. Because when you talk about masculinity and female issues, people are on two sides: there’s the feminist camp and then there’s the guys. It’s very polarising in a sense.

We can use this point of view to try and understand that when you have these two camps, who is it affecting? Our children. Our children are the ones who will watch what is happening today and they will grow up to be leaders next time.

For viewers, maybe they could ask why did he grow up this way, what’s going to happen to him? He’s torn away from his family at the end of it, why? Doesn’t every child deserve to have a stable childhood growing up?

Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?

Don’t aim for perfect, just try. It’s okay to make things that suck. Just get over it and make the next one. People always ask what is your best work, and your best work should be the next one.

It’s this trial and error, this persistence, that will bring you to new things and new fields. People always say that their first short film must be like this, it must be like perfect, it must win prizes, but i think the process of learning and failing is also very important in terms of getting to experience it and learning something about yourself. You’ll make a different film when you’re 20, versus when you’re 50.

Something I Wanted To Ask is available on Viddsee now.

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