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The Breaking Ice director Anthony Chen finds making films in Singapore 'transactional'

The award-winning Singapore director also shared how he thought of faking COVID to 'run out of China' while writing the script for The Breaking Ice.

Anthony Chen (middle) with The Breaking Ice cast members Zhou Dongyu (left) and Liu Haoran (right) at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. (Photo: Getty Images)
Anthony Chen (middle) with The Breaking Ice cast members Zhou Dongyu (left) and Liu Haoran (right) at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. (Photo: Getty Images)

His new film has become a hit among reviewers and got a seven-minute standing ovation at this year’s Cannes Film Festival; however, director Anthony Chen almost gave up on the film.

In order to understand why, one needs to look a little further back to why the 39-year-old decided to make The Breaking Ice.

While the film was born out of Chen’s desperation to make something after the COVID-19 global lockdown, he was also haunted by a question he got at the 2021 Shanghai Film Festival.

A Chinese writer, who praised Chen’s family drama films as “mature and precise”, asked, “What do you think your films would be like if you let go of control and worked with a freer spirit?”

Thus began Chen’s journey to make The Breaking Ice by pushing himself out of his comfort zone. He made plans to film, gathered the cast and crew, and he didn’t have a script at all.

“I had already locked down the actors then. They all agreed to do this, there wasn’t a script, they only knew the very, very brief idea of the story,” Chen shared.

Writing during quarantine

The Breaking Ice is set in Yanji, a border city in the north of China, and follows the blossoming relationship among three young adults who are exploring their feelings for each other while confronting their individual traumas. The film stars Chinese actors Zhou Dongyu, Liu Haoran, and Qu Chuxiao.

A big part of the writing took place during his three-week quarantine in Shanghai and he only completed it 10 days before shooting began.

That was also the first day of the table read for the film.

Speaking to Yahoo Southeast Asia in an exclusive interview on Wednesday (6 Sept), Chen confessed that it was “a scary place” to be in.

He said, “What was unnerving for me and making me very anxious is that I literally finished the script 10 days before we were shooting. A lot of the development of the script, the writing of the script, it was based on a lot of instinct, a lot of gut, and things that I saw, and I just had to trust all that.”

As someone who has been making films “a certain way” to much success with critics and viewers, Chen wondered if he was crazy to do this and if it would be a mess.

He added, “There was a lot of self doubt in the process… There were moments where I was calling friends in Singapore, I was calling my Chinese producing partner and going like, ‘This might be too crazy an idea. Maybe we should just stop this. And then I just say that I got COVID, I tested positive, and then I just run out of China’.”

It was a hectic time for Chen, who would go out in the day with his production team to look at locations, then spend the night writing his script till the early hours of the morning.

“Every day, the assistant director is knocking on my door [saying], ‘Anthony, we need a script, everyone needs to start proper work,” he said, explaining that there were logistics that needed to be worked out which were dependent on the script.

Ultimately, his rebel spirit and conviction to seeing things through pushed him to the finish line and the table read was “moving and magical”.

Yet, Chen doesn’t think he’ll repeat this process of starting from nothing, but he acknowledged that he could allow himself more space “for magic to happen”.

Chen added, “I think in the past, it’s more of like this good Singapore student, you do all your homework, you revise for your exam, and everything you plan properly. I spend three years, two years writing a script, then spend a whole year prepping and shooting and all that.

“Now, I almost feel like sometimes I can just let it breathe more and not overprepare. I think there’s a certain free-flowing spirit that’s captured in this film which is very different from my other works, precisely because of that.”

Singapore needs to support their filmmakers

According to Chen, the film has been much better received than his previous works. However, the international critical success of The Breaking Ice might not necessarily translate to the same reception locally, and Chen is painfully aware of that.

“When some foreign artiste, or K-pop star, or Taylor Swift comes to Singapore, everything gets sold out in five minutes. But for filmmakers, even award-winning filmmakers that have had their film recognised overseas, it’s so hard to even fill a [cinema] hall on opening day,” he lamented.

That’s not to say that Singapore lacks talent or isn’t good enough, Chen pointed out.

In fact, he is proud of the work that’s coming out of Singapore and cited fellow director Nelson Yeo as an example.

Yeo premiered his debut film Dreaming and Dying at the Locarno Film Festival last month and won two major awards.

The issue, as Chen sees it, is that Singapore needs to come together to support their filmmakers.

“Every time I make a film in Singapore, I find you're constantly just rubbing yourself up against the wall because when you try and get locations, you get turned down.

"When you try and ask for something, it's always transactional, it costs a lot. And then, when you try and get audiences into the cinemas, it almost feels like every time we have to sort of beg people to come look at us, you know?”

Yeah, we are not Jack Neo, we are a bit different, but why don't you try us?Director Anthony Chen

“We need to be more filmmaker friendly as a society,” said Chen, adding that he meant it on all levels - from monetary investment, to supporting the films, or even “loaning your house, your company as the location for a shoot”.

Chen noted, “The success of Singapore cinema on a global stage shouldn't just hang on the shoulders of just a few filmmakers, or producers, or the small film community.”

He also referenced South Korea’s showbiz and the international success they’ve experienced, attributing it to its people being proud of “wanting to support their own culture, support their own works”.

Chen singled out the critically acclaimed Oscar-winning South Korean film Parasite by Bong Joon-ho, and explained that if Singapore doesn’t support its filmmakers and allow them to “keep pushing their craft and tell their stories”, there will never come a day where Singapore might see the same success.

He shared, “But every time when I mention this, [people are like], ‘Yeah, but we are not Korea what. Yeah, but the community we're not so talented.’ I feel it's such a Singaporean thing to just be the wet blanket, right? And then sort of, like, just pour cold water all over yourself.

“I mean, until 10 years ago, yes, we didn’t win Golden Horse awards… but in that one year, we won four. So it’s possible… But, it’s so hard, it’s almost like, we’re never good enough.”

The Breaking Ice is now showing in cinemas in Singapore.

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