As the 28th Singapore International Film Festival draws to a close, we got a word in with directors Ana Urushadze and Tan Seng Kiat, both competitors for the Best Asian Feature Film at the Silver Screen Awards (won by Iranian Ali Asgari’s Disappearance). Both are first time feature directors, with their films Scary Mother and Shuttle Life respectively screened at this year’s SGIFF, and shared their thoughts on what made them become filmmakers, and the state of arthouse cinema in their own home countries of Georgia and Malaysia. Read the interviews below:
Georgian filmmaker Ana Urushadze has only directed several short films before, but her debut feature Scary Mother (2017) is already making waves having won Best First Feature and Youth Jury awards at the 70th Locarno Film Festival, and will be representing Georgia as the entry for Best Foreign Language film category at the 2018 Academy Awards. Scary Mother follows Manana (Nata Murvanidze), a dutiful wife and mother who finally decides to pursue her dreams of writing. But locking herself away in a room to write, she horrifies her family with her novel’s crude honesty, becoming the eponymous Scary Mother in this psychological thriller.
A former member of the Soviet Union, Georgia has only experienced independence for 26 years, the country has always had a strong tradition of moviemaking and good directors in its time as part of the Soviet Union. As a newer nation, the film industry took a break for a while before returning in the last 10 years. Although still considered a fledgling one, little by little, it’s making its mark once again, with promising directors from the new generation like Urushadze coming onboard.
Bakchormeeboy: Why did you decide to become a filmmaker?
Ana Urushadze: My father was a filmmaker and I wanted to be like him. When I was younger though, I never thought about all the challenges that it would involve.
Bakchormeeboy: You mentioned that the story of Scary Mother was partially inspired by your mother and sister, both writers in their own right, could you tell us more about that?
Ana: The script is completely original and isn’t based off my own life, but I remember a point in her life where my mother started writing her novel furiously and buried herself in her work.
Bakchormeeboy: What are your goals as a filmmaker?
Ana: Scary Mother was never intended as a film about femininity specifically, and not necessarily about Georgia. I just wanted to tell a good story, and that it hopefully appeals to the older generation who may be able to relate to some of the issues or if they’re feeling lost.
Bakchormeeboy: What needs to be done to further assist the Georgian film industry?
Ana: Everyone liked the script for Scary Mother, and ultimately, it’s about the love for the film, and I really appreciate how everyone from my actors to my cinematographer, they worked for almost nothing but poured their heart into this film. But of course as always, we need more budget to make more and better films. But I believe this will all happen in time.
Tan Seng Kiat
Malaysian filmmaker Tan Seng Kiat is also a first time feature film director with Shuttle Life and it’s already won critical acclaim and accolades, having won the top awards of Best Film, Best Actor and Best Cinematographer at the Shanghai International Film Festival 2017. Shuttle Life was also nominated for Best New Director and Best Cinematography at the prestigious 54th Golden Horse Awards held in November 2017.
The film charts the story of a young man Qiang (Jack Tan), living with his six year-old sister and mentally disabled mother (Sylvia Chang) in a tiny flat and in poverty in Malaysia. Their situation takes a turn for the worse with a family tragedy and Qiang is forced to confront the harsh realities of the underprivileged living on the lower depths of society. We spoke to Tan about the creation process of Shuttle Life and his origins as a filmmaker (translated from Mandarin):
Bakchormeeboy: When and why did you decide to become a filmmaker?
Tan Seng Kiat: I studied in Taiwan to be a director, but when I came back to Malaysia, I wasn’t sure if I was good enough to be a director so I ended up assisting people in things like lighting and camerawork. At some point though, I took part in the BMW Shorties competition and asked a few hometown friends to help out. We all chipped in some money and we did very well, and here I am now.
Bakchormeeboy: Tell us about the tile of the film 分貝人生 (Fen Bei Ren Sheng)
Seng Kiat: The politically correct answer is that it’s about poverty, about people living on the lower depths of society, and how if you look deeper, it’s about how people can be poor not just in money, but morals as well. But the non-politically correct answer is that we wanted an interesting, abstract title that people will look at and become curious to watch.
Bakchormeeboy: Why did you cast Sylvia Chang and Jack Tan in the lead roles?
Seng Kiat: We were wondering who we’d cast as the mother since there are so few Malaysian actresses of that age of a certain calibre. My producers decided to call up Sylvia and we went into talks, editing the script until she agreed. As for Jack Tan, I argued a lot with my producer because initially I didn’t want him. But when we finally met, I relented. He shed a lot of weight and became stick thin to portray the character better, and he put out a really good performance in the end.
Bakchormeeboy: How can we continue to grow the arthouse film scene in Malaysia?
Seng Kiat: In Malaysia, some audience members didn’t really understand what was going on in the film. It’s still very much a fledgling film industry but it’s growing. I’m glad that online, we’ve seen our fair share of haters and fans, and it’s a good start for Malaysians to view such issue-driven films and discuss them. In terms of promotion, most of the time we need to gain recognition at international festivals and earn awards before locals will be willing to watch it. As of now, we’ve released screenings in cinemas all across Malaysia, and hopefully the sales will be good enough to keep it running.
Bakchormeeboy: As a director, what kind of stories do you wish to tell with your films?
Seng Kiat: Malaysia has very few of these kinds of film. There’s a lot of unique, emotional stories happening in Malaysia, and I’m just doing my part and telling them through film.I’m not here to dictate what I want them to feel or do, but sometimes, it’s just about showing the dark side of a country amidst a nation’s celebrations that a lot of films like to portray. These are stories that should be told if it can, and I want audiences to walk away having learnt something new about Malaysian life.
SGIFF 2017 has ended, but is slated to return in 2018 for its 29th edition. Stay tuned and watch this space for more information when it does.