Film News Preview Singapore

Film Fanatic: An Interview with director He Shuming on debut feature film AJOOMMA

If you haven’t heard He Shuming’s name before, you’re about to remember it. With a single, debut feature film, the 37-year old Singaporean director has become the newest darling of the local film scene, with AJOOMMA receiving a whopping four nominations at the prestigious Golden Horse Film Festival and Awards ceremony, and having been selected as Singapore’s submission to the 2023 Academy Awards in the Best International Feature.

But if you happen to meet Shuming in person, you won’t find someone who’s allowed the sudden influx of fame to get to his head. Rather, Shuming remains soft-spoken, gentle, and more than a little tired, as we sit down to talk about the journey it’s been from conception to production, to release and promotion of his debut feature.

“I was actually very nervous how the audience would respond in Singapore,” says Shuming, on the premiere of the film last month. “But for the gala premiere, you could hear people laughing and later on, telling us how much they enjoyed it. That made me feel quite good and hopeful.”

For Shuming, fame is simply a byproduct of the job, and insofar as how much he desires it, sees it as necessary to build a profile, in services of the film gaining more attention. “Sure, there are some perks, and I do enjoy having people coming up to me and talking about the film, like celebrities and actors I grew up watching saying they loved it,” admits Shuming. “But that’s not the focus, and I mostly want to take the opportunity that it affords me to continue expanding on what I do as a filmmaker, and a chance to do even more narrative work.”

In an era where films, both arthouse and mainstream, seem to be trying to squeeze in as much content as possible and extending to well over two hours, AJOOMMA clocks in at a respectable 90 minutes. In spite of its brevity, it still manages to tell a complete story, even resolving the multiple side plots it introduces along the way, while fully developing the main characters. That’s an impressive feat for any film, making for accessibility and rewatchability, but even that, coupled with rave reviews, isn’t always enough to push a film where it needs to be.

“We spent so long working on the script, which I think remains the most important, and we were constantly editing it as we went along,” says Shuming. “As many subplots as we developed, one thing I always kept in mind is that this aunty, this ajoomma, is always at the heart of it all, and would always think about how we would bring about her closure, while establishing the little connections she makes along the way. It was really about making you feel like you’re following her journey throughout.”

AJOOMMA follows the story of Lim Bee Hwa (Hong Huifang), a middle-aged Singaporean housewife who has dedicated the best years of her life to caring for her family. Now widowed with her grown up son, Sam (Shane Pow) who is about to fly the roost, she is left to contend with a whole new identity beyond her roles of daughter, wife, and mother. A solo trip to Korea becomes a wild adventure for her where she embarks on an unexpected roller coaster ride where hearts flutter and unlikely bonds are formed.

“Some of the story was inspired from experiences in real life, and Bee Hwa is inspired by my own mother,” says Shuming. “I know my mother as this person who’s obsessed over Korean drama, and now she’s getting older too. My mother actually does watch this particular type of Korean drama featured in the film, the kind where there’s always this person who finds out they’re adopted and go and find their real parents. And there’s maybe 20 dramas she’s watched that are like that? And the characters are usually played by the same actors too! I saw these dramas as very Confucian, because of how it goes back to the importance of family, but also incorporates and challenges some issues like marriage and divorce in Korean society. We decided to have a lot of fun with the in-universe Korean drama Bee Hwa watches, and really wrote ridiculous lines and scenarios and filmed it with dramatic lighting, which was really meant as an homage to the genre.” 

Shuming sees Bee Hwa as a character who is able to relate to the lonely mother figure in the drama she watches, and used that as a key point to anchor her story. As much as it is a Singapore-Korea co-production, and the majority of the scenes take place in Korea, there is so much ‘Singaporean’ about it in the Singapore scenes, that you can’t help but feel a sense of comfort in the familiarity.

“It’s such a familiar moment to anyone whose parents watch these dramas on television at home, and shooting Huifang, it wasn’t like she was acting, she really was just sitting down on the couch, in comfortable clothes while the clothes dry on the window sill,” says Shuming. “There’s a lot of realism to the scenes, and when we talked about art direction, we actually referenced photos and homes of actual Singaporeans, along with this photography book by a Japanese person who took photos of HDB flats. Our sound also ensured that there would be details of the Singapore landscape incorporated into it, and as Singaporeans, it can be so easy to forget and be dismissive of Singapore onscreen, so I wanted to deliberately use the familiarity of scenes to draw audiences in.”

But of course, AJOOMMA goes beyond realism alone to tell a story of hope and discovery, as Bee Hwa’s misadventures lead to her finding a new lease on life and newfound confidence to live life her way. “I think a lot about whether mothers have their own identities beyond their role as a parent and homemaker, and I would sometimes ask my own mother if she had a life before having kids,” says Shuming. “There’s that scene where she’s talking to the Korean security guard, and asks him if he has a hobby. He answers, but when she is asked the same question, she can’t answer because she doesn’t have one. It’s the one scene we kept talking about, because it’s subtle but heartbreaking to admit that she’s been caught up in being a mother for so many decades that she doesn’t have a sense of her own life. Huifang and I talked a lot about the scene, and it was challenging because she understands the heartbreak but wants to convey it in a real way that makes sense. But she conveyed it perfectly.”

That’s not the only powerful scene in AJOOMMA – one we remember clearly is a scene where Bee Hwa steps out of a car when she sees it snow, and allows herself to simply start dancing, filled with innocent glee. “Sometimes we forget the simple beauty in life. I remember how I saw snow fall for the first time when I was 22, and I was couchsurfing in Paris during a film festival. I saw it and gasped, and for some reason wanted to just run out and make snow angels,” says Shuming. “So shooting that scene, we really felt like kids again. It’s this culmination of emotions that Huifang was going through, and one of the scenes that remained the same after so many drafts. The only issue was working our way up to it such that it felt earned instead of shoehorned, which is where the struggle, the drama, and the buildup comes in.”

And then you have slightly less realistic, but nonetheless fun scenes, such as an actual car chase scene, with Huifang herself going full The Fast & Furious midway through the film. “We blocked the roads for her, and it was winter, so it was so so cold. When Kris (Ong, co-writer) and I discussed this, we really had to ask, do we really want a car chase scene? Then when we did a read it was so good and exciting,” says Shuming. “It’s not exactly The Fast and Furious, but it’s still out of my wheelhouse, and decided to take the opportunity to try something like this. We spent a lot of time working with the DP to plan and shoot it, and we had a lot of support from Korea when filming it. We took maybe, 4 days to do it, and the majority of that was spent closing off the roads. I had to edit while shooting to make sure we weren’t missing any footage, and I remember telling the team no need for extravagance, to keep it exciting but realistic. We gave ourselves that permission to suspend disbelief, and we’re all so proud of how it turned out and how fun it was.”

The next question then, is how Shuming and his team overcame the language barrier between Singapore and Korea. “One thing we discussed is that we needed a solid consistent flow of communication, and it’s gonna happen where you get lost in translation with everyone trying to understand each other,” he says. “Right from the beginning we had a Singaporean actress actress based in Seoul who was my right hand woman, helping us with translations and simplifying ideas. It was frustrating sometimes, but we had to place a lot of trust in whoever was helping me at any one point, particularly with the script supervisor, and how they were helping me make sure that the nuance and tone of the Korean lines were adjusted for appropriateness while retaining the original intent.”

That extends to the offscreen friendship between Huifang and Korean actor Jung Dong-hwan, who plays the security guard Bee Hwa develops a friendship with. “Maybe there’s something romantic going on, but the more important thing is the friendship and connection the two of them have,” says Shuming. “Filming their exchange was one of the more beautiful moments in the second half of shoot, and offscreen, the actors had also become friends already. Bee Hwa doesn’t know exactly how to express her gratitude and appreciation for their friendship, and so quotes her Korean drama. It seems random, but it’s as moving as it is humorous – the goal is to make you laugh and cry in the span of 10 seconds.”

And finally, regarding the film itself, Shuming also praises Huifang for the way she handles a difficult scene with Shane Pow, who plays her son, when she realises that he wants to make a more permanent move overseas, but in the process, has to leave her alone in Singapore. “I had a similar bittersweet episode with my own mother when I went to Los Angeles to study, and she was really happy for me, but also asked when I was coming back,” says Shuming. “When Bee Hwa receives the call in the film, we had Shane really on the other line and Huifang reacting, so as not to break the illusion, and it was actually the scene she auditioned with. She was able to bring a certain complexity to the moment, and inner drama to it.”

“That’s also such a key moment in her character development because you get to see how she learns to accept her son’s decision, even if it’s hard for her, and she doesn’t judge,” he continues. “She wants him to be honest with her, but the fact that he’s leaving hurts her even more; she wants him to be happy, but also wants him to be there for her. By watching from her perspective I think you’ll be more inclined to understand what it feels like or means for her, and how it does actually represent a lot of Singaporeans. I’m humanising, not normalising, a theme that’s familiar to a lot of people, and offers more space and debate to explore room for understanding, and the complexities of what it means to be human.”

The road to AJOOMMA hasn’t been an easy one. Just the process alone has lasted 7 years, and the road continues with press events, touring festivals, and continued promotion of the film. “It’s been been a real labour of love. It’s a simple story, but it took a lot of trust from people around me to believe in the project, even when things got tiring or frustrating,” he adds. “It feels like we haven’t stopped working on it since we started, from shooting to press events.”

In terms of the support they’ve been given, Shuming laments the lack of a proper industry, but acknowledges the amount of support he’s been given. “We’re still such a young country who lacks as extensive an infrastructure for film, but at least, our team had support from IMDA, and when I pitched it, people went oh I love your story, I hope it gets made,” he says. “Raising money for any project, in this climate, is very tough, but we also got support from the Korean Film Council and other film labs. It’s especially hard for filmmakers like me who make films that are neither ‘mainstream enough’ or ‘arthouse enough’, which gets us stuck. And considering how ambitious this was for a debut filmmaker, it was really hard.”

“But I do believe in future projects being easier to raise funds for, now that I’ve ‘proven’ what I’m capable of as a first-time director. It goes to show that when you truly believe in the story and all that love and energy, anything is possible,” continues Shuming. “It’s daunting, but I know that implicitly I trust my gut, and have to keep fighting for something I believe in. Plus, I have the support of friends and family I’ve been with throughout, who show no judgment even in the hard times, and that’s been what has been getting me through all this.”

All the hard work has paid off, and not only has AJOOMMA received rave audience and critic reviews, but the upcoming Golden Horse nominations have certainly cemented its position as a quality film deserving of accolades, namely: Shuming for Best New Director and Best Original Screenplay, which he is nominated for alongside his co-writer Kris Ong, alongside Hong Huifang for Best Leading Actress, and Jung Dong-hwan for Best Supporting Actor. 

“We were hoping for some nominations, and were expecting Huifang to get it for Best Actress, but never did we imagine we would get four,” says Shuming. “On the night before nominations were announced, Huifang and I couldn’t sleep, but the next day when we heard each nomination announced, we were genuinely surprised, and of course, to hear her nomination, the last category announced, we screamed. Those days are a core memory, and whether we go on to win or not is secondary, because the goal is just to be able to experience the ceremony, and to take the opportunity to further our careers. Hopefully, it gives the film more legs to keep getting screenings, and we do have a Taiwanese and Korean release planned soon.”

When all has been said and done, Shuming is simply happy that people around the world, and especially Singapore, are enjoying the film, and he has managed to tell the story he wanted to. “When I first saw the poster go up at the bus-stop near my place, I got goosebumps. And even more so at Golden Village when you see the poster, the trailer being played, and smell the popcorn, and it takes me right back to those days where I’d skip class to see films, to think I’ve come such a long way and am now part of it,” says Shuming. “I teach film at NTU, and I always tell my students the struggle of being a filmmaker, and that they have to be prepared for the very tough industry. But when you get the payoff, it’s a priceless experience, to hear people laughing and crying together in the cinema.”

“Directing can be so daunting, but what keeps me going is the reason why I want to tell this story. I know this is something I wanted to present and show, and I’ve been going on about it for so many years, so people who’ve listened to me, well they finally get to see my vision,” he concludes. “I do have high expectations of myself – I know I can get it done, and only because I believe in the story I want to tell. That love transcends across the entire team, such that even the actors believe in the story and put in their own love into it, and that love moves me tremendously. I have so much gratitude for everyone involved, my cast, my crew, my producers, my co-writer Kris, and we’re so happy that we’ve created this film that comes from a genuine place, and hope that so many people get to see it.”

Photos from Shuming’s Instagram @heshuming

AJOOMMA is now open in Singapore cinemas. Tickets available here

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