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A breakout star

last updated 03 April 2017

With her award-winning effort, local filmmaker Kirsten Tan has shown that Singapore-made films can travel well beyond our shores.

The official trailer of POP AYE. (Credit: Giraffe Pictures)

By Francis Kan

She is the latest in a string of Singaporean filmmakers making a scene on the global stage, after winning the Special Jury Prize in Screenwriting at the prestigious Sundance Festival in January for her movie POP AYE.

The following week, the film about an architect who takes a trip with his elephant across Thailand, picked up the VPRO Big Screen Award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in the Netherlands. POP AYE, which was written and directed by Kirsten Tan, was the first Singaporean film to win at Rotterdam, considered as one of the most important film festivals in Europe. Her movie is scheduled to hit local movie screens in April.

New York-based Kirsten - who won the National Arts Council's Young Artist Award in 2015 and received a Media Education Scholarship to study film at Ngee Ann Polytechnic from MDA (now IMDA) in 2005 - remains relatively unfazed by all the attention she's been getting, but she hopes the buzz following her win will open doors to bigger things. POP AYE, is a literal departure from the mainly Singapore-based settings of notable local filmmakers such as Anthony Chen (Ilo Ilo), Boo Junfeng (Apprentice) and K Rajagopal (A Yellow Bird).

The 36-year-old hopes that POP AYE will inspire others to venture beyond Singapore's shores to tell their stories to a global audience. And while she is keen to make a movie set in her home country one day, for now she is happy to go wherever her ideas take her.

Impact had a chat with Kirsten to find out more.

What prompted you to make a movie in Thailand? Was it difficult to make a film in a foreign country? What audience did you have in mind when making POP AYE?

I’m currently based in New York City but before that, I lived in Thailand for two years. POP AYE is very much inspired by my experience while travelling through Thailand.

Yes, making a film in a foreign country presented a lot of challenges. Apart from literal differences like language, we also had to iron out our differing cultural communication styles. In Singapore, the communication style is rather straight forward, but in Thailand, they use a more indirect communication approach, more akin to the Japanese. Directing is all about communication and I had to adapt in the way that I communicated.

Logistically it was tougher as well since we weren’t as familiar with the place. We got around that by working really closely with the Thais. Apart from myself, every other member of the core creative team is Thai. They helped to keep the film authentic to Thai culture and society.

I wanted it to stay true and authentic to its Thai setting while pointing to a larger human condition in its themes and concerns. I also wanted to hit the sweet spot between arthouse and open-minded mainstream audiences. It’s not really my style to just completely pander to audiences but it’s important that I offered them something fresh, original and hopefully engaging.

As a Singaporean, do you think that at some point you need to make a film that is set here?

Yes, I would love to make a feature film in Singapore one day but I tend to organically go where my ideas take me.

Most Singaporean filmmakers set their stories in Singapore. Do you feel that your film perhaps marks a maturing of the scene whereby that doesn't have to be the case anymore, and movies made by Singaporeans can be set anywhere?

The option of setting our films overseas has always been there, but hopefully POP AYE gives Singaporean filmmakers the courage to explore that further. The beauty of coming from a small country like Singapore is that we are almost forced by nature of our geopolitical location and size to have a global outlook. If we interact more with the world, it feels only natural that we’ll have stories that extend beyond our shores as well.

You've been based in New York for the past eight years. How has that influenced your worldview as a filmmaker? What are the main differences between being a filmmaker in Singapore vs the US?

Singapore is highly practical and efficient while New York as a city is really idealistic and encourages you to dream the impossible.

I like bouncing between these two cities because to do anything in life, and especially to make films, you need fearless idealism and grounded pragmatism to make things happen.

Most independent Singaporean filmmakers initiate their own projects and more often than not, have final say over the outcome of their own films. In the US, due to the depth of the industry, there’s much more to navigate including an entire world of agents, managers, publicists and legal reps working behind the scenes. Filmmaking in Singapore is tough because of a lack of industry and so much of it falls on the shoulder of individual filmmakers yet it’s also a little purer in a way - more filmmaker-driven and less tainted by commercial influences.

What are your sources of inspiration for your films?

Ideas come from everywhere – books, random dialogue you hear, the news, an occurrence in your life, personal musings and observations. The interesting thing for me isn’t always where ideas come from but what creators choose to do with their ideas. Two people can read the exact same news or witness the exact same situation, and come away with different conclusions.

What challenges have you faced as a filmmaker thus far and how did you overcome them?

Conservatively, I would say it takes about a decade to hone your craft. In those years, it takes a ton of tenacity, hard work and even years of little to no pay to sharpen your teeth in filmmaking. Even after you’ve clocked in those hours and those years, it may seem for a long time that your career is going nowhere and you start getting beset by doubt, guilt and disillusionment. Worse, at the end it, there is just simply no guarantee of success. Filmmaking is really a high-risk profession and I think the only reason one perseveres in it is for the genuine and naïve love for cinema. 

Where do you see the local film industry going?

Local films are doing well on major film festivals - we had Apprentice and A Yellow Bird premiering at Cannes Film Festival last year. Many talented young Singaporean filmmakers I know are working hard to get their debut feature screenplays ready for production.

That said, the local industry is still very much in its infancy, and we will need the continued support of strong public funding to ensure that everything that’s been built would endure. Looking ahead, we also need to grow audiences that will appreciate non-mainstream and non-Hollywood fare so local films have a chance to thrive in the long run. 

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