Interview: Marcus Cheong / Image: Still from Happily Ever After (2015) dir. Shaun Neo, Apple Ong & Pek Hong Kun
These days, Shaun is mostly based in Japan. We took the chance to meet up with him during his trip back in town. He lets us in that he’s working on a new project with film director K. Rajagopal. During our conversation with the Singaporean filmmaker, he offered his thoughts on the importance of documenting ordinary and banal moments, and we took the chance to ask him, ‘what does a fulfilling life look like to you?'
S: So, how did you guys find me?
M: I found you through a friend, Calvin Phua. I was telling him that I wanted to interview a filmmaker, and he recommended you. Are you close to him?
S: Yeah. I mean, we’ve worked together here and there.
In Happily Ever After, three family portraits are captured. Do you think portraits are accurate representations of our realities?
It’s quite the opposite, I would say. The film is not made up of the portrait itself but the journey and process towards taking the portrait. You can tell that they are gearing up, preparing and trying to make things look good. Getting the kids to sit down, making sure that nothing is forgotten…
A wedding is supposed to be a happy occasion, right? So even the photographer is helping them so that the photo that’s eventually put up is something they want to portray. It’s safe to say that a lot of us live our lives trying to be something else, or change for the better – something that might later form our reality. So even though a family portrait might seem made up, it might also become one of the realest parts of life.
Why was the wedding scene of interest to you?
Since this was my thesis film, we had to choose a topic or element that my team and I wanted to explore. In particular, the ways in which a short film may exist. Up until then, we’ve watched a lot of short films that were made from low budgets and short timelines. We wanted to explore how events can function in the structure of a short film.
We came across ‘Butter Lamp’, a Chinese-French short film that also adopted photo taking as the main element. In adapting the structure, we had to pick a context that was of relevance to us. In Asia or Singapore, Chinese families don’t usually find themselves posing for a photo except for grand situations such as a wedding. Personally, I wanted to explore ‘happiness’ as a concept. In filming Happily Ever After, I also drew from my sister’s marriage.
The film sought to question, rather than portray. What Happily Ever After had achieved, in my opinion, is a certain kind of neutrality. The question that was posed to the audience was, ‘which scene did you think was the happiest?’The responses varied – some people felt that all three scenes are happy; some thought that the last one was especially sad; others felt that all three scenarios were sad. That was pretty much the objective of the film – to encourage people to think about what happiness means, especially in a Singaporean context. That said, we understand that the scenes are not representative of every culture that exists in our country.
Why is it important to document the ordinary?
My journey in documenting the ordinary began from my interest in Taiwanese cinema. What drew me in weren’t the creations per se, but the outcomes. I noticed how films that were restricted by budget and location tended to evoke stronger, or one could say, a raw sense of capturing situations.
The Taiwanese, in an attempt to create films that could stand up to Western or blockbuster films, captured things that did not exist elsewhere. I feel like Singapore is currently going through a moment like that. Our films are slowly getting more recognised – with ‘Ilo Ilo’, ‘A Yellow Bird’ and ‘Apprentice’ which stem from the Singaporean underbelly. We also have slightly more commercial films that approach filmmaking as a business, which is also crucial when it comes to sustainability.
In my opinion, the ‘ordinary’ side of Singapore isn’t very accessible to the rest of the world. We’re very different in many aspects, from transport to cultures and ways of life, mainly due to the size of our country. That can be quite fascinating to explore.
A lot of us attribute the cinema to Hollywood, leaving out other perspectives. Iranian films, for example, have also influenced my work greatly. I really enjoyed this film called ‘A Separation’. Older films from Tarkovsky and Béla. Tsai Ming-liang is huge for me, too.How are ‘slice of life’ movies impactful?
Well, I’m a filmmaker and I do directorial work but the title that I usually go by is director of photography. One of the best directors of photography whom I know is Mark Lee from Taiwan – he assisted in films by Hou Hsiao-hsien and iconic ones such as ‘In The Mood for Love’. In a documentary, he shared about how the most impactful moments in his career are the ones where audience members come up to him and express their gratitude for giving them hope through these films.
This feeling is irreplaceable – the hope that even someone living in the countryside can have ambitions and dreams to achieve more in life, for example. Personally, I feel that hope is important. Even blockbusters like ‘The Avengers’ play to that emotion. Zombie or science fiction movies that speak about the humanness, or the lack of compassion in modern societies.
Coming back to the slice of life, a lot of movies portray the underbelly of cultures. I’m a close friend of K. Rajagopal, and I think that most people see ‘A Yellow Bird’ as a hopeless, morbid portrayal of life because it ends with the death of the protagonist’s daughter. But there’s hope in such endings – it’s all about perspective. The film, for me, displayed a very real situation in which one tries to find hope from knowing that you’re not alone in your suffering. These kinds of films stick with me. It’s very easy to make something bright and cheerful but those things don’t really stay with you, I feel. It’s just not as impactful.
If a viewer finds it difficult to get through a film, perhaps it’s telling of how the ‘slice of life’ is working. It’s pretty impossible to get something like that out from your subconscious state, and I think that’s what films are meant to do.What about movies that emphasise on milestones or bigger events in our lives?
Actually, I’m not sure if I enjoy the term ‘slice of life’. Observations and being able to put yourself in them are huge parts of our lives. A slice of life can mean addressing situations such as going to work every day, and the mundanity of it all. Falling out of love, even. Things like the ability to foot your bills every month may seem really banal but filmmakers should understand that themselves because creating a film is financially taxing in itself.
I would say that I was raised in an above average family, in the sense that I never had to pay my own bills until I served the army. Recently, I went through certain situations in my life that allowed me to gain a more in depth understanding of what I’m contributing to as a filmmaker. I try to translate these observations and experiences into my works.
Before that, I was always questioning – how does one translate an experience that he or she has never gone through before? How do you show what love truly is when you don’t even know the answer? What are we really making in slice of life movies when we don’t understand the very core of them?We often have routines that we follow every day. What do you think these routines say about us?
It is very telling about the structure of our lives – how chaotic our world may be, and how we try to instill a certain order to it. In films, we give characters certain routines to portray something about them. Filmmakers provide a certain structure to the film by making the characters break out of their routines. Films that I enjoy don’t subscribe to that.
When you look at films from Tsai Ming-liang, Tarkovsky and Béla Tarr, or even what Christopher Nolan did with ‘Dunkirk’, it’s no longer a story or a character with a routine but more of an experience. The most famous example from Hollywood would be ‘Space Oddysey’. There is no real story – just an experience that you find yourself invested in.
That said, even in ‘Space Odyssey’, there is a routine for the character to go through certain procedures to make sure that things happen. The same can be said for all of Tarkovsky’s films – the characters perform routines that are so subtle. I think it’s the same for us individuals, the people living in this world. We have our routines, which usually exist due to necessity. There are things we have to do but we shouldn’t really overthink it as well. These routines, in my opinion, end up simplifying individuals even more than stereotypes.
Is there anything in your own routine that describes your identity best as an individual and filmmaker?
At this point in my life, my routine is pretty much all about work, thinking about filmmaking and writing. As a freelancer, the routine of activities doesn’t really apply – to me at least. I can’t seem to keep track of the days in a calendar. It’s safe to say that I live one day at a time.
When it comes to filmmaking in my life, it’s all about giving time. You are waiting for a moment. You have to have time for a film to be created. Yet, most filmmakers stick to production and schedules. There are moments when your film just needs its time. Our inability to give it time, I feel, is what restricts the work more than any budget limitations.
I enjoy spending my days working on one project at a time. I try not to overlap because filmmaking to me is really about being in a certain moment. I can do without pay and equipment, but I can’t create without respecting and loving my time, which I believe manifests in the film eventually.I don’t have many expenses. I do have to pay my bills – I’m paying for rent and telephone bills but somehow my social life and filmmaking has become so intertwined that I don’t see the need to set aside expenses to ‘have fun’, and that’s fine with me.
What does a fulfilling life look like to you?
I’ve gone through some things in life that I don't reckon you would want to write about. These things that have happened to me, within the past two years especially, have led me to not think about life being fulfilling or not. In the film ‘Blue Valentine’ Ryan Gosling’s character says, “why should I do it just because I’m good at it?” It really set me thinking.
What I ended up having is this sense of abandonment towards myself. Saying this sounds really strange because I’m only 28, but two years back when I was 26 years old I always felt like there wasn’t enough time. There was also a lot of competition; I had peers, juniors and seniors. I felt like I had to do something fast — I had to get something out there. Slowly, I realised that those were the things that were really killing me. You become desperate, panicky and anxious. It doesn’t make your work any better.
I have a lot of time to give to projects and films; to give to people and have nothing in return. It ties back to the sense of abandonment. I don’t need to do all these things; I don’t need to be famous; I don’t need to be rich. I just want to—in a very twisted way—have fun and in the process of it give hope to people. When all is done and if I’m still young, I might move on to something new. If not, life will end and that’s okay.Character depth is something we see lacking in a lot of blockbuster films. Do you struggle with that?
It’s very strange for me to say this but the job as a cinematographer is really simple… and difficult at the same time. The problem I have with Singapore’s style of pictures is a vicious cycle that can’t be solved easily. We don’t really have amazing actors and actresses here. The ones we do have, like Yeo Yann Yann, Lim Kay Tong and Adrian Pang are theatre actors, and theatre fully requires them to be immersed in their characters. Not a lot of actors and actresses here can do that.
When actors are immersed in their characters and really think through what they’re doing, my job as a cinematographer is to give them that freedom and space. On set, I make it a point to make sure that we don’t give markers to the talents. There is never a need to say, “okay, you have to stand here.”My stand is to always let the talents and directors do whatever they need and I’ll capture it. It’s almost like a documentary. Letting them be who they are will provide you with the depth that’s needed. Blockbuster films have too many elements that restrict performance.
What kinds of stories do you gravitate towards when writing a script?
I don’t really write and even for Happily Ever After there wasn’t a writing process. We were nominated for a screenplay award although there was never a screenplay that existed! It was a very adaptive process on set, and all very free form.
I’ll let you in on my intentions of each scene. The first scene depicted a family that was close knitted, like a friendship. In the second scene, we employed extras in the local media industry. They all kind of knew each other, but then again not at the same time. We wanted an awkward chemistry, and the casting lent itself to that energy. In the last scene, the actors who played the couple are actually siblings in real life. With that, we were able to bring out a sense of familiarity and strangeness. What they did on set wasn’t scripted either.
Going back to your question, I gravitate towards things that are darker yet at the same time, I desire the opposite of things. You know how you intentionally make things really happy and funny and they end up feeling off? Something like Edgar Wright’s ‘Hot Fuzz’. He creates this strange world, which you find deeply unsettling almost instantly. These things interest me.
What’s more important to you when telling a story – displaying the truth or creating the ‘perfect’ version of a story in mind?
I think a balance is always required because at the end of the day, it is fiction. It’s undeniable that some things work on film while others don’t. I think that process right from the start is really important. You have a piece of material and you ask yourself if you want to make a film out of it or if it works better on a different medium. Perhaps it can be an animation, theatre play or radio play, god knows. Those things are considerations that should come right from the beginning so you can start capturing the true moments, and that’s when you know you are on the right track.
That said, the most important is knowing how to love. That may come across as a cliché, but it is true because I feel that a lot of Singaporean short films don’t work because the director, especially, doesn’t love the actors enough.
There is always something else at the back of the director’s mind – money, getting the right shot, capturing ‘beautiful’ things. As a result, the love for the characters, story and cinema itself becomes non-existent.
More about Shaun Neo here