Singapore filmmaker Anthony Chen on his existential crisis during lockdown, directing a movie from his basement bedroom in London and making his third feature film with the same two lead actors

The year 2020 has been a write-off for much of the world, but for Singapore filmmaker Anthony Chen, you could say it’s been a write-on. As the planet ground to an almost standstill, the 37-year-old award-winning auteur took just a year to write his third feature film, titled We Are All Strangers. It’s a resounding achievement, considering he took three years to write 2019’s Wet Season, his follow-up to Ilo Ilo, the debut feature film which put him—and Singapore filmmaking—on the cinematic map. The 2013 movie garnered Chen the prestigious Caméra d’Or, an honour a filmmaker can only win once in his or her life, for the best first feature film presented in one of the Cannes Film Festival’s selections.

Not that the year in lockdown has been all smooth sailing for Chen. Like many of us, he struggled. He angsted. He worried about the theatrical release of Wet Season and the fate of filmmaking, when the pandemic rained out his sophomore feature’s chances of doing well at box offices with cinemas shuttered across the globe. “I was having very much a real existential crisis,” he tells us. “It really made me question if there was still hope for cinema and if audiences will return to the theatres when they reopen. And if they do, whether it would only be for the big studio tentpole films, from Marvel, Pixar and the like. Will a filmmaker like myself that makes sensitive, delicate and nuanced films still have a voice?”

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But if there’s a word we have all become familiar with since the inception of Covid-19, it’s “pivot”, and along with that, the fact that the world doesn’t stop turning. Chen transformed his time in lockdown into a productive period of writing and developing new projects, and he and his team pivoted and rallied to make a short film remotely, with Chen directing from his basement bedroom in London, where he is based, working with actors and crew in Beijing.

The result of that is The Break Away, part of a highly-anticipated seven-segment film named The Year of the Everlasting Storm. It features seven stories centred on the pandemic by seven auteurs, and debuted at last month’s Cannes Film Festival. Chen says the opportunity to work on this saved him. “It made me feel like I had properly made something, existed as a person, in a year when everything was just doom and gloom.”

For me, making a film is never about the awards, festivals or accolades.
Anthony Chen

Hopefully the worst of this gloom will have diminished by 2022, which is when Chen plans to shoot We Are All Strangers, which is set in the pandemic and about strangers forced to become family. It’s the third film in his Growing Up trilogy, after Ilo Ilo and Wet Season, which all explore social class and family ties in Singapore. It stars, for the third time, Yeo Yann Yann and Koh Jia Ler, and as deliberate as the casting of the same two actors for three films looks, it’s actually all a serendipitous coincidence.

Chen tells us he intended to cast neither Yeo nor Koh in Wet Season. But after a protracted and unsuccessful endeavour to find the right actor to play the schoolboy protagonist, Chen was desperate and randomly scrolling on Instagram. That’s when he chanced upon a photo of a kid from a teenage school drama, and was intrigued by a face. It turned out to be none other than Koh Jia Ler, Chen’s child actor from Ilo Ilo. “He had grown taller and slimmer, and was better-looking than his 11-year-old self,” Chen says. “We brought him into the workshops and he really sparkled.”

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After Koh was cast, Chen was loathe to cast Yeo as the teacher, as she played his mother in Ilo Ilo and, he says, “Somehow, it feels incestuous.” But again, the failure to find the right actress for the role led him back to Yeo. “It developed very organically. So I thought for the next film, I won’t give myself such a hard time anymore,” Chen quips. “I will just cast Yann Yann and Jia Ler in the two lead roles. They will play very different characters from before. I plan to shoot it next year after Jia Ler completes his National Service. He will be 21 then and it will be exactly 10 years from the time I first placed my camera before him.”

With all eyes on the closing chapter of the trilogy from the director who’s repping Singapore on the world filmmaking stage, Chen laughs when asked if he feels pressure for his third feature outing to be a critical and award-winning hit like his previous two films (Wet Season picked up six nominations and a Best Actress trophy for Yeo at the 56th Golden Horse Awards). “Strangely, everyone seems to be feeling the pressure for me,” he says. “But for me, making a film is never about the awards, festivals or accolades. My films always end up being quite personal and about me confronting my own work. I’m my own harshest critic.”

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Meanwhile, he’s developing several film and TV projects, and will likely shoot a film adaptation of a novel with the producers of Call Me By Your Name and Nomadland, before he makes We Are All Strangers. He’s also working on a sci-fi film, which he says will be his biggest film yet. “[Being away], I think the distance gives me perspective, objectivity and clarity,” says Chen, who graduated from the National Film and Television School in the UK. “I don’t think my two films made in and about Singapore would be the way they are if I hadn’t lived away and was able to see my family, my country and Singapore society in a different light.”

Chen made a pit stop back home in July, which was when we shot him for this story, and tells us, “Lots of people have a very stereotyped view of Singapore—they think Singapore is very affluent and cosmopolitan, and a film like Crazy Rich Asians didn’t help paint a more complex and nuanced picture of Singapore. But when they discovered a film like Ilo Ilo, suddenly it was like they went behind the curtain and saw what Singapore actually is. And they related to that—those universal issues of growing up, class, migration, education, and the squeezed middle class.”

I don’t think my two films made in and about Singapore would be the way they are if I hadn’t lived away and was able to see my family, my country and Singapore society in a different light.
Anthony Chen

Speaking of universal issues, like all work-from-home parents everywhere this pandemic season, Chen and his wife Rachel have been ruminating on the pros and cons of watching their son Ethan, who turns three this month, grow up in lockdown in London. “It’s been great to have been around at this toddler/pre-school age. This time has been particularly special for our family bonding and has made him a very secure, confident and smiley kid.” If that’s not an award-winning creation, we don’t know what is.

  • Content DirectionAndrea Saadan
  • Art DirectionMatilda Au
  • PhotographyDarren Gabriel Leow
  • StylingAdriel Chiun
  • GroomingMarc Teng using Kiehl’s and Keune
  • VideographyDaryl Eng Jun