The Hong Kong-based producer, known for being the first from Singapore to win the Camera d’Or for Best Debut at Cannes, is more interested in finding beauty in the ordinary than in making Marvel-type blockbusters
The elderly and housewives don’t often get to be the protagonist in movies, but in Ajoomma (2022) a 60-year-old homemaker stars in the leading role. The film has also made a leading lady of an actress who has spent her career in supporting roles. All of which is exactly what Singaporean director and producer Anthony Chen loves to do: subverting expectations.
His latest project—which premiered at the Busan International Film Festival in October and was featured at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival in November—is about a Singaporean woman who travels to South Korea alone against all odds to meet K-drama stars, after her son cancels her long-awaited trip together for his work.
Ajoomma, produced by Chen, garnered four nominations at the Golden Horse Awards this year, including Best Leading Actress for Hong Hui-fang, who plays the mother, and Best New Director for He Shuming. It has also been selected as Singapore’s entry for the 2023 Academy Awards in the Best International Film category.
The film is being shown in Singapore and Malaysia, and will hit cinemas in Taiwan around Christmas, and it is also expected to be screened in Vietnam, Thailand and South Korea. Thus far, Hong Kong—which Chen now calls home—has only shown Ajoomma at the Asian Film Festival, but hopes the city might screen it, too.
Chen shot to fame when his directorial debut Ilo Ilo (2013), which also tells a mother’s story, won the Camera d’Or for Best Debut at Cannes. He has also just finished shooting his first English-language film Drift (to be released in 2023) with Call Me By Your Name (2017) producers Emilie Georges and Peter Spears.
Chen talked to Tatler during the Asian Film Festival about his films, why South Korea isn’t a dream factory for foreign filmmakers, his move to Hong Kong and what’s next for him.
What inspired Ajoomma?
It came from director Shuming’s mother, who loves Korean drama. Shuming thought of it while doing his master’s in directing at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, when he used to Skype with [his mother] a lot, and there was a moment when he realised that she was getting older. He felt [guilty and helpless] because he wasn’t planning on moving back to Singapore [where she lives].
This woman had spent her whole life looking after her husband and son, and now she’s dealing with loneliness, and Korean dramas have become a means of comfort for her. I think the idea of Ajoomma originated from our imagination of what life would be like if she went to South Korea to meet the stars she adores from afar.
How did you meet Shuming?
I’ve known him for 15 years. In 2007, I was making short films and Shuming, who was at film school at the time, was my art and wardrobe assistant. After I made my first feature film, I was signed to a US agent, and had to travel to LA a lot, where Shuming was for grad school and I would couch-surf at his place. In 2015, when he was about to graduate, he had to come up with a feature film idea as part of his coursework and he told me about Ajoomma’s story. I was quite intrigued and we started developing the film in December that year, when it was literally just a page. Seven years on, it has become the film you saw.
Why did it take so long? What were the challenges?
The script itself took four years to get right. As part of Shuming’s research, we sent him on a week-long [Korean star pilgrimage] tour to South Korea with a group of middle-aged ladies. It was an eye-opening experience. Two years later, I worked with another writer to fine-tune the script.
Financing also took a long time. We had to shoot 80 per cent of the film in [South] Korea. Everything—all the contracts, grants, receipts—were in Korean. I found it very, very nerve-wracking. Despite everyone’s impression that [South] Korea is very cosmopolitan and global, it’s still quite closed up in certain areas. During my research trips, I realised that some of the most successful producers in the country don’t speak English. There isn’t any incentive for them to do co-productions because they have such a strong domestic market. In general, the bulk of Korean films is quite commercial and mainstream. Production budgets there are on the level of US$30 to US$80 million and they can recover that just from the domestic market.
The more experienced producers didn’t care about this project. They questioned why they needed to co-produce with a Singaporean company to make a film in [South] Korea when they were already making all these big commercial Korean films.
I realised that I needed to find a young co-producer to make an indie, small-scale film. I found someone who went to Columbia in the US and could speak English but had never produced a feature film.
Do you prefer to produce indie or Marvel-type commercial films?
The [major] studios are already churning out all that content. There’s no point for me to package yet another commercial concept just for the sake of it. When I started Giraffe Pictures at the end of 2014, we want to champion emerging voices and support the work of young, new directors. I think it’s important that we show diversity in cinema.
To start with, the cinemas had low predictions for Ajoomma even though they thought it was different from other Singaporean films. But when the first estimations of the box-office numbers came in, it had already exceeded the predictions by five times.
How is this film different from other productions in Singapore, or your previous films?
It’s rare to have a 60-year-old woman in a leading role. In the film, you have this woman finds her own identity and seeks renewal after spending her whole life taking care of the family. In parallel, we have a 61-year-old actress who has played supporting roles in television dramas for 40 years but has never been the leading lady. Now, she has finally become one and is even the first Singaporean actress to be nominated for the Golden Horse. It almost feels like an elderly Cinderella story.
What impact does this have on the audience?
A lot of the older housewives who haven’t been to the cinema for years are coming out. An 82-year-old woman, who hadn’t been to the cinema for the past 30 years, asked her daughter-in-law to get tickets for her and her friends. She said that this was old people supporting old people. Some even wrote to the press saying that after watching the film, they went like, “f** my children. I’m just going to travel”. There’s a sense that they are getting one last chance to live. The film has almost become a symbol of unexplored possibilities for that whole demographic.
You also made quite an impact with your Cannes win and your other films. What is the key to your success?
I’m just very relentless, uncompromising and hard on myself and others. I’m afraid of failure. The greatest but sad thing about cinema is that it stays with you your whole life. With my crew, I always tell them, “Let’s make sure that we don’t [mess] this one up.” I want to look back at my productions in 50 years and feel that I’ve put my best foot forward.
Did you have any movie inspirations when growing up?
I started watching obscure films while at primary school. It was a mix of Stephen Chow, Jackie Chan, Hong Kong vampire and horror films, comedies and Bruce Willis. Then I saw Gong Li’s movie on an afternoon show. I was so attracted and since then, I had always had a certain sensibility for that ‘something else’ [in the cinematic world].
The first film I saw in the theatre was The Last Emperor. It was glorious in terms of the mise-en-scène and the aesthetic.
What are your upcoming projects?
I have two films next year: Breaking Ice, which is my first Chinese language film, and Drift, my first English language film.
Any chance you’ll make a film in or about Hong Kong, now that you’ve relocated here?
The city is too photogenic to not make a film here. Singapore and Hong Kong are similar in terms of pragmatism, capitalism, status, social class and income divide. But since moving to Hong Kong in August, I’ve been travelling again for work, so I have only been here for four weeks. I have a feeling that there are a lot of stories here, but I need time to get a sense of the city and its people. I always believe that I can’t use my eyes to look at things. I need to see with my heart—and that takes time.
“Up-close with Stars” is a monthly cultural series where Tatler spotlights top performing arts talents on their latest achievements and get to the heart of subjects that matter to culture and society.