A Singapore Boy: Conversation with Kan Lumé

Kan Lumé is one of the most prolific of Singapore’s new generation filmmakers. Within a week in December 2014, his sixth feature film Singapore Girl premiered at the Singapore International Film Festival while another one, Naked DJ, won best picture at the Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival. Teng Mangansakan chats with him about his new films and the future direction of Singapore cinema.

Teng Mangansakan: Can you tell me something about your sixth feature film, Naked DJ, which I understand is a documentary.

Kan Lumé: It is actually my seventh feature, right after Singapore Girl (2014). But as these things happen, nobody wanted to screen Singapore Girl or Naked DJ. These two films sat on my computer screen for almost two years. I never had any doubts that they’d be screened someday, but I wasn’t sure if they’d be watched by an audience at a film festival, or by a guy sitting alone in the Asian Film Archive twenty years from now. The reason they weren’t screened was probably because of its handspun, homemade quality. These two films of mine, along with others, were made on non-existent budgets and a crew of usually not more than two.

I think the concept of Naked DJ is interesting – a veteran Singaporean DJ, known for his acerbic wit and tattoos, travels for the first time to China to reflect on his roots and Singapore. Naked DJ is the final film in my ‘talking films’ series, which began 10 years ago with The Art Of Flirting (2006). Seduced by Eric Rohmer’s Talking Cinema manifesto as well as his charming filmography, I set out to make films that place dialogue at the center of story. Chris Ho (X’Ho), the ‘naked DJ’ bares his soul (and a lot more) in the film, through constant monologue and his music. Intercut with these, are images of China as well as images stolen from YouTube, resized, re-colored and repurposed. The idea is for the audience to spend 80 minutes in the presence of Chris, to be forced to see his point of view and sit uncomfortably while he demonstrates why he is a controversial figure in Singapore. I think films, particularly independent films, can and should act as a counterbalance to any pervasive way of thinking. When politicians run a country and control its people like captive audiences, and we are forced into submission with no recourse, any sliver of independence afforded us should be used to correct the imbalance. That is probably why Naked DJ will not screen in Singapore anytime soon. But if I made Naked DJ for that one audience member, seated in the Asian Film Archive 20 years from now, it would have been worth it.

TM: Your films explore people in the fringes of what is considered as norm. There is a certain degree of alienation and displacement seen in the need for an outer journey to find something within. In Female Games (2009), one of the characters feels left out in a foreign land. With Liberta (2012), for instance, a suicide survivor who travels to the Australian outback, and now with Naked DJ. Is this choice of subject a deliberate decision? What is your motivation for this choice of subjects? Why do you usually place your subjects in foreign lands?

KL: I’ve always intended to be a Singaporean filmmaker, in the sense that, besides my nationality, I make films set in Singapore. The Art Of Flirting took place in various well-known Singaporean establishments – the Botanic Gardens, Beauty World Shopping Mall, Cold Storage Supermarket, a Bukit Timah Bungalow (most expensive district for landed houses). SOLOS went a step further and set 70% of the film in the interiors of the ubiquitous HDB government flats.

Then something weird and awful happened. I went to Pusan Film Festival for the screening of SOLOS (2007). One day, I was walking along the hotel corridor and saw a staff from the Singapore Film Commission walking in the opposite direction. I recognized her. She had been very positive about my previous film. When she saw me, she looked the other way and pretended not to see me. We walked past each other without saying a word. Later on, despite the astounding reception the film was receiving at Festivals around the world, the local press ignored it. A Singaporean journalist revealed to me that he was instructed by his editor not to write about SOLOS. He apologized to me but there was no need for further explanation. Locally, the film was banned for its homosexual content and there was no mention of any of our triumphs. Not even when we won a prize at Torino. I do think that SOLOS helped to usher in a new era of independent filmmaking in Singapore. But the authorities held their ground over censorship and the film didn’t screen locally. I felt slighted and disillusioned. My naivety gave way to a realization that nobody in the Establishment wanted me to succeed. I thought I had achieved something very important, only to realize it was deemed completely insignificant. When I began filmmaking, I had this notion that I was an artist, doing the noble deed, spreading our culture and flying high the Singapore flag. I posed for a photo standing next to my flag when it flew amongst a dozen others at Deauville Film Festival. Then, I returned home and realized that “the flag” wasn’t proud of me. It was in fact, rather ashamed of the film I had made. So many of my early perceptions were shifted or shattered by this experience. I foolishly believed that a wealthy country would support and invest in its own artists. After all, as Maslow has said, once basic needs are taken care of, self-actualization is next. It seems to me that growth and maturity have nothing to do with wealth.

By the time it came to Dreams From The Third World (2008), I was exploring these issues in my story. A man decides to become a filmmaker. His wife is disappointed with him and kicks him out of the house. By the end of the film, he goes to Malaysia seeking for solace in a cave. It is reasonable to assume that unconsciously, I had scripted the wife as a representation of Singapore. Though I am now aware of the metaphors in that film, at the time, it was just a story I wanted to tell. Every story since has been about an artist of some sort – a model; an actor; a DJ, all wanting to find answers, outside the land of their birth.

TM: It's not only you [in Singapore] whose films revolve around controversial themes. Royston Tan had a hard time dealing with censors for his film 15, and recently Tan Pin Pin's To Singapore, With Love is struggling with Singapore authorities to have the ban on her film lifted. But while the two are present in the discourse about contemporary Singapore cinema, your name is, most often, conspicuously absent in the narrative despite having made seven films. How do you feel about that?

KL: I’m a private person by nature and dislike being discussed. In fact, I moved to Malaysia some time back and stayed in an apartment overlooking a mountain. The hermit lifestyle suits me. I don’t have wifi and only check emails when I’m at restaurants with free wifi or when I return to Singapore once a week. I hardly attend film gatherings and at the recent Singapore International Film Festival press conference, I kept a low profile.

I could be mistaken, but I believe Tan Pin Pin’s To Singapore, With Love received a Government grant and Royston Tan’s 15 definitely had some private backing. Both of them are talented individuals who deserve to be in the discourse on Singapore filmmaking. To my own detriment, I’ve made feature films using my savings. Which means a budget of no more than a couple of thousand Singapore dollars a year.

In fact, my debut feature was made for only three hundred dollars. Each year, when the piggy bank is full, I break it and go out and make a film. I do that because I enjoy filmmaking. I do that because I want privacy when I work. I do that because I’m foolish and perhaps, most importantly, I do that because I don’t have enough talent to get funding. And because I’m stubborn and a rebel at heart, I fight against this lack of funding and lack of talent with these personal, homemade films. When I finish a new film, I hold my breath and send it out to be judged alongside films that have a hundred times more budget. Then I torture myself by sitting in the audience during my screening. I understand it when people walk out halfway. I marvel when people praise the work. I’ve always felt that making films, without crew or funds, is akin to building a spacecraft in my backyard and expecting it to fly to the moon. Yet, every one of the seven films I’ve made so far was selected for film festivals. Other than the two new films yet to premiere and Female Games, the rest have won awards. I’m still amazed when I think about it. That may not be enough to make me part of the discussion on Singapore cinema, but it is enough to keep me going.

TM: While you are recognized and to a certain extent celebrated in international film circles, how important is a validation for you that will come from Singapore? Do you think there will come a time that you will make a Singapore pleaser film?

KL: Singapore Girl is meant to be a crowd-pleaser. Someone at the Media Development Authority read the script and remarked to me, “This is a Kan Lumé script? But it’s not controversial!” The story is about an SIA airline stewardess with “Pinkerton” syndrome (she favors Caucasian men), meeting and falling in love with a typical, Singaporean guy. The concept is mainstream, but once again, due to the nature of my working methods, it feels art-house. Will this rocket even take off? I don’t know. I’m still debating if I should watch it with the audience when it premieres in December. It is nerve wracking.

TM: What should be the future direction of Singapore cinema?

KL: Any discussion about Singapore cinema will eventually broach the subject of language. Majority of Singaporeans speak English. Like the historical and cultural buildings torn down in the 60s and 70s in our country, Singaporeans since that generation had their dialects uprooted and were forced to speak English as the first language. One of the reasons to watch a local film is to see your language represented on screen. Language ties us to a culture, helps us identify with the history of the land. That is why the most significant Singaporean films have characters that speak their own mother tongue. If you want to watch an English language film, you might as well watch an American or British film. Thus, Singaporean filmmakers are fighting an uphill battle: having to accurately portray contemporary Singapore, yet wanting to use a language that is culturally weightier. There was a ridiculous Government ruling, I’m not sure if it still exists, that no dialect was allowed in the trailer for a Singaporean film.

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