@SGIFF2015 Production talk with Director Green Zeng on "The Return"
Wen, a political detainee, is released after many years of imprisonment. Arrested for being an alleged communist, he returns, an old man, to an uneasy reunion with his children. Has his sacrifice come at too great a price?
Wen also wanders through the city to see how his homeland has transformed into a shining metropolis. He is philosophical about his long detainment without trial and is ready to move on. But as the past collides with the present, unforeseen circumstances force his journey to take a tragic turn.
Director Green Zeng has kindly agreed to do an interview with Sindie for his film, The Return, that was screened at the SGIFF. The film premiered to a full house at the 30th Venice International Film Critic's Week.
1. Your work covers the stories of political detainees in Singapore, something that has been covered in recent years by films such as "Singapore Rebel" and "To Singapore with Love", and they have been banned in Singapore. How concerned were you about censorship, and did you have to make any production decisions to navigate around potential hurdles?
Your film isn't structured as a documentary, but rather as a fictional portrayal of a detainee's return. Through it, you tell a human story that blends loss, change and beliefs through the perspective of a political detainee. Why did you choose to undertake the story from such an angle? Was it because so much work about political detainees have chosen to focus on the politics, while you felt that there was a familial and human angle that needs to be explored?
Besides filmmaking, I am also an artist and my current art practice examines historiography and how the history-making process has shaped our identity. Since 2007, my artworks have been exploring the topics of political detention, exiles, student activism and such history, which is before the films you have mentioned above. My visual art exhibitions from 2010-present have also dealt with similar topics.
In 2007, I made a short film “Sentosa” about a fictitious political detainee who returns to the island where he was exiled. When I make an artwork, my first thought is not about censorship but about what I want to express to my audience. I did not think about censorship when I made this film and focused on my story. When it was screened at SGIFF then, the film was rated NC16.
I was confident that “The Return” will have no problem with the censors as my approach towards the topic is different from the above films mentioned. First of all, my film is a fictional narrative and not a documentary. I am neither a historian nor a documentary filmmaker and I always believe my central role is always to interpret, invent and be creative. I was also attempting to create a fine balance between a poetic and thought provoking artwork. I am not interested in taking sides. I believe in Art, we try to present truths not facts.
2. How did you feel Singaporeans will respond to your work, especially across generations?
It is suitable for all generations. I believe the local audience has the ability to understand the film’s local nuances more than a foreign audience. However the local audience tend to be quite critical about local films and often have a preconceived idea of what a local film should be like.
Some films are watched by lots of people but are forgotten quickly and some are watched by few but make a mark in history or leave a lasting impression. I have no control over how many people or who will watch my film but I hope the film will stand the test of time and will be watched with an open mind.
3. Your film has traveled far and wide, being shown in places like Venice International Critics’ Week. How do international audiences react to it, and what part of the film do they react to? How does it differ from a local audience?
The film had its world premiere at the 30th Venice International Film Critics’ Week in September 2015 and I was pleasantly surprised to see a full house. The film was well received by the audience. I felt their excitement and that they really enjoyed watching the film as a lot of them stayed behind for the Q&A session.
The Critics’ week selection committee also told us it was an unanimous decision among them to select the film for the festival. They also told us they really liked the film’s premise and universal themes. They gave positive feedback on the direction, strong acting and visual treatment for the film. For example, they liked how I showed the protagonist grappling with the past and present by collapsing the idea of time as linear.
4. What inspired you to get started on this film?
The passage of time and the blitz of change are key themes in this movie. Growing up in Singapore, did you invest your own experiences into the film?
As mentioned earlier, all my artistic explorations for the last few years have culminated in this feature film. I have always wondered about the lives of ex-political detainees after their release and how they and their families have coped through the years. Thus I set about constructing a narrative inspired by these people. The film is also a homage to my father and those of his generation. Like the protagonist of the film, my father is Chinese-educated, interested in politics and the student activism of that period.
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Photo Credits: Mirtillo Films