@SGIFF2015: Kan Lume talks about making 'Naked DJ' and working differently

Filmmaker Kan Lume says he likes amateur work for their honesty, simplicity and individuality. He recounts an experience visiting an art gallery and seeing some handmade ceramic pottery and utensils and being struck by how beautiful they were due to their imperfections. If the tiny imperfections were polished off, there would be no memory of the hand that crafted it, no memory of the art. Likewise in Film, memory is captured on screen through imperfections and he confesses he endeavours to maintain an amateur quality in his films and in so doing, he hopes to document culture and capture the essence of a moment in time.

His latest film 'Naked DJ' follows underground musician/cultural icon X'Ho on a trip to China which X'Ho visits for the first time. Throughout his journey, we hear X'Ho ranting about repression in Singapore and making comparisons between Lee Kwan Yew and Hitler. Variety had this to say about Naked DJ: 'Pulling no punches on a no-holds-barred personality, Lume’s image-savvy, funkily scored work is perhaps his best to date.' And without a doubt, audiences can expect the signature 'amateurish' style of Kan Lume in his treatment of the film. Here is the full synopsis:

Kan’s camera follows Chris Ho (X’Ho) a veteran Singaporean DJ, known for his acerbic wit and tattoos, on travels to China, during which he reflects upon his Chinese roots, and in the process upon his homeland Singapore. The film is the third and final in the director’s ‘Talking Heads’ series, inspired by Eric Rohmer’s Talking Cinema Manifesto and based around the idea of putting dialogue at the centre of the narrative, attempting to tell powerful stories without the usual flourishes afforded by a larger budget. Shot with a sense of ‘in the moment’ immediacy, the film has in Chris Ho a captivating and charming protagonist, who is only too happy to go along with Kan’s aims and ideas, and who helps ensure that the documentary is both sharply comic and tragic, avoiding the stuffiness and stiffness that often accompanies works of this nature. Extremely open and with real social bite, the film makes for a compelling journey through politics, economics, identity and more.

In the same chain of documentation, we follow Kan on his journey with X'Ho and jog through some of his mental notes.

1. The film trailer opens up with a slightly awkward conversation between X'Ho and the Beijing tattooist, which became a rather priceless moment. How did you get this scene to come about? Was it orchestrated or was it totally natural?

Nothing was orchestrated yet I honestly cannot say it was natural as well. We planned for the chance encounter to happen. As we were making our way to China, we talked about what tattoo he was going to get. We arranged for him to meet this tattoo artist. I knew about Chris’s issues about identity and his growing fondness for Mainland Chinese. So when it happened, it wasn’t a total surprise. Increasingly, I find that preparing for a chance encounter seems more and more my way of working. 

2. Is this one of the most important scenes in the film? How does this scene influence or inform our understanding or appreciation of the rest of the film?

It sets up who Chris is and what his mission is – to get a tattoo. It allows the audience to know what physical journey we are about to embark on so that hopefully they are at ease as we take detours to different parts of his psyche. 
3. Was X'Ho's trip a precursor to the film or is it the other way around?

It was at our first meeting where we discussed the possibility of escaping Singapore to make the film. I had already done films in South East Asian countries and when I discovered that Chris was curious about China, I probably decided there and then it was the right place to go. China became the perfect ironic location for us to walk around and talk about repression. One of my favorite moments in the film happens at the end of “Singapore Fucker”, after we learn that Singapore was ranked most miserable country in the world and seeing images of Singaporeans fighting over petty issues. We then cut to Chris walking down a sidewalk near Tiananmen, lined with beggars with missing limbs. That juxtaposition really places our “misery” into perspective. 

4. Where you set out to do this documentary, which I assume is a bit like a road trip, did you plan anything in advance or was it all a 'come what may' approach to documenting his trip?

There are always plans. I suffer from overplanning. I need sleeping pills to sleep because I cannot stop this mind from thinking. Part of my rebellion is to allow my overactive mind to enjoy the dubious pleasure of planning on the spot, where there is no chance to overthink. When I am on location and a decision needs to be made, and my actor is waiting for me and perhaps losing confidence, that’s when I come alive and take charge and bring order to chaos.  

5. Speaking of working style, you've worked alone for most of your films and you've got a very DIY, organic approach to making films, often resulting in very engaging or surprising films. It can almost be called the 'Kan Lume' school of filmmaking. How did this come about?

Making films alone isn't some kind of aesthetic choice. It isn't that I've got some point to prove, although inevitably a point is proven every time I make a film without a crew or budget. My two recent films, Liberta and The Naked DJ, both won NETPAC awards for Best Asian Film and they were made by my wife and I. We funded the films out of our own pocket and I shot while she edited. Despite a lack of resources, formal training, support, natural talent and funding, if you're willing to make up your own rules and play your game faithfully over a period of time, you will eventually make an impression. Initially, when I set out to make films, I wanted the full works; a substantial budget, the latest technology, an editor, a cinematographer, a set designer, a hair and make-up person, a wardrobe person and a good producing team. It's what any decent film needs. But so far, in my case, it has yet to happen. For some reason, I've not been able to obtain funding. So I've never been able to hire even the most basic of production teams. I am acknowledged as a filmmaker, but I've never been given the funds to make a film with a proper crew. As I've said, I don't wait around moping. I make films on my own terms. I take what I have and make the best film I know how, all the while broadening the boundary of what filmmaking entails.

6. I know you've got a day job but you never stopped making films on the side, and in fact, have continued to produce award-winning works. Any words of advice for new filmmakers?

Very few people who watch films know anything about the business side of filmmaking. They know roughly it takes a lot of money to make a film. They know of box office successes and failures. What many don't see is the impossibility of making an independent film. Making movies is a business just like any other business except with one of the highest risks and fewest possibilities of returns. It is a minor miracle to be able to make a film independently. To succeed in the film business you need to be ruthless, a liar, driven by greed, a smooth talker, with no conscience. You need to be willing to make enemies. Most people go into filmmaking with naïveté and think that passion alone can sustain them. I totally understand that. I'm one of them. We come in from having watched these beautiful films, having had a beautiful experience at the movies and wanting to create similar experiences for others. Only it doesn't work that way. It doesn't. Most find that out when they try to make their first film. They become disillusioned and end up doing something else. Few will stick around and see what they can do about it. It takes courage, belief, will power, a certain foolishness and vision to see things differently and do things differently. There are ways to make films for an audience independently but those paths are unmarked and you have to discover them for yourselves. And you have to walk them alone. 

Interview by Jeremy Sing

'Naked DJ' was screened at the Singapore International Film Festival on 2 Dec at the National Museum. We hope it would make its way back to the screens here very soon.

Find here the trailer to 'Naked DJ'

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