Production Talk - 'HERE' by Ho Tzu Nyen

HERE is a made-in-Singapore film, produced by an international team, from Spain, Canada and Singapore. It is the debut feature film of Ho Tzu Nyen, who wrote and directed it. Set in a disused mental hospital in Singapore, HERE is a story about love and the love of fate.

The film was selected for the prestigious 41st Directors' Fortnight in Cannes, which took place in May 2009. It is the same festival which screened the first films of Jim Jarmush, Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Nagisa Oshima and Martin Scorsese.

From the director:

"I first visited a mental asylum ten years ago. A close friend had been involuntarily incarcerated in a facility. As I walked with him towards the garden, we observed the other inmates, who were in turn observing us.

Since then, a few more friends have experienced difficulty in distinguishing reality from illusion. One of them confused the reel for the real, and believed his actions were being recorded by a mysterious device installed in his television set and his life broadcast for everyone to see.

More recently, I had the opportunity to visit a mental facility to prepare for a film I was planning to shoot. At the same time, I started researching on new advances in clinical treatments of mental illness. I came across a report of an experimental treatment involving the video recording of dysfunctional families who were later made to analyse their own behaviour and relationships. This idea filled me with both a sense of excitement and uneasiness.

In some way, HERE is a result of this ambiguity."


Jeremy (J): Is your motivation for HERE more personal or more intellectual?
I mean it deviates from the usual 'mental disorder' story in a sense that it has an experiment and a filmmaker.
Tzu Nyen (TN): For me, there is no separation between the two. I don't know how to compartmentalize my thoughts. All these divisions - personal/intellectual, or emotional/intellectual.... However, what I am very keen to do is to avoid representing "mental illness" or people with "mental illness". I wanted very much to refrain from reproducing clich├ęs, or stereotypes.

J: I have not watched HERE, could you explain how you avoid reproducing stereotypes?
TN: Maybe what I am more interested in doing is to create a film where the thought processes of the spectator can be disrupted, scrambled, and reassembled in new ways - For example, I did not wish any of my actors to act as mental patients.

J: There are so many characters in your cast list... how do they come into the picture? I know there is one main character though.
TN: Well, for me there are two main characters - one of them is probably the guy you are thinking is the main character. The other is the filmmaker that you have mentioned earlier.

J: How about the kleptomaniac?
TN: Ah...she is crucial to the film as well! I guess she is what you might call the female lead.
J: (laughs)
TN: All the characters are there in my film because they are all necessary.

J: On a side note, how did you get Dana Lam to be in your film? I recognized her face from AWARE.
TN: Dana is a good friend of mine, known her for a long time.

Grace (G): Is HERE more of a docufiction?
TN: I think Jean Luc Goddard once said that every good fiction film is a documentary and every good documentary is a fiction film. I feel like that too. HERE is very much a documentary of a cinematic game played with all my cast and crew. But it is also a story....

J: The experiment in the film seems to put the film out of a local context. Has this 'treatment' been done in Singapore? Or has it been done anywhere in the world?
TN: Well, there have been similar experiments in some progressive psychiatric practices - but then someone like Lars Von Trier says that for him, making a film is therapeutic - so for many people, making a film could be like this "experiment" of the videocure in my film.

J: I am guessing the film will generate a lot of different responses because of your motivation to 'reassemble' our thoughts about the subject. So I am interested to know how the audience felt in Cannes and what kind of response you are expecting in Singapore (will it be screened here?)
TN: I think I am interested in reassembling the spectator's thought processes in watching a film - not with regards to the subject of "mental illness". To put it in another way, I am interested in disrupting a spectator's normal frame of mind. About the audience reaction... Well, I think that so far the French critics have been very positive about the film.
We need to understand that not only are the French great cinema lovers, but there is also a strong tradition of anti-psychiatry in their history via important writers such as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, etc. So the film elicited very interesting responses from the cinema "angle" but also the question of "mental illness" and the ethics of "representing" it.
HERE will be screened at the Picturehouse on 25 June - so hope you can help me spread the news.

TN: Well, one of my favorite lines from the Gospel is when Christ says he was not sent down from heaven to bring peace. Rather he has come with a sword. He is here to divide - mother against son, brother against sister, etc… I think a good work of art - or at least a work of art that interests me is like that, either sent from heaven or sprung from hell, to divide. So I guess I am not expecting or asking for the work to be loved by everyone.

(A little digression)

J: Amazing Grace............... Sorry... noticed it in the trailer.
G: Yes, the song!
TN: That's a great song! Loved it since I was in primary school.
G: It’s kind of haunting.
J: I know.... plus those images, especially the one on the field with the people seated in a scattered fashion.
G: Exactly. They’ve got uniforms? They’re all wearing white.
TN: Yes - sort of uniforms, with small variations.

G: Did you face any challenges during production?
TN: I think every production has its own challenges - I am not sure if mine was special in anyway. But I think the greatest limitation was money. But which non-Hollywood film doesn't lack money? As Fellini said, "the film ends when the money runs out!"
G: So did this happen with you?
TN: It always happens that way! I wish I was Charlie Chaplin - who takes a year to make his film.

J: I have a question on production - How did u find that building?
TN: We checked out every abandoned hospital. And the location that we eventually selected was View Road Hospital - which used to be a real mental hospital. That’s too good to refuse.
J: Where is View Road?
TN: So I often think of the shooting of HERE as a way to summon the past. View Road is near Woodlands. In any case, I believed we filmed under very special conditions. The actions of the actors in the present are echoes of a possible real past. In this sense, HERE is a documentary; special conditions in a special location. View Road Hospital, I believe is now being reconstructed into a dormitory so HERE is the only extensive portrait of that magical place, charged with memories and energies.

HERE runs from 25 June-1 July 2009 at The Picturehouse, Cathay. (to buy tickets to the film, available online from 18 June) (photos and interviews in Cannes 2009)

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