SIFF Production Talk - 'Roulette City' by Thomas Lim

This year, our guest interviewer Lee Wong speaks to Thomas Lim on his feature film, Roulette City.

Tak, from Mainland China, goes to Macau with his uncle Wai, hoping to win money to pay for his ill mother's operation. They win big at their initial tries, but Wai soon becomes increasingly distracted as he runs into Tak’s old lover, Wynnie. Misled to believe that he had killed Wai in a furied brawl over Wynnie, Tak is lured into a gamble that he cannot refuse: Wynnie’s freedom in exchange for information known to a local policeman, Kin…

Director’s bio
A native of Singapore, Thomas Lim began his career as a theatre actor in 1999. He then moved to London in 2002 to study acting, and relocated to Beijing in 2004 where he became a TV and film actor. Most notably, Thomas was a lead in a Chinese TV series ‘The Game’, which received nationwide broadcast in China on CCTV8. In 2008, Thomas moved to Macau to fully devote himself in making films and ‘Roulette City’ is his first feature film. Since then, he has also made three short films. Thomas has recently moved home to Singapore in 2010 to make films that in his own words, “speak the Singaporean voice” in him.

"As suggested by the title of the film, ‘Roulette City’ is a story about gambling in the casino capital of the East – Macau. However, gambling with money is just a small part of it, the film is more about the gambles we take everyday with the decisions that we make. Although Macau has been handed back to Mainland China, a tight border still separates the two places, and many people from the mainland cross this border everyday to try to turn their fortunes around by gambling at the Macau casinos. I’ve heard stories of people gambling with their life savings, losing everything, and finding themselves stuck in Macau without money or proper identity. Interestingly, casinos carry a different meaning for the Macau locals. It provides them with well paying jobs and an increasingly comfortable life. The story of ‘Roulette City’ was built on these observations I’ve made and the film was shot completely in Macau, headed by Singaporean producers, with most of the cast and crew coming from Macau/Hong Kong. It is also my first film of any length, and the only feature film made locally in Macau since 2007. Hope you’ll like it."

What inspired the story for ROULETTE CITY?
I guess the uniqueness of Macau’s situation in the late 2000s (i.e. the suddenly overwhelming influence that the casinos have on the once peaceful and laid back city), the contrast in what casinos mean to Macau locals and mainland Chinese, and despite being officially Chinese nationals, the vast difference in perspectives of life between people from both sides of the Macau/China border.

You were once a theatre actor who had trained in London, then moved to Beijing to do more work. How did you end up in Macau?
When I trained in theatre acting in London, I felt that I was too general as an actor coming from Singapore, in that I didn’t have anything distinct to offer to the international stage, or what I call a ‘special skill’ that would set me apart from the common actor. Thus, I moved to Beijing after London to train in Chinese kung fu and afterwards got involved with acting for film and TV in China. At the same time, I also started to do theatre work in Hong Kong and Macau. This is when I gained myself a group of close friends from the theatre and film community in Macau. When I decided that I was going to make my own films, I chose to move to Macau initially because these friends expressed their welcome. Then there were other factors like living costs in Macau (especially rent) were much cheaper than in Singapore or Hong Kong. So my girlfriend and I were able to own our small Japanese cake shop in Macau (for survival), while I chased my filmmaking dreams. Also, there are very few films made in Macau, and I thought it would be interesting to make one there. (If you are also interested to find out about our Japanese cake shop, please visit

Is ROULETTE CITY a low-budget independent production? Did you think of trying to do something more commercial?

ROULETTE CITY is definitely a low budget production. It is my first film of any length so it was also my first lesson in filmmaking. I feel that most filmmakers have to prove themselves through low budget productions before they can get opportunities for something bigger. In the future though, I would definitely also love to do something more commercial or mainstream.

How did you go about getting help, in terms of funding and crew support?
There was no funding support except from some private investors who are really just very supportive friends. In terms of crew, I used mainly Macau locals who were friends, or friends of friends. These people usually had the interest to help, but unfortunately not the skills or experience. I guess this sums up to me doing most of the work myself, which I think is a problem most first time filmmakers have to overcome anyhow. Worthy of special mention though, is the DP - Sam Voutas. Sam is an Australian filmmaker who was my best friend from my Beijing days, and he was there in spirit from the first day of script, to the last day of post production, and of course, the 18 days of filming.

How did you cast your characters, how did you end up acting in this film as well?
There are 5 main characters in the film – two Macau locals, and three mainland Chinese. I wanted to cast real Macau locals in the Macau roles, but it was difficult as Macau did not have any real actors to offer. Thus, I held two audition sessions and managed to discover the lead actress for the film - Annie Loi (who plays the character ‘Armanda’). In between auditioning for the film and the actual shooting, Annie participated in the Miss Macau beauty pageant and emerged as a top-6 finalist. So that gave the film some good publicity in Macau. I found the actor for the other Macau character from a friend’s recommendation.

As for the mainland Chinese roles, they were played by two Hong Kong friends that I have known for many years, who are both established theatre actors in Hong Kong. The hardest part of casting was undoubtedly that of the lead character Tak. I am a huge believer that casting makes or breaks a film. However, I didn’t have enough money to pay good enough actors for three weeks of their time, and didn’t want to cast less experienced actors, especially in a lead role… Thus I ended up casting myself in it. In fact, there was a Hong Kong actor who was willing and interested, and we were rehearsing up until a day before filming. Unfortunately, his acting still did not click, so I had to re-cast and it was too late to start looking for a new actor.

What were the challenges in making ROULETTE CITY? What was the most difficult thing?
As this is my first film, I think every part was difficult, including my own acting, as a big part of me was standing outside of myself trying to direct everything while I was acting. Now thinking back, I would really call the process of making this film a very dark time of my life as I had too little help and too many positions to cover - many of which I had no previous experience in doing at all ( editing). I also had too many empty promises of people offering assistance that I was holding on for way too long. I guess it’s but a learning curve and I did learn a hell lot from this first, difficult lesson in filmmaking.

Any interesting anecdotes to share about the production?
There was one evening when we added a last minute shoot and couldn’t gather enough crew members in a hurry. Our boom guy in particular had to leave very early that evening and we were so short of hands that a magazine journalist who was on the set to report on the film ended up helping us hold the boom mic. This was a police station scene that made the final cut of the film.

ROULETTE CITY is a tale set in a border city. You've also mentioned being interested in other border cities like Shenzhen. Tell us a bit more...
Indeed, I am extremely interested in borders. In particular, I am very keen to examine the differences in opportunities that life presents to people from the different sides of a border by virtue of the side that they were born in. Only a small minority of the world’s population is fortunate enough to be given a choice of doing something different to make themselves happier people. Majority of the people in this world are living in poverty, and are struggling at the very basic levels of survival. But here we are, able to take a new job if we really hate our boss, or even go to another country to pursue what we think is a better life that would make us happier. These options are ones that few people in this world enjoy. But unfortunately, majority of those blessed with this luxury don’t even realize it. All in all, it takes my breath away when all it requires is to cross a border (on foot!) to see these differences.

You've spent more time in China, HK and Macau than in SG for the last 10 years. Has backpacking, travelling and being away from home influenced the type of films you make?
Definitely. I think if I had always lived in Singapore, I would be making a very different kind of film. I can’t say that ROULETTE CITY conveys the messages that I wish to tell well enough because I’m not good at making films yet. But living away from home for almost a decade definitely makes me more aware of my identity in these different parts of the world. I believe it has got to do with living outside of one’s comfort zone, causing heightened sensitivities to one’s surroundings. And I believe that has allowed me to form an independent opinion (one that is more true to what I really feel) about the new place that I am in, and also a different perspective of the place that I was from (Singapore).

In one of your earlier interviews, you mention that as an actor, you feel a desire to create something, to not be passive - how does filmmaking fulfill this?
To rephrase it, I meant that it is in my character to want to be proactive. However, the nature of an actor’s career involves a lot of passive time and an overly proactive actor can easily be misunderstood as being desperate, which turns people off. In terms of filmmaking, I am only at a beginner’s level right now. But I do think that with the convenience of today’s technology, there should be no excuses to not make films for aspiring filmmakers. Good films are ones with good stories and performances, and not necessarily shot on 35mm anyway. Furthermore, over the years of living abroad, I have formed a lot of my own opinions on many matters in my life. Hopefully, I can continue to express these views as I hone my directing skills by making films with limited or even no-budgets, while preparing for possibly something bigger in the future.

Singapore will have two Integrated Resorts with casinos for gambling. Can Singaporeans relate to ROULETTE CITY?
I am not sure. I believe that the impact of the casinos in Singapore will be far less than that of Macau. Macau’s survival relies almost entirely on their gambling industries, while Singapore is not the same. Also, I believe that the Singapore IRs will attract a different crowd than that of Macau’s casinos (in which I believe more than 90% of the gamblers are from mainland China or Hong Kong). Furthermore, there are more than 30 casinos in tiny Macau (with only half a million population), compared to only two in Singapore. That said, I think all casinos bring along a bunch of similar problems regardless of the quantities of them, or the place that they exist. Since the casinos in Singapore are very new, Singaporeans could perhaps relate to ROULETTE CITY as a story of what might become of our island nation if the impact of the casinos begin to grow.

In future, would you act and direct again, at the same time?
Yes. In fact, I have shot a couple of short films in Macau since ROULETTE CITY, and I have acted in smaller roles in all of them. It is for the same reasons that I was unable to get quality actors in Macau. I am currently in the country-sides of Japan preparing to shoot a short film that I will also act in because there are no actors in this small town. However, I do hope to gather enough help (or budget) in the future to be able to fully focus on directing behind the camera.

But I do love acting very much, and acting is currently still the thing I do best in terms of films. I definitely don’t mind continuing to act, but like I just mentioned, I do hope to be well equipped enough to be able to stop acting in my own films soon.

What are your views on the film industry in Macau? From your understanding, what is the scene like, compared to Singapore?
There is no film industry in Macau. I think everyone would agree on that. There is no film school there either. But, there are quite a number of people that I know who own fancy film-equipments, which means they have the hardware to make a film if they had the right spirits to go along with it. If these people were aggressive enough, they should be able to make least many short films (or even features) every year. This is not the case currently.

I can’t be completely sure about the situation in Singapore yet because I am still trying to find out more, but I do feel that it is a lot more vibrant than in Macau. For starters, it is not common to have support like the Singapore Film Commission in many places, and from what I hear, other than the 10 or 20 features, there are 70 or 80 short films made in Singapore every year, which means there is activity, and that is what an industry in it’s early developing stages need. With activity, everyone gets the practice they need, regardless of the level of professionalism of the projects. And with that, the talented and the determined get a chance to practice their craft, and to prove themselves worthy of bigger things. There is definitely a lot more film activities going on in Singapore than Macau.

Would you want to come back to Singapore to make films? Or, where are you going to next?
I have already moved back to Singapore! I have moved all my things back to Singapore early in Feb, but quickly afterwards went to Berlin to attend the Berlin Talent Campus for much of Feb. Then, I returned to Singapore for 2 weeks before coming to Japan to shoot my new short film. I guess I can only say that I am moving back to Singapore completely after this project, which will be in mid-April, 2 days before the premiere of ROULETTE CITY at the SIFF.

To be honest, I can’t wait to properly sit down to write a film that is set in Singapore. I myself am curious to examine my own take of all matters Singaporean, and hear the Singaporean voice in me again.

What's next? Give us some insight to your upcoming works...
I am shooting a short film in Japan now with a Japanese cameraman that I met at the Berlin Talent Campus. This film will be set at a river that is flanked by Sakura trees (it’s spring!) at Japan’s stunning countryside in Mie Prefecture. Then, I hope to start writing another feature script this year, and complete editing of the previous short films that I filmed in Macau. Also, I hope to get to know more of the local filmmakers in Singapore and start creating projects with them.

I also heard from Mediacorp that a Sony Pictures Television produced TV series titled ‘The Game’, which I played a principal role in, will air in Singapore in July. This TV series received nationwide broadcast in China on CCTV8 in 2008.

Can you name top 5 films that you wish you had made?
Barton Fink (Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen)
The Motorcycle Diaries (Director: Walter Salles)
Stranger Than Paradise (Director: Jim Jarmusch)
Babel (Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu)
Lost in Translation (Director: Sofia Coppola)

ROULETTE CITY is part of the SINGAPORE PANORAMA at the Singapore International Film Festival 2010. Screening: 16 April, 9.15pm at Sinema Old School. Get tickets here.

ROULETTE CITY official website:
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