Production Talk - 'Red Dragonflies' by Liao Jiekai

At the recent Jeonju International Film Festival, the International Competition jury said this about Red Dragonflies

“A film that we valued above all for its mysterious evocation of Singapore’s disappearing history – both social and personal – and its gentle depiction of innocence and passing youth [...] We felt that there were moments in this small, relatively low-budget, non-formulaic film by first time director Liao Jiekai that displayed great sensitivity and promise for the future.“

With this, Jiekai took home the Special Jury Prize, also known as the JB Bank Award. We catch up with Jiekai hot on his recent lucky streak of successful screenings to get a closer look behind the production.


A young artist goes back to Singapore from New York. She returns home, to old friends and familiar places. Not everything fits in. Memories and friendships are like roots but also like mysteries, and like such, they’re inexact, slippery, at times revealing, at times mere detours. Two teenage boys and a girl, all in their school uniforms, walk near a train track around an area of abundant vegetation; their gait is an exploratory one, charged with fears, amazements and new things (yes, there’s echoes of Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me) One of them gets lost. In that loss, and in the memories of a grown woman, there’s a sense of unease, a search, and the chance of meeting with the past and the people from it. A film of derivations with a subtle and singular sensibility, Liao Jiekai’s opera prima leads us to discuss the always hard to accomplish –even to mention– idea of cinema as poetry, which in this case is made of soft connections, juxtapositions, rhymes, and bars, that seem as free as necessary.

Taken from:

How did the idea for Red Dragonflies originate?

The project began with a discovery of a home-video tape, which documented a hike through an abandoned railway track back in my high school days. The handheld footage that was collectively recorded by different people was an exciting find for me. More than just mere personal memories, the video reveals an intertwined relationship between the place, the people and the time: there is something displaced yet strangely coherent about a group of 17-year-olds dressed in red and white T-shirts and black track pants, walking through an overgrown railway in the early months of 2002. I conceived the film from personal memories of growing up and sentiments about a point in life where one starts to rethink childhood dreams, the purpose of work, and the pursuit of happiness.

There is something very spontaneous about the content that I saw in the trailer. How much of the story was script? how much was improvisation?

I developed a screenplay for the film, but I really dislike the dialogue I wrote. I removed the dialogue and pretty much returned the screenplay into a treatment format – which is what I used for the shooting. On the set, I would describe the contents of the conversation/dialogue to the cast and they would then articulate it in their own ways. Often, I also invited them to integrate their personal experiences and thoughts into the dialogue; it was an intimate work process.

BAFICI calls it cinematic poetry in way. I can see from the trailer that shots while being aesthetically strong, evoked deeper thoughts as well. Could you share more about the shooting process? The approach you took to create what BAFICI described.

I think that much of the poetry is generated not during the shooting, but during the editing process when shots were string together. It is not about a singular shot, but also what comes before and after that creates a cinematic experience which transcend time and space (there are exceptions of course). One of these moments is established during a series of shots of rain.

The protagonist sat on a makeshift seesaw at the railway tracks, contemplating.
Rain falls on the leaves.
Rain falls on water puddle; camera pans and we see a dark tunnel.
Raining in HDB estate carpark, the protagonist boards a taxi with her luggage.
An anonymous man stares at a stream of light coming through his room window, and leads into the kitchen of his apartment. It is raining outside.

While these shots may not make sense as individual shots, their emotional relationship is established during the edit, and I think they built up to an intangible, quietly contemplative feeling.

The locations constituted an important component of the visual aesthetics. I guess space is one of the things you are exploring in yr film. Can you share about yr experience in location sourcing and choice?

As the actual abandoned railway tracks formed an integral part of the narrative, much of the locations were already there for us to use. Some of the interesting locations include Raffles Museum of Biodiversity, which I chanced upon after I saw some photographs of my students doing sketching there (I teach in SOTA). I immediately found connections between the place and the protagonist of the film, and decided to write a scene there. Other locations include a former Christian cemetery near Potong Pasir, now turned into a park after the graves were exhumed few years back. The decision to shoot in that location was also spontaneous – I always drove past it, and saw some interesting light, images and compositions. I decided to script in a scene after.

How was the film funded? My guess is at its script level, it might have been difficult to find many sponsors?

We received a script development grant from the Singapore Film Commission and that is pretty much the only real capital we have aside from my own savings and support from my family – which is a really petite amount. We were able to make it with many kind sponsors for location and wardrobe (including Singapore Flyer, the POST MUSEUM, and MUJI), and also a generous postproduction sponsorship from Black Magic Design to complete the film. Much of our cast and crew were also working pro-rated or purely for a favor. I owe everything to these kind people.

How long was the shoot. The locations seemed difficult.

The shoot was 22 days. Surprisingly we only spent 5 days at the toughest location – the railway tracks where we were exposed to elements of sun, wind, rain and bugs. It is also a regret that I only spent 5 days there, if I can do it again, I will spent 2weeks at the railway tracks because it is such an interesting location with endless potential and possibilities.

What were some of the greatest challenges you met in production?

In one of the scenes, I needed rain in the forest, which we did not manage to get during the shoot. During the editing process, I find myself missing these cutaway shots. For five days after, I camped out in the forest for around 6 hours each day with my video camera, tripod and lenses, determined to get the shot. It rained on the 4th day, but it was evening and the footage appeared too dark. On the 5th day, it finally rained in the afternoon. It was an arduous process of camping out and waiting for just two shots.

What were some of the best moments captured during the shoot that you are very satisfied about?

We managed to get shots of real Red Dragonflies, which wasn’t planned for in the script. When we came to the railway tracks for the shoot, we found the trail to be scattered with Red Dragonflies everywhere, and of course there is no way we are going to not get a shot of it. The crew can testify to the craziness involve in trying to catch dragonflies with bare hands, caps and pails – we did not catch any that day. We returned with nets the next day and my producer, Lyn, managed to catch a few, and we got our shot.

One of the best moments in the film, and one of my favourite scenes, takes place in a Pasar Malam, where the three protagonists are eating tea eggs and chatting about school and life. I think we really captured the ambience and atmosphere of what seems like a relic of the 20th century amidst the increasing number of malls and shopping centers in neighbourhoods.

What were some of the contraints you faced in making the film and how different would the film be if there were no such constraints, e.g. budget, location permissions, cast etc?

I wished I had shot the film on film – as in celluloid. We planned for Super16mm, but never had the budget to shoot it. I love the texture of the film grains and how it reacts to sunlight in particular, and thought how beautiful the railway shots could have been if it is captured on celluloid. I am never a believer when people tell me film is dead – video can never replicate its texture and color.

But the film would have turned out very different too, because we used video, we were fully able to exploit its capabilities – long takes and no constraints on shooting ratio. It also aided the improvisational and spontaneous style of shooting I employed where we just rolled the camera for most of the time, sometimes without the cast even realizing it. We got a lot of interesting footage as a result, but it also made the editing process somewhat like searching for needles in a haystack.

Are you working on something else now? Can you share a bit on it?

My next project is a period, historical film based on the life of a family through the 60s, 70s and 80s in Singapore. I am interested in exploring alternative representations of history, from the Independence of a nation to the introduction of English as a first language in schools, and relocation of Kampongs to HDBs, how political decisions filter down into the tiny details in the lives of Singaporean families in changing times.

Find out more about RED DRAGONFLIES on their website

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