Production Talk - 'Hello Goodbye' by Tay Li Cheng


Wen is a housewife disenchanted with her marriage. Taking on a job as a chambermaid, she seeks to find the human connection she so desires. When a new guest Bryan checks into the hotel, he brings with him the baggage of his recent divorce. Slowly, a bond begins to form between the two characters as they take turns to inhabit Bryan's hotel room -- Bryan dealing with the loss at night by watching his own motivational videos, and Wen finding out more about Bryan as she cleans up after him in the day. An exchange of notes sparks off a mutual attraction, leading to a moral dilemma as their relationship threatens Wen's marriage.

What is your inspiration behind 'Hello Goodbye'? It seems a little surreal that the woman would be taking up that in our context.

The idea came from my stay in a Vancouver hotel while traveling. Every day, the chambermaid would leave a card with her name on the vanity. This struck me as odd, and I could only surmise it allowed guests to leave a tip for the right person. At the same time, this name added a personality to the otherwise nameless room cleaning service. A series of what-ifs began to surface; what if I met the chambermaid with that nametag in the corridor? What if something went missing from my room? Would I be able to trace it down to the named chambermaid?

Soon, a story about exchanges in the hotel room started forming in my head. Add that on to my interest in the deterioration of interpersonal relationships and effective communication due to the use of technology in our society today, you get ‘Hello, Goodbye’.

The premise of the female character has been exaggerated. Her longing for the human connection (which she is unable to receive in her marriage) leads her to look for a job dealing with people. Yet there is a shy side to her character which prevents her from directly interacting with the hotel guests. The domestic nature of the job was my externalization of the role she plays in the marriage (docile, always enduring).

The film's got traces of some foreign/Hollywood films I have watched. Are there any influences in this film?

Definitely. I was heavily influenced by films like Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003), In The Mood For Love (Wong Kar Wai, 2000), Last Life In The Universe (Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2003) and the Italian film The Consequences of Love (Paolo Sorrentino, 2004). The common thread running through these films is the anomie of the human spirit.

In fact, I secretly wished for my film to be a homage and side-story of the unexplained interaction between the chambermaid and the hotel guest in The Consequences of Love, which was never developed in that film. My initial development of the characters actually referenced the film quite a bit, but my story took on a whole new dimension of its own later on in the development process, thanks to my co-writer Kun Lei. We initially planned for four characters but very quickly narrowed it down to two key players, resulting in a tighter plot. We also referenced Lost in Translation and Last Life in The Universe for building up the tension between the two characters, keeping a strong amount of attraction but not crossing the line into intimacy.

My director of photography, Jonathan, was also heavily influenced by the camerawork in Tony Takitani (Jun Ichikawa, 2004), where the wide shots enhanced the loneliness of the protagonist. Space was a key element in the framing of the shots in order to externalize the emotions of the characters without much dialogue. Influenced by works of Taiwanese directors like Tsai Ming-Liang and Hou Hsiao-Hsein, Jonathan seeked to sculpt the locations into a third character.

Who are your favourite directors? What are your favourite genres?

I have no favourites at this point in time. I believe each director has his or her own style that deserves a look into. But I do like a good, clever movie with a solid storyline and acute camerawork that serves the story. That being said, my current occupation is with music videos since they are a fairly duration-sensitive medium that relies on a poignant story told within a very short span of time, running either parallel to or subverting the lyrics of the song -- Visual storytelling at its finest.

Take us through some of the challenges in making this film

It was my first time directing and coordinating a production with this much production value. Besides handling the stress of managing a crew of 12-15, this was my first time working with two professional actors who each brought with them their own styles and habits. That being said it was a incredibly enriching and humbling experience working with all the professionals on set.

Finding the initial budget was also a problem, since we had decided to shoot on 16mm film. We also had to secure the locations for the shoot like the hotel rooms and corridors. The original shoot had to be postponed from December to January to accommodate for the peak tourist season, where the hotel loaning us the locations would be heavily packed with guests.

After some technical problems with the camera midway through the shoot, we had to organize a reshoot. With limited time and budget on our hands, we had to exercise prudence and economy with the pick-ups, besides coordinating the (by then horribly packed) schedules of cast, crew and locations.

Any interesting things happened during the shoot?

We realized after the initial reconnaissance trips that there was never going to be a hotel room that fit the bill (and offer us enough space to execute the long shots we required). After discussion with the producer, director of photographer, and production designer, we came up with a plan to build a whole hotel room in our school’s sound stage, complete with a mobile fourth wall.

The fun part was getting the hotel furniture for the set in order to maintain continuity between the corridor and the interior d├ęcor. We scouted around Singapore looking for places which sold second-hand hotel furniture, trying to find the exact look (and period pieces) reminiscent of a 80’s hotel in Singapore. Arguments about how the phone and guestbook should look, how the teacups and hot water dispensers should be styled came about, but in the end they were hardly featured. I guess that spoke a lot about the dedication of our crew in caring for details and making it picture-perfect.

We also took pains to modify some of the furniture we found and bought to give them extra realism and credibility. Goodness knows how long the crew spent polishing the brass handles on the wardrobes and bedside tables in order to give them that extra shine, after the initial base coat of paint and lacquer we gave the furniture. It really felt like we were preparing for an IKEA product shoot! I am really glad the hotel room turned out fabulous in the film, our hard work really paid off.

Read more about the film here
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