LUNCHBOX 7 - Sun Koh

Sunday 21 Nov, 2 pm
Yangtze Cinema, Pearl Centre

Sun readily agreed to meeting me at Yangtze Cinema for this LUNCHBOX conversation, which was no surprise to me given her sense of adventure. So amidst a dozen uncles, mouldy walls and even some glitter from the neon rays of the KTV liunge next door, we settled ourselves down like the uncles did.

Apparently, the neon-lit KTV lounge nearby houses some church activity on a Sunday afternoon, here are some attendees chatting before the session

Jeremy (J): So you've been a bit in and out of town in the last few months, we didn't really see you around, what have you been up to?
Sun (S): I have been developing my feature. It's called A Million Monkeys. It's a murder mystery set in the city of Kuala Lumpur. So I have been there to look-see, look-see la.
J: You will be shooting there right?
S: I think it is inevitable because the city is also a character so it will be difficult not to shoot there.
J: Will you be working with Malaysian crew?
S: I think likely but I am in a very preliminary stage of the production. I would not say I have started pre-pro, perhaps I have casually started pre-pro. But most of the time was spent developing the story to know what is believable there and probable there. (pause) KL is a city of incredible happenings, so it's been interesting.
J: I know you probably would not want to share too much about the story but what do you hope to portray or what kind of issues do you hope to show?
S: Well.....The film basically deals with people living in a metropolis.... how distracted we are.... and how that distraction becomes ourselves and our real lives disappear...and we might die distracted. I guess you can set this in any city, really. So, when I brought KL into the picture as a character, basically you adapted the idea to this city. In many ways, being set in KL makes it more tragic. The landscape is a lot more varied than what we have here. So actually, it's better. So you will get a glimpse of sections of KL.

Sun under the neon lights of Yangtze Cinema

J: Here is a cliche question.... you recently won the Young Artist Award... how do you feel about winning it?
S: I feel good. I mean it is good to be recognised back home.
J: Do you know why they selected you?
S: Well, I don't know exactly why but I know Tan Pin Pin nominated me. (pause) I also know that someone on the panel was really passionate about my work. That might have helped..... and er.... I am the only female, again (laughs). So you know are hard.... hard to find female artists!
J: Do you think it is possibly also because many people see you as someone who pushes boundaries?
S: (laughs) Haha! ...Sorry to be so self-deprecating, but that might be it la. (pause) But at the same time, I am not sure if I am pushing too much boundaries. (pause) So, it is surprising that they picked if you are looking at this issue, cos there are always safer candidates right?
J: Do you think they also go for safe bets?
S: I really don't know. (pause) But then if you look at the past winners, Lee Wen won it with his yellow man work.... you know he paints himself right? (pause) Well, one the other hand, the artist who cut his hair, is it Joseph Ng.
J: Yes.
S: Yup, the guy who cut his pubic hair in public, he didn't win anything. So it is difficult to tell where the 'line' is. (pause) Of course, I am very far from wanting to cut my pubic hair in public! (laughs) I have no desire to do that but I do question the status quo quite a lot. But if Boo Junfeng can get it, I think it makes perfect sense. (pause) I mean, his films are 'worse', although they are more restrained.... but if you really take it apart, it says a lot more.
J: When you started filmmaking, you made a film that now stands apart from your subsequent films... so is the real Sun Koh more like your subsequent films?

Take a closer look, it's the real Sun Koh

S: Actually, I think it was pretty accurate. The first film was pretty much like that. I was pretty innocent (laughs), but you see, there is a big gap between the first film and the second indie film. I did a lot of television during that gap. I did a whole range of genres from romantic comedy to pop-idol road movie.
J: Which pop-idol movie did you do?
S: I did something called running with scissors. It stars Jen, the Malaysian pop idol host and Stella Ng who was a little starlet and we also has someone called Jones Ong, who is very up-and-coming in Taiwan now. Erm, I also did other genres like Eric Khoo's 7th month anthology - that was horror. Basically I just tried everything for the sake of practising my craft. I even had Kym Ng in it and I had to include standard lines like 这是报应! (This is retribution!) (laughs)
J: Yeah, they do have a few standard lines!
S: Yes, in TV drama.
J: Anyway, what changed along the way through the year?
S: Well, its all me really. Even in the horror one, i put in bits of my personal experience in it. And in the romantic comedy, there was lots of me again, the irreverence and all. (pause) One interesting piece I did was an S and M one. TV12 (Arts Central) actually didn't know it was S and M.
J: Maybe it was subtle?
S: It wasn't subtle. It was called 'Machine' and it was adapted from Tan Tarn How's play of the same name and it was about abuse in a relationship - physical, emotional and mental. We acted it out, you know, the woman was being slapped around and strangled and she came back for more. (pause) So it seemed to 'escape' them... or maybe it was ok, I don't know. In any case, I don't really think very much about censorship unless my producer says 'hey, what are you doooooing?'. I am a responsible person.
J: You really stepped up the 'pushing boundaries' bit with Lucky 7.
S: Actually Lucky 7 was more the work of my collaborators. The boundaries bit... well .... I did Bedroom Dancing and it was erotic and all but if you look at my segment in Lucky 7, it was very PG. So I would say the stepping out of the boundaries was the work of my collaborators.

Sun on the set of her recent project wearing a very different hat

J: Who are your favourite directors?

S: Luis Bunuel is my absolute favourite. Then in no order of preference... there's Claire Denis, Apichatpong Weeraseethakul, Han Yew Kwang (When Hainan Meets Teochew), David Lynch, Ann Hui, Hou Hsiao Hsien, Edward Yang, You Ji-Tae (he's the baddie in Old Boy. He made a short film called "Bike Boy" many years ago, which made a great impression), Fellini, Antonioni, Herzog, Fassbinder, (Mohsen and Samira) Makhmalbaf, Kiarostami, Sergei Parajanov, Tarkovsky, and... I think I forget a lot of directors but it's enough to give you an idea.

J: What are your favourite films of all time?

S: The films of Luis Bunuel, and those I mentioned above.

You've got a very calm and collected attitude, nothing seems to faze you, were there moments that really tested you?What was the most difficult moment for you in your journey in filmmaking?

The good thing is that i more or less forget about things after they happen, so i can't really recall specific moments that tested me. Filmmaking generally challenge me, and if it ceases to do so, I probably would just move on. The most difficult moment is always now, with whatever I'm doing, since I'm one who's not interested in repeating what I've done well before.

Calm and ready to take on life's surprises

J: If you are given S$10 million to spend on making a film, what would your film be like?

S: Can I cash that? I will use it for my future children's education! ok seriously, a science fiction, with floating spacecrafts and beautiful jungle scenes, and it'll be about life and death and everything in between and beyond. But then all this will remain fiction, till someone actually shows me the money.

J: Would you starve for the sake of art?

S: I'm non-violent, so no. Anyway the money that can buy you a meal can't pay for anything to make a film. So it'll be silly. If by starving you mean to give up the kind of lifestyle depicted in fashionable magazines... It never appealed to me anyway, so it means I won't miss anything. Those kinds of lifestyles in my opinion is a kind of prison, so it's better to steer clear of that.

On the high voltage set of 'Dirty Bitch'

J: A lot of new batches of filmmakers are coming out of school. Could there be too many filmmakers in the scene? And sometimes, many people also make pieces that they call films that are actually not films, more like videos or little expressions on video and it seems to crowd the scene. Do you think it will get overcrowded soon?
S: I think it's ok. I think those are valid forms of expression are well. Some of these people may or may not end up becoming filmmakers for life but I think it's perfectly ok for the layman to pick up a camera and shoot. I mean you are also using your phone to record this conversation and back then journalists only record conversations with those tape recorders.
J: Actually they still use those.
S: Oh yes, they still use that (pause) but you see it's just another form of expression, some do it professionally, some don't. Look, everybody writes blogs these days but how many people make a career out of it? I actually think it's good. Well, let's put the wannabes aside. There are people who genuinely want to document phases of their lives and aspects of society that we don't do. Even those people who document people going mad on the MRT (like the case of the woman spewing vulgarities); it's part of documentation. (pause) But perhaps on the issue of bread and butter, it does have an effect somewhat. I mean not just film, many things are overcrowded, just like the F & B business. And you can't say someone who opens a stall is not F & B. It is F & B.

Sun lending a different eye to the shot

J: But do you think there is enough space for the new graduates?
S: Probably not. Actually, I already see it happening. Many of them slide off into perhaps broadcast design, which is also part of the industry. I know many of them start off wanting to become directors.
J: I guess it also depends on what they are looking for right?
S: Yes. If you are a more auteur-like sort of person and love to tell stories, it will never be overcrowded. All the more you have to stand out with your vision. And competition is good and very healthy.
J: People say it's also the same everywhere else in the world - bigger ponds but more fishes.
S: Ya. It's true. (pause) Maybe 20 years ago, if you were a film director, there is this cloud of mysticism around you. They think you are special or something. Actually, we do rely a lot on the help from our collaborators to make the work.
J: I know what you are saying. When you tell people you are a filmmakers, they go wow ...
S: And then wait till they see what I really do for a living on a day to day basis!
We both laugh.

Riding the 'Dirty Bitch'

S: So there is no big deal. But I think the big deal might be if you could create work that resonates with people - that would be the big deal. (pause) And it would be the same big deal if you were a songwriter or if you created the iphone that records this interview. (pause) You know the richest man in Malaysia manufactures toilet paper?
J: Really?
S: He's the big deal! (pause) You will find your niche if you are really good at something. I mean maybe there are like 3 million other suppliers of toilet paper and they are probably not doing quite as well as him.
J: So other words, there is still hope.
S: You will always find your niche.

We proceeded to snap a few photos borrowing the very 'colourful' background but out came a tigeress of a KTV lounge owner who asked where we were from and wanted to chase us out for snapping pictures. Sun (below) was in middle of posing for my camera when the lady pounced on us and Sun, quick on her feet, fended off the lady's pressing questions in the picture.

Sun broke into the scene when her first short film won a Silver Hugo in 2002 at the Chicago International Film Festival, making her still the only Singaporean with that honour. Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese received the very same award for his debut short film. She then went on to direct TV documentaries, dramas and commercials. Her latest film "Dirty Bitch", she won Best Director as well as Best Film at the first Singapore Short Film Awards at the beginning on 2010.

Her first foray into feature films was with the Lucky Seven Project, which brought together 7 directors to direct an omnibus film. She is currently developing on a new feature film titled A Million Monkeys. Here is a link that gives a riveting description of the film's working synopsis.

'I wonder what's in store in the Year of the Rabbit?'
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