LUNCHBOX 8 - Wee Li Lin

Li Lin at the 2nd Singapore Short Film Awards with her friends and collaborators

Sunday, 3rd April, 8pm
Ewart Park
The grin says it all, not forgetting the unmistakble hug when she sees you. That's Li Lin, for sure. No air of mystery, no trying to intellectualise things. So I had no doubts this LUNCHBOX was going to be a bare and earnest one. We've had some others who preferred not to delve into personal matters. But Li Lin was game. And of course, the lovely BBQ that her family offered to me and Darren helped!

Jeremy (J): I want to know a bit more about who inspired you? When did you decide you want to be a filmmaker?
Wee (W): I first took an experimental film class when I was in Brown, in second semester Somophore year.
J: What did you study?
W: I was doing visual arts. More specifically, my major was arts semiotics. Don’t ask me what it is, it was such a long time ago! I always knew I wanted to do something creative and I was doing a few things, painting, photography and creative writing as well. I had been doing visual arts from secondary school, JC, all the way through. I knew I enjoyed creating images and telling stories through images. When I took that experimental film class in Brown, it kind of hit me very hard that this was something that encompassed all my interests because it involved telling a visual story and had writing…. I was also a closeted actress, so I enjoyed creating characters. I am very grateful that I am able to make films, if not, I’ll be quite schizophrenic or have multiple personality disorder. There is always this desire to live vicariously through other characters. So to cut a long story short, I really enjoyed my experimental film class but I realized that I wanted to go into narrative filmmaking, but not so much experimental film or avant-garde as Brown was touting. It was not really for me. Non-linear, experimental, etc they were not really my interest.

And at that time, I was studying a lot of American independent films for all my theory classes, so I was watching a lot of Spike Lee films, a lot of Atom Egoyan, all the Canadian and the American indie filmmakers, like the guy who did night on earth and coffee and cigarettes…. (jogs her memory) ah, Jim Jarmusch, I watched a lot of Jim Jarmusch shows, all his early films and I really liked the style of the indie American filmmakers. So I decided to spend a semester at NYU and I did this program called Sight and Sound, which was like an immersion programme into filmmaking and screenwriting. It was really my directing professor and my screenwriting professor at Tisch New York that really encouraged and gave me faith to believe in myself that I actually could try my hand at filmmaking. I really really enjoyed the classes there. I made 6 short films when I was there. All MOS - silent films. It was exhilarating and fun but the learning curve was very steep. It was intense but I just loved it. I wish I could go back in time and live those days all over again (laughs) But it was really through this baptism of fire that I realized that I loved doing this.

Funnily enough, my screenwriting professor then, his name was Charlie Hendrick was the student of my current professor now. So that was years ago (I was 20) and now I am 37 and I have gone back to school and I have a professor who’s taught my ex-professor. Charlie's class was an introduction to screenwriting and will remain as one of the pillars of my filmmaking career. So when I graduated from Brown, I really wanted to go back and do my masters in screenwriting and study more about the craft.

J: What are you studying currently?

W: I have just completed my Masters in screenwriting. I had actually wanted to do the course in my 20s but you know you start work, making short films and you just get caught up in everything. So I am so grateful to have the opportunity now to go back to school, in particular Tisch, now in my 30s. It was a longtime dream fulfilled.

J: You fell in love with films, but did you see a career in it? How was the film scene like in Singapore when you graduated? Did you picture that you could be a full-time filmmaker or director?

W: I think when you are young, you are very idealistic, so of course, I really wanted to. At that same time, I knew that I didn’t have a proper film background. So I needed to learn more about production so I joined Mediacorp for 2 years. I was an assistant producer, doing all the dirty work, which I actually kind of enjoyed to some extent. It was pretty fun and I met some cool people who are still my friends today. Then I came out to freelance and also work for other directors and producers. At the same time, I also made my own short films. And I really have to thank Dave Chua for this because Dave was one of the first few people that I met when I graduated from Brown. He was a friend of a very good friend. He was making a short film then and asked if I could help. So I helped and it was through the whole process of working with Dave and him telling me about the Singapore International Film Festival and asking me to give a shot in making my own short film that I picked up the camera. Dave in fact ended up helping me on my film as well. My very first short film was called Norman on the Air which eventually won at SIFF. And it kind of started my short film career. I really had no expectations when I made that short film.

J: Was that your first so-called break?

W: I guess it was my first introduction to the industry. Nobody knew who I was. I was just this girl who came back from Brown and I was like floating all over the place and doing work here and there, and then I made this short film and I used non-actors, shot at my uncle’s house, used my dad’s friend and a friend of my cousin’s to play the lead and I eventually became very good friends with him – the guy who played Norman (his name is Harold) and he was the one who introduced me to Charles, my husband. So I think that film is very important in a lot of ways!

J: What was Charles doing at that time?

W: Charles was a professional sailor. He was a national sailor for Singapore. He’s been sailing for many years.

J: Wow, the migration from sailing to art…
W: He’s always enjoyed art. He was in arts school in St Martins when he was still sailing. Yeah, he’s kind of like a freak of nature because he both a visual artist and a jock! When I met him, he was sailing but also just about to go into art school….. He really wanted to know who was this person who casted his friend Harold in a film!

J: What were the things you feared or stumbled you most between the time you started making short films and your first feature film?

W: Definitely it was the money. I was afraid a lot of money would be spent and in the end that fear came true! Because all my short films were done with tiny budgets. You know these days short film seem to be made with quite a lot of money, people spending 30, 40, sometimes even 50k on a short film. My short films were made with 2,3,6k. I think the most expensive short film I made was Holiday (with Adrian Pang) and that was under 20k and had 10k in funding. so there was alot of fear in how to raise the money for Gone Shopping. We eventually got the Singapore Tourism Board to give us some money, but a large portion of it was self-funded, which I won’t be able to do again! It was a once-in-a-lifetime event. Now I have to raise money for my other films through other means and the personal investment has to be nil or very small. Aside from monetary fears there was also fear of whether I could sustain a story for so long and it's still something I grapple with but feel more confident after more experience and of course education.

J: One of the things that really amazes me about you and why I wanted to interview you is your resilience. Because I heard about how challenging Gone Shopping was and yet, you bounced you back!

W: I am on drugs (laughs)

J: (laughs) You have always this bubbly disposition that the other filmmakers don’t have. The New Paper said you were friendly unlike the other filmmakers who always like to put on this mysterious air.
W: I don’t think I'm smart enough to be mysterious. When you want to make films, you have to come from a very honest space. Because if you don’t, it will reflect on your work. You also would not be able to draw from yourself. I think I'm very fortunate to have my family. I don't have to really worry about supporting my family, I just worry about supporting myself. I still live with my family. And my folks never made me feel bad that they had to loan me the money for my first film. My dad says, he knows its an investment that he knows one day would pay off! (laughs) My mum says ‘You took an advance on your inheritance’. So when I'm older, I can say there is no more safety net, you guys will have to come and visit me in an old folks home and bring me milo and biscuits. But the truth is my folks are extremely supportive. Not to mention Charles who is very supportive as well. They are all very encouraging and even give fun suggestions, like suggesting their friends to act and locations and loaning me props. For Charles he sacrificed himself to be my art director on Forever and did a splendid job. I feel very lucky to have my folks and my husband.

Genuine Holga version of the same shot - courtesy of Darren Ong

J: It’s your family business right?

W: It’s my dad’s business. My mum used to work in banking but later quit her job to help him. My dad always tells me the hardest business in the world is his business – which is the tyre business. I think that determination and that ‘never-say-die’ streak is in me because of my parents, but I can’t even say I am as hardworking as them. They are far more resilient and they didn’t have what I have now. They came from humble homes and my dad despite being a uni-grad had to drive a lorry at night and work in the family business in the day and my mum worked at a bank the minute she stepped out of University of Singapore. I remember my mum said they were so broke when they married, they had to take discarded furniture to dress their little apartment. (laughs) My sis and I lived with my grandparents and were raised by them till I was 5 (my sis was 7).

No wonder the name Bobbing Buoy Films! Found this wall full of photos of buoys in Li Lin's home.
J: How long were you working on Gone Shopping for?

W: Gone Shopping was quite long. I spent quite some time on the script before we shot it. It was a multi-narrative and tough to tackle. And it was my first screenplay. And I was also the co-producer and as a first time feature director wanted to make sure everything was in order and perfect. It was after I made Gone Shopping that I decided that I wanted to go back to school and learn more. After my first film, I was really at a crossroad – my producer and I broke up and the film didn’t make money, and there were some not-so-good reviews. Because it was my first film, and I cared so much about the film, I took everything very personally and I retreated into a shell, didn’t know what to do. It felt almost like an anti-climax. Now looking back, I feel very proud of the film. I can look back and say if it was a real turning point in my life. At that point, there were some options apparent to me, I did think about giving up, go take a regular job and give up this whole notion of being a feature filmmaker because it really drains you emotionally, physically and financially. But I decided to press on, I got a MDA scholarship to attend Tisch Asia and then the MDA New Feature Film Fund came along and that helped fund a large portion of my second film. On hindsight, we could have made Gone Shopping with a lot less money but it was our first film, and we were idealistic, so we wanted to put all our guns into it. Having said that, when I look back at the film now, all I can feel is love for it. I am proud to say Gone Shopping was my first film.

You mentioned after Gone Shopping, you were in search of mentorship which you found in Tisch. How has that changed you?

W: These past years at Tisch led me to some really wonderful teachers and classmates and best of all to my thesis professor, Mark, whom I met in my second year at Tisch and who was Charlie, my first landmark teacher's teacher. Mark is a force of nature and knowledge. He is now a dear friend and will be my mentor for life. Mark really brought out the best in me and guided me through my thesis script “Singapore Cowboy” and it’s the best work I’ve done so far. Being at Tisch has been a healing and invigorating time that will carry me through the rest of my creative journey.

Somewhere among this pile of notes were the ideas for 'Forever' and 'Gone Shoppinng'
I have changed; I have much more appetite for constructive critiques but much less tolerance for negative reinforcement. I used to be much more nomadic and reclusive, but now I want to build a creative posse and grow with these people. I have more faith in myself and more humility about learning. I feel very lucky to have had the chance to be at Tisch.

Li Lin thanking literally everyone at the Singapore Short Film Awards 2011 where she received the honorary award

J: And was 'Forever' born out of that phase of being 'mentored'?

W: Actually the story for FOREVER was written before I entered Tisch. I did get some feedback from a teacher or two but as I had a co-writer/producer, Silvia, it was considered external work so I worked on new stories for school. After my first two semesters, I took a year off to make the film and after that I returned to complete my last two semesters, which turned out to be the best thing ever, as I got to meet Mark and my new classmates who are among the most talented, hardworking and inquisitive people I have ever come across. I am working with two of them now on screenplays and it’s like an extension of school, we just have to keep to our own datelines!

Li Lin at the Malaysian premiere of Forever

J: What were the things you were determined to do differently from Gone Shopping?

W: I loved making Gone shopping for the most part but making Forever was actually tougher, having said that, I’m also proud of my second film. There is never an ideal situation to make a film especially if you’re doing it relatively independently and low budget and with a new team, so the only thing I can do is to kick my own bad habits and progress to become a more matured and sophisticated filmmaker who can tell better stories and gain more audience.

Li Lin and curator Yuni Hadi at SINdie's Mise En SIN poster exhibition
J: I notice both yr films have that candy-coloured ambience but with dark twists here and there. If that a close reflection of your nature?

W: I’m afraid so.

J: Will you ever make a dark film? Or horror?

W: I would love to. I was so obsessed with horror films and horror paraphernalia when I was growing up my mum was rather concerned. But being cowardly I locked them all up during 7th month at my grandmother’s behest. My faves as a kid were “Salem’s Lot” and “An American Werewolf in London” and as I got older “Lost Boys” and “The Ring”. The wonderful thing about horror films is you always seem to remember where you saw it, who you were with and how you reacted at which point and etc, well at least for me! Like I watched the original “The Ring” at Lido I with my best friend Sharon and my husband (then boyfriend) Charles was waiting for us at a seat in row H. Sharon and I were late and we held hands walking up the aisle in the darkness, a scary scene had audiences screaming and we screamed in shock too and people laughed at us and at that moment embarrassment overtook fear.

And when Sadako climbed out of the TV at the end of the film, Charles was so scared he kept completely silent amidst all the screaming in the audience and was pretty much comatose of the rest of the month (he says year) as he relived that terrifying image in his mind.

I’m working on a horror script with one of my schoolmates, it’s based on a short play about Huli jings (female fox spirits) I wrote in Tisch, we’re still at the story breaking stage but we are excited about it and are just having fun.

Hopefully we can realize it into a film in the future.

Li Lin 'sardined' among her school mates at Tisch, make you want to go back to school doesn't it?

J: Who are your greatest influences in film?

W: Notably and in no order - Ridley Scott, Woody Allen, Peter Weir, John Hughes, Todd Haynes, Ann Hui, the Hui Brothers, Baz Luhrmann, Lee Ang, Eric Khoo, James Ivory, Joel Schumacher, Sofia Coppola, Royston Tan and Oliver Stone.

Finally, this Saturday (16 July at the Arts House), meet Li Lin, co-writer and producer Silvia Wong and actress Joanna Dong as they share the making of the film Forever. They are also there to launch the Forever DVD Collector’s Edition, which is only available at the pre-launch event or by pre-order through This limited edition includes a four-frame 35mm film strip from the original film. While stocks last. More event details here.

Also, to share a piece of good news, Joanna Dong, the lead actress of Wee Li Lin-directed feature film FOREVER, was given a Star Hunter award at this year’s Shanghai International Film Festival. A total of 10 of the most promising young actors in Asia are honoured at the inaugural edition of the Star Hunter award. Congratulations!
Previous Post Next Post

Contact Form