LUNCHBOX Series #9: Tzang Merwyn Tong

It was a Sunday afternoon at LaSalle College of the Arts, and Tzang Merwyn Tong – or Tzang as he prefers to be known – has joined us for an interview. Comfortably perched on the lush faux greenery in the campus foyer, the affable storyteller was both candid and beguiling in sharing his experience and alternative visions in his film direction.

Tzang may not exactly be the most prolific local filmmaker around. But he has established himself with the success of A Wicked Tale and V1K1, the former having gained a cult following from Germany to Canada. In 2011 he had also helmed the direction of the CATS Classified Ads flash mob on SMRT, which can be checked out on Youtube.

Yet exciting times lie ahead for the multi-hyphenate, currently a part-time lecturer at NTU's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information. He will soon add to his CV a theatre play and a full-length feature.

SINdie: Thanks for agreeing to this interview! Just to let our readers know your background a little bit better — how did you get into filmmaking and when did you discover your love for it?

Tzang: I think I got into filmmaking purely by chance. When I was much younger, I just loved to imagine and put ideas down on paper. It need not necessarily come in the form of film; I read a lot of comics, but I also wrote and drew my own stories. Towards the end of my diploma course [Tzang is an alumnus of Ngee Ann Polytechnic Mass Communications, before pursuing a degree at Australia’s Curtin University] I had this idea to create something.

I told a few friends, we rented the school’s camera and… We just shot it. There was just the three of us and we didn’t even know what a producer does (laughs). I didn’t have that many friends. I was socially awkward and didn’t have that many friends to creatively bounce ideas off. Among the three of us , there was a half-Mexican girl, a Malay guy and me, I’m Chinese. So we always call ourselves the 3Ms – Mexican, Mat and Munjen team. So we decided, OK, let’s do something.

I called some other friends, she called her church friends, he called his friends and we had a meeting. We all sat in a circle, and we said: “We want to make a movie. We don’t know how to make a movie but we’re going to make a movie.” I sat them down and told them the whole story, which was written in script but I doubt they wanted to read the script.

The small group got excited and each person called their own friends. Before I knew it I had 30 people on set, everybody contributing their own wardrobe, props and all. We rented the school’s equipment, not quite properly. We asked the lecturer, who said he’ll think about it. And I told the equipment rental guy that the lecturer has endorsed our project. It was very crazy but we did it, and we shot it.

And that was my introduction to film, to my passion. I’ve always loved movies but I’ve never known that I would be making it. But through film I turned from being a socially awkward person to someone who managed to get things done with people. That film, e’TZAINTES, taught me a lot. And from there something got ignited, so I continued pursuing stuff like that.

Shooting began in 1999 on this Asian format called the Silver VHS. We only finished it in 2003. That was because I did not know how to make a film and was figuring things out along the way. We filmed for three weeks but only in 2001 did we have a first cut. We then added our own music and premiered it in January 2003. It’s really a labour of passion.

SINdie: Your difficulties back then were…

Tzang: At first it was starting out. It was not knowing anything. That makes us a little brave, but also a little stupid because we do not know what we cannot do or what is impossible to do. We just felt everything can be done. This ignorance made us a little delusional. But this delusion is the quality that actually got me quite — not knowing what really is impossible has driven me to constantly seek out things that are quite hard to do but I want to do. Not because of any demand or trend out there, but more because of the excitement and the challenge.

SINdie: Indeed, I mean, with A Wicked Tale. How do you feel about it being labeled the most f@%#-ed up Singapore film ever made?

Tzang: Philip Cheah [the former curator of the Singapore International Film Festival] said it, and he has his own brand of humour. I appreciate his kind of sense of humour, and you know what, I think I loved it. After he said it, I looked at him and said ‘wow’ and he said: “Yeah, rock and roll!”

SINdie: So you feel honoured.

Tzang: Coming from Philip, definitely. I know the context, what he was trying to say when he said it is the most f@%#-ed up film ever made. It’s quite cool. I did not intend for it to be a f@%#-ed up film, but one that explored the extremities of the human psyche. And I am happy people reacted to it. In many ways, in many countries, the best thing is seeing a creation of yours exist that was once a piece of imagination in my head.

SINdie: How did you come up with A Wicked Tale? Did you identify with some of the elements?

Tzang: I had an affinity with the Little Red Riding Hood story itself. When I was growing up I didn’t know there are darker versions of the story, for example the other Grimm Brothers version or the other French version that was way darker than the fairy tale version you read.

But even when I was reading the fairy tale, the glossed-up, nice, candy-coated one, I felt there was something very, very dark inside the fairy tale. It is the same with Sleeping Beauty, Jack and the Beanstalk, Beauty and the Beast. These are the stories which have so many subtext about human psychology that may be very difficult or wrong to put into words. So they put it into a story.

SINdie: And they mask it with a happy ending?

Tzang: Yeah – all those endings are very weird. Even the children’s version.

SINdie: While you were reading the tales you were growing up… You could see all this subtext even from a young age?

Tzang: Of course I didn’t have the words to put it into but I felt something was very wrong. Why is she doing this? Doesn’t she know it is not the grandma in her bed? It was somebody so hairy on the bed asking her to disrobe and step into the bed. And obviously, her voice. How dark can the room be with the voice? Was she really that stupid? Or was she really palying a game?
Look at this in real life. Is the game that little girls play when they start discovering they have a power over people who appear to be interested in them? It is a growing up thing, you know. Like the mindset of a little girl going through puberty. Suddenly I am a pretty attractive woman, so what can I do with this newfound power?

SINdie: Did you share these thoughts with anybody? Or were they internalised?

Tzang: You see, I was socially awkward. These are the kinds of things you don’t share, else people think you are weirder (laughs). You don’t say out everything that you think.

Society has taught me not to do that. So I expressed it through art, which somehow gave me the license to say things without actually saying it. I think what art has done for the human psyche and the human race is truly wonderful.

SINdie: Have you shared your drawings and stories with the world? Or did all those accumulate into experience you brought into your films?

Tzang: I’ve been asked this question before, but those drawings and stories are very personal. They are mine. They are the worlds that I have been to and from; maybe you can say that I have really been learning from them. But for me it was more of a space to go into. That space has helped me a lot personally and artistically. It is not that I am able to write technically or with a specific structure. It’s more of a streams-of-consciousness type of writing, which I am still doing now.

It helps me put into stories or drawings what is going on in my mind. Sometimes it is words with pictures, or pictures with words. Sometimes it is diagrams – anything. I don’t know if most people are able to understand it, but maybe only I can make sense of these things I draw.

SINdie: Where do you find your inspirations for all these? Are they all rooted in fairy tales?

Tzang: My inspirations change with time and age. It is as much in all these mediums that my inspiration lie, not just in film. My inspirations also come from comics, movies, music, paintings, digital art, graphic art. Even typography. It could even be done by somebody online whom I haven’t met. It need not even be a famous person or artist. If something has the ability to draw me in and I can see there is something more to it than just “a chair is a chair”, I can see a story and meanings and metaphysical aspects of it. These are my inspirations.

SINdie: So anything that may well seem random to an everyday person can resonate with you?

Tzang: Yes, really. They can appear anywhere and everywhere, not just in notable works.

SINdie: Any particular examples you feel comfortable sharing?

Tzang: When I was growing up, I loved bad movies. Like terrible movies.

There was this film called “Cry-Baby” (1990) with Johnny Depp before he did “Edward Scissorhands” (1990). Many years later as I became a film critic and a film lover and someone who studied film, I realised the film was done by a trashy director, John Waters, who is known for trashy movies. But this does not legitimise it in any way; at the time when I watched it I didn’t know. I just found it an incredibly funny, bad movie that hardly anyone knew about. I didn’t even know it was Johnny Depp but I felt it was freaking cool.

Another one in the “so bad it’s good” category is “Shake, Rattle and Rock”! (1994) which stars Renée Zellweger before she was Renée Zellweger. It was a really fun rock-and-roll movie set in the 1950s about kids who want to fight or debate for the right to rock and roll.

To me, though, these are very charming movies that I get a lot of satisfaction from and I feel something for. I dare say these are my inspirations alongside Kubrick and all the other greats.

SINdie: What different kinds of inspiration do you get from the greats as compared to the supposedly bad?

Tzang: There is no difference. Socially, in situations and parties, of course a lot of people like to have these names they can drop. But that is the only difference. When I was a younger filmmaker I got really frightened when people ask me who are my inspirations and who did I like. Maybe I was younger and I was still insecure, but I felt so worried that people might be going to judge me for my taste. But I’ve gotten past that.

Now even a Korean TV drama, or a single episode of Taiwanese ou xiang pian that I happen to chance upon while eating horfun at a coffee shop, and I watch that single episode, I can see some charm or beauty or genius into that. Oh but Channel 8 is still bad (laughs). The genius is not just a B-zombie movie, but can even be in a campy, cheesy ou xiang pian.

SINdie: How did Ngee Ann Poly’s Mass Comm help you become a better filmmaker?

Tzang: I think it was the environment. Back then I was still trying to find my calling and my area of specialisation. I loved design and was doing the school’s magazine. Being part of a team trained me to be a little entrepreneurial, to be part of a team that puts everything from start to finish and be responsible for the success or failure. Making decisions you have to be responsible for, really. That is helpful for a young mind who was just flying, floating and doing my own thing.

But all my real experience I had clocked when I was doing my own films, really. They taught me, in a deeper sense, how to be social (laughs). How to be entrepreneurial, how to communicate, how to sell ideas, how to present ideas. I have knocked on doors, approached bodies big and bodies small, institutions, corporations etc. All these have taught me more than any university or school can teach.

The hardship I faced as an independent filmmaker trying to make a feature film has taught me a lot in – long pause – the machinery, the commercial aspect of it in order for me to make works that are relevant to the industry. To be relevant doesn’t mean to sell out at the box office. Just relevant in a way I get to explore an angle to take my work out there such that it reaches more than just a small circle of people.

SINdie: What do you feel of the success A Wicked Tale has been generating abroad? Do you wish it can be translated back home?

Tzang: Oh yeah. But I am very impressed with A Wicked Tale. It has taken on a life of its own. I knew from the get-go, right from early on that it is a small film, a 45-minute film. A 45-minute film is not even supposed to be sold on DVDs or released commercially but it is (laughs). So that amazed me quite a lot. And (pause) I want to do more.

I hope for the audience to be there and for the world to see something different that can come from Singapore that is not predictable. We need that for the industry to grow.

SINdie: Did you watch the Hollywood version of Red Riding Hood? How do you think it compares with what you created?

Tzang: No comments (laughs heartily).

SINdie: But in a way you got there first —

Tzang: Not really; but I get a kick out of knowing that the director Catherine Hardwicke [she also directed Twilight (2008)] probably had watched my film as she did her research, because the pitch is very similar. The pitch of a dark, erotic Little Red Riding Hood, that is. But it is all right. My film is a small film and I know that. I am happy for a small film like mine to have gained a little bit of a cult following in Germany, a series of underground screenings in Canada. What more can I ask for?

SINdie: After A Wicked Tale you went on to make V1K1. How was that, considering that sci-fi is not a big thing here?

Tzang: It was very exciting. I was a part-time lecturer at ITE and my task was to work with students on any project. And I thought being on a film set would excite students. So why not just go all out and do something that could really test their limits? Especially for ITE; I think there is a whole underdog mentality going on there and a lot of exciting things to prove. This excites me.
I told the students our goal was to change people’s impressions of what they would normally think of an ITE production. It was my script and under my direction. But the student crew handled pre-production and casting, location scouting, wardrobe. I entrusted responsibility into these kids, a lot of them who were doing film for the first time. Half of them were Year Ones who had not even touched a camera before. Then I told them to turn a camera on. I told them: “Are you ready to shoot? It’s OK if you make a mistake but even so I am still going to use it. So try to make less mistakes.” (laughs).

That was the mindset I had. There are bound to be mistakes and I may not get what I want, but I need to use whatever I have gotten to fit something together. We did it. In post-production, we even had a student publicity team that did all the Youtube videos, that sort of thing. Everything was very beautifully put together.

SINdie: You’re trying to make a feature film. How is that coming along?

Tzang: Not easy, but actually really exciting. I’ve been through multiple ups and downs. Until you have made it you don’t know if you will make it — or the general public do not know that it is going to be done. I am now going through that phase. I mean, I have done stuff and presented my work but I am also about to do new things. The going about to do new things mean there are greater challenges in my way. They have put me down many times but this is simply something I feel I have to do. I used to say this: ‘Everybody has their own cross.’ I think my film is the cross the truth will carry.

SINdie: What about making a commercial mainstream film? Have you considered venturing down that path?

Tzang: ‘Commercial’ to me is not a dirty word, maybe it just means something that people will watch, enjoy and love. I see that as something that I am already doing, or that I am about to do. But of course the kinds of worlds I put people into are the kinds of worlds that people will go: “That one is commercial meh?”

People have an idea that there are two types of films in Singapore right now. First, the Eric Khoo/Royston Tan arthouse type of films which many young filmmakers aspire. Very budget-friendly, very attainable, has the narratives and the draw. Then there is the other way which has proven to be very successful in Singapore and Malaysia, which is the Jack Neo way. A lot of people think of ‘commercial’ as the Jack Neo way — “ha ha” humour. How Jack Neo does it is quite amazing. He manages to inject social issues within and make it commercial. But for the other less-funny kind people see it as uncommercial. But there is no such thing as two types of films, you know.

When Steven Spielberg made a movie about killer fish – doesn’t that sound like a B-grade movie? And now Jaws is considered a commercial success, but doesn’t the pitch about a killer fish that goes around killing people and people running around sound like a terrible movie? That is precisely the formula for a B-movie, a monster movie. We don’t need to stick to a type of formula; rather we need diversity. We need (pause) some form of craziness to come out. It was the same with V1K1. People said: “Why do you want to make a sci-fi film? What kind of budget do you have? What gave you the guts or the balls to try to make a sci-fi film?”

Yes going into V1K1 I knew we didn’t have the budget for a sci-fi film. It is not realistic and was going to look terrible. But remember the 1970s when technology and special effects were not so happening? We had bad effects yet we had stories people fell in love with. So what makes a sci-fi film. Is it the budget? The intonation? Just look at that and see what you can do, and just bravely set the world ablaze.

SINdie: How do you feel about yourself currently playing a part in inspiring a new generation of filmmakers? I mean, you’re lecturing and all.

Tzang: I really don’t know. I will leave my students to talk about that. But to me it is my privilege actually, to be able to share what I have. It means I have something worth sharing already. I didn’t have access to information and advice when I was starting out; I did not know who to approach at that time. So this gives me a chance to share the things I learn. But it always comes with a caveat, that what I’m sharing may not always be true because I am still learning. I always tell them: “What I’m sharing with you may not always be right because I am still learning. Maybe in six months I will come back and say, ‘hey, that was the wrong way’.” So we’re all learning and discovering all the time. I think that is how it should be for an emerging industry to stay healthy.

SINdie: I understand you’re directing a play as well. Quite a multi-hyphenate, aren’t you?

Tzang: Right, it’s really interesting and very experiential… This is my first play and let’s see what opportunities can await and what it allows for as well.

SINdie: What inspired you to diversify?

Tzang: Telling stories was my dream job from young, so the medium is not important so much as telling the story. But I’m trying to take things one at a time. I already have quite a few things in the pipeline. It is important to get things out right instead of planning too many things at the same time and each is not taken care of enough.

Film has become the main avenue that gave me the chance to be a storyteller. My dream is not so much the camera or that piece of celluloid. Rather, it is the stories and ideas that can be put out there. These are from all my heroes; the rock stars, musicians, music that I listen to. These ideas come from the heart and it’s out there. It means something to people, who live and swear by it, and love it. It helps them get through their lives. Music, comics, stories, fables and fairy tales that get passed down. These are the things I want to do. I want to tell stories.

SINdie: Concluding the interview is a question that has been a Lunchbox special. Would you starve for the sake of your art?

Tzang: Would I starve? I HAVE STARVED (laughs).

From 1999 to 2003 I was in NS, half-studying, working many jobs. I worked as a Gardenia mascot; I had to put on this bloody thing because I wanted some part-time job that did not require too much use of my brain. So I went to food fairs in this gigantic mascot shaking hands with kids, giving out bookmarks, getting hit by them. Many times I’ve quit my job for A Wicked Tale, for this feature film, to buy a little bit more time to put things together or get the right people together.

Again it is the cross you choose to carry. But this is not something I will recommend for anybody who is a budding filmmaker. Everyone has their own thing and it depends on what you want to do. For some people, if the film is a means to get a career in Hollywood – then do what is worthy of you to do. But for others, if the film is a means to gain honor or to say something of a forgotten culture, then that is your calling.

For me, a story lies in exploring things that haven’t been explored much. To ignite the imagination of people, or get into creating something that means something for people. This is the cross I am willing to carry and it doesn’t not make sense to me.

Trailer Central
Watch these trailers to whet your appetite on Tzang's works!

A Wicked Tale (2005)

V1K1 (2011)

e'TZAINTES (2003)

Previous Post Next Post

Contact Form