Production Talk on 'Across the Straits' with Tan Ai Leng

We continue our 'Production Talk' series on selected films of the 3rd Singapore Short Film Awards with 'Across the Straits' by Tan Ai Leng.

Set in Singapore and Malaysia, “Across the Straits” is a 20-min short film about two teenagers’ search of friendship and happiness. MENG, the son of a provision shop owner feels trapped in his small town. He does not get the support of his parents to pursue a career in animation. One day, after a quarrel with his father, he decides to leave home to stay with a friend. HUI, the daughter of a widowed businesswoman feels betrayed by her mother’s new relationship with a man. She decides to leave home in rebellion to her mother’s “infidelity”. Albeit their contrastingly different family background, they manage to confide in each other and have a good time together. However, they soon get into a little bit of trouble…

Jeremy: What inspired me for this film & how the interesting mix of parents came about:

Ai Leng: Meng’s side of the plot originated from a friend’s short story entitled “The Provision Shop Son” (杂货店儿子). In the story, Meng loves music and leaves home to pursue his rocker dream in Singapore, only to be disappointed and disillusioned at the end. He then returns home to take over his father’s provision shop, expands the business and becomes a successful owner of a major supermarket in Malaysia.

I loved the way my friend wrote about the kampong life in Meng’s hometown, as well as the part about how Meng’s mishandling of the fire crackers got his dad into trouble, so I asked my friend’s permission to adapt it into my film and he readily agreed.

Hui’s side of the story originated from the lyrics of Jason Mraz’s song “Love for a Child”. It talks about a delinquent coming to terms with his parents’ divorce and losing his innocence in the process, while trying to believe that his parents’ love for him still exists. As a child of divorced parents myself, this song really touched my heart, so I decided to base Hui’s side of the story on this.

It was only when I began to weave the two stories together that I ended up with the theme of “leaving home”. The impetus came from Antoine de Saint Exupery’s “The Little Prince” whereby the part about the Little Prince watching forty-four sunsets in a day resonated so well with Hui’s emotions. Because “The Little Prince” left home due to his sadness, I thought it would be a good idea to develop this theme throughout the story.

Jeremy:  The title says “Across the Straits”, is this shot in Malaysia?

Ai Leng: Yes, majority of this film is shot in Kukup, a coastal village in Johore, Malaysia. Hui’s house and the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station scenes are shot in Singapore.

Jeremy:  Is there a cross-border element in their relationship? If so, what is the film attempting to explore in that area?

Ai Leng: To be honest, I didn’t want to emphasize the cross-border element in the relationship between these two teenagers. I merely wanted to portray the purity of their friendship and how they manage to relate to each other despite coming from very different family backgrounds.

I feel that Singapore and Malaysia are “same same but different”. So in a way, you can say that these two teenagers represent the two nations, however, I really don’t like to stereo-type characters.

Just on the side: I included the KTM Stations and train scenes in the film because I wanted to “document” my own childhood memories before the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station closes. In fact, if one were to go to Kukup from Singapore, one wouldn’t take the train at all! Kukup is not along the railway route! People either take the ferry or bus to get there.

Jeremy:  What were the greatest challenges in making this film?

Ai Leng: I must say that I was very blessed because everything went so smoothly for this production! I had a wonderful team – cast and crew – and got a lot of support from school (Beijing Film Academy & Youth Film Studio) as well as from MDA (SFC Short Film Grant).

I think the one big challenge was to “smuggle” the entire film equipment across the border! We took a chance with the permit papers as I was told it was a very big hassle so we minimized everything and hand-carried the equipment piece by piece across the Causeway.

Jeremy:  Any interesting anecdotes during the production process:

Ai Leng: There was one scene where Meng takes Hui on a boat trip and I said to Edwin (the actor playing Meng), “For this shot, you need to maneuver the boat on your own, with the entire crew and Michelle (the actress playing Hui) on it, and look as if you are a pro.” He got so stressed up that he couldn’t even smile properly on camera. And so I had to edit around his “stiff as rock” expressions and make him look like he’s enjoying himself.

Originally there wasn’t any rain scene in the script. But it rained very heavily on the day we were shooting Meng’s argument with his dad, so I decided, might as well shoot with the rain! And it became a bonus because the rain went so well with the emotion of the film at that point. Thank God!

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