Production Talk on 'Strangers' with Tan Jing Liang

Screened at the recent 3rd Singapore Short Film Awards, Strangers the short film tells the story of a mother, a daughter and a daughter-in- law, outwardly bound by kinship but inwardly, devoid of any emotional closeness. When a forbidden former relationship is rekindled between the latter two, the household is forced to confront a disconcerting truth.

Jeremy: A mother, daughter and a daughter-in-law, sounds incestuous and certainly compelling, how did the idea for the film come about?

Jing Liang: The idea for the film was born out of a personal dilemma with the concept of kinship, which has been an elusive one for me. Can two people who share no honest word, no respect, no affection and no real connection of any form between them be truly kin to one another simply because they are related by blood? I was interested in the idea of placing two such characters, the mother and daughter, within the same household, and examine what defines and sustains a contrived relationship as such. I didn’t begin with the intention to make a film about a homosexual or incestuous relationship; the subsequent addition of the daughter-in-law character was an extension to this seed idea that I had, which was when the story began to take shape and the characters began to have a real issue to confront.

Jeremy: What are you trying to explore in this film and do you like to explore in your films in general?

Jing Liang: I am an instinct-driven person in all of my artistic endeavours. My films are generally inspired by the spontaneous sentiments, the psychological states that haunt the mind and the heart and the inexplicable in-betweens of emotions that one cannot easily tag a clear definition to from my own experiences. My work tries to make coherent these experiences and share them with an audience like a kindred spirit. All of my work are personal. My personal belief is that at the heart of every work of art is a self-portrait, regardless of how extended, transformed or distilled.

For Strangers, I was simply looking to portray a family so deeply afflicted by a lack of communication that even in the face of their warped entanglement of relationships, each member seems determined to evade the problem, walking and talking about everything around the problem except the problem itself. I was also exploring how Asian families tend not to be very vocal with one another when it comes to expressing affection or concern, or confronting an issue considered taboo.

Jeremy: Could you take us through the journey in developing this film?

Jing Liang: I wrote the screenplay for Strangers towards the end of my second year in film school and began pre-production the moment semester ended. I was at a stage where I had gone far too long making work for school that I wasn’t personally invested in and it was driving me crazy not being involved in a project that really meant something to me. I then went about putting together my core creative and production team, which comprised of my schoolmates.

The pre-production process was quite an emotional ride for me. I think it’s because it was my first film and I was putting a lot of pressure on myself for it, which was probably rather misplaced looking back on it now. It took three long months to convince my professors to grant me approval to access the school's film equipment for the making of this film, which would have taken significant pressure off our budget. The shoot dates had to be postponed three times because of this, during which I lost two of my actresses who were to play the daughter and daughter-in-law. One of them was slated to leave for an exchange programme in Korea and was unable to commit to the postponed date and the other decided to pull out after the multiple postponements. Both roles were only recasted in the week leading up to the actual shoot dates, which eventually had to fall smack in the middle of a new semester.

On many occasions I was tempted to shelf the project for a better time or drop it altogether because it was simply dragging far too long and I was becoming drained of the creative drive I had for it before. Thankfully I went ahead with it because there were things I would never have seen or known if I didn’t take it from start to end, and I was blessed to have people around me who cared enough to see it happen for me watering me and revitalizing me, especially my partner, who incidentally was also part of my film crew. After this project, the thing that I would want to make absolutely sure of in my next film is definitely to have more fun making it!

Jeremy: How did you rehearse the actors and during the production, bring out their performance?
What were the greatest challenges in making this film?

Jing Liang: I tried most to tap into their personal experiences of their own relationships to extract the performance I was looking for. The story was set in a very relatable local context and I knew that the dynamics between the characters would strike up familiarities with my actors’ own relationships with their family.

The greatest challenge for me was probably to sustain the creative drive and commitment for the project - not just my own, but also my team - when the project was dragging too long during the process of obtaining approval to access equipment from school. It wasn’t easy keeping people interested enough to remain part of the project during the time when even I wasn’t sure if it would happen or not. I’m grateful to my cinematographer Shyan, who was supportive throughout the process both as a working partner and as a friend even at points when the prospects of getting the film shot at all seemed bleak.

Jeremy: Any interesting anecdotes during your production process?

Jing Liang: My “producer” Jon only came on board the team the night before the shoot and he still did a great job running the set...
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