Production Talk with Wong Chen-Hsi on 'Innocents'

Innocents is a delicate coming-of-age story about Syafiqah, a young girl who, after being abandoned by her parents, befriends an ostracised boy named Huat. Misunderstood and bullied, Syafiqah and Huat while away the afternoons in the giant canals behind their school, carving out a world of escape. Gently immersive, the film investigates memories of childhood within the landscape of a swiftly evolving city state. 

Innocents premiered at the Rome International Film Festival in November 2012, opening the competition section Alice Nella Citta. The film was also selected for the Jeonju International Film Festival in April 2013 and recently shown at the prestigious Shanghai International Film Festival where the film's director, Wong Chen-Hsi received the Best Director award at the 2013 Asian New Talent Awards.

In the run-up to an extended screening of Innocents at The Arts house, the director speaks to SINdie about her film.  

SINdie: We're really intrigued by the settings in this film and would like to discuss more about it. For a start, can you tell us more about where this mysterious abandoned school is, in and how you stumbled upon the location?

Chen-Hsi: We shot in an abandoned school compound along Margaret Drive in Queenstown. In the film, the environment feels really controlled. The reality is that we shot in very tough conditions. Parts of the roof had fallen in and there was about 3 inches of bird and bat poop covering everything. We put on masks and scraped out the place. We recreated the classroom from scratch, sanding down the rusty windows, repainting the walls and desks, shifting in the huge vintage chalkboard, reprinting textbooks, all the way down to ageing stationery boxes. The school was demolished after the shoot. They left a row of coconut trees but those died.

The longkang was in Old Holland Road, and felt right for the story because it was so deeply located in a jungle and felt so secret. It was the heart of darkness we were looking for. We created winches to hoist equipment up and down the banks, and abseiled the children down the jungle covered slopes because it was safer than hiking in. For one of the scenes, our crew had to put all our equipment on dinghies to transport them deep into the tunnels.
The children run out of school onto the railway tracks and into the longkangs. So we had to build this fictional sequence where the railway links to the canal. We had no idea how this would work, but I slipped and half fell down a slope that was completely hidden because it was covered with foliage. It turned out to overlook the canal, so we hacked a path through the undergrowth to break a path for our cast. This was in the conservation area of Holland Green, with giant spiders, monkeys, monitor lizards and birds.

All these locations have since been demolished.

How did you get the old SBS bus to film one of the scenes?

We rented the buses from a private transport company that had older vehicles. I picked the buses based on the color palette.

What was your relationship like, with the children who play Syafiqah (Nameera Ashley) and Huat (Cai Chengyue)? How did they take to your direction?

Nameera and Chengyue are wonderful. The film has no adult leads, so everything rests on them. We went through the regular casting channels and held open calls at many schools. Eventually we found them at Greenridge Primary School in Bukit Panjang. They had never acted before, so we had about two to three weeks of intensive rehearsals before the shoot. 

Key dialogue scenes were improvised and locked down. I gave them the content of the scene, and they rephrased the lines in their words. Some people feel the kids should be speaking Singlish, but the lines are exactly what they felt comfortable saying. They also added their own details like when they were playing with the tin cans in the longkang and when walking along the railway track, which made it more special than I could have written.

I love the honesty of what they did – it’s really rare to see such pared down and intimate performances. You just have to get them into a really comfortable space. We were really lucky to cast them at the right age. Both the actors could also really relate to their characters. I was worried they would not have the stamina to last the shoot, but they amazed us all. 

I enjoy your description of the film as a "tone poem". Can you explain to our readers what this means and how the film exemplifies it?

This film was tricky because it is also about capturing a lost space – the space between childhood and adulthood, and the space between memory, dream and half-remembered realities. So it seemed that the best way to tell this story was as a story evoked through mood, music, tone and imagery, rather than a story that is blatantly told. It’s like sense fragments that you somehow piece together again.

Please tell us more about the musical motif in Innocents. Who composed it and what was the creative journey and vision that led to its birth?

The composer was Rich Ho, and Vincent Tang was the sound designer. It was very important that the ambiences and sound design of the film were as much a musical motif, as the music was instrumental in shaping ambience. Rich did a great job in delivering lyricism to the film, but without being too pretty. In the longkang theme, we invested in ‘found sounds’ like plucked rubber bands, to mimic the idea of found objects that children used as toys. The atonality was also important, because we really needed to underline the idea of a discordant world. I also have to credit my editor Jeff Mcmahon, who was instrumental in spotting some of the phrases and articulating how the story shifts and changes. 

I like the random interactions between Syafiqah and Huat (i.e. tapping their fingers on the wall etc.) that develop into light-hearted moments of play. It’s such a minimalist yet beautiful concept, which no doubt, triggers certain bouts of nostalgia.

It’s a different world now, however, and are you commenting on how the young children of this generation may no longer derive simple satisfaction and happiness from being in the moment?

That was one of my favorite scenes too. We were not able to shoot the original scene due to some location problem or other. I had no idea what we would be shooting, even as the crew was lighting the set. It was really stressful. I finally threw everyone out, closed the door and improvised something with the kids. The idea of listening was very important – we had several listening motifs already shot, so it seemed we could build on that.

It was important to set the film in a pre-digital, analogue era to assert the very special, deep connection the children had, despite their relative isolation. That was the main reason to set the film in the past – the story just would not have worked if the kids were carrying iPhones. This film does capture a different type of childhood, not necessarily better or worse, just different. 

Many of the scenes show Huat being emotionally blackmailed or manipulated by the female teacher (who strangely seems to have a Filipino accent..). Did you have your own bad experience with a teacher, growing up?

Not exactly. This scene was based on a young boy I once saw who was publicly and brutally caned, and everybody around just laughed. The boy was crying intensely, grew hysterical, started slapping himself and ended up crawling on the ground begging. The actual incident was extreme. I toned it down for the film – ironically, I think that if I had recreated it exactly, it would have been too melodramatic.

Children naturally have an awkward and fractious relationship with authority. Power is a very dynamic concept. After our first take of the part of the scene where Huat confronts the teacher, the entire classroom of child extras got up and cheered. But I feel that the teacher is also someone who is trapped by circumstances.

I’ve had a couple of non-Singaporean teachers here, so I don’t find the teacher’s accent strange. Though I do remember a comment from someone who said they could only accept a Filipino accent on a maid, not an educator. But we forget that when Singapore achieved independence, the Philippines was more economically and socially advanced than we were. 

Extended Run for INNOCENTS at The Arts House:
19 Oct | 7.30pm |  Q&A w/ Director & Cast
19 Oct, 20 Oct | 2pm
20 Oct | 7.30pm


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