Asian Film Academy 2013 Special: Leon Cheo & Ang Geck Geck Priscilla

Asian Film Academy (AFA) is an educational program hosted by Dongseo University, Busan Film commission and Busan International Film Festival to foster emerging filmmakers and establish Asian filmmaker's network. Young talents from all over the Asia attend various programs mentored by the established filmmakers. 

In the recently concluded 2013 edition, Singaporean film directors Leon Cheo and Ang Geck Geck Priscilla were privileged enough to be chosen as two of the 24 Asian participants. SINdie’s Thong Kay Wee caught up with them to talk about their AFA experiences, their thoughts about attending this prestigious academy and how they feel as representatives of a growing crop of young talented local and Asian filmmakers rising up in the scene. 

Leon Cheo (L), Ang Geck Geck (R)
Photo Courtesy of AFA
Kay Wee: I shall start off with the most basic question. What made you guys decide to become a filmmaker? Especially in a climate like Singapore’s where many challenges are known to be in place and other professions may seem like an easier option.

Leon: I think everyone loves movies? I remember watching the Oscars and I felt like it would be quite cool to be there. And I started a movie website…like SINdie and just like writing reviews and posting news. That interested me a lot, and I was like “Oh what to do next after secondary school?” And then Objectifs came up. They had like a 12 weeks film making course. I told my mum to let me try, it's like $600 bucks. I made a crappy short film about an ‘emo’ teen who skateboards and him and his mum and some family drama thing. Felt that I liked it enough, then applied for Ngee Ann Polytechnic (Film, Sound and Video course), got in, and then the rest…

K: Never looked back?

L: Yar…fortunately never looked back. Think if I looked back I will be like hmm…(hesitates) but I am very happy where I am right now. So from then on, Ngee Ann Poly, made some short films, went to Chapman University in Creative Producing, and then now AFA I guess?

Geck Geck: I think generally when I was young I loved art. I loved drawings and working with colors, and I didn’t know that I will be so into film making until when I was in Year 3 or Year 2 in university (NTU’s School of Art, Design and Media). I made this experimental short film and was very recognized by my teacher and I remember like, when I was screening that film, my classmates were so shocked! They were like…they just stare…

L: Why, what was in it? Were you like running around naked?

G: No…...! It was a very depressing film.

L: Okay…

G: Yar, so they were so shocked! I wasn’t a very expressive person also. It’s very hard for me to tell you something. There will be a lot of visuals in my head, a lot of stories to tell, but then I don’t really know how to tell. Like I tend to jumble up my thoughts. Like maybe when I tell stories, stories ABC in sequence, but I will jump like A then C, then maybe B halfway then back to C again, like I was so bad at words! So like I really wanted to share, tell stories and help people through film. So the first film I made was ‘Broken Crayon’, a film that actually touched on sensitive topics, but it was very difficult to say it out? But you could feel it in film, and there will be like some sort of message to pass to the parents. 

K: To be chosen as one of the candidates for AFA should be considered a milestone in your budding career. So tell me more about what you guys did to reach this stage, and what does the opportunity of attending AFA means to you.

AFA 2013 Team and Participants
Photo Courtesy of AFA
L: Basically AFA only accepts people who have done a few short films, not any features and also kind of in the beginning of his or her career. For myself, I have actually applied for AFA 3 times. Twice in the early and mid 2000s, and I didn’t get it. I only got to the phone interviews, but missed out on the final selection. So this is the 3rd time lucky and I got it. And yar, the guy who interviewed me on Skype asked “Why do you need AFA. You have already done so much.” Well, to him at least, and then I disagree lar.  Yes I have done a few short films, but I don't think my education has stopped. And I also haven’t been to that many film festivals, and I also really wanted to go to AFA for the opportunities that it presents, because once you are there you get to meet so many filmmakers and all the experts, all these mentors, and also be on Busan’s radar for a while. So I think getting into AFA for those things were good.

G: I actually don’t have a lot of achievements. I only know that before AFA selected me, I just happened to have won the best short film at Substation’s Short Film Awards, for ‘Broken Crayon’. And I think like Busan tend to like dark films, so I think my genre kind of fits into their criteria even though they did not mention. Also, I think when the guy interviewed me he asked me if I did any commercial work, and so I was like working on a few commercial projects with Eric Khoo straight after I graduated, and he is quite well known in Busan. Oh yar! One thing is that I greeted them in Korean so I think that kind of impressed them!

L: Hahaha. Are you sure…?

G: Cause they were like laughing and asking, are you Korean?! I said “No…no…no!” And they even spoke to me in Korean. Hahaha.

K: Word of advice to everyone. Do that. Okay so we all know that AFA2013’s Dean is none other than Korean film director Mr Lee Chang Dong, and the program also includes other respectable mentors around the region. So maybe share with me your impressions of them throughout the whole process?

G: I don’t know why I am always slower than the rest and I didn’t think it's a big thing until Ric Aw from Creative Room passed me two DVDs, congratulated me and asked me to help him get his signature, and I was like okay! Then he told me about Lee Chang Dong, his background, so I know Lee Chang Dong through Ric. And then for Aditya Assarat (AFA Directing mentor and Thai independent filmmaker), I first met him at the Hong Kong Film Festival, but we didn't talk, because most of the time I am very quiet, and there was no chance to talk to him. So in Busan this time, we talked a bit more and we became like friends. He is a very friendly and funny guy. He is like young at heart, and I learnt quite a bit from him. But then again most of the time we talked cock ah, so not really talking about films also…hahaha.

From (L) Ang Geck Geck, Kurita Toyomichi, Aditya Assrat,
Lee Chang Dong
Photo Courtesy of AFA
L: Hahaha. Really? I don’t know, I get really stressed out when I am working, so I am not very fun on set…

G: You know for the first time I was so relaxed on set! Haha. Wait wait, I wanna ‘hao lian’ (show off) one thing, Lee Chang Dong asked me for signature!

K: Asked you for your signature?

G: And then he kept it in his pocket! Yay!

L: Wait why did he ask you?

G: Erm…

L: I think everyone thought you were an actress. She always dressed like very glamorous one.

G: Haha, you know, I try to do my best for  everything! 

Leon Cheo (L), Lee Chang Dong (R)
Photo Courtesy of AFA
L: Haha. Lee Chang Dong yes I heard of him. Loved ‘Secret Sunshine’. I saw a bit of ‘Poetry’ before I left, but they made us watch it again on film, which was beautiful. Then we saw the whole thing. It was good to meet him. I really like his films and his subject matters and how he tackles difficult societal problems. Oh yar I saw ‘Oasis’ also before I left, it was also quite a tough film to watch. For Aditya, all I know was he is Yuni Hadi’s (Partner at Objectifs) husband haha. But I’ve seen some of his films, ‘Wonderful Town’ and stuff. And our Cinematography mentor Kurita Toyomichi, he was always there because he is very useful and like a mentor father figure. Very helpful in terms of talking about shots. So both Aditya and Kurita were really on the ball and present when we were doing our presentations, and they provided a lot of helpful advice.

K: Speaking of cross Asian involvement, how is it like to work with the other Asian participants and collaborators as well? I assume most of you started of as strangers in the first place. And also, how is it like to co-direct with three or two other directors in this whole experience?

L: It was a challenge. Cause I think everyone is used to being the one decision-maker, but now there is like maybe four. And everyone had to be made happy. And then another challenge was language. I think everyone could speak some English, but some were better than others, and some were quieter than the others. We all have different working styles. I was more direct and blunt. One of the other directors was more introspective, always okay…everything was okay kind of thing. It was interesting working with my DP cause he was Cambodian and he usually does documentary so I was kind of worried about his take on shooting fiction. And also lighting, which is also a big part in fictional film making, so I asked other DPs to help him.

G: Usually, like what Leon said, one director takes control of everything, but then even when we decide on our scenes, like everyone gets to pick one scene to direct, I will always go and seek the rest of the directors for permission whether I can make this decision so that everyone else is on board. So more time is actually taken because we have to try to talk to everyone and furthermore like language is always the most difficult because their English is not very strong.

L: I said the same thing too.

Ang Geck Geck on set for her co-directed film 'The Black Mirror'
Photo Courtesy of AFA
G: It takes a while to explain to them so you have a lot of hand gestures, have to draw pictures etc. So it really takes more effort and time to do this. But then, working with other Asian filmmakers, I think one thing I really learnt is I became more patient. Because I tend to want things my own way and I don’t really like to…because I thought like everyone in Singapore, everyone is very professional, so they know what they are doing. But in AFA, it was like…as the director I had to talk to everyone to make sure they know what they are doing and I mean, we still respect each other, like they know what they are doing actually, but we make sure that they understand the same vision and interpretation of the script. We just want to really identify it, and we are really lucky to have Teck Siang (AFA Singaporean Alumni/Cinematography Technician for AFA2013), because Teck Siang made sure everyone knows what we want. Also, you can’t really be too direct, because it will offend them…

K: So there was a cultural difference?

G: Yar, so you have to understand some of them doesn't come back from a professional film background, like they are really indie filmmakers. Like always one man show or two man show. They were not used to having a set with too many crew, so they don’t really know the procedures and certain hierarchies that they have to follow.

L: Like the on set tasks. Duties.

G: Yar, so you have to understand and be very patient. Like you must really give them time, and its really like working in a school to me. But one thing I learnt for sure is that I become more patient. Because you know, there are two rules for me? First rule: Smile! Second rule: Talk slower! Hahaha. 

Leon Cheo on set for his co-directed film 'Departure'
Photo Courtesy of AFA
L: Haha yar, I also really echo your sentiments regarding being patient. Because collaborating with other people you are not familiar with made me realize that I need to be a lot more patient, a lot clearer about what I would like to say. There is no like short hand, and everything needs to be explained. So it sort of re-calibrated my sense of filmmaking because I was so used to working with people who knows these short hands, especially with Singaporeans. And these are different people with different cultures and preferences to fictional filmmaking, so it was very hard trying to make everyone happy with the same vision.

G: I really think it's the English. I am sure they will be vocal if they speak their own language. I think we are just lucky that our first language is English and then they have no choice but to speak to us in English but they can’t communicate well. So even if they have something to say, they can’t really put it into words well.

K: How about the Korean crew and the working environment with them then? Did you guys learnt much from them?

L: Honestly, because we couldn't really communicate with the Korean crew, I really didn’t learn much. However, if I am not wrong, they are one of the most sought after lighting crew in Korea who worked on Kim Ki Duk’s films for example. Also there were student interns and they take on assistant roles like translators or help out in art team or sound recording. So they were more learning from us than we learning from them. The lighting team…we didn’t talk much to them but we provided them with visual references, and communication was done through other Korean translators and interpreters. But they were amazing, very professional and very fast.

G: For my case, the Korean producer said we are going out to a restaurant when I was already over running, so I was like ‘WHAT!’ My face…so angry! Its like the Merlion roars!! But still in a cool way hahaha.

K and L: Hahahaha.

G: I was very angry, very angry! So the Korean producer told me we must die-die eat at the restaurant and I asked if we can packet it, and they said cannot. And then we tried asking three times again, and my Korean producer keeps saying no! No matter what.

L: Yeah, that was very puzzling.

G: Yeah, I was like why is it like that! And then Teck Siang from Singapore, although he is a very nice and patient person, he himself couldn't believe it. And my Thai producer, Tong, she said never in her life as a producer had she had to go outside to a restaurant and eat. Oh even Aditya, he was like “Why do you need to come to the restaurant and eat?” Even Aditya! He was questioning.

L: And until now I don’t have the answer but I should ask the hospitality girl. But then my day was worse. Three of us (co-directors) have to direct on the same day, and the last one was me, and we had to have dinner at a restaurant before my scene.

G: Eh but mine was lunch and dinner at a restaurant! And we really had to drive out from the location for it. And we are overrunning like shit man! Like 4 hours.

L: Huh. Thankfully we weren’t overrunning but I was like, ‘Which production goes out to a restaurant to eat?’ Especially when it’s such a long day. And everyone was super puzzled but we still ate.

G: Yar. But okay lar, I can understand that they don't want us to work too hard as well. They wanted us to relax and have fun by giving us good hospitality. Which was very nice of them as well.

L: Yeah. I agree. 

K: Haha. Moving on to the master classes in AFA right, what were the particular things that you guys picked up and learn from that you think will be useful in your careers?

L: The Lee Chang Dong one, when he was talking about his life and experiences, it was all very inspirational. But then when it comes down to the Q&A, which was like inane, it was like a Dr Phil’s asking for career advice.

G: (referring to Leon) He was rolling his eyes.

L: Yea I was. I still remember it was one after the other. It was people asking him “Oh I am an actor but you know I am not that big yet. What should I do? Should I pursue this thing?” And this other girl was like “Oh for all my life, I wanted to be a director. But I am not in a film school. What do you think I should do? Should I quit everything and study film?” And Lee Chang Dong was like…and that was my biggest takeaway, he was like every gracious and patient. I think if I were him I would have thrown my shoe at her already. He said like “I don't know what the best thing is, but I think if you really want to be in film, don’t think about it too much. Just do it”. I think it’s just a very good reminder for all of us. I think we are very lucky to be where we are and done films, and we have to keep pushing. If I were that girl…

Lee Chang Dong, Dean of AFA 2013
Photo Courtesy of AFA
G: I want to slap her! What was she thinking?

L: If she is still thinking about that, it will be too late.

K: So Geck Geck, what was your biggest takeaway?

G: Looking at Lee Chang Dong. And suck his energy!

Everyone: Hahaha.

G: Okay I felt like I become more than what I am, as in I become more patient. I become more flexible. I just become very different when I was there. I think I changed for a better reason and I felt very inspired by the people. Like there was my room mate from Afghanistan who is a female director and then you know its very difficult for women to shoot films in Afghanistan and I think I admire for her persistence in what she does and I am so glad that people from the developing countries, like even though they don’t have a lot access to resources and work mostly independently, they can come together and make a film and make things happen. And you look at them, just like, whoa. It’s just so inspiring. And for me, I kind of reflect on myself and its so easy, like even though we are not very rich, we can still afford a camera and we can shoot something and its not very difficult to just ask our friends to help us. Unlike them. And as a girl, it’s easier for me to shoot something as compared to these women from these developing countries. I am quite impressed. And at first, I thought the reason they asked us to come to Busan right, it’s just like marketing strategy because it looks good when everyone from Asia comes together. But then I realized it’s more than that. It’s about making a film because everyone has this passion, and then comparing to other European countries and even like US, they have bigger film industries or festivals…

K: So they have very established filmmaking networks and industries? Whereas in Asia…

G: We are still coming up. It’s not a cultural difference but more like history. Like Japan couldn’t get along with China, and Korea also.

K: So there were a lot of politics involved that divided us as an Asian filmmaking community in the past?

G: Yeah, although it was past, past history, but it still affects the present somehow. So one of the speakers was saying that to strengthen our relationships with other Asian countries, all Asian filmmakers should come together, work together and bond. Its of a biggest cause, to strengthen the Asian filmmaking, its not just for yourself. So I was very touched by that. And now I understand AFA better and why they spent so much money on us, because they really gave us A-star treatment.

K: I see. So the two of you just joined a string of Singaporean alumni in AFA. I guess the both of you also represent the young local film talents, the up and coming and everything. So what do you think of the prospects of Singaporean cinema and your own futures, especially after this AFA experience?  

G: I want to make a film. I want to make a film. I want to make a film and send it to Pusan. Pick me! Pick me!

L: Haha. Pusan is a really great festival. We didn’t really attend it because we were so busy, but it looked like a great festival to be a part of as a visiting filmmaker. I was like really inspired, really re-energized after the whole thing. I really want to make my own thing and focus more of my time now on my own directing and writing projects, which I have not done for a long time. And I think overall the Singapore film scene feels quite rosy, especially after ‘Ilo Ilo’. But maybe now there are very big shoes to fill, everyone has very high expectations. But we will see. As long as people keep making, keep supporting.

G: Hmm I don't know. I always say government can be more supportive, give more money, and people can make more films and everything becomes easier. I actually expect more young filmmakers to be making more films so actually I think the industry is growing and think like Jack Neo, in terms of commercial films, has pulled in a lot of investors to believe that film making in terms of money making is possible because he broke the box office record. So investors dare to come up with money to invest in film. I think for making films (slams the table), money comes first! Sorry too emotional haha.

L: Its true, money is a big factor.

G: So in terms of independent films, we have like Anthony Chen who breaks the barrier of local Singaporeans’ impression that film making is never possible. Like Singaporeans always doesn't really support indie films but then he came in and change the mindset of local Singaporeans. So we have some hope in the Singapore film industry. So I think this year is actually a good year, because Jack Neo broke the box office record and then Anthony he made it internationally in Cannes and got mentioned everywhere in the world. So everyone knows that Singapore actually has a lot of potential in our film making talents. And even we young people feel more hopeful and can convince people like “Hey! We have Anthony! He doesn’t make big money but he has fame! Hahaha. We have Jack Neo! He is not very good but he can make money!” Haha sorry I was just trying to be funny but yar I think there is a lot of hope.

K: So what are your personal ambitions now, coming out from AFA?

L: (to G) What are your personal ambitions?

G: What do you mean? Do I look very ambitious?

L: Er. I don’t know.

G: Yes I am! Hahahaha.

L: Haha. You just pretend only.

G: Ya actually I am super ambitious. Like I have certain goals to reach at certain ages. I really want to make a feature film and Anthony is kind of my benchmark, so I really want to do well to help people and gain certain recognition to my work. I just hope film festivals will accept my film because my last one did not get into any international ones, so after I am done with my next two short films hopefully they can make it. And focus on my feature script. Hopefully I can shoot in two years time. And make it really good. Like really good. Like Anthony’s. Haha.

L: Haha. I have always wanted to make a feature film before I was thirty but I only have two years left, so I think I am too slow. But I need to refocus I guess and channel my new energies and focus on my feature script. I want to write my feature well but writing is so hard. And then possibly make one or two more short films as well, just to get to more festivals. Maybe make my feature in two years I guess.

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