(Not) Lost in Translation - Bringing 4 stories to life in film - Utter 2014

Utter 2014, part of the Singapore Writer’s Festival this year again seeks to explore film adaptations of local literature. This year’s selection of 4 films feels a little CMIO exercise, but with interesting diversity in style (though they shared a common thread on aging). CMIO means Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others. Each story was based in the vernacular language and the ‘Others’ short film is English-based, acted by top local theatre actors with a dash of Ang-Moh mix-bloodedness in it.

These were the 4 films produced and their respective directors and original book authors.

回家 Going Home directed by Kenny Tan
Inspired by 回家 Going Home by Lin Jin
An elderly man returns to his old residence for a visit and finds himself confronted with the harsh realities of aging.

Tin Kosong directed by Sanif Olek
Adapted from Tin Kosong by Muhammad Salihin Sulaiman
Odd-job worker Somad collects tins to make ends meet and support his sick wife, Rosnah. During his daily routine, he encounters a wide range of people and even fellow tin pickers, at various parts of Singapore.

 (At Your Doorstep) dir. by Don Aravind
Inspired by Peaks by Kalamadevi Aravindhan
A widowed mother who suffers from chronic loneliness only has her fading memories of her son and his family for company.

That Loving Feeling directed by Wee Li Lin
Adapted from Homecoming by Gopal Baratham
Ena Wong, 19, has never been to a social in her life. Her overprotective mother keeps her under lock and key. But tonight, it’s New Year’s Eve 1964, and Ena is determined to make 1965 a new beginning.

Adapting from book to screen can be the easiest and the hardest thing. We stopped by each director to get a word on their individual exercises on adaptation. At the same, we also got the authors to tell us what they thought when they saw their stories come alive on screen.

 Q1: What's the biggest challenge in doing film adaptations of books/writing? 

Don (for At your Doorstep): It's more of a very big fear of acceptance than challenge especially in an environment which does not do much adaptations. I have never heard of people condemning local literature; in fact they are held in very high regards among various levels of societies, academics and so on. However, bad Singapore films are always frowned upon. For a filmmaker to take a literary text and present it as a film, it is a very scary thought. 

Kamaladevi who wrote Peaks from which At your Doorstep was adapted from had this to say : When I saw a house-full of audience (at the day of screening), I was very happy. I had a number of my readers who came down and gave me their support. Some of them even called me personally to wish me and told me that they were very much impressed with the story. I was very impressed with how the film had turned out. The direction was so perfect - each and every minute scenes were accurately pointed out in the film. It was definitely a proud  moment  for me and all my readers. Hats off to my director Don, and producer Nicholas.

 I would love to work with this team if I get a chance again. 

All these years, I was a short story writer, a playwright for radio and TV, a stage play writer and a director too. But this is the first time I am seeing my own short story in a film. There were great differences between the film and my short story.

In the film, I see my characters come to live, but only a few incidents were focused from my story. It can't be helped since this is a short film. Nevertheless, I am still grateful to be a part of Utter 2014 as it has opened new opportunities for me. 

Kenny 9for Going Home): The biggest challenge I had in doing a film adaptation from the book is how I, as a filmmaker, could contribute to the text and bring new perspectives into the story by means of visual storytelling without affecting the author's original intent. The good thing for "Going Home" was that the story was based off a flash fiction short story. The brevity of the story gave me the opportunity to fill in the details in between the moments in the story, while keeping the original author's intent and focus.

Lin Jin (Lim Boon Gim) who wrote Going Home had this to say:  I felt that the short film by Kenny Tan had presented the original story very well and there were a few touching moments. The actors did a great job, especially Mr Steven Woon and Mr Michael Tan. I felt the actors are natural in their portrayal of expression and emotions, and are both very compatible for the script.

To be honest, I felt there wasn't much difference between the film and what I had written! I am glad that several visuals and nuances were injected into the film to bring out the essence of the story - particularly the duck rice, the maid, the conversations about the childhood between the characters etc. I also felt that the injection of Hokkien dialect had made the film more realistic and relatable to Singaporeans. I believe it is rather challenging for a written short story to include dialect, but a short film can definitely portray this much easily with the advantage of sound and visuals. For example, there was a short simple brief scene of a mynah bird flying away - I found it so memorable and meaningful. I think such details are a great idea for my future compositions, and it is definitely something to learn from the screenwriter and filmmaker.

(On how Utter has impacted him as an author) 
From authors POV: Films in general have the ability to translate an author's story or intention. Which in turn, inspires and encourages people to read up on the original story that the film was based on, and that itself is quite encouraging to us as authors.

From audience POV:  Films translate language barriers. With the short films in other mother tongue languages (Tamil, Malay, Chinese), it can help educate the audience about society and get in touch with other cultures.

From filmmakers POV: I hope there will be more of such collaborations between filmmakers and authors, but perhaps with a common theme to make a few shots together and hopefully be of great educational material for schools as well.

 From left to right: Screenwriter of 'That Loving Feeling' Teh Su Ching, filmmaker Wee Li Lin, Producer Nicholas Chee, filmmaker Kenny Tan, Author of 'Going Home' Lin Jin

Sanif (for Tin Kosong): Tin Kosong is the first film that I have adapted from a book. I think the biggest challenge is to retain the singular idea that anchors the source material. It's totally impossible to translate literally from the book source, unless perhaps the author himself goes on to write the screenplay and becomes the filmmaker himself. On being truthful to the main thread, it was important that the film adaptation needed to be respectful of the source material, in the sense that the main idea that the author wishes to express is firstly communicated through the visual adaptation. I am privileged to have the chance to meet the book author, Salihin, and discuss the treatment of the film with him. He understood that the visual language is different from the prose. In the film, I had taken liberties to heighten the protagonist's journey by injecting a short musical sequence.

Here is Tin Kosong author Salihin’s take on the film adaption:  I really enjoyed watching Sanif's film and I am immensely proud that the story I wrote was adapted into film and shown on the big screens. To me that really is quite an achievement for any author. I had worked closely with Sanif on the film treatment, so I would say the film was somewhat close to what I had written, with some creative space given to Sanif since it was a film adaptation. The film could perhaps be more of a tearjerker if the story-line was followed closely.

Q2: Name one Singapore novel that you would like to adapt into a feature film? Why?

Don: Gopal Baratham's "Sayang". I read the novel as a very young kid and even at that time, the way it was presented was like a film. Gopal had this way of presenting his stories very cinematically. HIs  words were so visual and his characters had a great amount of depth.

Lilin: I would love to adapt another Gopal Barantham story or one by Catherine Lim. I had studied and loved Catherine Lim's books in school, and it would be such an honor to have that opportunity. 

Kenny:This may sound silly but if given a chance to adapt a local book into a feature film, I would really like to take selected stories from Russell Lee's "True Singapore Ghost Stories" franchise. I want to weave them up into a cohesive narrative and give them the feature film treatment. Many of the stories featured in the books are quite potent and uniquely Singapore horror, with some of them based off real events or locations. I believe people like myself who grew up in the late 80s and 90s will definitely connect with the stories and support the film!

Sanif: There are works by two local writers that I hope to have the chance to adapt into film. They are  Malay-language works by Muhd Ariff Ahmad and Alfian Saat. Both express contemporary thinking and writes about the modern Malay. However the only difference is that both represent the Singapore-born Malay of different eras, i.e Muhd Ariff Ahmad writes during Malaya and post-independence whereas Alfian writes sharply of the present Malay. Regardless of the eras, I've noticed that the soul of the Malay is unchanged.

For those hoping to catch these 4 films on the big screen, there is one LAST additional screening for Utter 2014.

Details below.

Wed 20 August 2014
7pm to 9pm
Golden Village Vivocity
SGD $10.00 / $9.00 for students / $8.50 for above 20 tickets

Please note pre-booking for the following is available at www.sinema.sg
Kindly pre-book by next Friday 15 August 2014.

- Producer Nicholas Chee and directors will be present for a post-screening discussion

- Each ticket comes with a complimentary copy (limited edition) of:
Utter 2014 book featuring behind-the-scenes content, screenplays, original texts and film storyboards.
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