QnA with Producer Anthony Chen and Directors Shijie, Yukun and Sivaroj for Distance

On 27th May 2016, SINdie was invited to the Singapore Gala Premiere of Distance by Producer Anthony Chen, featuring Directors Shijie, Yukun and Sivaroj who were behind the short films that made up this omnibus. Here are their thoughts about the film and the process behind it!


(From left, Anthony Chen, Bolin Chen, Yeo Yann Yann, Cheng Huan Lin and Tan Shijie)

1. Which came first, the idea of "Distance" as an omnibus or the directors?

The idea of doing an omnibus to nurture/showcase young directors came first. Then the concept of Distance emerged as we confirmed the directors. I came up with that as an overarching theme since the directors come from different countries so there is a physical and cultural distance between all of us. Of course the idea is to explore the emotional distance between people and in their relationships as well.

2. How did you also come to pick these directors, especially Sivaroj Kongsakul and Xin Yukun?

I have known Shijie's work for quite a few years now and have always admired him as a filmmaker.

For Sivaroj, I got to see his work before getting to know him.I remember seeing his first feature film, Eternity (Tiger Award for Best Film at the Rotterdam Film Festival) at the Singapore Arts Festival as my short film Lighthouse was programmed to play before it. I got to know him later on through Thai filmmaker Aditya Assarat.

Yukun was introduced to me through a film critic in China. At that time, he had just completed his first feature Coffin in the Mountain that was selected for Venice Critics' Week. I thought it was a real breath of fresh air, a new voice that differed from the young contemporary Chinese filmmakers coming out of China these days.

3. Were there any challenges working with diverse filmmakers?

There certainly were difficulties, since there are cultural differences between everyone on board. For example, in Thailand, the director didn't speak Chinese, so I was the one who had to listen to the actors' dialogue on set.

4. "Distance" was fully sold out when it premiered at the 2015 Golden Horse Film Festival. What was the audience reaction there like and did you expect it?

We had a wonderful premiere. And I was surprised by how everyone had their own favourite segments. Different segments spoke to different people depending on what they valued most - family, love, friendship, and also what phase of life they were in. 

5. The film has since been travelling around the world to Los Angeles and even Dublin. I am curious to know, were the reactions there similar to Taiwan or were they very different?

It's hard for me to know as I haven't been to those festivals. I'm just the Executive Producer after all. But I really like this little write-up from the Los Angeles Asia Pacific Film Festival about the film when it played. I thought it sort of captures the spirit of the film well: http://laapff.festpro.com/films/detail/distance_2016

6. Last but not least, you mentioned that you were writing a script about a Singaporean secondary school boy. Any details on how that is going and if there are any other upcoming projects you are working on?

I'm still working on tweaking the script and have also begun some initial casting. I can't exactly say it will surely be set in Singapore, but certainly in Asia. I am also developing two other English language projects (both novel adaptations) in the UK.

Director’s QnA featuring Tan Shijie, Yukun and Sivaroj
(Yukun’s answers have been translated by Sebastian Lim)

1. A lot has been said about what is it like working with Anthony. So I am going to ask something different, what is one interesting thing you have noticed about each other? Please try to describe a habit or quirk that they themselves won't know!

Shijie: I don't know if I he knows this about himself, but I found that Anthony comes to tears easily! (I think I can say this because I am this way myself - just not at my own work.) At certain points of the shoot, I would find him sitting by the monitor and sniffing, watching the performances. I found this strangely comforting, *laughs*.

Yukun: Anthony is sometimes very innocent, which does not quite tally with his age. His speech and actions would be child-like, which then requires any conversation or discussion to be carried out in a simplified, child-like manner. Otherwise, it will feel weird.

Sivaroj: He is a gentleman, I believe.

2. How does it feel to be part of an omnibus with the other directors? What was your reaction like when Anthony first approached you?

Shijie: In this particular case, the writers started film development together, in London, where first ideas were discussed as a group together with Anthony, so that there is thematic coherence in the stories from the omnibus. Also I knew from the beginning that my portion would be in the middle, and this contributed to how I approached the film as well, knowing the stories before and after. As such, on a conceptual level, there was a lot of collaboration, which was stimulating, and different, because I was thinking of what would come before and after my film as well. An interesting process.

I was naturally excited to be approached for this project, and accepted immediately; getting to make films is such a privilege so I felt like there was no other response. I was in a little bit of a dilemma, though. At the time when Anthony approached me, I had already committed to working on a film-set in China for 3 months. Given the Distance project timelines, I would have to develop ideas during the other shoot in China. That was tough! I was working on set all-day and working on my computer at night, thinking of ideas for the material in Distance. Tough, but extremely rewarding. And now there is a film.

Yukun: I was able to interact more with the other two directors during the scripting phase, allowing me to better understand and familiarize myself with their styles and habits. Director Tan Shijie left a deeper impression in me as a solemn, capable and experienced colleague. Though it took him longer to finish his script, every line and detail was carefully thought through. It is a pity that I was unable to learn from him on set during their filming as I was busy preparing for mine. However, I would find out from Anthony about the other directors. As expected, we all have our unique styles.
I loved Anthony’s “Ilo Ilo” and I feel that working on this project with Anthony would be a good experience and opportunity for me to learn and brush up on my skills, especially in portraying intricate feelings on screen which I feel inadequate in.

Sivraoj: I'm honoured and glad to work with everyone in 'Distance' especially with Anthony but also working together with another two directors from China and Singapore. I don't only admire them because of their capability in filmmaking but it is in the passion and love they have towards the filmmaking that I feel connected.

3. Can you describe a moment or scene in the other two directors' parts that you enjoyed very much?

Shijie: I'll try to answer this that doesn't give too much away.  
In the first part, the protagonist meets someone from his past, who doesn't recognise him. At this point in the story, we know what sort of relationship they have, so their interaction is really loaded and I always liked this, even from the script.

In the third part, the protagonist, a professor from out-of-town, who goes on a small tour of Bangkok with a local student. We see bits of Bangkok and see the developing relationship between the two that follows naturally and casually. I enjoy this very Thai way of seeing love.

Yukun: I was exposed to, and understood the message and story behind Director Tan Shijie’s “Lake” in the early stages of this project, and was able to see the final script for his segment. Thus, I would picture the directions of the story in my mind. However, after watching the final product, I felt that Tan’s directing captured deeper, more substantial elements which better brings out the essence and intended message in such a short segment. Tan also made it a point to carefully connect the transitions, especially at the beginning and end of the segment. It is not easy for so many details and so much emotion to be packed in such a short film, but Tan did a good job.

Sivaroj: I love every time the walking-father scene appeared in the first part and every scene at the lake in the second part.

You mentioned that you really enjoyed working with Chen Bo-Lin and Yo Yang, can you describe some memorable instances of working with them that you enjoyed?

In the film, they play very old friends that meet after a very long time apart. The scenes where the characters meet are sparse scenes with very little dialogue, but underlying them is a reservoir of feeling, under intense circumstances. This requires commitment from the actors, and they gave their all. I am always moved when actors put their emotions and put themselves in service of a creation, and in this case both of them gave very much, very generously. As their director, I can only be grateful.

Your first feature, "The Coffin in the Mountain" is noted for its relatively unknown cast. So what was it like to work with Chen Bolin who is an established actor?
I have no prior experience working with established celebrities. I was hesitant at first, but gradually as I worked through and discussed the script with Chen, I felt less worried. Chen is a professional actor who would go all out to play his character well. This pre-requisite allowed us to build up strong rapport and paved the way for the smooth working relationship ahead. During filming, when both the actor and director share a common goal of creating the best show for their audience, then how popular or how established the actor is does not matter anymore.

I understand that the film was released in China on 13th May. How did you expect the Chinese audience to react to it?
The Chinese market in the past two years has been more lively, but also more impetuous. Films on romance, comedy, and blockbusters on youths have all achieved impressive box office results, reflecting a solidifying taste for these types of films in the Chinese market in recent years. For the audiences that lack the knowledge in film aesthetics, more sophisticated films which focus on deep intangible emotions yet portrayed and captured in mild, subtle manners are likely to appeal less. Nevertheless, for the more experienced and more knowledgeable audiences, they should still be able to feel the filmmakers’ sincerity in bringing out the deeper messages of the film.

Finally if you could show this film to anyone, who would you show this film to and why?
Everyone! This film allows viewers to explore and consider the complicated emotions and feelings in life – subjects which we tend to ignore or shy away from. As human beings, how can we ever spend our life in solitude, without any form of social or emotional attachment?

Was this your first time working with a foreign lead actor? Were there any challenges in communicating?

I remember well how stressed I was before the shoot. I don't understand Chinese at all but when it comes, I go with it naturally. My eyes are on the monitor and the characters without being interrupted by the language barrier. Their emotions and expression are far more important to me.

Do you think any of your ideas from Eternity or Arunkarn have seeped into Distance as well?

My first feature is Eternity (ที่รัก), I made that film with the feelings I have towards how much I miss my father who left me long time ago. For my second feature Arunkarn I have a strong interest in the moment before our death. The story is told through two soldiers. It portrays their lives before they die. 
After Distance, I shifted to the next chapter of my belief towards filmmaking, which is that I still don't know exactly where we are all heading. No path, no destination. Maybe we all just have a duty to be the best we can, I believe. 

*Responses have been edited for conciseness, clarity and grammar

For more information: https://www.facebook.com/distancemovie2016/
Photo Credits: Jenson Chen and Distance
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