Production Talk: Tan Ai Leng on 'My Love Sinema'

One look at the trailer of My Love Sinema may conjure images of the timeless classic Cinema Paradiso. But this is the Singapore version of it. Perhaps that’s why it is Sinema with an ‘S’. About 5 years ago, filmmaker Tan Ai Leng came across a local novel which spawned the idea for this film. The novel was called "Rice Wine and Dancing Girls" by Wong Seng Chow, depicting the story of the author's father who was a roving cinema manager in Singapore and Malaysia during the fifties.

That inspiration has finally manifested itself in full form on the big screen this month. Set in the 1950s, My Love Sinema details one man’s never-ending pursuit of his passion for movies and films. It tells the story of Kheong (Tosh Zhang), a young, starry-eyed 20-year-old who moves to Singapore from a kampung in Malaysia, to train as a film projectionist. There, he meets Lee (Jeff Wang), who becomes his mentor and teaches him about life, girls and dancing. At the cinema, Kheong also encounters Wei (Cheryl Wee), a young Chinese teacher who finds herself torn between her obligation as a dutiful daughter and her feelings towards Kheong. As their affection towards each other grows, they face various obstacles that prevent them from being together. A riveting story of courage and hope, this nostalgic film chronicles life’s triumphs and disappointments, inspiring audiences to stay true to their passions. 
We first spoke to Ai Leng at the turn of the year in December 2012 when she first earned the New Talent Feature Film Grant from the Singapore Film Commission. Check out our previous interview here.
We catch up with Ai Leng again for her thoughts at the end of the finishing line now that the film had been completed and brought to audiences islandwide.
The film’s premise and ‘period’ requirements are certainly ambitious. Could you share what was the most challenging part of the production? Was there a particular day that was memorably challenging?

The most challenging part of the production would of course be recreating the entire cinema from scratch. After months of research and recce around Malaysia, I decided Ipoh should be the place. Fortunately, we managed to secure an abandoned furniture warehouse (which used to be a cinema long time ago) rather quickly, possibly because it was situated next to a funeral parlour street. What followed as a complete makeover of the place, from a debris-filled building to what you actually see in the film. I wanted things to be as authentic and real as possible, so I gave the art department lots of reference pictures depicting how the cinema looked like in the 1950s, and instructed them to use the same exact material to replicate it. The biggest challenge were the projectors, I had to make sure they were of the right era, and that they could actually work. Eventually we managed to find two ancient projectors off the suburbs, tore them down, brought them back piece by piece, and then set them up again. Of course they weren't working anymore, and I literally told the art department, "I am not going to shoot a projector that doesn't work." On the night before the projection room shoot, they got it running. Kudos to a fabulous art department!!
I guess the most challenging day of shoot was at the coconut plantation. We had only one overnight to do the entire rain scene sequence, not to mention the day scenes prior to this. It was hell for the entire cast & crew, because we were in the middle of nowhere, with lots of mozzies and leeches. I felt the production team did a really good job to make sure all of us were safe and well taken care of.
According to some reviews of the film, Tosh and Cheryl struck up a good chemistry on screen. How did you work with the leads to achieve what you wanted?
I have to thank veteran actress Yeo Yann Yann for the intensive acting workshop she did with Tosh and Cheryl. She drilled them really hard on their characters' mannerism and speech, making "Kheong" and "Wei" second-nature for Tosh and Cheryl. So when it came to the rehearsals, Tosh was already "Kheong" and Cheryl was already "Wei". For me, directing is not telling the actors what to do. It is more helping the actors (as their characters) find motivation in everything they do and say. For example, I made them write their own backstories, made them write their own scripts for certain scenarios that are not in the script, so that they can have a clear mind of what happened before and after, hence finding the motivation from there. Also I made them do all that in Chinese.

Like your short film ‘Across the Straits’ before MLS, MLS also deals with relationships across the causeway, what’s your special connection with Malaysia?
I've always felt a close connection with Malaysia because my grandparents were from there. The village names you hear in the film are real. Kheong comes from 桂花村 (Teluk Intan) which is where my grandparents came from. Also, I've always felt that we are same same but different, and that has always been an interesting premise to explore, be it the language or the culture.
You mentioned in a ‘TimeOut’ interview that you feel traditional cinema is dying. Do you mean classic story-telling techniques and treatments like in Cinema Paradiso and the likes? And why do you feel this is so?

I believe classic stories don't die. What I meant was traditional cinema projection. Film projection. We were very lucky to be able to find a veteran projectionist from the 80s who helped us with the 1970s open air cinema scenes, however, we for the 1950s projectors, there was no one who could help us. The older generation projectionists were all gone, and this knowledge hasn't seem to be passed down to the younger generation. And then it dawned upon me that we are indeed losing this important part of traditional cinema

My Love Sinema, is produced by FLY Entertainment, MM2 and Bioperfect. Apart from Tosh Zhang and Cheryl Wee who play the leads, it also stars screen legend Nora Miao (New Fist of Fury) and Hong Kong actress Cherry Ngan (The Midnight After), together with veteran Malaysian actor, Ye Qingfang (四喜臨門), as well as MediaCorp Artistes Richard Low (Ah Boys To Men trilogy) and Dennis Chew Chongqing (Everybody's Business).

Catch it in cinemas islandwide now before it ends its run!

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