Kirsten Tan: "I am drawn to the boundaries and overlaps between dreams and reality."

Arguably one of the brightest stars now in the cosmogony of Asian cinema, Kirsten Tan defies classification almost as much as she defies convention. With a bold, rich, and incredibly eclectic collection of past works, Kirsten sends to the big screens now an ode to liberation and plain human comfort in the form of Pop Aye - a work that is more timely than ever because it celebrates the sheer joy of connections, intentional or not, in a time where we are more divided than ever. 

In keeping with the times, SINdie is proud beyond words to present Kirsten as our cover star and an intimate interview with her as an elephant-sized teaser for issue two of SINdie Magazine, out on April 14, a Good Friday to release. 

A self-professed ‘happy nerd’ when she was younger, to listen to Kirsten speak is to keep a perennial finger on the record button, whether to catch an insight or to snag an unexpected reference. This lady knows, and she knows a lot. 

Here, SINdie’s Alfonse Chiu chats with Kirsten about films, fancies, and a life that seemed like fantasy. 

What were you like in your early life? Have you always loved stories and storytelling? 

I was always into film, and I was always into reading; I was always into some forms of escape. Twenty years ago, it really wasn't easy finding arthouse films in Singapore, so I would really go to great lengths to get them; I would save up to buy stuff from Amazon, go to different libraries and beg librarians to allow me to watch restricted films… I just really love cinema. Back in secondary school, I even remember skipping school to watch the Oscars over the years. Films showed me this larger world out there; it was almost like this friend I've never had, a friend who was constantly telling me uncensored truths of what is out there. It fed my never-ending curiosity of the world. 

I used to be a real happy nerd in secondary school. I would always go to HMV and spend my afternoons just listening to music, or go to Kinokuniya and just browse. It was easy for me to come into contact with all writers, even the slightly more esoteric ones. It wasn't a mystery, I just found them on the bookshelves. 

I was very into this Japanese writer called Kobo Abe. His works always have a little surrealism, a little humour, and they were also very much about Japanese society which he explores and talks about through all those elements that I love. Kurt Vonnegut is another writer I liked a lot. 

As a teenager, I was obsessed with Ingmar Bergman; I was really blown away by his works, because of the extremely powerful imagery and his themes about existence and time; it was like nothing that I have seen before. I was more into the European classics back then; I was into Fellini as well. I remember being so into La Strada and 8½. 

By the time you were in Junior College, have you already decided to pursue the arts? 

I was assigned to the Arts stream—a no brainer once you look at my report cards and saw how much stronger my humanities were, compared to my sciences. Personally, I was fine with it, though my parents were furious. Then, my father brought me to see Lee Phui Man, the principal, and she basically sat us down and told him that his daughter was definitely an art student. That turned out to be one of the best decisions ever, because once I got into art stream and started learning literature, history, I was really just so happy and comfortable. I think, up until my late twenties I was still having nightmares about math tests. 

I also started attending the Singapore International Film Festival, then known as SIFF, as a JC student actually; I remember that it used to be in April, and it used to play at Shaw at Beach Road. It was one of my first few entry points into filmmaking in Singapore; it provided an immediate access into wider world cinema. 

It was also really fun to go out with the filmmakers to eat with them after their films screened; the Festival was not so formally organised now as it is then, and things happened in a more casual way. You would often hear people saying: 'Hey, let's go eat,' while walking out of the theatre after film screenings, and people would just gather to go to hawker centres, sit down, and just chitchat. 

The festival was pretty underground back then, and I didn't know as many people as I do now, though I could still recognise similar faces in the crowd all the time. One of the most memorable people I met was Toh Hai Leong, the guy who shot Zombie Dogs. He was a very interesting guy; I didn't know what his occupation was, but he was always there at film events. He was a little eccentric, and once, at one of those screenings, he passed me a VHS copy of Zombie Dogs in a Hello Kitty VHS cover. It is one of the most famous cult films in Singapore now, so I hold that copy as one of my prized possessions. 

Given your love for narrative, have you always been a constant creator since your youth? 

I wouldn't call myself a writer, but I was definitely writing; I wrote everywhere, I had notebooks and sketches and poems, and sometimes I would even write poems on squares of toilet paper before I flush them down. I found that act of flushing cathartic. I didn't write for people; I wrote for myself, and I didn't even understand at that point that it was an outlet. I did not even tell people then that I was writing; I didn't think that anyone in my circle would have understood it. 

After writing, I actually discovered music. I was playing the guitar, and I joined the NUS Guitar Ensemble for a while. I wrote my own songs too, and in my early years as a filmmaker, I used to compose music for my friends' short films as well. 

I think some of my music pieces have survived, but I don't think any of my writings did—I move around a lot. I am not really precious about my creations, because at that point I did it only as an act of expression, rather something to be consumed by others. I didn't bother keeping or archiving them properly. 

When you matriculated NUS, why did you choose to major in English Literature? How was your time there? 

I have wanted to do film since I was sixteen, but my parents wanted me to get a university degree. At that point all those years ago, there was no film major available in NUS; the closest subject was literature. So then, I went to do literature to appease both them and myself. It wasn't that hard of a choice because I really did enjoy literature in secondary school and JC. 

During my time in NUS, I also co-founded nuSTUDIOS with some other students, because there wasn’t any filmmaking CCA in the school. While I was there, I was more of a producer because I did not feel confident enough to direct. I produced some short films in NUS: one was called Eye to Eye; the other was called Room with a View. I actually liked producing, though I am not a great producer because every time we run out of money I would just put in my own. I liked the idea of supporting a vision, and I like being able to contribute and chip in in such a key way. 

Starting out, I feel that beginner filmmakers are always kind of hung up about the technicalities of filmmaking—lens, camera, how to shoot etc. Now, I feel that they are the least important part of filmmaking: who gives a shit about your lens and cameras when you can tell a good story, and tell it well? 

Were you more confident of your directorial abilities in Ngee Ann Polytechnic, or was it more a necessity of the circumstances? What were your experiences there like? 

When I went to Ngee Ann, I actually wanted to do cinematography; I wanted to become a cameraperson but I recall my cinematography teacher then doubting my ambition because it was hard physical work. I don't think he was being sexist deliberately, and I don't think it crossed his or my mind that it could be a sexist idea, so I went along with it and got into directing from there. 

In Ngee Ann, I learnt mostly through doing. I made two short films in Ngee Ann, Ten Minutes Later and Fonzi, and I also crewed on quite a lot of other student films. I learnt a lot on sets and through workshops as we get our films into the final cut. 

I remember feeling depressed once I made Ten Minutes Later because I felt that there were so many things I wanted to explore that I did not because I just wasn't good enough yet to make sure that I could do justice to what I wanted to have in the film. It was pretty unexpected that it started picking up prizes once it hit the festival circuit; I really don't know how my films would play at festivals or how people would react to it, so every time they receive good attention, it still comes as a bit of a surprise to me. 

I made Fonzi almost immediately after Ten Minutes Later; Ten Minutes Later was my first formal film from Ngee Ann, while Fonzi was my graduating film. 

One place in Ngee Ann that I remember fondly was the editing room; I was always in it with the editors. I liked being there, because that was where you get to see all the different works coming together. 

Subsequently, you won a film residency in Korea, what was it like, and how did it come about? 

It all wasn't planned actually; I had received an email from Tan Pin Pin who said that there was this film residency in Korea open for application, so I did, and I got in, and I just left. From that moment on, I never came back. 

It happened almost immediately after Fonzi was made and hit the festival circuit; we, the participants, were there for a year, and we just have to make a short film at the end of it. The nicest thing about the residency was that they brought us to every single festival in Korea, from Busan to Bucheon to Jeonju. 

It was only in Korea that I finally got comfortable with being identified as a filmmaker; before that, whenever people call me a filmmaker, I would shrug off that name and refer to myself as only 'someone learning film', it was a title that felt too lofty for me. While there, I was often labeled as a Singaporean filmmaker for convenience’ sake, because I was being introduced to people all the time, and because of that constant association, I finally came to term with the fact that I am a filmmaker, and I finally embraced the identity. 

In terms of communication however, Korea was tough because when I went there, the internet wasn't that rampant yet, so there were some days where I was completely without internet or any means of communication. It’s not like I could speak much Korean to locals. I just felt disconnected from everything and everyone. 

Those were the few instances of my life where I could completely disconnect from everything, and they felt so painful but beautiful at the same time. I felt like I could disappear and no one would know. Nowadays, I don't have that luxury anymore. 

I also became a lot more internal: I would take long walks in my neighbourhood—it, Jeonju, was a very pretty and old town without film places that one could visit—and I would just walk around it, and just take in my surrounding. 

It was a time that I felt really creative, because I thought through everything during my long periods of solitude. It was like being in a beautiful isolation tank, and I got to be alone with my own thoughts. It was a perfect setting for writing, though at that time I didn't know that. I should have cherished it more. 

During the weekends, I would travel to Seoul, and I would just sleep over in the saunas—the jjimjilbang as the locals call them—at night, because they are cheap, around eight dollars per ticket, and they don't care how long you spend there. 

When I wake up in the morning, I would go watch a movie, and by Sunday night I would take a bus back to Jeonju again. I was exploring a lot of Seoul by myself, and although I did make some friends and they were showing me around a little, most of it was by myself. 

After Korea, you moved to Thailand. What precipitated this? 

After Korea, I was around twenty-five, and though I knew that I loved film I wasn’t quite sure that there was a place for me in Singapore. At that time, it was still a rather early for the Singapore filmmaking landscape—at that point, Royston Tan hasn’t even made his first feature film yet! I just couldn't see how I could fit in; I couldn’t see myself here or how a young Singaporean female filmmaker could make a feature. I’m not sure if anyone would’ve trusted me then to make it happen. It was pretty confusing times for me, and instead of coming back and trying to figure it all out, I went to Thailand instead. 

I made a couple of Thai friends while in Korea; one of the guys in my programme was a Thai filmmaker, and through him, I knew a couple of Thai artists. By the time I was about to leave Korea, they said: ‘Hey! Why don’t you come to Thailand and visit us?’ so I did, and a year and a half just went by in Thailand. 

I know it sounds really crazy when I say it like that, but when you are traveling and you are on the road, you meet a lot of travelers who have been traveling for years. I was in that zone, and I really didn’t think that anything I did was out of the ordinary. 

I actually didn’t have as much financial concerns in Thailand as I thought I would. Since our lodging and food in Korea was mostly paid for, I had actually managed to save up quite a fair bit of money from the stipend they gave us during the residency. Moreover, the Thai people I met were extremely kind, and insisted that I stay with them without asking for rent, and so I stayed with a couple of different friends while I was in Thailand. With my savings from Korea, it actually went quite a long way; I was also working on tiny projects here and there for more money. 

While I definitely did not have a fat bank account, day-to-day life and expenditure was not a problem. On the inside, I felt like staying on in Thailand for a long time, possibly forever, but I was possibly getting a little antsy about my comfort levels at the end of my time in Thailand. 

I was actually so happy and content that I felt like I don't need anything anymore; I was seeing so much, and meeting new people all the time, and I was generally very inspired by everyday life. At some point, I sat myself down and told myself that this can't be it, because I was too young to settle and I still needed to see more of the world. 

From Thailand, I thought of where I wanted to be next, and New York felt like a natural choice. So, I applied to both NYU and Colombia, and when I got into both, I chose NYU. 

Why NYU? What was your deliberation process and what was it like to be there? 

It was quite a difficult deliberation. Initially, I wanted Columbia, because it was more focused in writing, whereas NYU felt more technical. However, when I dug deeper into why I wanted to be there, it was because I wanted to be in New York City, more so than wanting to be in a film school. I thought that since NYU was situated more in the middle of the action—it was in Greenwich Village—versus Columbia, which was close to Harlem, NYU just felt like a more suitable place for me. 

I really loved my time in NYU, and I think a large part of that had to do with the course mates that I had. NYU gets over a thousand applicants each year, and they select thirty to thirty five people across that sum. Their selection process was really interesting, they don't necessarily pick the ‘best on paper’, and I think many a time they pick the most interesting. 

They really don't see your grades, they just look at your portfolio and mission statement, and during the interview process, they do it quite creatively. For example, they would give you a stack of post cards and ask you to pick three, and then the 3 post cards would function as the start, the middle, and the end of a film and you’d have to tell them a story based on that. They would also ask all those little unpredictable questions that inform them of how you will be as a storyteller. 

They want to see how you can react spontaneously on the spot, how you can just create in the moment. It was all quite different and refreshing from the education I had in Singapore. The course mates I got, I found very inspiring. It was a great time, because I felt that I was constantly surrounded by brilliant and creative minds; it was just a really invigorating environment to be in, to be making films with all these people that I respected. 

By then you have already made four films; have you started contemplating your artistry already? 

After I made Sink in Thailand, I felt that I have hit some kind of plateau: I didn't know how to get better or improve. I knew the general basics of filmmaking, but I didn't know how to evolve. 

And I feel internally that my craft have improved since NYU—previously I didn't think so much of the audience, I didn't think so much about narratives, and after I went there I discovered a newfound respect for craft. 

When I say craft, I don't mean anything technical aspects like camera work, lighting or editing, but more about the softer craft of storytelling. Things like getting across an idea effectively, or being economical in one’s narrative, or just how to basically achieve what you want to achieve in the simplest, most elegant way possible; I know these all sound very simple, but they are really the hardest things to do. That is the heart of filmmaking. 

At the risk of sounding almost basic, NYU taught me too that the very nature of cinema presupposes an audience. I felt that this understanding brought me out of myself a lot, and humbled me into realising that it is not just about you, but it is about the people around you as well, when you are making films. It is about the crew, it is about the audience, and it is about how basically you interact with the world. Before that, I was a little more solipsistic as a filmmaker and could be a little petulant or self-indulgent. For me now, filmmaking is very much a negotiation between form and engagement. It’s about finding that sweet spot where you’re formally interesting without forgetting to be generous to the people who bother to watch your films. 

How did you support yourself while you were doing your degree? 

I got a fellowship from Tisch, and I was also a production associate, so I had a definite source of income. Immediately after I finished NYU, I started working, so I shot and directed some projects for brands like TEDtalk and Alice + Olivia. I would just be doing random things that come my way to earn a tiny amount of money each time to support myself. 

Maybe it is because I see myself first and foremost as a filmmaker, its actually quite relaxing for me to do commercial works, because for once I don't bear the full responsibility of the work. Often times, it's what the client wants or what the agency wants, so I actually feel that some weight has been taken off my shoulder. 

It was just using my craft in service of what they want for the brand, rather than using all my craft just for myself. Personally, one of the nicest thing about doing commercials is that I get to play around with different kinds of equipment, because they often come with a healthier budget. 

How did Dahdi come about as your thesis film? 

After NYU, I started working instead of doing my thesis film, and at some point, I got a call from my department chair saying that I have to graduate; I have been hanging on to my student VISA for too long, and that I need to make a thesis film. 

By then, I have already been in New York for maybe five years and I have been gone for eight years in total. I had a feeling that maybe it is time for me to go back to Singapore to make a short film again, and because it is my thesis film, I wanted to make something that matters to me. 

I came across the story of the Rohingya one day, and I saw reports of it where Singapore was mentioned. Basically, the whole incident in Dahdi happened, and when I tried to cross-reference it with the news in our home media, I found out that there was a black out on the news. I didn’t really see anything on the local news about the incident, and I felt a little upset about that; the news itself was upsetting enough, but not finding local news of it just felt like it was a story that needed to be told, so I came back to Singapore to make Dahdi. 

Dahdi and Pop Aye were written concurrently. I wrote Pop Aye almost as a distraction to Dahdi because Dahdi was a very weighty film. It was very realistic, and it was almost a little painful for me to make, while Pop Aye was just this distraction on the side. Whenever I felt too tired or whenever I lost perspective on Dahdi, I would flip to Pop Aye and work on it, and whenever it got too much, I would flip back and work on Dahdi again. I felt that this balance and bounce between these two projects actually helped my creative process, because they were very different from one another. 

Ultimately, where did Pop Aye come from? 

It came from all the random different things that I saw while I was living in Thailand. 

I did see street elephants when I was living in Thailand, and I felt that I found the idea of street elephants unethically sad, but also a little surreal. Seeing how they were completely displaced from their original environments and put in the city really affected me. 

A lot of the random characters I met while traveling made it into Pop Aye too, it was inspired by the time I spent there in Thailand. A lot of it was fully furnished by my own imagination, but I feel that the seedlings of all the small and random things were just based on personal experiences of little poetic coincidences. I generally prefer my life to function in poetic coincidences. 

How did your experiences making a feature differ from making shorts? 

Making a feature was a completely different ballgame - everything you hear about the difficulties of making the first feature, it's all true. 

I kind of already knew, but I didn't understand just how tough it was until I started making it. I think the main difference is the length: short films are tiny little sprints of inspirations, while they are also hard to make, they could also be finished in a few months, whereas feature films take years just to develop the screenplay. 

The entire process of Pop Aye took about three years, and I really felt rather drained at the end of it. I was completely spent. I guess it came with living with one project for all those years. Making a feature really requires some form of mental resilience; it is just like running a marathon, you have to keep going even if you are empty. 

What was it like at Sundance? 

I have been working on Pop Aye for three years, and during the editing process, we never had focus groups, so we never had any full audience watching the film, it was initially mostly between me and the editor, and then later on my producers. So I had no idea how the general audience would receive the film. 

The premiere night was quite a life-changing milestone for me. I was really a mixed bag of excitement and nerves, and I felt that sometimes I could barely breath, because of the feeling that it was finally going to be out there after incubating it for so long. The weight was immense. 

Before we even reached Park City, all the five screenings were sold out. At that point it was beyond my control - I felt like I was on the edge of a cliff and it was time to step off —it’s either fly or die. 

On that world premiere night itself, it was snowing and as I was about to enter the screening, I was a little overwhelmed when I saw that the waitlist line outside of the theatre had stretched almost a block. Since it was a sold out screening, people were queueing up in the cold for any potential seats left in the cinema to enter. I could hardly believe the kind of love and commitment that people displayed for cinema, much less that I was the director of the film that people were lining up to see. It felt surreal. 

During the screening, I sat in the theatre and I remember just having my clammy hands clasped together the whole time, because I was just waiting for people to react to the different moments in the film. 

By the time it ended, there was a Q&A session, and people were asking me tons of questions – it was a very engaging session. It was then that I felt this sudden release of weight. And the moment I stepped out of the cinema, all the trades came out, from Hollywood Reporter and Variety. The reviews were all positive, and at that moment I was just like 'Oh fu—' as the weight and the stress and the nerves of these three years that I was just carrying just evaporated. 

Mr. Lorber of Kino Lorber was also present at the screening, and he enjoyed the film, and he made an offer for Pop Aye in a couple of days. I was really filled with all these strong emotions that night, and I felt that nights like this I would remember for the rest of my life. 

How do you feel about finally showing Pop Aye in Singapore? 

I am really excited; I was just as excited as when I was premiering in Sundance. 

I am really curious as to how Singaporeans would take to it, and since all my friends and families and people who matter to me would be watching it for the first time, I am really looking forward to showing it to everyone. 

I feel like we have been teasing people for so long with the trailer, the poster, and all the promotional material, now that the wait is over, we can finally release everything out there. 

There has always been this sense of whimsy and the surreal in your works, is this thematic feature deliberate? 

It is not so much deliberate as it is inevitable; I feel that no matter what I do, no matter how real I try to be, a little bit of the surreal seeps in. Even for Dahdi, which is my most serious and realistic work, it is also not completely real as well. There was that sequence of that boat in the ocean. 

I suppose I’m just naturally a little prone to the strange things in everyday existence. I am drawn to the boundaries and overlaps between dreams and reality. 

Given such tumultuous time nowadays, what do you feel is the role that filmmakers play in shaping perceptions and discourse? 

The world is getting increasingly politicised, whether we like it or not, and so is Singapore. My greatest fear would be that different segments of society would stop listening to each other; that issues heat up until they become so 'Us vs. Them', for example, local social issues are often lined up along certain divisions like 'Local vs Foreigner' or 'Fundamentalist Christian vs Gays' etc. and it becomes really tiresome after a while where the same few issues get tossed up ad-nauseum but no one is really listening. While I do get that we have to fight for our personal beliefs and what we think is right, we need perspectives, especially perspectives from the other side. 

The role of film, in my opinion, is to break down walls and muddy up those lines a little. It has the ability to reach across, transcend borders and show you a world from the other end. Whether you like it or not, it shows you that we’re all not that different. I feel like genuine negotiations can only happen when a common ground is found. In my idealistic reality, films have the ability to do just that.
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