On the Ground Once More: An interview with Daniel Yun

‘If I were to do it again, I would make 1965 a little bit more personal,’ film producer Daniel Yun said with a fair measure of clarity and certainty.

Alluding to the lukewarm response to his SG50-commemorative film 1965, Daniel is determined to make good what he felt 1965 lacked, personal stories. His latest project, titled ‘From the Ground Up’ (now renamed '15 Shorts'), is not a feature film but a collection of new short films to be made by 15 filmmakers in Singapore, including Eric Khoo and K Rajagopal, over the next one and a half years. These films are bound by the common theme of untold stories of remarkable Singaporeans who have made a difference to the people around them. Pitched at a more common folk, grassroot level, Daniel is not just looking for big philanthropic personalities who could be earning a public service medal on National Day. He is looking for courage and bravery on a more candid level, such as the neighbour who offered you kueh.

Daniel is also specifically looking the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. What’s special about this era? It was post-independence, industrious Singapore, a society law-abiding to a fault, a country with the best airport, seaport and airline. It was also pre-social-media Singapore, during which people saw it more as a collective, rather than individuals.

  Still from 'One at a Time', one of the first 5 shorts to be launched under '15 Shorts'

“Those times were about ‘don’t create problems for yourself’, ‘don’t create problems for other people’, ‘just do your thing’. There was no such thing as art as a career. You had to be a lawyer, engineer or doctor. ‘Don’t take the arts, take the sciences.’ I grew up in that kind of environment.
‘’What about people who took a different path, or were simply different. ‘15 Shorts’ is not a project about people who did charity. It’s about ordinary Singaporeans who did things a little bit out of the ordinary, a little bit out of the system. In a way, it is almost like the stories I never got to tell in 1965,’’ Daniel articulated measuredly.

In his own personal life and career, who were these people? We turned the pivotal question on the man behind the project himself, looking for clues and insights into a visionary who actually produced close to 30 films in a span of 10 years.

Still from '1965', actor Lim Kay Tong deep in thought during a pivotal point in Lee Kwan Yew's life 

It didn’t take long for Daniel to jog his memory and decide on his first ‘point of tribute’. He recounted his memories of the man who opened the door for him into show-business. During the days when the national broadcaster was called SBC (Singapore Broadcasting Corporation), a man named Lee Chok Yew just took over the helm at SBC Enterprises and was looking for someone to revolutionise radio. Daniel at that point, had in fact just left behind a successful advertising career. Having climbed the ladder from artist to creative assistant to creative director and finally, the founder of his own marketing company, Channels Marketing, he was at a point of accomplishment yet wanting a change of air. In addition, he also sold his company.
Chok Yew’s goal was clear - kill Radio Batam. Listeners to 98.7 FM in the early 90s might remember turning the radio tuner a few inches clockwise for a change of music whenever local airwaves got boring.
‘’Chok gave me a chance because he saw what I did in the advertising world and he actually needed someone to think out of the box. He asked if I could kill Radio Batam in 6 to 8 months. I killed it in 3 months,’’ Daniel quipped.
Daniel is thankful for the fact that Chok Yew had hired him as the first Vice President (VP) of SBC Enterprises and more importantly, the first VP without a degree. The job opportunity gave him a chance to change radio programming and the radio sales system. Years later, when SBC corporatised and became TCS (something some older taxi drivers still refer to the current Mediacorp as), he was given the opportunity to get involved in marketing and content for television, specifically for Channel 5 and 8.
“Chok Yew is a bit of a maverick. He thinks out of the box and is someone who wants change. Open to radical ideas. For someone like me, I find it not easy to respect bosses but I respected him and I still do, ”said Daniel.
TCS became Mediacorp towards the turn of the century and Chok Yew opened another door for Daniel at this point. He asked Daniel what he wanted to do, to which Daniel responded, he thought about setting up a movie company. In 1998, Mediacorp Raintree Pictures was established.
‘’At one point of time, it was hip for people to say ‘I’m not a Jack Neo fan’, ”Daniel recounted having to defend the local comedian-director-actor a lot during the height of his collaboration with him. Some people loved Jack Neo’s movies while others hated them. But something in Jack resonated in Daniel, sealing a ‘Jack-Daniels’ collaboration that gave the teething film industry in Singapore in the early noughties some signature sounds, sights and shticks.
Daniel recalls their significant collaboration that sparked other collaborations - I’m Not Stupid. Inspired by the success of Liang Po Po The Movie, Daniel, Jack and Peter Chen got together to work this seminal film about Singapore’s education system, in a bid to do ‘something important’ and also revive the film industry.
‘’Movies, for me, are about moments. When you have moments that connect with an audience, it is very powerful. Sometimes you leave the cinema and you may forget about everything you watched. But you may remember certain moments and if there are, it means there is a connection and you feel like you are getting what the movie is trying to say. If a movie has 2 or 3 of such moments, chances are you would definitely like it. You would recommend it to your friends, regardless of whether the production values were good, or whether the acting or the lighting was good. If a movie has 5 to 6 such moments, then it becomes it a religious experience!’’ said Daniel punctuating his message.
  Poster of 'I Not Stupid'

Alluding to Jack Neo’s ability to create many iconic moments in Singapore cinema, Daniel added, ’’The part that I especially like about him is that he can make you laugh and cry at about the same time. It’s wonderful that he has injected that into the projects that we have worked together on. That’s vintage Jack Neo and there was a lot of it in I’m Not Stupid.”
The ‘Jack-Daniels’ collaboration was indeed a very close-knitted one. In the presence of two very strong-headed men on the film set, there were often ideas from other team members that fell on deaf ears with Jack and only Daniel had the ability to convince him. There were many sensitive issues and difficult creative decisions to be made on paper and on the set that Daniel could always be counted on for his shrewd opinions. Finally, as a bonafide marketer, Daniel wanted to work with someone who wanted his films to be marketed extensively and nobody wanted it more than Jack Neo.
In an interesting ‘full circle’ to Daniel’s collaboration with Jack Neo, one of their last projects together saw Jack back as an actor, just like how it started in Liang Po Po The Movie. Lauding how Jack has helped him see the film industry from various angles, Daniel recounted Jack playing ‘Karen Neo’ in the Chinese New Year movie Homecoming in 2011, and how his work as an actor touched him in a different way from his work as a director, writer or producer.
‘’I have seen him as a writer, a director, a producer, and of course, as an actor. When he had that scandal, nobody wanted to touch him with a 10 foot pole. At that time, I had set up Homerun Asia with Peter Lim as my investor. I felt many people have forgotten the impact he’s made as an actor. People had forgotten 12 Storeys, as well as all the things he had done as Liang Po Po and as Liang Simei. People just remembered him as a director. Honestly, I personally just wanted to see Jack Neo not having to put on the producer’s or director’s hat, and be an actor. I even wrote an article about him as an actor in the papers. So my first film project under Homerun Asia, was in fact a ‘homecoming’ of sorts.’’
‘’The last person whom I feel made a significant difference for me in my life was actor Qi Yuwu, ’’said Daniel.
 Qi Yuwu (right) in '1965' 

Casting woes led to opened doors between the veteran producer and the then fresh and up-and-coming actor from Guangzhou, China. For several movie productions, Raintree Pictures was seeking to cast some Mediacorp artistes. However, the experienced ones were often booked for other television drama productions and it became virtually impossible to cast these artistes. This led to Daniel deciding to sign up some new artistes. Two of the talents he identified were Qi Yuwu and Joanne Peh.
Joanne declined a few offers initially because she wanted to focus on television acting but Qi Yuwu displayed greater enthusiasm for the film projects.
‘’So I started to know him as an actor, a friend, and an immigrant from China to Singapore. He came, shouldering all the expectations and pressures of making it in Singapore. He also had to deal with the issues of being an immigrant assimilating into the Singapore society. I helped him see and create a family in this part of the world. And soon, he became a bit like family too. In a way, I helped him create an ecosystem in which friends also became family. I also ‘brought’ him and Joanne together. They call me the matchmaker, ’’he remarked.

 Qi Yuwu behind-the-scenes in '1965'

Daniel’s relationship with Qi Yuwu has opened up his eyes to new perspectives in the film industry both in Singapore and internationally. In his local movie acting stint, Qi Yuwu has starred in movies like Royston Tan’s 881, Jean Yeo’s The Leap Years, and more recently Daniel’s own 1965. Beyond Singapore, he has also acted in 2007 Australian film Home Song Stories, opposite Joan Chen, as well as 2008 China production Painted Skin opposite the likes of Donnie Yen and Zhou Xun.
‘’Through his struggles as an actor in Singapore and Asia, I see the struggles of the industry in general as well. The challenges of stardom. How can one make it in the big China market and what are the struggles? Beyond that, it’s also about seeing his values towards friendship, being away from his family, starting a brand new family here. And now, two kids,’’Daniel added.
Not exactly a Jack of all trades, pardon the pun and the reference, Daniel is indeed a man of many influences and one who is adept at pulling all these elements in his life together for the work he does. If asked to name his most entrenched role, it would be that of the producer, the person who has to do almost everything to make things happen. Creative offshoots are aplenty in his life, such as his co-directing stint in 1965, but the work that has defined him most is that of a producer.
But Daniel is no money-shuffling industrialist. He made his mark in the industry with foresight and vision and continues to maintain his stance in ‘15 Shorts’, his latest collaboration with the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre. In fact, he turned his back on an offer from the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth to fund the project fully. He cited reasons including the fact that being a commissioned project would contradict the true of the spirit of the project.
When asked about the possible overlaps with the plethora of highly savvy, story-driven government campaign commercials that have surfaced over the years, Daniel is mindful of the fact that what he is aiming for are short films about real people, not campaign advertisements. No embedded messages. Just simple inspiring acts that made a difference to people’s lives.

At the launch of 15 Shorts: Melissa Kwee, Jason Lee, Daniel Yam, Sharana Rao (co-worker of the late Teresa Hsu), Randy Ang, Tommy Yu, Jeremy Chua (Producer of Waiting Room), Sean Ng and Daniel Yun

“Personally, I wish everyone in Singapore can live and operate from a space of win win. Because for each of us to win, it doesn’t mean someone else has to lose. If we operate from a space of scarcity, then it will always be a win lose situation. But there is enough for everyone, in almost every aspect of our lives. If we operate from a win win, the very Singaporean Kiasu trait will slowly disappear. And a lot of the ugly scenarios playing out in our corporate world, in our everyday lives, will also diminish progressively,’’ commented Daniel about how he hopes Singapore can mature as a nation, and create a new narrative beyond the post-1965 SG50 one we have come to be familiar with.
‘’I also wish our government will treat Singaporeans with the respect parents accord to their children when they have matured. With this respect, our society will be more layered, more colourful, and more interesting. Singaporeans, will start to react to the governing party with maturity, start to treat each other with respect and civility, and very soon, Singapore as a city will be one with a soul. One with enough of a heritage to look forward to creating meaningful memories as individual and as a people.’’

  Still from 'The Buddy', by Jason Lee, one of the youngest filmmakers under '15 Shorts'

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