Just a boy named ADAM: Filmmaker Shoki Lin shares all

The name “Adam” carries baggage of epic proportions. It is an utterance that augurs monumental primacy, and with it: creation, betrayal, sin, temptation, darkness and redemption. Adam, the first emblem of rotten innocence. His story, the backbone of history, is a song that continues to be sung through the ages.

To know this and yet enter ADAM, a short film by NTU School of Art, Design & Media student Shoki Lin, is therefore to know dissonance. In an email interview with SINdie, Lin gave the tonal equivalent of a shrug when quizzed about the title and simply replied, “We chose the name ‘Adam’ as it is not a particularly unique name”—but, he also explained—“and I find it interesting that it is pronounced differently in Malay and English.”

The film, which was selected for this year's Cannes Cinéfondation and also won Best Picture in the 2017 Singapore's National Youth Film Awards, tells the story of a 9-year-old biracial boy struggling to find a sense of belonging. Though ostensibly spanning only a few days in the titular character’s life, the vignette is charged with tension. The camera tracks Adam like a loyal, invisible friend and like this, you easily perceive his unspoken daily toil. Every moment is spent watching him gaze across the immense canyon that separates him from what his heart desires. Therein lies the beginnings of rotten innocence.

The film opens with Adam piloting a remote-controlled battery-operated toy car up and down a flight of stairs. No, correction: the toy car blusters clumsily down the steps, is retrieved after its descent by Adam, who then swiftly repositions it back at the top of the staircase and repeats the whole process. What kind of play is this?, this scene seems to be challenging its audience. Who is this child that he resorts to such play, and why?

As usual, the HDB skyline makes its cameo, but a knowing local will easily spot the nuance: these are shots situated in a rental flat neighbourhood. ADAM was shot on location and this milieu frames the gritty realism of Adam’s story. In fact, Lin explained, “[The] script was constantly evolving even through our pre-production phase. Often times the locations and people I met along the way helped to shape the story.”

All these unfold against the Singapore backdrop, a country frequently touted as a melting pot of races and cultures. It is an iron-cast statement we wear like a badge of honour, reproduced in short, sweet slogans and inscribed into national songs. Yet, ADAM’s concerns of identity should come as no surprise to anyone born and bred of this land. Singaporeans are a people who know how to perform what is expected of them, without interrogating the fissures of their logic or confronting their participation in contradictory realities. Hence, the phrase “racial harmony” may have squirmed its way into our nation-building vocabulary—but what does that even mean?

What Lin called “[the] universal desire to seek a place of belonging” therefore arises from the splitting of Adam’s racial identities. It is universal insofar as everyone wants to belong somewhere. But this is a quagmire specific to Adam because he is unable to locate himself between two communities, despite the longstanding proclamation of Singapore as a place for everyone, regardless of race.

Lin shied away from overtly racialising ADAM, however, and opted to emphasise the film’s focus on a child’s upbringing. “I hope the film allows viewers to see a part of themselves in Adam and think about the significance of home and identity, especially for a child,” said Lin.

Indeed, part of what draws you to Adam is his tender age. It abuses our hearts to know that a child must battle neglect in such Goliathan forms. Unlike his biblical ancestor, our young protagonist is betrayed by most of the adult figures in his life, leaving him a vagabond adorned by the “elusive quality” his name grants him. We wander along with him, searching but not really searching, contemplating but also avoiding. We want something for him—we just don’t know if it’s in our place to want it on his behalf.

The biggest source of indignation comes from knowing and feeling Adam’s powerlessness. As a child, he must rely on the adults around him to provide for him. Yet, time and again, they fail him and he cannot but be buoyed along on waves that threaten to swallow him up. In one scene, he takes his anger out on an object that, unlike the toy car, doesn’t belong to him; shortly after, he’s seen trying to salvage the situation. Adam literally cannot afford to exhibit his feelings—and for a child trapped in this predicament at that age, the feelings are many.

Adam of ADAM is no harbinger of great beginnings. His story is not a story that will reverberate through the ages
it is but a drop in the ocean. His relentless boyishness promises no hope of redemption; again and again, he makes choices that frustrate an adult audience like us, mistakes that tumble further into each other. Yet, it would be remiss of us to wave it off for that alone. Dig deep and you’ll see that sometimes the sincerest, most childlike of tales are the grandest of them all.

Read the full interview with Lin below.

SINdie: Why the name “Adam”? What does it symbolise?

Lin: Adam is the name of main character in the film, a 9-year-old boy who is half Chinese and half Malay. We chose the name “Adam” as it is not a particularly unique name, and I find it interesting that it is pronounced differently in Malay and English. This gives the name an elusive quality which encapsulates the character’s struggle of finding his place in the world.

What inspired you to conceptualise this story?

The story developed in many different directions. I had two different stories which - developed and scrapped before coming up with ADAM. I spoke to various people about their conceptions of identity and parenthood and also thought about the different experiences of growing up in Singapore.

More so than the answers you’re seeking with ADAM, what questions are you asking your audience and/or hoping your audience would ask after watching the film?

The story is simple but it touches upon a universal desire to seek a place of belonging. I hope the film allows viewers to see a part of themselves in Adam and think about the significance of home and identity, especially for a child.

What was the production process like from start to finish?

I started writing the film around April of 2018. There were a lot of re-writes and drafts and the script was constantly evolving even through our pre-production phase. Oftentimes the locations and people I met along the way helped to shape the story.

We started pre-production with location scouting and casting. We went door to door in housing estates to find the house that we felt would fit the characters in the story. We knew the casting of Adam was really tricky and crucial so I decided to street cast. It took us a few weeks of roaming around, looking out for kids in that age group till we found Ayden.

Rehearsals started around two months before the shoot. We were very lucky to have found Ayden as he was able to pick up the story very quickly and delivered performances that were character-motivated.

Shooting took place over four days at the end of December. We had quite a number of locations to cover. We also had long handheld takes which made the shoot challenging. Our cinematographer, Ibrahim, operated the Alexa on his shoulder for long periods of time but he made it look easy!

Post-production was quite rushed as the deadline for Cinéfondation was mid-February. I worked with Azmir our editor, Natasha our sound editor, and Sulwyn our composer during this period. After many long nights, we were able to make it just in time for the submission.

Was the film shot in a low-income or rental neighbourhood? How was it like filming on location?

Yes, the scenes in the houses were shot in rental flats. The process of scouting for locations was really important for me as a writer. It allowed me to meet the people living in those spaces and have a better understanding of how their environment shapes their day to day lives.

We were very fortunate to have found locations that were very close to what we wanted. For instance, we wanted the houses to each have a distinct look and colour palette. Our production designer, Beaunice, did an amazing job in making the spaces feel like they belonged to the characters in the story.

During the shoot we met with a lot of generosity from the neighbours. While prepping one of our locations on Christmas Day, a day prior to our shoot, one of the neighbours invited us for a communal Christmas dinner by the lift landing which we gladly accepted!

How did you & the team feel when you first received the news about being selected for the Cannes Cinéfondation?

I think we all got a big shock when we heard the news. We had planned to submit the film to Cinéfondation but I don't think any of us expected anything to come of it. It is a real honour to be part of such a prestigious film festival and I still find it hard to believe that we are actually here in Cannes.

Moving ahead, what do you foresee for yourself and the Singaporean film industry, given that we’re currently in the midst of what has been coined the “Singapore New Wave”?

I'm not really sure how to answer that as I can't speak for the industry as a whole, but if anything, I'm happy to be able to contribute to the “Singapore New Wave” in my own little way.

It is always inspiring to see local filmmakers being recognised for their work, especially on an international stage, and I am motivated to want to continue telling stories through film. I hope to be able to make a feature one day.

Written by Eisabess Chee
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