'Home is where the heart is' on Viddsee redefines incarceration

Many films of late lead us to question the idea of criminality. We all have our reasons for doing things and sometimes stepping outside society's boundaries. The best study of this is Hirokazu Koreeda's award-winning Shoplifters. Chang Kai Xiang's Home is where the heart is a deft effort in transporting the 'criminals are humans too' trope into our local context, in which the 'criminal' in the story chooses to commit theft for all to see and get caught. Not wanting to be a burden to the family, Mdm Wong resorts to stealing items from the neighbourhood store so she could 'check herself' into prison where meals and utilities are all paid for. A young lawyer named Jane Liu comes into picture and is given the task of defending Mdm Wong. 

Home is where the heart is part of Viddsee's second season of Scene City, an anthology of short films about the rich and layered narratives of city life in Singapore. Premiering August 29, the Scene City films are due to be released from now until October 17.

We caught up with the director of the film, Chang Kai Xiang, to find out where the line is drawn between fact and fiction in the peculiar phenomenon of willing silver-haired convicts.

Old people getting themselves into prison to seek solace is a bit of a mini phenomenon in Japan, what inspired your story? Did you watch Shoplifters?

That mini phenomenon in Japan is basically what inspired this story and short film, I just needed to tweak it to fit in our context. To be honest, there are similar cases in Singapore, just that we are very efficient in reaching out to help (due to our landmass), thus preventing it from becoming a crime wave. But what about those people who are unfortunate enough to fall through the cracks and don't "qualify" for subsidies etc.? 

That really got me thinking and inspired me to the premise of the story: Will I tell someone about my ulterior motive and risk having to face the same problem all over again?

And yes! I love Hirokazu Koreeda's films. If you spot any similar moments in the short film, you are mostly correct. My approach is heavily influenced by his films!

What kind of research did you do for your film? Who were the people you spoke to?

My research was mainly from articles and interviews on poverty in Singapore, I've also talked to the SPF, who are very supportive to the story, but they pointed out that some of the plot points are not possible or realistic like how I imagined and assumed it to be. Oh, I forgot to mention, the main character  Ms Jane Liu, was a Prison Officer in charge in the first few drafts. We changed her to a defence counsel after talking to the very friendly and helpful folks from The Law Society of Singapore. 

The Law Society of Singapore really helped us a lot by providing valuable insights in terms of legality and their experience on working with clients. They even allowed us to use their office to film some of the scenes! You should check them out, they provide pro bono services for people in need too!

Beatrice Chien has appeared in a wide variety of roles. How was your experience working with her?

I was pretty nervous when I first met Beatrice to talk about the story, but I realise she was pretty cool, very open minded and extremely supportive to the local film and theatre scene. And I was super excited when she agrees to take on the role!

Working with experienced actors like Beatrice is such an eye opening and wonderful experience, she is able to own the character and deliver on point performances that are so much more interesting than what I have imagined in my mind. She is always receptive to impromptu ideas and is willing to share her thoughts, which I REALLY liked, because filmmaking is a collaboration.

And the clothes that you see in the short film are actually her own old clothes! She is so nice to donate her old clothes for us to age and destroy. Thank you Beatrice!

The film is succinct and effective in its storytelling. Can you take us through your treatment and editing in this film? 

The short film wasn't as succinct and effective in its first cut, we actually filmed and had an additional story thread where the defence counsel's mother (Played by Jalyn Han!) was trying to bond with her. I wanted the story to have a strong character development but I realise that the subject matter is much more important than that. Which is why you still see the first scene when the defence counsel is on the phone with her mom, reacting coldly, and also her mentor colleague debating about the meaning of being "Filial".

I would say I'm pretty lucky (or a bad writer) that taking away that storyline did not affect the story, but it actually made the short film much more clearer and focused. 

What were the greatest challenges in making this film?

The biggest challenge for me is to not make any statements or portray the characters with any social / political agenda in the short film. I mean we all have our own perception and will tend to be bias towards what we value, but that shouldn't be the focus for me as the filmmaker of HIWTHI, I want to leave it for the audience to perceive and react themselves (you can take a look at the comments section on youtube). And hopefully, manage to shine a light on the subject matter; the ceiling lights in the short film are actually the metaphor for it heh.

Another challenge for me was to get the legality process accurate and scenes authentic, which I'm grateful to receive support and help from SPF and Singapore Law Society. It's not easy to finish a story and then to discover that it will not work because of the legality; I've learned my lesson well.

What are you most satisfied with in the end product?

I think like what you mentioned in question 4, I'm very satisfied with the storytelling aspect whereby it's very focused and effective. The story serves its purpose, like how it was intended to (minus the additional storyline, sorry Jalyn...my fault!) and I'm very happy that viewers are responding to it. 

I'm really grateful for everyone who believed in the story and contributed to the short film one way or another, and I want to take this opportunity to thank the producer, Sabrina Poon, who is actually the one pulling everything together and making the short film work within time and within budget. Thanks Spoon!

Interview by Jeremy Sing

About Chang Kai Xiang

Kai Xiang has been making films that embrace the human spirit since 2007. His first short film (I Never Lie – 2014)  was selected for competition and distribution at Short Shorts Film Festival in Tokyo, Japan. In 2019, his first feature film script (殘影空間 Shadows - Directed by Glenn Chan) which was selected and developed by MM2 Entertainment, completed its principal photography in June and is slated for release in 2020.  

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