Boo Junfeng on the memories of SANDCASTLE
by Ng Yi-Sheng
Boo Junfeng had already established himself in Singapore as an award-winning short filmmaker when he made his first feature film, Sandcastle. The film proved very popular on the film festival circuit, premiering at Cannes in May 2010, and playing at festivals in Pusan, London and Toronto amongst others, while at home it did respectable business, and was warmly received by audiences.
He was awarded Singapore’s Young Artist Award in 2009, and has just won the Singapore Youth Award.
Junfeng is also one of the key figures behind Pink Dot, Singapore’s annual celebration of the freedom to love of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons in Singapore.
Ng Yi-Sheng interviewed this young director about the ideas and process of making his films, upon the film’s release last year.
NYS: How did you the idea for Sandcastle come about?
BJF: Well, I was first inspired by the idea of memory, primarily from observing my grandmother who was suffering from dementia. Towards the end of her life, she lived with my family for a few years. It was actually quite a painful period, because you know with dementia there are all these side-effects: it’s not just about memory, it’s also hallucinations and paranoia, so there were moments in her delirium when she basically turned into a different person.
So it was quite an emotional period. I thought that I could channel some of that into the work. I wanted to explore the idea of memory: there’s this boy who is observing his grandmother, but at the same time he’s discovering his family’s past, and he finds out that his father used to be involved in student movements in the ‘50s and ‘60s. This is information that he never knew about his dead father. So it’s a parallel between personal memory and social memory, and how we sometimes voluntarily or involuntarily forget things that have happened.
NYS: Who are the stars?
BJF: I worked with non-professional actors. The boy in the lead role is Joshua Tan: he’s a bassist in the local band Firefight. And yeah, I think he did an amazing job: I’m hearing a lot of good things about his performance, and I’m personally very pleased, because he had absolutely no acting experience before, not on screen, not on stage.
What I felt was very interesting about him, why he was chosen, was that he had a very contemplative quality about him that fits the character very well. And being a non-actor, the character needs to be quite similar with who the actor is.
[But] he also never spoke a word of Mandarin – he’s a typical ACS (Anglo-Chinese School) boy who gave up on Chinese long ago, but his role is mainly in Mandarin. And he had to listen and communicate with his Hokkien-speaking grandparents in the film, while he himself is Cantonese. He was struggling with language a lot, but he was very diligent in remembering his lines. You can see his script just scribbled with hanyu pinyin almost entirely. It motivated me very much when I saw that he was so into it.
NYS: Tell me about your locations.
BJF: Well, one significant space is the shoreline, the beach. I was inspired since Alfian Sa’at’s Katong Fugue to explore the idea of the shoreline and what it could represent. And I’ve always been quite intrigued by the idea that the whole of Marine Parade and the Upper East Coast area is reclaimed land, so basically the place that you lived in never used to exist, and the place you’re standing on is the sea. So in the film the shoreline represents the threshold, the furthest point this boy’s father and the boy himself were willing to walk towards their ideology, their convictions.
And among the more interesting spaces, there’s one house that we found that’s really interesting. (The boy moves in with his grandparents, and he lives in this house.) It’s a house in Katong that no one lives in because there used be an old couple who lived there, and the family who owns the house refuse to do anything with it. So they’ve left the place as kind of a time capsule. They never moved the furniture: everything there is as it was then the old couple passed away. From then on, everything there, it stays. So it’s like the childhood place of this family.
What makes it even more interesting is that it’s a semi-detached house: it’s a single-story semi-detached house, definitely pre-war. So right next to it, the neighbours tore down their house and rebuilt this three storey ultra-modern-looking house: it’s three storeys with these glass window panels.
It’s such an interesting juxtaposition. You actually see time when you look at those two houses put together. And this was where Fann Wong and Christopher Lee filmed The Wedding Game – so that’s like a commercial film house, and ours is the independent film house!
Unfortunately, because of the construction that happened next door, a lot of walls and its pillars are cracking in the house we shot in, and the family had to put up braces to reinforces the columns and the beams. But it just had so much character; it was the perfect location, it’s a beautiful space.
NYS: It’s a real contrast with the present day, I guess.
BJF: Well, I didn’t state it explicitly in the film, but it’s actually set in the late ‘90s. For a boy to have a father who was involved in his activities in the ‘50s, it would have to be set in like the ‘90s lah, but I pushed it as far as I could, so it was 1999. It was an interesting era because it was the dawn of the Internet, and as we all know now the Internet has revolutionised a lot of things, but at that point it was the start of it.
The production designer was quite obsessive with making sure that things, like the props and the technology that the characters used were from the ‘90s. And then you realised, 1999 actually didn’t seem like such a long time ago, but it’s been 11 years, and actually a lot of things have changed.
We couldn’t set anything at a bus stop for example, because the bus stops have changed. We shot in Sengkang, and we had to look for HDB lifts without the glass panel, which were quite difficult to come by, actually. Playgrounds that are old enough, void decks that are old enough… These are things we could control lah.
Unfortunately there are things which might give 2009 away, because of traffic – even though we got prop cars that were made in 1999. As you know, no cars in Singapore are more than ten years old, so if you look carefully, you’ll see some of the cars don’t fit. We’re not a big budget film, so we couldn’t afford to clear a street.
Also talking about spaces, there are a few scenes in Malaysia. We actually we had to shoot a shot of the Causeway connecting Singapore and Malaysia from a high angle, so that we actually see the physical connection between the two countries. This was an important element in the film.
NYS: You didn’t have to Photoshop anything for that clip?
BJF: Everything on the other side of the Causeway looked okay [like it was still set in the ‘90s]! But I think Johor is beautiful.
I mean, if you look at the film, Johor is a lot more cinematic, because it has character, and things are not ten years old or younger. So you point a camera in Johor, and there is a certain quality, there’s a certain character lah, which is very beautiful. In Singapore it’s not easy to find great angles, and you know how in Johor or a lot of other places you have these beautiful electric cables that hang, and things there’s texture to everything? But here everything is just whitewashed, you know. It’s a characteristic of Singapore, lah. But it doesn’t look as pretty.
NYS: The dancer Bobbi Chen acted for you as well, right?
BJF: Bobbi plays En [the male protagonist]’s new girlfriend. She’s a character who moves in next to En and she’s a new immigrant from China, and so is her father. As the film deals with the idea of time, it also deals with the idea of new immigrants and old immigrants: that Chinese Singaporeans are essentially all immigrants. It addresses a little bit of the heritage of Singapore.
NYS: She’s great, isn’t she? I worked with her on an ARTS FISSION piece.
BJF: She’s amazing. I tell you when she walked down the Croisette in Cannes all dressed up, she looks like, I mean, she’s a movie star, you know. She was a major hit in Cannes. Yah. She looks amazing. And we needed a girl like that for En to have his sexual awakening.
But Bobbi is a really sweet girl and very very professional. I mean, I would consider her a non-professional actor, but she did very well too. And of course I definitely needed a girl from China lah, to play this role. She’s a naturalised Singaporean now, she’s been here for many years, but her accent and world view and many things are what the character has.
NYS: I’m sure the Mandarin comes a bit more naturally to her.
BJF: Language also plays a big role in the film. It’s a generational thing: between the grandparents, they speak in Hokkien; mother and son speak Mandarin, and then En, the son, and his friends speak English. I think language is can really define how the generations of Singaporeans have lived.
NYS: By the way, I’m sorry I missed that event last year, when you told us to come dressed to “party like it’s 1999”.
BJF: It wasn’t an event lah, it was a shoot. We just had to fill a club. We shot it at Play, a medium-sized club, but it wasn’t easy to fill also, so we just called out to people to come for one afternoon and just have fun lah, and dress like it’s the Millennium countdown.
And people were very sporting: they came, my brother’s friends came, people on Facebook came. We managed to gather about 100 people actually, which I think was quite a feat considering that no one was paid and they had to spend a few hours there. But it was fun, it was fun. I think some of them went overboard. When they screamed, I asked my crew: “Did we serve them alcohol?” (We didn’t!).
Actually, you know what we realised? It wasn’t so much what they wore. T-shirt and jeans were very ‘90s, just like now; it was more the cutting [that was distinctive], but in a film you can’t really see that. It was actually more about hairstyle. And we couldn’t do much about hairstyle – there was only one makeup artist who was also doing hair. So the people in the foreground, we would just give them Armani cuts and centre partings.
NYS: Let’s go back to your older films for a moment. I noticed that you’re like Royston: a lot of your shorts are about places: Katong Fugue, Tanjong Rhu… (Editor: Read Yi-Sheng’s interview with filmmaker Royston Tan about his recent Old Places project here.)
BJF: Changi Murals, there’s Bedok Jetty… Stranger is about Little India. And Keluar Baris has a whole sequence dedicated to the National Stadium. (Editor: See also, Jacen Tan’s tribute to the National Stadium, demolished in 2010, here.)
So like I said, spaces are important to me, because the places that have character, the places that have stories to tell, the story will always belong to those spaces. Of course, you know, the themes can be universal, but if you find the right space to set your scene at, it gives the situation depth. It’s like another character in the film.
Katong Fugue of course is based on Alfian’s play, but it’s also about how this boy is trapped in his own room with his music, and his mother is threatened, in a completely separate space, listening to that music.
For Keluar Baris, it’s what the National Stadium means to this boy who subscribed to the national ideology that is presented every year at the National Day Parade until he went to Europe. So he comes back being a bit more cynical and questioning, and starts to question things. So how this space, the National Stadium, where 60,000 people at a time celebrated national identity, how a space so concrete, so strong, a really sturdy building, is going to come down soon.
For Stranger, it’s also about a boy… Actually, when I was listing the synopsis for the short film screening, I realised that so many of the synopses start with “A boy returns”, and it’s always about some space.
So for Stranger, it’s about this boy who goes to Little India on the eve of Deepavali, feeling like a foreigner in his own country, while appreciating the culture and the sights, the sounds. I mean if you’ve been to Little India on Deepavali eve, it’s totally overwhelming: people are dancing in the streets, making noise. He feels like he can totally immerse in that culture, but at the same time, he feels like the culture is not his culture. So it is that estrangement from your own homeland.
And of course Tanjong Rhu lah. It’s a whole stretch of reclaimed land again. And it’s precisely because it was reclaimed that these men went there [to cruise for sex], because it has very strange vegetation there, enough cover and yet at the same time open enough for moonlight. So it’s a very unique space that attracted these men to go there.
NYS: Back to Sandcastle. What have reactions been like so far?
BJF: It was very good. I mean, this being my first feature film, the reception of it was way better than what I had expected. And the great thing about being in the Critics’ Week in Cannes is that there are only seven films selected each year, so they give each film a lot of attention, and the reviews were good.
Most of the festival goers at Cannes are industry people, so they consist of the buyers, the reviewers, the journalists, the exhibitors, distributors. So it is very rare for the film to be shown to the public.
But for Critics’ Week they have this outreach programme where they show the film in the outskirts of Cannes to the local French cinephiles, and these people come with families, and there are retired couples, and many of them came up to me and they felt like there are so many themes in the film they could relate to. There was this old lady who was in tears, trembling, and feeling like she’s just seen parts of her life re-enacted in Asia. I mean, it’s a lovely lovely feeling, and really, that is why I love making movies. It’s for that kind of cultural exchange, to tell a story from here, but with themes that are universal, so that different people from different cultures are able to appreciate it. (Editor: Sandcastle also screened at film festivals in London, Toronto, Hanoi, Vancouver, Hong Kong and Pusan).
NYS: Any last things you want to tell the blog readers?
BJF: I’m really looking forward to hearing the responses from the Singaporean audience, because you know interestingly, all my films other than Tanjong Rhu have premiered at the Singapore International Film Festival, so they’ve always shown here before they’ve gone elsewhere.
We had a press screening and I’m hearing good things, so I’m very happy. [Former student activist] Fong Swee Suan was there with his wife, so I was actually quite nervous in the morning, ‘cos to think that someone who’d been through all this was at the screening. But [his son] Otto just SMSed me and said they loved it.
For me, it’s history. You know? Honestly, there was a line in the film which we took out, where the grandmother asked the grandson, “What the hell does Communism even mean?” Because in this day and age, like, we are like showing China’s sixtieth anniversary film [The Great Cause of China’s Foundation], that huge propaganda film that was released to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Communist Party. And it was released here.
It’s all history, right? In this day and age, what exactly is wrong about talking with this? There’s no political agenda. It’s just an innocent question.
Sandcastle received widespread coverage in the media in Singapore during its 5 week run, particularly in the Chinese-language newspapers, with a number of articles reflecting on the film’s themes appearing. The film was released on a single-print and did well, attracting an audience that crossed age and language boundaries. It played at leading festivals around the world, and is now available on DVD.
Junfeng recently directed a short film for Pink Dot, which became an internet phenomenon, being seen by almost 250,000 viewers. He is currently working on the script for his second feature, amongst a number of other projects, including the multimedia work for a Theatreworks piece due in September. He is based in Singapore, and will continue to make films there for the foreseeable future, being committed to telling his country’s stories. You can follow his work at his blog, here.