ASTRO A-List (CH 456) once again presents one of Astro’s most exciting series — the SEA Director Focus. In its third installment, six critically acclaimed directors from neighbouring shores will take centre stage from October onwards.
These chosen directors are none other than the distinguished Eric Khoo (Singapore), Boo Junfeng (Singapore), Riri Riza (Indonesia), Lav Diaz (Phillipines), Garin Nugroho (Indonesia) and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (Thailand).
We managed to sit down with the youngest of the lot at a special press session arranged by Astro at their headquarters recently.
Boo Junfeng’s first cinematic feature Sandcastle (2010) was the first Singaporean film to make the Semaine de la Critique section at the Cannes Film Festival. Its follow-up too made headlines earlier this year when it made the same festival’s official Un Certain Regard selection.
Executive-produced by fellow Astro A-Lister Eric Khoo, Apprentice (2016) was the Wan Hanafi Su-starrer which garnered strong response at Cannes. But even more special is that both Junfeng and Eric were additionally responsible for two out of seven segments from commemorative Singaporean film 7 Letters.
“These are guys that I watch and study when I went to film school and eventually film festivals,” Junfeng stated gently upon reflecting on the line-up of Astro’s SEA Director Focus program. “It’s strange to be here, but it’s an honour and I have Astro to thank for it.”
In between his two well-received features however, Junfeng kept himself busy.
His video art piece titled Mirror received the President’s Young Talents Credit Suisse Artist Commissioning Award from the Singapore Art Museum. The same year also saw recognition go towards his video installation Happy and Free — a music video which re-imagines Singapore as never having left Malaysia.
Hailing from the Lion City, Boo Junfeng is still in early stages of a career studded with promise: both his full-length films have scored premieres internationally and positioned him as one of Southeast Asia’s brightest hopes. He turns 33 this year.
Given your age, we’re guessing you made a pretty early decision to be part of the film industry. How did you come to that realization?
I went to film school since I was 16 and have been doing film since. I love it. Every time I walk out of a good film, I have a feeling I’ve just witnessed something amazing or I’ve learnt something; I love having been enriched by the viewing experience. I want to make that same kind of difference to people and be part of this, whether as a director or someone who is just in a circle of friends who make films. To me that is just really inspiring. I also have a lot of themes and topics that I care about and wish to address. Film is one of the avenues that I can do so, so I do it to the best of my abilities.
On that note, what are some subject matters that you’re most passionate about?
In Sandcastle, I deal with identity and also try to question it. In Apprentice meanwhile, I deal with capital punishment — essentially our humanity and the value of human life. In some of my short films, I deal with themes like sexuality and the misconceptions that exist in many societies for sexual minorities. These are some of the things that continue to drive me as a person and make me want to tell stories.
We loved 7 Letters (Junfeng directed a segment titled “Parting”) and cried a fair bit watching it. But can you tell us a bit more about your involvement in the film and the interracial romance you depicted in your segment?
For me, 7 Letters was to commemorate SG50. In Singapore, National Day celebrations are usually about pride, identity, and how far we have come as a nation. However, we often forget that our independence was a separation, and that separation was a trauma.
We often try think in terms of pride as opposed to the trauma. Since I was given freedom on 7 Letters, I wanted my contribution to be an intimate story about this relationship that was perhaps ahead of its time, and what that meant for this couple’s separation.
Was 7 Letters met with controversy given that the film went against expected nationalistic narratives?
Actually, what’s interesting with 7 Letters was that all seven of us went away to make our films. Aside from Royston Tan who was Executive Producer, none of us knew what the others were doing. When we saw it for the first time just a week before the premiere to the public, we were all pleasantly surprised because none of the films were big, national narrative-type films one would associate with independence or SG50.
Every film was very intimate; it’s almost as if each filmmaker was trying to resist this larger celebration that was going on, and their contributions ended up becoming some of the most meaningful products that came out of SG50. Even the politicians were very thankful. Because we were resisting it, we were making it real and heartfelt, and that ended up becoming much more appreciated.
Your films deal heavily with Singaporean culture. Do you feel that it is a matter of responsibility to explore this particular theme?
I think it’s really a matter of inspiration. Singapore as a society has so many odd points. There’s so much contention and sometimes friction that gives me a lot of material to work with. This allows me to look at society and humanity in a way that I am able to put on film.
Given your portrayal of ethnic Malay characters in Apprentice, did you face obstacles in trying to present narratives that aren’t necessarily related to your own racial background? (As in, do you run into issues because you’re a “Malay director trying to tell a Chinese story”?)
I’d imagine the politics of it to be quite different here in Malaysia. If I were to make a Malay-language film [in Singapore], my concern is that I am part of a majority that is trying to represent a minority.
But I usually try not to let that get in the way, because I believe the themes within a film like Apprentice is universal enough that the ethnicity of these characters or actors don’t matter as much; yes, they need to be nuanced culturally but it’s not a make-or-break factor of the film.
Do you think that Singapore is entering its golden era of film?
I’m really not in a position to say now is the golden era because I’m right in the middle of it; these kind of things you usually look at in retrospect. However I do think that the next few years will be quite exciting because I feel like there will be a certain coming of age of our filmmakers. They have been making shorts for a number of years — some really good shorts. These filmmakers are graduating into making feature-length films in a very different way from previous filmmakers and I’m very excited about them.
Catch Boo Junfeng’s Sandcastles as part of Astro A-List (Channel 456)’s SEA Director Focus. Astro customers can subscribe to the channel via a monthly subscription fee of RM15.90 for 8 films per month. Head over to Astro for more information! Featured image from behind-the-scenes of 7 Letters!