Filmmaker Bertrand Lee back to shooting after loss of leg

Bertrand Lee wears a prosthetic leg and uses crutches to get around now. -- ST PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH
Bertrand Lee wears a prosthetic leg and uses crutches to get around now. -- ST PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH

Bertrand Lee has returned to full-time film-making after a serious accident in Mumbai in 2005

Bertrand Lee's journey in film and video took a horrific detour in 2005 when a lorry accident in Mumbai led to the loss of his left leg. He battled for his life, fought depression and later found a job teaching film-making at Temasek Polytechnic in 2009.

This April, he left teaching and went back to directing commercials.

It feels like his life is back on track when he says: "When I started working on sets a lot again, I just felt like myself."

Before his career got derailed on that fateful location shoot, the Ngee Ann Polytechnic media graduate was a well-regarded film-maker and director of TV commercials for big names such as Unilever. His short film Birthday (2004), about a young couple and their son's birthday, picked up several awards, including the Best Short Fiction Film from Filmfest Dresden in Germany in 2005.

While he liked interacting with students and young people and Temasek, he continued to freelance as a director as "the passion, the yearning was always there".

To Lee, 37, teaching was seen as a process of transition: "It was a means for me to get physically well. I wasn't able to work at the level I was comfortable with."

He wears a prosthetic leg and uses crutches to get around. The fact that he now can regain his balance when he starts to slip is an indication that he is in better shape compared to a year ago, he says.

Lee is independently mobile, as he demonstrates by driving to the venue for this interview. He has even travelled overseas to Shanghai and Thailand for shoots.

He jokes about his Bangkok trip: "I almost died, it was so tiring. We had to go to the mountain areas and river areas, it was physically very demanding."

Since his accident, he has also planned shoots on boats and helicopters, though it was "impossible" for him to be physically on board.

Chalk it up to a perfectionist streak. "My style is more visual so I like to shoot at interesting locations. My general approach when it comes to locations and actors: If it's convenient, it's probably too common."

His most challenging recent shoot is a commissioned short film he helmed on the theme of Believing. Home for ciNE65, a biennial short film competition launched in 2011 by Nexus, a national education resource hub and unit of the Ministry of Defence. Participants can submit their entries to the latest edition on www.cine65.sg from now till April 6.

It shows soldiers in a rain-drenched jungle and, for Lee, getting to the remote location in Changi "already was a headache". He adds though with a laugh: "Film crews are like locusts, every time they go to one place, bzzz, swarm, and leave a trial of destruction." And he would follow the path thoughtfully laid out by them.

Lee is currently tweaking the script for his debut feature, The Abandoned, about a sickly little girl who is haunted at home, which he plans to shoot next year.

Rather than being drawn to horror, he says that it is genre films which attract him. Hence, he likes the work of "very smart directors" such as David Fincher, Christopher Nolan and Stanley Kubrick, "people that do different genres very well".

The project also veers away from what he calls his personal bugbear: "I don't understand why all Singaporean films have this habit of being set in the past, set in HDB flats, with depressed people. I find it very tiring."

He certainly seems to have no trouble saying what he thinks. "The most important thing, a lot of people say when you're a film-maker, is to stay true to yourself. I think the most important thing actually is to stay employed, especially if you have a family."

His wife Janice Fong, 36, runs a "small fashion business", and they have a four-year-old daughter and a six-month-old son.

And Lee has a clear picture of what the future holds.

He says: "Ultimately for me, I want to have a long career as a film director. Twenty years down the road, I hope to have made 10, 15 films and worked on a lot of commercials."

bchan@sph.com.sg