Singapore film about teen misfits

Faeryville director Tzang Merwyn Tong (left) with actor Lyon Sim. -- PHOTO: RICHARD CHEN, COURTESY OF INRI STUDIO
Faeryville director Tzang Merwyn Tong (left) with actor Lyon Sim. -- PHOTO: RICHARD CHEN, COURTESY OF INRI STUDIO

Local independent director Tzang Merwyn Tong, 36, will release his debut feature film here at the end of the month, after its world premiere in Los Angeles in January.

The 95-minute Faeryville is billed as a dystopian teen movie set in the alternate universe of Faeryville College. It tells the story of the Nobodies, a group of misfits resigned to their fate - until new student Laer encourages them to stand up for themselves.

The film is not Tong's only work with fantastical, surreal elements. His 2011 sci-fi thriller V1K1 - A Techno Fairytale features a scientist obsessed with proving the existence of fairies, and e'Tzaintes (2003) is also set in Faeryville College and has the outcasts trying and failing to form a resistance group. Both are short films.

Tong says: "Having such elements liberates me. It allows me to invent a universe and give it my own rules, without having to fit into other people's understanding of what reality is."

But he faced the harsh realities that independent film-makers are likely to be familiar with.

Faeryville took eight years - he started work in 2007 - to make and had many false starts. The first shoot was in 2008, but he had to stop filming from 2009 to 2011 to look for sponsors.

As some of the actors looked different in the footage shot earlier, he had to throw them out and reshoot the scenes again in 2012. Some of the actors also could not make it back when filming resumed.

"I saw four producers come and go for various reasons. Eventually, we raised only one-eighth of the planned budget and, in a way, I produced the film myself," says Tong, who declined to reveal the film's budget, adding that he did not want audiences to prejudge the film based on that.

While making Faeryville, he took on jobs including directing videos at boutique creative agency Motion, which helped him with the casting process. However, actors also dropped out as their schedules clashed with shoots.

Even Mother Nature was not on his side. Tong recalls a shoot three years ago which had to be cancelled because of a thunderstorm. To make things worse, it was for the biggest scene in the film and he had the actors for only that day.

He says: "I had to rewrite certain parts of the script and re-gather the actors. People do come back when they see how hard you've worked."

The journey was not all rough though. He relates how Singapore International Film Festival director Philip Cheah, who follows his work, urged him to screen a work-in-progress cut in 2013 as part of the South-east Asian Film Festival.

Tong says: "He told me, 'You've got to show your work to keep people caring about the film' and he said Zhang Yimou had done that before."

He screened two-thirds of the film, which ended with a cliffhanger, to an audience of slightly fewer than 100 at the Singapore Art Museum at 8Q. "I was really nervous, but it gave me my first smile, which was really encouraging after working on this for years. It motivated my cast to carry on," he says.

He recalls a member of the audience saying the film was not just about teenagers, but also about the world at large. Indeed, the film does touch on weighty issues including bullying, irrational hero worship and how young people today are growing up in a world where the line between right and wrong is increasingly blurred, especially with the sheer number of voices on social media.

The film concept secured distribution from Los Angeles-based company Eleven Arts. "In 2008, people were looking for Asian films that weren't about horror or martial arts," Tong says. "Eleven Arts was so excited by Faeryville that they told me not to change the language, even though Asian films were expected to be made in Asian languages then, and that they would find an audience."

His films have a following among German goth communities and bootleg copies of them are also circulated in Bangkok and Manila.

Tong, a media studies lecturer at a polytechnic, which he declined to name, is working on two scripts simultaneously - one for a psychological thriller and another for an "epic production".

The bachelor hopes Singaporeans can see Faeryville as a different imagination of a local film. "It doesn't have typical Singaporean tropes such as food, race and surroundings, but I believe it's still relatable," he says. "It's like if Americans made only westerns and Japanese made only samurai films, we wouldn't have E.T."

He adds: "On a deeper level, I hope this film will spur Singaporeans to consider - among the other themes - how ideology, when taken to extremes, can be a dangerous thing."

Faeryville opens on May 26 at Filmgarde Bugis+.

The price of tickets is not confirmed but they will be available from www.fgcineplex.com.sg. Go to www.facebook.com/faeryville for updates.