Why local director Kelvin Tong finally makes his first movie in English

Elizabeth Rice plays a crime reporter who tries to uncover the truth behind her sister's death in The Faith Of Anna Waters.
Elizabeth Rice plays a crime reporter who tries to uncover the truth behind her sister's death in The Faith Of Anna Waters.PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE
Kelvin Tong.
Kelvin Tong.PHOTO: ST FILE

Singapore film-maker Kelvin Tong talks about how directing American actors is different from Asian ones in his new movie The Faith Of Anna Waters

It has taken close to two decades for film-maker Kelvin Tong to make a movie in his first language, English.

The horror feature The Faith Of Anna Waters, written and directed by Tong, comes after films such as It's A Great Great World (2011), Kidnapper (2010) and The Maid (2005), which had dialogue in Mandarin or Chinese dialects, sometimes with a smattering of English.

The seed of Anna Waters - which opens tomorrow and stars  American, Australian and Singapore-based actors - was planted nearly four years ago, when Tong and his family moved to Hong Kong.

 

Previously, when he made films in Singapore, he says he was bound by the preferences of its cinemagoers. 

"I had been shooting in Singapore for 10 years. I am a commercial film-maker, so I had to work under constraints. I want my investors to get their money back, if not more," Tong, 44, tells The Straits Times.

He is married to The Straits Times Hong Kong correspondent Li Xueying and has a one-year-old daughter.

I agreed with her, that a quieter protagonist would make the movie creepier. I cut half her lines. This is an actress who cut her own screen time.

FILM-MAKER KELVIN TONG, on working with Elizabeth Rice, who suggested that by making Jamie more introverted, she could realistically portray the inner conflict of a woman caught between her curiosity and 'her worst nightmare'

Singapore-made English language films tend to make tiny returns at the box office, so he avoided the language.  Once he had settled in Hong Kong, he felt free enough to  "write what I wanted to write, as a writing exercise".

The result was the English- language story about supernatural possession set in the United States.

He had not intended for it to be produced. But Mr Peter Poon, who produced Tong's supernatural cop thriller Rule Number 1 (2008), saw a draft and thought it had potential. Poon took it to Los Angeles-based label Highland Film Group, a specialist in lower-budget drama, horror and action films, who agreed to co-finance it. The rest of the film's US$6 million (S$8.2 million) budget came from Tong's own house Boku Films and the Media Development Authority through its production assistance grant. 

Tong rewrote the screenplay, placing the action in Singapore because he knew the budget could go further here, allowing him to make a better movie. 

His crew found their primary location, a black and white bungalow, in Stevens Road. When he saw how big the space was, he was inspired to include a scene in which the bed of a possessed person levitates. 

In the story, Anna Waters, an American woman living here, dies under bizarre circumstances. Her sister, crime reporter Jamie (Elizabeth Rice, who is best known for acclaimed TV drama Mad Men), comes to investigate, with the help of her dead sister's husband, Sam (Matthew Settle, of TV's Brothers & Sisters).  Actors Adrian Pang, Pamelyn Chee, Jaymee Ong and Tan Kheng Hua take on supporting roles. 

It was Tong's first time directing American actors and he found that Settle and Rice, like many of their compatriots, believe that actors ought to shape a film's creative direction.

"For an Asian director used to complete obedience from actors, it can be startling," says Tong. But he grew to embrace their suggestions because of their thoughtful, unselfish approach.

Rice, for example, felt that her character of Jamie, as written, gave away too much of herself in her speech. She felt that by making Jamie more introverted, she could realistically portray the inner conflict of a woman caught between her curiosity and "her worst nightmare", says Tong. "I agreed with her, that a quieter protagonist would make the movie creepier. I cut half her lines. This is an actress who cut her own screen time."

•The Faith Of Anna Waters opens tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 11, 2016, with the headline 'A horror movie in English - after 20 years'. Print Edition | Subscribe