Anthony Chen’s first English-language movie makes world debut at Sundance Film Festival

Anthony Chen on the set of his third feature, the drama Drift. PHOTO: GIRAFFE PICTURES
Drift is about a woman (played by Cynthia Erivo) who flees to Greece and survives on menial labour while coping with war trauma. PHOTO: GIRAFFE PICTURES

Singapore film-maker Anthony Chen’s English-language feature debut, the drama Drift, was launched at the Sundance Film Festival on Sunday to a sold-out room and mostly positive reception.

Attending the world premiere were cast members like English actress Cynthia Erivo and American actress Alia Shawkat. Producers Peter Spears, Emilie Georges, Naima Abed and Solome Williams were there, as well as screenwriters Susanne Farrell and Alexander Maksik, along with Singaporean executive producer Teoh Yi Peng.

Chen, 38, introduced Drift to the Sundance audience in Park City, Utah, by calling the film “a labour of love”.

“Everyone who was involved put a lot of themselves into it,” he said.

In a text message to The Straits Times, Chen called the premiere an “emotional” event.

“When the lights came on, I saw many in the audience in tears. It was especially moving to see the emotions in the film translated in such a visceral way. The response we had – we could not have asked for more,” he said.

Chen was invited to screen the film in the Premieres section, which is reserved for “more established film-makers who share the independent spirit”. Films are selected “on the basis of their compelling stories and innovative approaches”, according to a guide on the festival’s website. About 15 films from the United States and around the world fill the section each year.

(From left) Actress Alia Shawkat, director Anthony Chen and actress Cynthia Erivo at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival premiere of Drift at Eccles Center Theatre in Park City, Utah, on Jan 22. PHOTO: AFP

Drift is Chen’s third feature and his first in English. His previous films, the dramas Ilo Ilo (2013) and Wet Season (2019), involved a mix of languages, including Mandarin, Hokkien and Tagalog. Drift is his first film to debut in the United States. Ilo Ilo and Wet Season premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival respectively.

This is also the first feature directed by Chen that was not also written by him. It is adapted from Maksik’s 2013 novel A Marker To Measure Drift by the author and screenwriter Farrell.

It tells the story of a migrant, Jacqueline (played by Erivo), who has fled to Greece. She survives by giving massages to tourists while hiding the mental trauma she had experienced in her war-torn homeland of Liberia. In Greece, she meets American tour guide Callie (Shawkat) and they form a friendship.

It has generated mostly positive reviews since its premiere. Peter Debruge, writing in trade magazine Variety, says that at first glance, Drift might look like one of several “call-to-action refugee stories”.

But its focus is on human connection, he says.

“Erivo is such an intuitive and understated performer and Chen so nuanced in his own approach that Drift never feels didactic,” he says.

In Drift, English actress Cynthia Erivo plays a woman haunted by memories of a horrific event in her home country of Liberia. In Greece, she seeks a fresh start. PHOTO: GIRAFFE PICTURES

Writing in the industry journal The Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney says that “the same piercing intimacy and absence of sentimentality that Singaporean director Anthony Chen brought to the beautifully observed Ilo Ilo – winner of Cannes’ 2013 Camera d’Or for best first feature – makes affecting drama of a displaced West African woman’s struggle to survive.”

Chen’s film is the third Singaporean work in recent times to appear at Sundance, the largest independent festival in the United States.

In 2017, Pop Aye, the debut feature from local film-maker Kirsten Tan, premiered at Sundance, marking the first time a Singaporean movie had competed there. The drama about a disaffected middle-aged Thai man searching for an elephant he met as a boy was executive produced by Chen.

Tan became the first Singaporean to win at the festival when she took home the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Screenwriting.

A year later, in 2018, Singapore-born film-maker Sandi Tan premiered her documentary Shirkers at Sundance, where she won the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award. The film records her experiences as a young film-maker in 1990s Singapore.

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