Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia

Singapore director Chai Yee Wei's first short film in 10 years wins big

Film-maker Chai Yee Wei receiving the Grand Prix George Lucas Award at the 20th Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia in Tokyo for his work, Benjamin's Last Day At Katong Swimming Complex.
Film-maker Chai Yee Wei receiving the Grand Prix George Lucas Award at the 20th Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia in Tokyo for his work, Benjamin's Last Day At Katong Swimming Complex.PHOTO: SHORT SHORTS FILM FESTIVAL & ASIA 2018

Chai Yee Wei's Benjamin's Last Day At Katong Swimming Complex bags the grand prize at an international short film festival, giving it a shot at an Oscar nomination

Singapore's Chai Yee Wei, whose short film Benjamin's Last Day At Katong Swimming Complex bagged the top gong at an international short film festival in Tokyo on Sunday, calls himself an "accidental film-maker".

This is because he has never attended film school, though he has long considered the arts and creative pursuits - including choir, photography, storytelling and Chinese drama - side passions when he was in school.

He tells The Straits Times in Tokyo that several failed business ventures later, during which he relied heavily on corporate and wedding videography projects to stay afloat, "there came a point where, rather than following my brain, I thought it was time to follow my heart".

In 2009, he closed Curry Favour, the Japanese curry restaurant that he ran for six years at Stamford House, to dive headlong into film-making. Since then, he has released four full-length feature films.

Benjamin's Last Day At Katong Swimming Complex, which took home the Grand Prix George Lucas Award at the 20th Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia, was Chai's first short film in 10 years.

The 15-minute work is a wistful, nostalgic story that touches on a young boy's sexual awakening, as well as the loss of heritage with Singapore's rapid development. It premiered at the Singapore International Film Festival in November.

The film beat more than 10,000 submissions from 130 countries and territories to clinch the grand prize at the Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia, which is a qualifying festival for the Oscars. This means the film will be up for contention for a Best Short Film nomination at next year's Academy Awards.

Chai, who turns 42 on Thursday, says his return to the short film genre came as he felt he had plateaued as a film-maker after the reality singing competition-inspired The Voice Of China - I Want You (2014), which was a chastening experience as it was solely a commercial job.

Wanting to experiment with new ways of storytelling, he went back to the short-film format in writing Benjamin's Last Day At Katong Swimming Complex.

"Art is like this - you really have to keep evolving and you can evolve only if you keep trying," he says, and with short films, "all shackles are off", including the pressure to turn a profit.

"This time, instead of going in with a certain structure, I thought of how I wanted to make people feel - the guilt, the need to say sorry and the sense of loss - and from there, I went on to build the puzzle. This is something that I've never tried before."

Chai, who is married, also wanted to portray the "moment of epiphany and sexual awakening" in what he said was "in honour" of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) community in Singapore.

"I wasn't thinking of trying to break any mould. I was telling a story of realising who you are and how you fit in the world," he says.

He wanted to set the $35,000 film at a swimming pool with 1970s design influences because he was an avid swimmer growing up.

"There is this thing when places are closing down. And you hear all these stories of how people used to go there and of all their memories, and within this lies a sense of guilt. We are responsible for these places closing down if we stop going to them."

Chai, whose repertoire of full-length films also includes two horror movies - Blood Ties (2009) and Twisted (2011) - and the xinyao love letter That Girl In Pinafore (2013), dedicated his award to the "struggling film-makers in Singapore".

He says: "Many film-makers don't make money and those in the business are really just chasing their dreams."

But these are early days yet for a young country that spent the first half of its 53 years as an independent nation "totally neglecting arts development", he says.

"This is not an industry where you can just throw money at. Culture takes generations to build."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 19, 2018, with the headline 'First short film in 10 years wins big'. Print Edition | Subscribe