Moonlight director still shocked by win

Director Barry Jenkins credits the techniques used in the Oscar winner to the Hong Kong film-maker, among others

Moonlight, starring Ashton Sanders (above), won three Oscars.
Moonlight, starring Ashton Sanders (above), won three Oscars. PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

It has been two months since an Oscar night mix-up saw the Best Picture trophy go to the musical La La Land, before the mistake was caught minutes later. It was then handed correctly to the team behind the drama Moonlight.

For Moonlight director and co-writer Barry Jenkins (left), the shock of winning in such a dramatic way has not worn off.

"It hasn't faded away. Everything was so intense, I'm still processing what it means, especially because the way it happened was so strange," says Jenkins, 37, speaking to The Straits Times over the telephone from Los Angeles.

Moonlight, the coming-of-age story of an African-American boy growing up gay in the poorest section of Miami, Florida, opened in Singapore last week.

Jenkins notes how his film's three Oscar wins (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali, and Best Adapted Screenplay) reflect how the mostly white and male Academy is beginning to recognise films that deal with people on the margins.

The lack of black actors on the nominations list prompted the #OscarsSoWhite social media protest two years ago. In spite of Moonlight's wins, it is still too early to tell if the protest, which sparked demographic changes to the Academy's voter make-up, had a permanent effect, Jenkins says.

"We have to get five years down the road to see the consistency. This year was unprecedented for people of colour. But we need more data," he says.

In Singapore, the film has been passed unedited with an M18 rating.

"I'm very happy, very happy that it will screen uncut in Singapore. I assume the Best Picture win had something to do with it, but when you create a work, you want to show it in the best version possible," he says.

The Oscar night fiasco had an unintended positive effect - it generated headlines around the world, giving his film more publicity than it would have gained if events had gone according to plan.

"I went to Mexico after the Oscars, before the film was released there, and everybody knew about the movie... The film has made more money overseas than in the United States, which is spectacular because there is a myth that people overseas don't want to watch films about African-Americans," Jenkins says.

So far, it has earned US$27 million (S$37.6 million) in the US and US$28 million (S$39 million) outside of it.

It has played in South Korea and Japan and done well at the box office there, Jenkins notes.

His Asian connection does not stop there: The first film he saw that dealt with homosexual themes was Wong Kar Wai's Happy Together (1997).

He was an average American, raised on American action cinema until, as a film student, he came across the work of Asian film-makers such as Hong Kong's Wong (In The Mood For Love, 2000), Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-hsien (A City Of Sadness, 1989), Malaysia-born Tsai Ming Liang (The Wayward Cloud, 2005) and Japan's Nagisa Oshima (Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, 1983).

Their techniques seeped into Moonlight, especially Wong's way of wordlessly showing a character's thoughts and feelings, through the use of slow-motion, music, colour, framing and body language.

Jenkins says: "Film is not a great medium for the interior thought and Asian cinema had films that were expressing human emotions in a way I wanted them to be expressed."

• Moonlight is in cinemas.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 03, 2017, with the headline 'A touch of Wong Kar Wai in Moonlight'. Print Edition | Subscribe