It Changed My Life

Bertrand Lee gets back to making films again

Love, support and a baby help him move on from trauma of horrific Mumbai crash

Mr Bertrand Lee fought his depression and his disability to return to his passion for making films. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
Mr Lee (in wheelchair) shooting the music video for the 2009 National Day Song What Do You See by local band Electrico. PHOTO: COURTESY OF BERTRAND LEE

Five years ago, Mr Bertrand Lee was not sure he wanted children.

"How am I supposed to be a father? Other people can teach their children how to cycle, do stuff. What if my children ask, 'Why is my father different from other people?'" he said then in an interview.

The angst was understandable. Three years earlier, in 2005, a massive 2-tonne lorry mowed him down while he was taking pictures of the Indian Ocean at a seaside promenade in Mumbai.

Then an up-and-coming film-maker and director of TV commercials, he survived the accident but lost his left leg, which was amputated right up to his pelvic bone. He now wears a prosthetic.

For a while, his life was a heap of crumbled dreams. There were big question marks: Did it mean the end of a career which had just started to take flight, could he have children, would he lead a normal life?

Thankfully, many of these doubts have subsided. His life has largely mended, just like his right leg, which was mangled in the accident.

Although marred by an unsightly mass of scar tissue, the limb is healthy and serves him well.

Similarly, Mr Lee, 36, has picked up the pieces of a life shattered.

Four years ago he married businesswoman Janice Fong, who stood by him after the accident. He found a job teaching film-making at Temasek Polytechnic. He started making commercials again and is now raising funds and developing his first feature film.

Three years ago, he also became a father.

Little Kayla looks like him. She is gregarious, loves to swim and is now grappling with phonics.

Three years ago, he became a father to Kayla, who he takes swimming and reads books to. PHOTO: COURTESY OF BERTRAND LEE

"I swim with her, and I read a lot to her. She is too young to understand what happened to me; she just says, 'Daddy, you only have one leg.' But she's always known me this way; she doesn't think I'm disabled."

Only one thing saddened him.

"Because I'm on crutches, I couldn't guide her when she was learning to walk."

Time, he says, has helped him to make peace with the accident which changed his life.

"You have to move on. If you don't, people will move on without you. You can't keep dwelling on the past. I'm as happy as I can be with the hand I've been dealt," says the elder of two children of a retired aviation executive and a former bank employee.

But what happened to him on the morning of Jan 14, 2005, was almost too cruel.

The Ngee Ann Polytechnic media graduate was then at the top of his game. He was a sought-after TV commercials director, with nearly 15 ads for the likes of BreadTalk and Unilever under his belt.

He had been through a six-month attachment at a film school in Barcelona and was a promising film-maker who had made several short films including Birthday, about a young couple's marriage, and Trishaw, which revolves around the life of a trishaw rider in Chinatown. His works took him to 24 film festivals around the world.

A reckless driver in Mumbai, however, came along and made a mess of his life.

There to shoot a commercial for a multinational corporation, Mr Lee was standing at the city's picturesque Ocean Drive when a giant truck knocked him down and ran over his legs.

Upon hearing his agonising cries, the driver reversed the vehicle and wreaked even more damage to Mr Lee's already crushed limbs.

For the next five hours, life was a living hell for the director, who amazingly did not pass out from the trauma. He was shovelled off the ground onto a police pickup and taken to a hospital, where he was given 50 pints of blood.

"The pain was unimaginable. All I wanted was for it to stop," he recalls.

He was then transferred to another hospital. By the time his parents and Miss Fong arrived the next morning, his left leg had already been amputated.

Flown home in an International SOS air ambulance, he was admitted to the Singapore General Hospital, where he spent the next six months fighting for his life.

"Those were dark, dark days," says Mr Lee, who had to undergo more than 30 operations and was beset by many infections and complications from his amputation.

An abscess which developed in a wound, for instance, forced doctors to dig through and resulted in a gaping hole bigger than a fist.

The pain, trauma and grief pushed him into a deep pit of depression.

"I went to bed each night and woke up each morning in pain. What kind of existence was that? I prayed for death every day," he says.

At one stage, doctors had to tie him down because he constantly tried to hurl himself off his bed.

But the love and support of his family and Miss Fong - who quit her job as an events organiser to look after him - made him realise he had to go on living.

His friends, colleagues, Ngee Ann Polytechnic alumni and the Singapore media community also rallied around him and raised more than $300,000 to help with his medical bills.

But the road to recovery was long and slow.

"I left the hospital in a wheelchair. I couldn't speak. I didn't even have the strength to hold a pen."

When he got better, he had only one thing on his mind: He had to walk again.

"The first step was putting on the prosthetic and learning to walk with crutches," says Mr Lee, who is now on to his third artificial limb. Each limb costs $20,000; replacing a part can cost thousands of dollars.

"No offence to those in wheelchairs, but when you're in one, you feel much more disabled. It's so depressing; every time you're talking to someone, you have to look up.

"I was very single-minded. All I cared about was getting back on my feet. I had offers to work at a desk-bound film-editing job but that would mean I would confine myself to a wheelchair and I didn't want that."

He was so determined to get used to his artificial limb that he pushed himself every opportunity he got. That included participating in the Run For Hope Singapore and the Standard Chartered Marathon held a few months apart in 2007. He completed both 4km runs, the first in four hours; the second in 2-1/2 hours.

Not long after, he took on a job to shoot a commercial in Vietnam for an electronics giant.

"Before the accident, I would be running around, talking to the talents but I wasn't able to do that on the shoot. It was a bit frustrating and I knew, after the experience, that I needed more work to adapt," he says.

To get used to working again, Mr Lee decided to look for a media-related job with more regular hours.

He found one with Temasek Polytechnic in 2009, where he is an instructor to students studying for a diploma in digital film and television.
After settling in, he began accepting jobs to direct commercials again.

"In the beginning, I chose commercials which were more aesthetic and which didn't require too much interaction with talents. Maybe I wanted to avoid talking about feelings because it meant facing my own feelings, which were still raw," he says.

But he has since overcome that hurdle. To date, he has shot more than 10 commercials for clients, including Samsung, BreadTalk and SingTel. He also shot the music video for the 2009 National Day Song What Do You See by local band Electrico.

"Right now, I'm pretty comfortable on set with a crew. I can walk around and get my angles," says Mr Lee, who recently shot a three-minute commercial for Canon's range of Pixma photo printers.

"The project was a real confidence booster. I travelled up to Bangkok, shot at a number of locations, including the mountains, and had a crew of about 30 people. We even built a farmer's market on the set.

"It was good to work on that scale again because it was what I did before the accident," he says.

Mr Lee - who avoided watching films for a while after the accident because it pained him that he could no longer make them - is itching to make his first full-length feature.

A production company has already agreed to develop and back an idea which he started working on earlier this year.

"It's a Mandarin movie called The Abandoned," says Mr Lee, who hopes to shoot the movie - budgeted at about $1 million - next year.

"It's a psychological horror film about a sickly eight-year-old girl who is forced to move into a poor and derelict estate because of her crippling medical expenses.

"She meets and befriends a group of street urchins, who discover the truth about her illness," he says.

The main character, he adds, wears leg braces and crutches.

"There's a lot of me in the script," he says with a laugh. "I can't help it. When you do something narrative, there is always a strong part of you in the story."

He has another eight or nine film ideas stored in his laptop.

Although life is almost back to normal, he still suffers the occasional panic attacks.

"There still are days when I would recall the accident and I would just feel the chill and fear. It's not something you recover from because it's just so terrible."

It does not help that the issue of compensation from the driver is still not settled.

"I just want to close that chapter; it has dragged on for so long."

Although he is not a "natural optimist", he stays positive by dwelling on the good things that have happened to him since the tragedy: his wife and his daughter.

Kayla, especially, has given him and his wife - who runs a fashion business - a lot of joy.

"A lot of things were touch-and-go for us in the beginning. I was very badly injured, so we were not even sure if it would happen.

"So when Kayla came along, it was a miracle."

Still learning to adapt

"Although I'm quite independent, I'm not what I used to be. When I fall, I need another person to help me get up. I'm still trying to learn how to get on and off escalators. It's not easy to hop on and off with just one leg."

Bertrand Lee on his mobility after the accident

No other job will do

"At heart, I'm still a practitioner. I love being on set, I love making films which require a lot of craft. It's not something I can change. I'm not going to settle for another job just to pay the bills. I didn't fight so hard just to pay the bills."

Lee on why he still wants to make films

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.