Kirsten Tan

Film-maker on the road to put Singapore on the map

Film-maker Kirsten Tan on how roaming the streets and observing life help her tell her stories.
Film-maker Kirsten Tan's debut feature Pop Aye has won global acclaim.
Film-maker Kirsten Tan's debut feature Pop Aye has won global acclaim.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Film-maker Kirsten Tan, who spent several years in her 20s living a nomadic life in Thailand, said: "I feel, deep down, there's a wanderer in me."

The 36-year-old's debut feature Pop Aye - born from wanderlust and real-life vignettes - was recently picked as Singapore's submission to the 90th Academy Awards in the Foreign Language Film category. The road movie, about a disillusioned Thai architect and his elephant friend, won prizes at the Sundance and Rotterdam film festivals, both firsts for a Singaporean.

While she acknowledged that the movie has done very well, she said: "I am a super-perfectionist. When I watch the film, I often only see the flaws and errors."

Tan was speaking to The Straits Times over the phone from Japan, where she was attending the Tokyo International Film Festival.

With multiple award-winning short films and documentaries under her belt, she also makes a living doing commercial work for the likes of Giorgio Armani and Heineken. Minutes before the interview, she was editing a commissioned short film for a Singapore luxury hotel.

She studied English literature at the National University of Singapore before joining Ngee Ann Polytechnic's School of Film and Media Studies. Tan, who also has a master's in film production from New York University (NYU), considers herself "super fortunate" in an industry where funding is hard to come by. "In NYU, we had about 45 students per batch. So far, only six of us got to do feature films."

Tan's 2014 short film Dahdi was inspired by Myanmar's Rohingya asylum seekers. "I definitely feel a certain social responsibility, (although) I don't think about specific social issues," she said. "I hope to push boundaries yet stay generous to the audience... and not pander to the most basic instincts."

Tan, who is exploring stories set in Singapore or New York for a new feature film, still remembers the difficulties she faced in her early days as a film-maker. "For the longest time, I was putting in my own money. The scary thing was not knowing whether my years of effort would amount to anything.

"You definitely need to be a bit nuts. You have to love your craft."

Toh Wen Li

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 06, 2017, with the headline 'Film-maker on the road to put Singapore on the map'. Subscribe