Sensitive perfectionist

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 12, 2013

This is a good time to be Anthony Chen. Winning the Camera d'Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May has made him the Singapore film-maker with the highest festival honours ever - the equivalent of an athlete from this island winning an Olympic medal.

The 29-year-old, for years feted as a talented newcomer on his home turf, now joins the ranks of Camera d'Or winners such as Steve McQueen from England (who won for Hunger, 2008), Jafar Panahi from Iran (The White Balloon, 1995) and Jim Jarmusch from the United States (Stranger Than Paradise, 1984).

The Camera d'Or prize is awarded to the best work from a first-time maker of a feature-length film.

Chen's schedule, post-win, has been a whirlwind of press conferences, photography sessions and travelling around the world with the film, speaking to audiences and distributors. Now based in London, he came back to Singapore a few weeks ago to a hero's welcome.

"It's been so unreal. The whole Cannes journey has been the most surreal memory of my life," he says.

Even as he speaks to Life! at the Singapore Press Holdings canteen in Toa Payoh, over a lunch of Chinese economy rice, other journalists hover nearby, waiting to pounce.

Going into the festival, he had doubts. His first feature, the semi-autobiographical drama Ilo Ilo, about a Filipino domestic helper working in a middle-class Chinese home, is dense with Singaporeana - iron grilles of HDB doorways, the little Manila that is Lucky Plaza, the riot of languages. It is mostly in Mandarin, sprinkled with English, Hokkien, Cantonese, Tagalog and Ilongo, the tongue of the maid's home province.

"I was worried that it would be too culturally specific, too local. Would the ang mohs understand it?" he says.

He need not have worried because the "ang mohs" got it. Despite technical glitches cutting out power during the film's Cannes screening, causing three blackouts, the audience gave the film a standing ovation.

Cannes glory is, alas, not followed by riches, according to Chen. Ilo Ilo, for all its accolades, remains a niche product in much of the world.

He pays the bills with commercial and commissioned projects, done via his affiliation with director Eric Khoo's Zhao Wei Films. The National Environment Agency, the Health Promotion Board and Nikon have had work done by him.

The journey to Cannes began at a very young age. The laser-beam focus and tenacity that would define his temperament as writer-director showed itself in the pursuit of his dream to make films.

Chen thinks the seeds of his fascination with film must have been planted at age four, when his mother took him to the cinema to see Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor (1987). "My mum thought since there was a child emperor in it, it was suitable for a child. But it was nearly three hours long and there was a scene of an eight-year-old breastfeeding.

"I remember it so well because I asked my mother about it. I was startled."

The length of the movie, though, was too much for the young boy, who fell asleep towards the end. "But for a child like me, it was, wow. Lavish sets, the Forbidden City, the costumes, the spectacle. The images stayed in my head," he says.

Through his childhood to teens, he enjoyed the standard diet of Hong Kong and Hollywood action and comedy products.

But without knowing why, he was fascinated by a type of Chinese movie screened during dead hours on Channel8. It was only in his late teens that he realised that these were the early works of Lee Ang (Pushing Hands, 1992; The Wedding Banquet, 1993) and Zhang Yimou (Red Sorghum, 1987; Raise The Red Lantern, 1991).

Acting was also an outlet for him. From about age 10 to 18, he was involved in children's theatre with the performing arts troupe in the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan cultural group.

By age 15, this had all solidified into a decision to erase any option that did not lead to a career in film-making. The alumnus of Nan Hua Primary and, later, Chinese High School - both top institutions where the mother tongue is taught at a higher level - decided that rather than go to Hwa Chong Junior College, as was expected of Chinese High students, he would go to Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

It was then the only school here offering anything like a film-making course, through its School of Film & Media Studies.

He had checked out foreign film schools, but they were too expensive for his accounts executive mother and business development father. He grew up in HDB estates in Jurong and Braddell, milieus detailed in Ilo Ilo and other films.

His mum Joan Tai, 60, remembers persuading her strong-willed son, the oldest of three boys, to put off making a choice. "I didn't say no or yes. I told him that next year would be his O levels. I told him to work hard, get the proper grades, then decide on the school."

As it turned out, he received an aggregate of nine in his O levels, good enough for Hwa Chong.

But Chen's mind had been made up. To close off any chance that he might inadvertently go to a place other than of his choosing, he listed only one place to go to after O levels: Ngee Ann Polytechnic's film school. "I didn't give myself another route. I had only one goal."

His parents had faith in him and backed his decision.

Once he was in Ngee Ann Polytechnic, the recognition began. His graduating short film, G-23 (2005), won awards in France, Korea and Belgium. The shorts to follow - Ah Ma (2007) and Haze (2008) - would also earn film festival plaudits. These works, which range in tone from sad to pensive to tongue-in-cheek, examine the small moments of truth that define life on this crowded island.

After national service, the Media Development Authority awarded him a scholarship that paid his fees at Britain's National Film and Television School. There, his work - Hotel 66 (2009), Distance (2010) and graduating film Lighthouse (2010) - would show that he could do more than Singapore stories.

Lighthouse, for example, follows a car journey of an English mother and her children as she escapes a broken marriage.

It was in England that he made friends with fellow National Film and Television student, Frenchman Benoit Soler, who would be cinematographer on Ilo Ilo and on his shorts Lighthouse, Karang Guni (2012) and Homesick (2013).

Another collaborator on Ilo Ilo was Malaysian film-maker Charlotte Lim, 32, who was assistant director on the project. Her job included arranging everyone's schedules and sorting out locations and budgets. She first met Chen at the Tokyo Filmex film festival in 2010, where both had been invited to join a workshop.

She got to see, first hand, the perfectionism that has come to mark Chen's reputation since Ilo Ilo's Cannes win got the attention of the media.

For example, 12-year-old Koh Jia Ler, who had not acted previously, was found only after Chen had rejected thousands of children, both trained and untrained in acting. The office used as a location was found after a hunt for a space that looked right for 1997, the period in which the story takes place.

The lipstick worn by actress Yeo Yann Yann, playing the boy's mother, had to be a precise shade of period-correct bright red. Filipino actress Angeli Bayani plays domestic helper Teresa, based on Chen's memories of Teresita D. Sajunia, who was employed by his family from the time he was four till age 12, and with whom the boy developed a strong bond.

Lim, who has worked with Lee Ang and celebrated Malaysian-born director Tsai Ming-Liang, says Chen is "very particular about casting, about acting".

His quest for authenticity meant that actors had to turn up for frequent rehearsals, often meeting at night after they were done with other jobs. He would roll cameras only after he felt the actors had transformed themselves into the characters he saw in his mind, she says.

Intensive rehearsals are rare in television and film work in Singapore, where the emphasis is on getting things done quickly. Actors and directors rely on typecast, exaggerated behaviour, served up with dialogue that spoonfeeds intention and plot to the audience.

"He is a very good observer and very sensitive," she says about the way he watches actors work.

But make no mistake about whose vision it is - Chen wants what he wants on set. Lim recalls how in one scene, the boy Jiale (played by Jia Ler) is supposed to be overjoyed at receiving a pet chick as a present, and holds and caresses the bird.

But Jia Ler had developed a fear of the chick and refused to touch it. Chen urged the child to complete the shot, without success. It became a contest of wills between the petrified boy and an utterly frustrated Chen, she says, laughing.

The crew worked out a compromise: veteran actor Chen Tianwen, playing the father, would hold the bird, and with the clever use of camera angles, the boy would appear to touch it.

Chen admits that he can be exacting when he has a goal. "I can't deny that I am a control freak. The films I make in Singapore are very personal and they are about places and people that I know and understand. I believe very much in authenticity and honesty... I don't want a stylised, nostalgic version of the past."

But he is not that controlling about everything in life, he says, laughing. "My wife tells me she can't believe how I can be so immaculate in some ways but so messy in other ways." He likes to be in charge of the schedule on holidays, but lets other things slide, he says.

He met Ms Rachel Yan, 31, originally from Xiamen, China, in London in 2007. Fresh in town, he lived with a primary school friend studying at the London School of Economics (LSE) while searching for a place of his own.

Ms Yan lived one floor below. Chen is an avid cook and invited her to share a meal ("She was boiling broccoli and eating it with plain rice", he recalls with disgust). The meal developed into something deeper and they married in 2009. She is now a graduate student at the LSE, pursuing a PhD in statistics and econometrics.

Chen has continued to live in London since graduating in 2010. He and Ms Yan adore the city and its cultural riches, and he relishes the chance to work on a non- Singaporean feature film set in the West.

On the strength of his graduating film Lighthouse, he was signed up by the United Kingdom-based artist agency United Agents, home to director Mike Leigh (Another Year, 2010), actors Keira Knightley, Kate Winslet and Tom Hardy as well as comedian Ricky Gervais.

But while he is keen to use Ilo Ilo as a springboard, his next job, he says half- seriously, is related to his recurring themes of children and family. "My wife has been neglected for the last three years because of this film. You could say the film is my first baby. My next big project is for my wife and me to have a baby."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 12, 2013To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to