Monday, 22 September, 2014

Published June 20, 2014
Encore for Singapore films at Cannes
A record number of local titles were invited to the prestigious film festival this year and although only one received an award, the rest got invaluable exposure, reports DYLAN TAN
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Creating buzz: Oh Lucy!, which won second prize in the 17th Cinéfondation Selection (above); A Yellow Bird, which was picked as one of the 15 titles in the Cinéfondation L'Atelier section, and On an Infinite Loop, screened at the Short Film Corner

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THE wait for the next Anthony Chen shouldn't take too long if the four local titles recently picked to be showcased at last month's 67th Cannes Film Festival are anything to go by. It follows hot on the heels of Chen's historic win of the highly coveted Camera d'Or award for his debut feature, Ilo Ilo, last year, and the number of films picked for the prestigious event sets a new record for the local film industry.

Of the four, Oh Lucy!, by writer-director Atsuko Hirayanagi from the Singapore-based NYU Tisch School of the Arts Asia took home the second prize in the 17th Cinéfondation Selection - which runs parallel to the festival's Official Selection and was created to support and inspire the next generation of international filmmakers. American filmmaker Annie Silverstein was awarded the top prize by the jury - led by veteran Iranian writer-director-producer, Abbas Kiarostami - for her short film, Skunk.

Hirayanagi's Oh Lucy! was one of 1,631 works submitted by budding international directors from 457 film schools around the world. Only 16 were eventually shortlisted for the competition, including Last Trip Home by Han Fengyu from Ngee Ann Polytechnic School of Film and Media Studies.

The other two local works featured at Cannes were K Rajagopal's A Yellow Bird and Allysa Sing's On An Infinite Loop. The former was selected as one of the 15 titles in the Cinéfondation L'Atelier section, where emerging filmmakers get to link up with potential backers and other professionals from the industry. The latter screened at the Short Film Corner, a platform for newcomers to showcase content for possible selection at other international festivals, as well as to network with their peers and business partners.

Shortlist surprise

Suffice to say, the Cannes experience proved to be a priceless one for all the filmmakers whose works were invited as their projects also inched closer to the ultimate goal - developing it into a feature film. Many were caught by surprise when their works were shortlisted by the jury.

"The selection process seems like a black box with more than 1,600 shorts (vying) for 16 spots (so) the selected group was very diverse," notes Hirayanagi, a Japanese national who had no filmmaking experience prior to coming to Singapore where she received the Cathay Scholarship from exhibitor-distributor Cathay Organisation to study at Tisch Asia and graduated with an MFA in Film Production.

Oh Lucy! was her graduation thesis project and most of the interior scenes were shot in Singapore while the rest was filmed in Japan. The 21-minute short also stars Momoi Kaori (Memoirs of a Geisha, Sukiyaki Western Django), who's known as the Meryl Streep of Japan for her versatility and numerous acting awards. The veteran actress plays a 55-year-old single "office lady" who assumes a new identity and whose inner desires are awoken after she dons a blonde wig.

It won the top prize at the Wasserman Award at Tisch Asia's First Run Film Festival earlier this year before being invited to Cannes but surprisingly, things weren't always smooth-sailing for Hirayanagi's film. "There was no Media Development Authority (MDA) support - I was rejected twice, including two appeals, for the development fund and marketing scheme," laughs the mother of two who was seven months pregnant during the six-and-a-half day shoot, before adding that MDA did eventually support with promotion and press efforts after the film got into Cannes.

The Ilo Ilo ripple effect

Given the global stage the Singapore film industry has somewhat found itself on after Chen's moment of glory at Cannes last year, a bigger spotlight was shone on locals works at this year's festival.

Rajagopal says he has "no complaints" about that as it made people take an interest in his script for A Yellow Bird. It is the only title from Asia among 15 other international projects and the first Singaporean film to be selected for the 10th Cinéfondation's L'Atelier. Inspired by what his late mother used to tell him about making a wish whenever a yellow bird appears, the plot revolves around an Indian ex-convict who tries to seek redemption for his past actions and reconnect with loved ones whom he had hurt when he is released from prison.

One of the eight recipients of the Singapore Film Commission's New Talent Feature Grant - which supports first or second-time feature filmmakers with a grant of up to $250,000 - Rajagopal notes that Chen's win made people more aware of the cosmopolitan nature of our industry, especially for a filmmakers of a minority race like himself.

"Before that, people used to ask, 'Are you from China or India?', but now they know," he says, before adding that some of the professionals he met who were mostly in their 20s and 30s were also intrigued that a 49-year-old like him was making his first feature. "Ilo Ilo is very Singaporean because it's set here, yet it has managed to reach an international audience . . . in the same way, it gave me confidence that my script is able to reach beyond Singapore."

Although nothing has been firmed up and Rajagopal is hesitant about putting the cart before the horse, the exposure A Yellow Bird got has proved invaluable as discussions with distributors like Wild Bunch, the independent Paris-based European film distribution company behind award-winning indies like the recent lesbian drama Blue is the Warmest Colour and 2011 Best Film Oscar winner The Artist, means the self-taught freelance television and film director's feature could be set for a global stage once it's completed.

Hirayanagi, on the other hand, believes that any sort of spotlight local films got at Cannes wasn't entirely based on Ilo Ilo's win but was also due to "strong works coming out of Singapore" and was full of praise for Last Trip Home by Han, who could not be reached at press time. The latter, like Hirayanagi, isn't originally from Singapore - Han moved from China when he was 11 years old and has been pursuing a diploma in film for the past three years at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. Last Trip Home - much like Hirayanagi's Oh Lucy!, which is based on her experience of living in Japan and America - also touches on the diaspora issue as it tells the story of an immigrant and his son who decide to give up their struggles in Singapore and drive back to China with their only possession - their car.

Learning from Cannes

Although only Oh Lucy! managed to win a prize at this year's festival, the invited filmmakers all agree that the Cannes experience has been nothing short of eye-opening as they picked up something new about their craft.

Rajagopal says he has gained more confidence in selling A Yellow Bird to strangers. "When you're pitching it for the 32nd time, you get stronger and tell the story better each time," he says. "It's scary when you put a film out there; you don't know what the reaction is going to be."

Others like Sing, for instance, did not feel any pressure because her 14-minute On An Infinite Loop - about a daughter who revisits her old apartment a decade later only to discover her father living there with a stranger - was not in competition but felt honoured nonetheless that it was picked to be screened at the festival's Short Film Corner.

The 24-year-old says she was inspired all the same by her peers even though she admits to feeling like "a small fish". Sing, whose first short film, Crane Wife, gained both local and international exposure and awards, says she learnt about marketing her work there and was told by an industry professional that sometimes not winning any award can actually be a good thing.

She shares: "He told us that will actually give your film a longer shelf life because some festivals prefer to showcase new works instead of something that has already (been well-received or won something) somewhere else."