Yip Wai Yee
The Straits Times
Wednesday, Jun 1, 2016
Home-grown film-maker Anthony Chen is looking a little gaunt these days, and no wonder - his life and career have been a whirlwind since his debut feature Ilo Ilo (2013) was released to international critical acclaim three years ago.
From its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, where it bagged the prestigious Camera d'Or for best first feature, to the film's four Golden Horse Award wins, including for Best Picture, things have been going non-stop for Chen.
Besides launching and promoting Ilo Ilo around the world, he also starred in a television commercial for Tiger Beer, served as a mentor and jury member on various film festival panels and started his own film production company, Giraffe Pictures, under which he has already co-written and executiveproduced a new film.
The film is omnibus project Distance, which tells three stories revolving around the theme of distance. It is helmed by three rising Asian directors - China's Xin Yukun, Singapore's Tan Shijie and Thailand's Sivaroj Kongsakul - and stars Taiwanese heart-throb Chen Bo-lin in various roles, such as an estranged childhood friend, a forgotten son and a heartbroken lover.
At a recent press conference in Singapore to promote the movie, which opens tomorrow, reporters in the room started exclaiming over Anthony Chen's clearly skinnier face as soon as the 32-year-old stepped onstage.
When The Straits Times asks him about it, he attributes it partly to regular exercise, but mostly to his crazy schedule.
"I've been so busy. And I'm the type of person who, if I stop working even for a second, I will immediately get sick. So I just keep going," he says during the interview, one of many backto-back media interviews he has for the day.
Even though he was not in the director's shoes for Distance, the self-confessed "control freak" had nonetheless been very much involved in every aspect of the project.
He admits: "I often stand next to the directors watching the monitors and asking questions. I want to challenge them because I want this to be the best possible film."
Singaporean film-maker Tan, 34, who directs the second segment in the film, titled The Lake, attests to the executive producer's involvement in the project.
He says Chen's constant spate of advice on set felt "weird at first", but that it was "more helpful than anything".
"Anthony and I have the same vision for the film. Some people may see it as controlling, but I think it's good to have a second pair of eyes."
Concurring, Chen Bo-lin, the film's 32-year-old leading man, says: "Anthony is extremely diligent and he cares a lot about the project. He's always the first on the set and the last to leave."
Because of this and the fact that Anthony Chen is the most wellknown film-maker on the project, many people are calling Distance his film. On the movie's posters, his name is the biggest as film distributors attempt to sell the work riding on his fame.
He mulls over this reality for a while and says: "If that's what it takes to get the word out, then I don't really mind. I just want people to see it because these three directors are film-makers whom I really admire and they deserve to have their work seen.
"But I have to clarify - I did not direct this. I do not have director's credit."
Of his eagerly anticipated proper follow-up to Ilo Ilo, he declines to reveal details, except to say he has a storyline mapped out for a film "about a woman finding herself".
Whether the story will be set in Singapore depends on the casting.
Staying true to himself
"If it's set in Singapore, then I have to find the right actors. Many investors have told me that I have the means to hire anybody I want now, whether it is a big star from Hong Kong or Taiwan, to appear in my films. But I can't possibly get them to play Singaporeans, right?
"If I can't believe the casting myself, how can I convince audiences to believe it? I have to find the right people," says Chen, who had auditioned more than 2,000 schoolboys before settling on newcomer Koh Jia Ler as the lead of Ilo Ilo.
"So if I can't find the right people, then I may have to change the setting of the story. I do hope to start production maybe at the end of the year or early next year.
"It took me three years to work on Ilo Ilo and I have been working on this script for about the same time. I think it's about time," he says.
What he is certain about is that his as-yet-untitled project will be a small film, something on the scale of Ilo Ilo: "I've seen too many directors whose second films are totally different from their first, sometimes because of commercial pressures.
"It's like they were not even made by the same person. But I can't do that. No matter what, I have to stay honest to myself and with my emotions."
Staying true to himself will also help take the pressure off having to measure up to the immense success of his debut, he says.
"The thing is, nothing I do will be the same as what I got for Ilo Ilo. I will never be named Best New Director again and I can never get the Camera d'Or again, because you can get that kind of recognition only once.
"But as long as I stick to my vision and tell the stories I want to tell, I think I'll feel okay about whatever I put out."
Other than this new original story, he is also working on two film adaptations, one of a British novel and the other of a French title.
In between, he will be busy producing several more films, most recently Singaporean director Kirsten Tan's debut feature Popeye, which just started production in Bangkok.
Two days after this interview, Chen was already on a flight to Thailand to oversee the project.
"When you love film this much, you don't mind the hard work that comes with it. A lot of young film students are more in love with the idea that they can be a director or walk the red carpet than with cinema itself.
"They don't realise what a tough business it is. But if you have a real passion for cinema, you'll stick with it, no matter what comes your way."
This article was first published on June 1, 2016.
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