Scoffed at, but his gem of an idea took off
OVER a midnight cup of coffee at Changi Airport recently, Singaporean director Anthony Chen said that when he first told people about his idea for his award-winning film, they replied: "Who wants to watch a movie about a maid and a boy? Can't you do something more punchy? More controversial?"
Based in London now, he is hard at work on two projects in Britain. One is an adaptation of a British novel, a contemporary family drama that spans 40 years. The other is based on an original script he is writing.
Ilo Ilo, set in 1997 during the Asian financial crisis, shows a different side of Singapore far from the financial district or Orchard Road, revolving instead around the daily drama of life in the public housing blocks where most Singaporeans live.
It is one of the few films here to depict a maid as a main character and resonated beyond the country's shores. According to Chen, audiences in Mumbai, India, cried and told him: "This is an Indian film."
In Busan, South Korea, he said, they assured him: "Your film has Korean emotions."
Made for US$500,000 (S$627,000) and partly funded by the Singapore Film Commission, Ilo Ilo went on to win four Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan, including Best Picture, the biggest honour in the Chinese film world, beating Wong Kar Wai's The Grandmaster.
Variety named Chen one of 10 directors to watch.
Chen said he had never felt restrictions on his creativity in Singapore.
"I'm more interested in asking questions than giving answers," he told The New York Times. "The last thing I want is to come in a very bold, moralistic way and say this is right and this is wrong, and make big statements. I'm not sure I'm that kind of film-maker."
He returns often to Singapore and is active in lobbying the Government to provide better support to his generation of film-makers. "I'm in a very good place to voice certain things," he said.
Chen grew up the oldest of three boys in a middle-class family. His father was a sales manager at an industrial products company, his mother, a bookkeeper. He was influenced by Taiwanese cinema, particularly the films of Edward Yang and Lee Ang.
He studied film at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, before the Government sent him on a scholarship to the National Film and Television School in London.
The Singapore Film Commission also funded several of his short films, which were screened in Cannes and Berlin. When Ilo Ilo came along, it agreed to invest US$250,000, half the film's budget.
Ilo Ilo has so far grossed about US$3 million, Chen said, of which US$2 million has come from outside Singapore. Distributors in more than 20 countries have bought the film. It continues to play in the United States and opened this month in Britain.
Chen has also been approached by many companies to be the face of their brands or products, but he has agreed to only one so far.
In Tiger Beer's latest campaign Uncage, launched worldwide yesterday, he tells the story of how he struggled to become the celebrated film-maker he is today, The Straits Times reported.
After turning down other commercial offers, "mostly for luxury brands", he accepted this offer because he "agrees with the campaign's vision".
Outside of work, the film-maker hopes to start a family.
"I have already turned 30 and would really like to have a child soon. I want to be a young, cool dad," he said with a chuckle.
Chen lives in London with his wife, PhD student Rachel Yan, 32.