Interview with Kan Lume, director of Female Games
Recently, the Female Games World Premiere was held at Sinema Old School, which saw an overwhelming turnout and was followed by an enriching talkback session. It was a pity, however, that the director of Female Games, Kan Lume, was unable to be present to help us understand the film better. But thanks to the Internet, we were able to conduct an email interview with Kan Lume to find out the nitty-gritty details about the film and more about this award-winning director.
Felicia Ang, Miao (MI): Tell us about how and when exactly did you start out making films?
Kan Lume (KL): I spent a year studying film in Australia. When I returned to Singapore, I worked in a Production House full-time and in TCS part-time. I left after a year completely burnt out. I told stories to school students for two years as a Motivational Speaker. Eventually I decided to get back into filmmaking but I set certain rules for myself. I was only going to make fictional narrative films. No more corporate videos. No more distractions.
MI: How has the filmmaking journey been for you so far? Maybe you could talk about any personal major victories or even setbacks you have come across. Or even how do you cope being an independent filmmaker and having to pay the bills?
KL: I started out as an accountant and auditor, and maybe that helps in balancing my budget. I used to have a boss in film production who’d shoot an entire tape on a butterfly when the butterfly was only going to appear in the film for 10 seconds. I’ve heard of directors like that. They get lost in their films and don’t know when to move on. I’ll share with you another story.
On the final night of my first international film festival, I sat in the grand hall together with other independent filmmakers and we were all competing for the same prize. It dawned on me right there and then, that the guy whose film cost half a million dollars was never going to see that money recouped. My film, which cost $300 to make, was not only going to make a profit, it would ensure I stay in the business of making films. My film went on to win a prize. Since then, I’ve grown from making a $300 film to making a $100,000 film. I believe in being patient.
My first three features have all received international prizes. I’m ecstatic about that. But I’m never satisfied. I am constantly reaching out and trying to be a little more versatile than the last film. For example, I’m currently living in a different country, working on a new film.
I’ve also had the good fortune to be able to teach part time, for almost a decade now. Teaching school kids taught me how to construct a story, because children are the best judge for what works when it comes to stories.
MI: How do your family, relatives and friends think about your career as a local art house filmmaker?
KL: I don’t really bother to ask. But it has inspired my Dad somewhat. He was a closet creative person all his life, working in the backroom of a large financial institution and never having the chance to explore art. He has now taken out old family videos and edited them. He even won several prizes for his “family films”.
MI: How do you obtain funding for your projects? Is it tough?
KL: I’ve had producers come up to me and offer me money to make films. However, I’ve yet to take up any of those offers because the goals of those films would be different from my first four films. Those films are in the business of entertainment and they need a different way of working. I’m not sure that my current vibe is such. If you look at the way that I’ve worked and the speed with which I’ve made my films, my rule is to work quickly, cleanly and not to become weighed down over things.
I love the experience I’m gaining by stretching resources to the maximum. If I can find a way to marry my love for character with the business of entertainment and if the environment I’m in is conducive, I’ll call upon the moneylenders. In the meantime, my goal is to make films with whatever I have.
MI: You have been a rather prolific filmmaker, producing a feature film with each year. What exactly is your driving force?
KL: I tend to be drawn more to character than pure story ideas. Once I find a person that interests me, I then look at the forms available. Most people follow the learned way of making movies; they start with a script and find the resources to create that vision. That consumes a lot of resources. I never took a directing nor scriptwriting class, so I had to invent my own processes. Also, people take the element that they think works. Action films with plenty of violence do well. Give me scenes with car chases, shooting and stuff like that.
Unless you have the resources for it, making films like that in Singapore would be akin to trying to construct the Empire State Building in your backyard. It just doesn’t happen without massive compromises and ultimately, failure. It is important to understand context and scale when dealing with any process, including filmmaking. For the most part, I am doing my films within the realm of a story and character development because that is what I can pull off effectively for now.
MI:Ã‚ What would you say is your style of filmmaking? It seems that your past and present works mostly contain sexual themes, would you say this is your auteur feature? Can you enlighten us on this topic?
KL: I get an idea. It incubates for a couple of weeks, sometimes months. And then something happens. It begins to come together Ã¢â‚¬” the cast and locations. Once I get my main cast, I meet with them individually and spend time talking to them. I find out their views on everything. I also test my initial sparks of ideas on them and see where that goes.
Normally it develops into character and story. Then I wait a little longer until the ideas and enthusiasm reach a bursting point – the film has to be shot immediately or else it’s lost forever. I shoot the film chasing this invisible energy and life until it runs out and we’re completely drained. Then I spend as much time as I can editing the film. Sometimes up to a year.
MI: Share with us how exactly you work on shoot. Do you do it alone or…?
KL: Female Games started with Evelyn Maria Ng. I was surprised to see her at the screening of one of my films, and I asked her if she was interested to work with me. She was enthusiastic, open-minded and charismatic. After several meetings, I floated the idea of a character she could play (a model grappling with jealous competition) and a theme that we might explore (the issue of female friendship).
I knew Qiaoyun from a class I taught at Tisch NYU and always had her in mind for a role and that’s how the whole thing started. It was very organic after that. The story evolved out of the development of these two characters. We needed a best friend as a counterpoint for Maria’s character and I already knew Qiaoyun would provide the polar opposite point of view. True enough, when the two actors met for the first time, they had a fictitious rapport.
I was self-producing on a tiny budget so I also wrote the plot around resources that I had at my disposal, namely a location owned by a friend in Kuala Lumpur, and public spaces in Malaysia that I knew would not charge a dime. My crew was tiny as usual, which made the experience totally intimate and I think everyone felt useful and valued on set.
Scriptwriting should take into account the environment we are in. I cast real people and use controlled improvisations because that is what is available to me. If I were working in America, my process would evolve to suit that environment. I have a story in my head, and I write a detailed outline, but I never show it to my performers. Although the structure is very detailed, I don’t want my actors to feel the weight of it. I not only have scenes in my head, but also what the scenes are about. Before we shoot, I’d say to them, “Start at this point, end here, but in-between, you’ve got to cover these three subjects. Do it in your own way.”
I’ve always shot my films chronologically because it’s helpful for the actors. I allow actors to discover the story for themselves and allow them to think they are guiding the character along, which empowers them to ask relevant questions I may not have thought of. I listen to my actor’s input a great deal, because that is where the dimensionality of the character comes into being. Whatever questions they are asking, the audience will be asking. So why not solve it together? I do not rehearse much at all. What I’m bottling is real energy and it can be lost after too many takes. My job is to create a situation in which the best that they have is allowed to come out, and I’m there to capture it. I’ve never had the personality to torture my actors and pull out performances that were never there to begin with.
Post-production for me is akin to the way you piece together a documentary, shaping it from hours of awesome but unformed footage. I know, when I’m shooting my films, how I am going to play it out in story form. I’m also conscious, every time I’m doing a scene, not to stifle the flow of a scene and to shoot enough coverage to allow for possibilities in editing. I also like to gather abstract footage that I could use as cutaways.
Finally, I am always looking out for that final pay off, which usually comes in the form of a paradigm shift in my protagonist’s point of view. Once I’ve gathered enough material to build a three-act film, I’m happily finding it in post-production.
MI: What are your influences for the films you have made or want to make?
KL: It has to do with the environment in which I make my films. Some of my main early influences had to deal with similar social, political, financial circumstances. Filmmakers like Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, Lars Von Trier, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Wong Kar-Wai were foundational in showing me ways to deal with my predicaments as an artist in Singapore. As I’ve grown, I started to appreciate others as well.
MI: Are there any filmmakers you admire, local or overseas?
KL: As a general rule, I admire any film that manages to do a lot with very little.
MI: What is your favourite local film, and why?
KL: My favorite local film is somewhere in the future. I can definitely see Singaporean films progressing rapidly towards commercial and artistic success.
MI: Will you venture into the commercial side and not solely on art films?
KL: We shall see. I don’t know. I wish I would. In the meantime, all I can do is keep working, keep learning and remain positive. One thing for sure, if I remain in my current environment, my trajectory will not change.
MI: What inspired you to make this story of Female Games?
KL: I chanced upon a very brave actress by the name of Evelyn Maria Ng, who was excited to make a film and trusted me a great deal. As I spoke to her, I became fascinated with the concept of a simple girl, born with extraordinary beauty, and the burdens and opportunities that would bring.
At the same time, I met Shen Qiaoyun. She is the complete opposite, a perfect counterbalance to Maria. She is a deep thinker with many great talents. I envisioned two characters with a common goal (to be a successful model), yet using different means to obtain it. The scenes were designed to pit one against another.
Kuala Lumpur and Penang were also important inspirations. 80% of the film was shot outside Singapore. I find it increasingly difficult to be inspired by Singapore’s cleanliness and cramp-ness. The filth and disorder of KL was extremely beautiful and Penang’s beaches were awe-inspiring.
MI: Can you share with us the gist of Female Games?
KL: Deliberately rejecting many aspects of ‘classic’ Hollywood narrative, Female Games meanders blissfully through Malaysian landscape, finding interesting spaces never seen in Singapore and allowing the audience space and time for reflection. The story line and mise-en-scene are built around clean, simple geometric lines and a pattern of themes. It is my attempt to arrive at a purer form of cinema.
MI: Were there any particularly memorable scene(s) or experience(s) you encountered making this film?
KL: There was a particularly beautiful night in Penang where I had about 3 hours worth of powerful, natural performances from the two leads and many extras. They worked extremely hard on their scenes and it came out beautifully. By the end of it, the extras went home and the leads were totally tired out. As I was dumping out the footage into my computer, I heard a knock on the door and my actors came into the room to talk about what we had shot. I accidentally deleted the footage. We had to reshoot the entire sequence, minus the extras. It was ultimately unusable. Human error is unavoidable sometimes, but this one hurt a lot.
MI: What do you hope the viewers will take from this film?
KL: I don’t really know or care that much really. I just do what I like and not worry about it. There’s nothing I wouldn’t attempt if it were within the realm of a good story. Upon retrospect, I did observe that The Art of Flirting sent a message to fellow filmmakers to go out and make films; not to wait for funding. “Solos” had a message that we can and should collaborate with one another. Dreams From The Third World conveyed the sense of frustration I felt about the lack of opportunities in Singapore. Female Games is a cry for freedom, nature and escape.
MI: Well your films usually revolves slightly controversial themes, do you think local viewers are ready for the change?
KL: I went ahead and made Female Games because the freedom to ask questions, even uncomfortable ones, is what differentiates a free man from one that merely thinks he is free. I think local viewers need to see a different line of questioning. That is my role.
MI: What is your future plan? Do you have any new upcoming film projects you are intending to make?
KL: My short film “Traces of the Wall” about the fall of the Berlin Wall will premiere in November at the Berlin Dayz. Next year I begin shooting a film in the Australian Outback.