On #SGIFF30 and Southeast Asian Cinema – An Interview with SGIFF Programme Director Kuo Ming Jung
“During the festival, we’re just running around, lacking sleep, and eating junk food, so I try to walk to all the screening venues whenever possible! To try and treat my body a little better,” Kuo Ming Jung—who goes by Ming—sprightly shared. With the official end of the 30th Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF), Ming revealed that the hectic work of wrapping up is still not over. Yet, remaining chirpy and passionate in an interview with Sinema, Ming’s extensive experience as a seasoned film programmer shows as she amiably talks about her involvement in this year’s SGIFF and her thoughts on Southeast Asian cinema.
Appointed the Programme Director for the 30th run of SGIFF, Ming explained that this was a very natural choice for her. “I left the Taipei Film Festival because I feel like I’ve been there [for many years] and it’s about time I find a new direction,” Ming shared. Arriving in Singapore for the first time in 2015 for the Asian Film Symposium organised jointly by Objectifs and The Substation, Ming went on to be the Programme Consultant for previous SGIFF runs. Through that, not only did she get to know more about Singapore filmmakers, she was also exposed to more Southeast Asian films.
When the opportunity presented itself to head the SGIFF Programme Team, for a festival that she was familiar with and attended a few times, she naturally took it up. “Because of the current development of the region and the energy here made me quite curious,” Ming said when asked about what compelled her to join the team.
With this being Ming’s first year as the Programme Director of SGIFF, we asked if there was anything new that she introduced to the programme. “Not really,” Ming said. “Firstly because I came in in June and the programmes had to be settled by late August, so I didn’t have much time.” For her, it was more important to upkeep the smooth flow of the festival that SGIFF already had, instead of coming onboard and arrogantly introducing new ideas or additions. Coming in as a Programme Director, Ming stated that her first concern was understanding who the audience is.
Ensuring that each film had a purpose was crucial to her too, either in terms of message or idea. The non-competition films were categorised under various segments, such as Asian Vision, Cinema Today, and Classics. Each segment served a different purpose, and with that in mind, the programme team would then select films to be screened.
“For Cinema Today, we put our focus on the best films, strong visions coming out of international cinema this year, for example, Bacurau, Les Miserables, Vitalina Varela, Synonyms. These films show strong artistic vision from the filmmakers, but also speak about the world we are living in now, fluid identities, state violence, the harsh reality of migrants.
“For Asian Vision, it’s slightly different from Cinema Today. We are in Asia and there are Asian stories, sensibilities or sentiments, personal stories and histories that connect us. So we think about what are the exciting, innovative works coming out of this region (for example Krabi, or The Wild Goose Lake), what connects the audiences (for example Ride Your Wave), or what we think is important to follow (for example The Tree Remembers).”
However, there are always many factors running through her head and it’s never easy to have a specific set of criteria for a film to be selected. “But first and foremost, they must be films that we like,” Ming concluded.
With regard to Midi Z’s Nina Wu and Anthony Chen’s Wet Season being some of the most hyped films at this year’s SGIFF, we wondered if there was a conscious effort to focus on female representation among the film selections. “That would be more subconscious, I think,” Ming mused. The message of strong empowering women or a sensitive movie with a female protagonist was the main point. Instead of actively searching out films with female representation, Ming said that for her, it’s always about films. “Film comes first.”
With her obvious passion for film and curiosity for Southeast Asian films, Ming has been identified as a key figure behind bringing Southeast Asian films to Taiwan. When asked about the motivations for this initiative, Ming shared that for one, there’s a closer geographical proximity between Taiwan and Southeast Asia that Taiwanese audience can relate to more, than say, Europe or Scandinavian countries. “I always like to bring up Scandinavian examples, because in Scandinavian countries, they have very strong and established film schools,” Ming stated. While there are many great Scandinavian films about identity crises and broken families, Ming feels that often times, there seems to be a formula that they follow.
Conversely, in Southeast Asia, Ming believes that even though the film schools may have shakier foundations, there’s a lot of freedom and leeway to explore films, which makes things very exciting. “Which is why I really enjoyed seeing all the films submitted for the [Southeast Asian Short Film] competition. Last time, I’ll only get to see the best films selected. But now, working from the ground, I get to see all of them. And they always surprise me.”
“Sometimes I can be like, ‘What? Where do you even get that idea from?’” Ming laughed and went on to say that it’s also something she really admires. For her, Southeast Asian films seem to have more freedom to explore non-formulaic films that may or may not be successful but are still thrilling to watch. Especially for short films, with their nature allowing many new directors to take the stage, even for those without filmmaking backgrounds.
In comparison, the Taiwanese film industry is also, like in Scandinavian countries, rather established, Ming admitted. But this means that they also face the same problem of following a certain formula of success. Ming then shared that this is one of the motivations behind bringing Southeast Asian films to Taiwan—to remind the people in Taiwan that such a region exists, where trial and error takes place fearlessly, where there is still an ardour to break out of boundaries and formulas.
Having just wrapped-up the 11-day long festival, we asked if she hoped for any takeaways for participants. “We hope that the SGIFF was able to deliver a rich experience where filmmakers from the region could come together to expand the conversation of filmmaking and exchange ideas. Beyond the film screenings, we also want to facilitate a more robust and in-depth discussion around films with the audience, and in turn, encourage thought-provoking and deep exchanges.”
For Ming, the future of SGIFF should continue to be about building their audience. It is definitely possible, Ming reasoned, as she cited the example of Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela. With Costa’s iconic slow cinema and niche audience, Ming talked about how there were only a handful of audience members when she brought the film to Taiwan in 2015. However, four years on, the same film saw full house theatres totalling up to almost 1000 audience at the Golden Horse Festival this year. Understanding the audience is necessary in order to build it, and closing the gap between hardcore cinephiles and casual moviegoers will be the first step.
There also needs to be a constant work in progress to better understand the position of SGIFF amidst other film festivals and what SGIFF can offer that is different, Ming said, which she had the time to do for TFF.
All around the world, people are going to cinemas less, and Ming sees this as a threat to feature films and the usual custom to watch movies in theatres. SGIFF becomes important and necessary in providing a continued space to encourage people to watch movies in cinemas and to allow kindred souls to find other fellow moviegoers. Ming said, “Ultimately, we are people who love films and want to keep championing them.”