100 SECONDS ON THE RED SOFA: Invisible Stories
“I have never studied film so my film school is the industry itself,” local director Ler Jiyuan, the showrunner of HBO Asia’s Invisible Stories series, tells us candidly. He made his start in the industry as a production assistant before working his way up to being an assistant director and finally a director.
In his early days, Ler worked on everything that paid – corporate videos, infotainment, instructional videos, events videos, music videos, and the likes. Slowly, he progressed towards his passion for drama by directing Perfect Deception for Channel 5. Today, his accomplished list of filmography includes local productions Code of Law, Gone Case, short film The Drum, and HBO series Grisse.
With Invisible Stories – a six-part mini-series set in the fictional neighbourhood of Sungei Merah – Ler looks to highlight the lives of six marginalised, alienated everyday common people and their stories. While being a working director requires him to shoot different genres, Ler finds the social realist style of the series to be closest to his heart. Here, he draws inspiration from the works of Kore-eda, Edward Yang, and the early works of Ang Lee.
“Of course, Invisible Stories is not done in the same film language because ultimately the series is still created for the small screen. That means I will still need to make it palatable for audiences, with us settling on a comfortable spot on the abstraction ladder.”
At the time of writing, HBO Asia has released the first two episodes of the series. Lian, its first episode starring Yeo Yann Yann, is a heartbreaking snapshot of the lives of an underprivileged mother and her autistic son. The second episode, Chuan, sees local vetaran actor Wang Yuqing live the double life of a taxi driver by day, and ‘tang-ki’ or spiritual medium by night. In the following weeks, Invisible Stories will tackle similar themes, honing in on the lesser-known, lesser-told side of the Singapore story.
Having written the script more than two years ago, Ler shares with us that his initial plan for the series’ first episode was for it to be a short film. After creating the concept for Invisible Stories and successfully pitching it to HBO, he decided to use the opportunity to incorporate Lian into the series as its starting point and pilot episode.
This first episode turned out to be Ler’s most challenging shoot for the series. Wanting to tread carefully while tackling the sensitive subject matter of autism and to be responsible during the process, the team engaged special needs teacher, Pauline Cheng. Through the numerous rehearsals, Pauline guided the team and cast in representing autism truthfully and faithfully on-screen. This became an “emotionally and physically gruelling” process for Yann Yann and Taiwanese co-star Devin Pan in portraying Ling and her autistic son.
Yet, this process is necessary for Ler. He shares, “I always had an interest in the subject matter of Lian because I have two cousins with autism at home. I always felt that, because of films such as Rain Man, there is this misconception that the majority of individuals with autism have some kind of special talent and abilities when this is not really the case. I wanted to do something that is very real, that can be hard to watch but necessary.”
The same level of attention to detail was brought to the series’ second episode. For the role, Yuqing was sent for ‘tang-ki’ training, learning all the rites and even how to move like a spiritual medium. Having previously casted Yuqing in a few of his short films, Ler always enjoys working with the actor. He says, “He is a really committed actor. He has such versatility, never playing the same role twice. I really love the charisma that he brings to the screen.”
Ler shares with us that the most surprising thing working with HBO was the amount of freedom he got.
“I have never enjoyed such freedom in the way I work except with HBO. I have no language restrictions, no timing restrictions, I can hold long shots without cutting and they don’t wince… I mean it sounds like PR but it’s the truth.”
While a second season of Invisible Stories is still up in the air, Ler is optimistic that there will be enough audience support to warrant one. With HBO Go being a global platform with a larger audience pool, he feels that this means the show will be able to attract a specific group of audiences from around the world to add up to a substantial number.
He jokes, “That is one positive about the streaming generation. If [Invisible Stories] is a film, I am sure the box office will tank, man – without a doubt! But because it is a streaming platform, suddenly everything makes sense; there is audience appeal and just not all in Singapore.”
Being on a global platform also aligned with what Ler feels is lacking in terms of audience development in Singapore: cultural identity. He suggests that we have neglected this aspect, curtailing what is unique and special about us. He uses the example of our television landscape where there is a tendency to homogenise Singaporeans and to segregate them into race while ignoring the possibilities with dialects and a mixture of everything.
Ler believes that only with a strong cultural identity can our films and arts thrive; only then will audiences overseas would want to consume our art and love what Singapore stands for.
“I mean the Koreans just went out and did it and asked you to read subtitles. But we are always so worried that people will not understand us. So ironically, the way to reach out to the world is to be ourselves more rather than the other way around – which is what we have always been doing by pandering to the crowd. Now if you put out an English feature film, you will not do as well as a Chinese or a Malay language locally done feature film because people want us to be ourselves.”
Invisible Stories is now streaming on HBO Go with a new episode premiering every Sunday at 10pm.
About 100 Seconds On The Red Sofa
100 Seconds On The Red Sofa shines the spotlight on movers and shakers in the Singapore film and media scene, with each episode featuring people that are making waves and contributing to the industry’s growth and enrichment.
The Red Sofa has come a long way and has a rich history, dating all the way back to Sinema Old School in 2007. It’s seen a generation of young local filmmakers come into their own; now we’re dusting it off for another round.