An Interview with Emmy-Nominated Writer and Director Leon Cheo
In 2020, it’s sad to say that the LGBTQ+ community still struggles with proper representation and recognition, on film as well as other mediums. This is universal all over the world, even present in Hollywood. In the film industries from the East to the West, LGBTQ+ voices have a hard time being heard and their stories have an even harder time seeing the light of day. When they do, they end up having the label of being ‘controversial’ or ‘contentious’, no matter how inexplicit the content.
This is even more apparent in Singapore. With heavy-handed censorship and conservative mainstream audiences, LGBTQ+ representation on film and the freedom to tell their stories is something that the community has been fighting for. Singapore itself has had a spotty history with portrayals of LGBTQ+ characters on screen, often giving us offensive and inaccurate portraits of such individuals.
Yet even with that said, we can now see a push for more LGBTQ+ rights and stories in Singapore. As the younger generation grows up and pushes for this change, we see more honest and realistic depictions of being queer, ones that don’t require offensive, campy or coded characters. And with that comes directors like Leon Cheo, the man behind the Emmy-nominated local series People Like Us.
People Like Us won Best Short TV Drama at the 2016 ITVFest (Vermont), Best Web Drama Series at the Formosa Festival of International Filmmaker Awards, and Best Supporting Actor – Drama at the 2017 Indie Series Awards. In 2020, season two of People Like Us is also nominated for an International Emmy for best short-form series.
Being a gay man himself, Cheo is particularly aware of the struggles of the LGBTQ+ community and uses his voice and platform to give us an honest and raw depiction of being gay in Singapore.
Cheo himself is no stranger to filmmaking and the success that follows. His short films have screened at festivals in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Seoul, Bangkok, Tokyo, Tehran, Germany, Italy, Canada to name a few and also bagged several awards throughout the years, including Best Live Action and Best Director at the 2019 National Youth Film Awards in Singapore.
Following the success of the series and our curiosity towards Cheo’s thoughts on representation for the LGBTQ+ community, we got in contact over Zoom to pick his brain about the series, his inspirations and how the series People Like Us came about.
Tell us about yourself
I am a filmmaker from Singapore. My interest in film really began when I was a teenager. While I wasn’t the type to experiment with cameras or filming, I always had an interest in movies. My family, particularly my mother and uncle, were also very interested in movies.
I remember as a family, we would rent Laser Discs and watch it together as a family in my parents’ bedroom, so I had a lot of exposure to Hollywood films at the time. At one point I even ran a website where I would write movie reviews. In the end I found this too administrative and I didn’t enjoy it.
After finishing secondary school, I decided to try filmmaking. This decision was partly influenced by watching an Academy Awards show which made me think, ‘”Oh this is kind of cool, maybe I should try it?”. That was the beginning of my journey with film. I then studied at Ngee Ann Polytechnic and Chapman University afterwards.
Over the years I have made nine short films as well as the web series People Like Us. I have also produced for other filmmakers, and worked on the National Day Parade among other projects.
What drew you to a career in film?
In general I was intrigued by media and filming. Growing up, my parents weren’t very prescriptive in what they wanted me to do. My mother also worked in advertising and was more of a creative. While it was not like they let me do whatever I wanted, they allowed me to find my own path.
When I was younger, around the age of primary school, I toyed with the idea of becoming a lawyer or a policeman but it didn’t really suit me personally. Eventually, my interest in film helped me to realise that a career in film allowed for such opportunities and diversity. It has almost a full circle effect because in telling such stories, I find that I can pretend to be who I want. Especially when writing scripts, I can really get into the role of a character and embody them and their profession. I think it is this freedom and versatility of film that really drew me in.
How did the series People Like Us come about?
The series came about when the Men Who Have Sex With Men (MSM) outfit of Action for AIDS got in touch with me. During that time, I was doing videos for Pink Dot and at an event they mentioned this project and said they were looking for a filmmaker to develop it. At this stage, the project’s brief was just to be about the lives of four men of different age groups in Singapore.
Personally, I did not want the series to be too ‘preachy’, which was something we agreed on. We wanted to differentiate it from the typical on-the-nose type of HIV education, which has a more prescriptive approach where the point is to warn against certain behaviours. I thought of the idea where we have characters who are either in risky situations or encounter risk. I wanted them to be seen as real people making or not making mistakes.
Overall, the genesis of the project was to create an entertaining and educational series. When watching it on YouTube, there also is a segment at the end where they offer advice and discuss events that happen, which covers the more educational aspect.
What made you want to tell these four stories in particular?
As a writer, I drew from my own experiences or research such as friends’ experiences. A lot of the events on screen were personal or based on personal curiosity, where I wondered about certain situations. I wanted to represent a wide array of situations and also provide help or tools to people who don’t know how to deal with such situations.
Most stories told are based on what I and the community think would occur. We thought it was important to show these situations, acknowledge that they happen and then to bring about discussion.
Particularly for Isaac’s story, we wanted to address chemsex and drug use. From my experiences as a gay man growing up in Singapore, members of the LGBTQ+ community aren’t given the tools to deal with a lot of serious issues. In schools, sex education is about abstinence and prevention and not how to deal with these things. In our culture, we are also conservative and do not really address these issues. With People Like Us, we wanted the series to be sex positive and not shy about addressing sexual situations.
Do you have a favourite storyline or character? Why?
I think if I had to choose, my favourite character would be Rai because I relate most to the hopeless romantic aspect of his character. But I do feel that all of the characters still do feel like a part of me. I can’t devoid myself from putting myself in these characters. I see Joel as my impatient personality, Rai is the hopeless romantic side of me, Rizwan, while not much like myself now, relates to a lot of fear of being in the closet.
Isaac, to me, was the most difficult to relate to and write. Being outside of my age group and outside of my zone of familiarity (in reference to chemsex), writing him involved a lot more research and with trying to empathize with his character. Overall, it was more of a challenge than the others.
What were your inspirations whilst creating the series?
I took inspiration stylistically from the HBO series Looking by Andrew Haigh. The series focuses on the lives of a group of gay friends in San Francisco and their love lives. I really liked the series’ observational style. I was also inspired by how the show was very character-driven. However as season two of People Like Us came along, I think I had to make my own path and tell my own stories. I also think that all the LGBTQ+ films that have come out in the last few decades have also left an imprint on me and helped me in creating this series.
Is there anything you were particularly aware of in the filming process?
I think to me I really wanted to archive LGBTQ+ (particularly gay) life and spaces. For season one especially, I wanted to film in the actual bars, clubs and saunas. I really wanted to show these physical spaces and show how sacred they are to the LGBTQ+ community. I also wanted to film in them to let people know that they exist and are physical footholds that are special to our community.
Considering the “controversial” nature of the series and possible naysayers, what gave you the courage to get this series off the ground?
To be honest, I never felt that afraid. As a filmmaker, of course I would have fears but in making the series, I was not afraid. I think this has partly to do with some form of privilege. Being a Chinese cis gay male, I am part of the majority in Singapore and there are certain privileges that comes with that.
Sometimes in the back of my mind, I do wonder if this would prevent people from hiring me in the future. I know it has cost me some opportunities. As an anecdote, I did lose a government/corporate type opportunity once over clashing values. While this is not outrightly anyone’s fault, these considerations do come into play sometimes and overshadow my previous works such as my work on the National Day Parade.
But, I think that life is too short to be fearful and secretive. I like to believe that it is what it is – if things come along, things come along. I am fortunate enough to say that things do come along for me. Being in the media industry, we have more liberal values and working on a series like People Like Us is not that big of a dealbreaker.
Were there any challenges getting series off ground?
Logistically and production wise, no. Thankfully we were able to shoot the series without getting arrested, which is a problem in some countries.
As a filmmaker, this is also a once-in-a-lifetime project. I know it won’t see the light of day in 2020 Singapore and will not be able to exist on broadcast television but as a web series we did not face much struggle in terms of opposition.
Recently one of our thumbnails (for episode 2.04) did get flagged for being too sexual which was quite funny. In this episode, some comments were overt like “this is disgusting” and we do get some religious messages but overall I think being in Singapore we have the privilege to make this series without danger to our lives. Compared to other countries, we do not face the same level of danger or threat.
How do you feel about the success of your series?
Speaking specifically on the Emmy nomination, it was honestly completely unexpected. This year, being a downer for festivals due to COVID-19, we did get into some festivals but it seemed a bit lesser. With the Emmy nomination, it felt like a feather on our cap for this year and I was definitely very happy about it.
Season one is also surprising in terms of success. While I did not doubt that the show would resonate with audiences here, the fact that we got overseas recognition and awards was a bit of a surprise because of the local context. I didn’t know if people would get the nuances or appreciate the subtlety.
While the success is great, I didn’t make the show to win awards, that is more a perk than the point. I think the best part about the awards, and thus recognition, is the show being able to reach the audience we want, giving people characters they relate to and stories that resonate with them.
What do you think about queer representation in film in Singapore? (Do you feel like it is adequate?)
I feel like there is still a lot more to be done. While [People Like Us] may make it seem like being gay in Singapore is okay, there are still many challenges to be faced. One big thing is censorship in the media.
Gay characters cannot exist on television as they do in People Like Us. They would usually have to be stereotypical, campy or coded, which is the trajectory of queer characters in almost all representation worldwide. Gay characters are commonly coded or ‘subversive’, meaning the queerness is hidden in subtext. I think firstly we have to get through this phase.
I think that a very important step is for censorship in Singapore to be reviewed. The censorship code has not been reviewed in a while and hopefully that can be done this year, particularly for the film industry. Different media have different standards.
Looking at print media specifically, LGBTQ+ books and stories are no longer being heavily censored although magazines still are. In television and film, streaming is a great way to push for change, having various LGBTQ+ stories available for discerning adults. Hopefully this can inspire and influence directors for television in Singapore to change and be more inclusive towards LGBTQ+ voices and stories.
Will People Like Us get a third season and where would the story go from there?
Even before the Emmy nomination, I was already thinking of a season three but Action for AIDS on the other hand was not very sure. After the nomination, I think mutually we agreed that the door is open for a season three.
I stand with the fans in that I would love for the series to continue, especially with how season two ended. On my end I have been slowly thinking about the stories I want to tell in season three. I haven’t really gotten a concrete idea but I think we will definitely find out the fate of the two couples.
Are you working on other projects now?
Right now I am working on a bunch of things, among which I am focusing mainly on a short film about the “two is enough” policy during the 1970s and 1980s in Singapore. It is not directly related to LGBTQ+. It is about a mother of two who has to decide what to do with her upcoming third child.
It is a thematic continuation of sorts to my previous short film SIN-SFO, which is about a couple renouncing their Singaporean citizenship in the United States. It’s a continuation in a sense that it explores how the personal and political intertwine and what happens when policy affects families.
What do you have to say to those who think homophobia and exclusion do not exist in television and film in 2020 Singapore?
I think firstly one thing I need to reemphasize is that it’s not rainbows and butterflies for the LGBTQ+ community in Singapore. While this series (the fact that it was made) and the Pink Dot may make it seem this way, there are still a lot of hidden factors at play that does not really allow inclusion. Censorship tends to be more subtle and hidden, making it harder to see overtly.
I think Singapore definitely still struggles with LGBTQ+ representation, favouring campy portrayals. While that may not be a problem, the fact that they lack depth and humanisation is. Sadly that is not yet possible in Singapore’s television landscape.
Do you have a message/anything to say to people that watch People Like Us?
I just want to say that I hope viewers will be able to see themselves in the show and see a part of them reflected on screen. I think representation for the LGBTQ+ community is very important because when you don’t see yourself reflected on screen, it may feel like you don’t exist, especially for the lonely LGBTQ+ kid growing up with questions and doubts.
While I know Generation Z’s youths may be ‘woke’ now, there will always be a lonely LGBTQ+ youth who may feel excluded or unrepresented. This series was created for them in mind so that they can hold on to hope and feel supported. I also want to say that this support goes both ways. The comments I see on YouTube are definitely very heartening.
Overall, I just want to say that it is my greatest wish that People Like Us would give you hope in your situation, no matter how hopeless it may seem.
People Like Us is available in its entirety on YouTube. If you are interested in more of Leon Cheo’s work, you can check out SIN-SFO at Painting with light: Festival of international films. Also keep an eye out for the 48th International Emmy Awards ceremony on 23 November, where hopefully we see People Like Us take home the award for Singapore.
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