Interview: Mark Chua and Lam Li Shuen, Directors of ‘The Cup’8 min readReading Time: 6 minutes
Perhaps one of the boldest creative voices in Singapore today, Mark Chua and Lam Li Shuen has mesmerised audiences the world over with their films’ ambitious visual styles and themes.
The pair, collectively known as Emoumie, focuses not just on the production of narrative and documentary films, but also brings their eccentricities to music, with a hand in music compositions for film, performances, and installations, and as part of art rock band Are.
The Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) has been the home of many firsts for Emoumie, with both their feature debut Cannonball and their follow-up Revolution Launderette making their world premieres at the festival. Since then, Revolution Launderette has travelled the globe despite the pandemic and has recently won the EOFF Spirit Award at the Eastern Oregon Film Festival.
Emoumie returns to this year’s SGIFF with their short film, The Cup. At the film’s delightfully surreal centre is a man with a brewing machine for a head looking to improve the taste of his brew while stuck at home.
Made during the circuit breaker period earlier this year and in collaboration with Cebu musician Karl Lucente while he was under lockdown, the experimental short film is very much a product of the global pandemic. Gorgeously shot in black and white, the short brings across the anxiety, the fatigue, and the quiet self-introspection that has dawned on all of us this year.
We caught up with Mark and Li Shuen to ask about The Cup, the difficulties they faced in bringing to life the short’s kooky yet relatable lead, and what they have in store for all of us in the near future.
How did the concept for The Cup come about?
In the first half of 2020, everyone and us observed the various effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, both on a collective and individual level, especially with the lockdowns in multiple countries.
Being under lockdown, we are protecting others as much as ourselves. However the experience had seemed to bring to surface in many, a dissatisfaction with simply living, in this more isolated way.
We were struck with the notion that perhaps what felt missing during the lockdown – where satisfaction and a ‘more joyous life’ lie in – is the freedoms to individually curate and have the choice of risking our lives how we see fit, in various engagements, something we had in life before the pandemic. The tangle of the living we want and how we live.
So The Cup is a humorous take on this notion that we wanted to put out during this difficult year for everybody.
All of your films have been thematically and visually striking. How has the pandemic changed your artistic philosophy in filmmaking?
In some sense, the pandemic and the worries that have come with it, have kept us so on our toes, we feel it perhaps has reinforced our approach to filmmaking, to arrest the moment and express what it brings us through the medium!
What motivated both of you during the Circuit Breaker to create this short?
During the Circuit Breaker period, Singapore-based independent curator Louis Ho had envisioned a group exhibition at Sullivan+Strumpf gallery surrounding the idea of ‘flatness’ in relation to the pandemic and its effects and we had the pleasure of being invited and participating with an earlier version of the short!
For us, it was the perfect chance to take everything we had been experiencing and the ideas we were thinking about during the lockdown and to express them by throwing ourselves into the filmmaking process. And to go at it with the conditions and circumstances that were themselves, central to the subject of the film, was something really meaningful and important to us.
What was behind the decision to include a mix of Cebuano and Teochew Chinese?
In the experience of the lockdown, our thoughts went to friends we would not get to meet without air travel as well as family that we had previously not spent so many days at home with.
Wanting this film to come out through an organic process, we wanted to include our friend in Cebu, Karl, and Mark’s father too, in the making of this film. We were playing with ideas of collaboration and thought to have them do the voice-overs, in the languages they had that we didn’t. We felt there was a power in expressing this film with them and these languages they spoke – a non-majority language and dialect. It nicely spoke to how perhaps through the pandemic experience being so shared around the globe, our collectivity can be more tangibly seen (or heard) even through our difference.
The film is a collaboration with Cebu musician Karl Lucente, who was also under lockdown in Cebu. How has his experience with lockdown influenced the film?
With lockdown affecting live gigs and jobs, Karl (who is one half of the band Mandaue Nights) had been channelling the frustrations that came with the lockdown into creating more work through, with and from the conditions. That was a spirit that we shared greatly and shaped the making of this film together. We had previously met at the Binisaya Film Festival and it was a special feeling getting to create together this year.
What went behind the design of the costume? Were there challenges in sourcing for props and materials during the Circuit Breaker?
With the costume, it was a design based on something that had come about earlier in our music work and daydreams about possible film worlds. A humanoid bearing a platter upon his head that’s as much a part of himself as well as a burdening weight. In this film, we took the idea further and envisioned this platterhead of his as a brewing machine. From which he would brew the ‘beans of lived experience’ that he produces to have a taste of it. Some of the trickier aspects were to figure out how to have his head’s moving and removable parts!
In sourcing for materials and props, we relied a lot on existing materials we had as well as second-hand items that we could buy off Carousell, with the owners sending them via courier. The couriers would arrive with tubes, mini water pumps and a lot of white cups that people were giving away (to get the right cup).
Did the both of you ever feel limited by the circumstances of the Circuit Breaker while filming The Cup?
In some way, the concept of the film was based on the effects of the lockdowns and Circuit Breaker. So we feel that the limitations just pushed us more to express the film the way it should have been, rather than feel that it was lacking something due to the circumstances.
Despite the global pandemic, your latest feature film Revolution Launderette has travelled the globe since its world premiere at last year’s SGIFF. How does it feel to have your film travel the world and have a life of its own while we are all stuck in Singapore?
Us and the whole team have been really proud and thrilled to get to share Revolution Launderette at some fantastic festivals and to connect with the filmmakers and film lovers from so many different countries. With festivals going virtual, we’re missing so much getting to sit with everyone in the different cities and countries, across a table or in a theater! Though it’s a mixed feeling, as through the necessary measures and us all being safe, we’ve had so many lovely conversations, seen in new ways and been turned on to fellow filmmakers’ work. And that’s really been keeping us going!
What is next for the both of you?
We’re greatly looking forward to having the International Premiere of The Cup, in competition, at the International Film Festival and Awards Macau (IFFAM) in December!
We also have plans to start production soon on an upcoming short film, an absurdist tale set in Sentosa in 1998, and can’t wait to dive into it!
The Cup will be screening tomorrow at the Oldham Theatre to a sold-out audience as part of Singapore International Film Festival’s Southeast Asian Short Film Competition. The programme and its films will also be available online starting tomorrow. Find out more here.
– Review: REVOLUTION LAUNDERETTE 信念のメリーゴーランド Oozes With Style and Thrives In Its Gonzo Spirit
– Creativity in Isolation – An Interview With Filmmaker and Multidisciplinary Art Practitioner Grace Song
– Film Review: ‘Tiong Bahru Social Club’ is a Dazzling Tribute to Singapore’s Oldest Housing Estate
Images credit: Emoumie, Benjamin Sim