Interview: Glenn Chan, Director of Upcoming Psychological Thriller ‘Shadows’ 《殘影空間》
With the postponement of the Hong Kong Film Awards until 2022, South China Morning Post’s Commissioning Editor Douglas Parkes compiled his list of Hong Kong cinema’s best from 2020. In it, one film stands above the rest with three nods: psychological thriller Shadows 《殘影空間》, directed by Singaporean Glenn Chan.
Starring Hong Kong’s Stephy Tang and Philip Keung, the film follows a psychiatrist with the supernatural power to enter other’s subconscious. She soon stumbles onto horrors within a disturbed social worker compelled to kill his family, and within herself. Shadows made its world premiere at the 2020 edition of the Hong Kong International Film Festival to sold-out screenings.
The film’s wide release is currently slated for the second quarter of 2021. As we eagerly anticipate its release, we spoke with director Chan to find out more about the film and his experience shooting Shadows in Hong Kong.
Soon after graduating from Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Chan had a one-year stint as an assistant producer but felt that an office job wasn’t for him. He then made his start in production as a director of photography (DP) for the third season of 13-part television series Heartlanders.
Chan would go on to direct several popular television programmes such as Yang Sisters, Fighting Spiders, and the first season of Code of Law. More recently, he directed five episodes of Titoudao, and was the director and DP for two episodes of HBO series Invisible Stories. Over the decades, Chan has worked as a director, editor, writer and DP for countless television programmes and commercials.
Shadows is one of four co-productions between FOX Networks Group Asia and MM2 Entertainment. Chan shared with Sinema.SG that the film began with local filmmaker and writer Chang Kai Xiang submitting its concept to MM2. The film’s script would be developed over the course of two years.
What drew Chan to the film was its psychological aspects and how Kai Xiang’s concept tackled the theme of morality. He added: “[The concept] draws from a very dark place which I thought was quite interesting to explore.”
Chan was initially brought on board the film as a DP. Another local director was first approached to helm Shadows but had to drop out subsequently. It was then when Chan was picked to direct the film.
Shadows marks Chan’s feature-length directorial debut. It was a long time coming for the veteran director, whose goal was always to do a feature film in his lifetime.
He described his first stint as a DP as a “leap of faith”. Chan saw it as his entry into the industry and had to quickly pick up on the necessary skills. The role soon became a hands-on way to expand his filmmaking knowledge. He added: “Personally, I felt that if, as a director, I didn’t know what type of lenses to use and how I can make further use of camera movements, it kind of limits the way that I do things.”
On his early days in the industry, he recalled: “I would say our film industry was still in its infancy stage. So I think the only way to survive was to go into doing television and television commercials. But I felt that it was a very good learning curve for me and a good place to learn storytelling. When the opportunity came for a feature film after close to 20 years, I think TV has prepared me to handle it better.”
In 2018, Chan started his involvement with Shadows as a director. It was then when the script was in its second year of development. He and Kai Xiang would take another year to “rethink the story itself” due to the collaboration with their counterparts in Hong Kong. One of the story’s key changes from the original concept was its shift in location from Singapore to Hong Kong.
Chan arrived in Hong Kong about two weeks prior to the start of the film’s shoot in mid-2019. It was during this short period when the director not only had to do his location recce and meet the cast and crew, but also to quickly adapt to working in Hong Kong and gain a better understanding of their culture.
He points out that the main difference between working in Singapore and Hong Kong is the maturity of the latter industry. “I think this differentiator is because of Hong Kong’s long history of filmmaking. They are definitely a lot more proficient. A lot of times, [the film’s crew] are always two steps ahead of me in terms of preparation.”
Chan added that he was impressed by the well-oiled hierarchy and system in Hong Kong’s film industry, which he felt was “more equipped” compared to Singapore’s because of the differences in industry maturity. He recalled how their industry even had a team dedicated to resolve niche issues such as when a door belonging to a resident was repaired on set after a cast member broke the lock jamb.
One challenge Chan faced was with the slight language barrier. While he understands Cantonese, his proficiency was limited. These worries, however, would be alleviated with the film’s young crew who could understand both Mandarin and English partially because of their age. He also credits his team for giving him a better understanding of Hong Kong’s culture that was integral to bringing Shadows to life.
One thing immediately striking from the film’s trailer is its strong visual flair. Hong Kong cinematographer Oliver Lau was picked by Chan for Shadows due to how the director felt that Lau’s visual style complemented his. Chan shared that the pair worked together quite well, bouncing off each other to capture scenes, discussing colour palettes, references and how they could creatively work around their budgetary limitations.
When asked if he had any advice for local filmmakers looking to work in Hong Kong, director Chan expressed that while he was not in a position to give any advice, he shared that the main takeaway would be to trust that crews in Hong Kong are able to deliver “more than you probably could”. He added: “I just painted a picture and [the film crew] gave me more than I thought I could get.”
Shadows, originally planned for a wide release in 2020, has been delayed due to the pandemic with a 2021 date in sight. As for now, Chan is working on a network series and hopes that it goes into production by 2023 or earlier. Chan is also in talks to develop two new feature films — a thriller set in Singapore and an action film set overseas.