Interview: Marcus Lim, Director and Writer of Spy Thriller ‘The Man on the Other Side’
A Singaporean filmmaker making a film set in Germany during the Cold War must have raised several eyebrows. Why would someone go all the way to a foreign country to shoot a film set in an era far removed from our own?
But for The Man on the Other Side director and writer Marcus Lim, the intentions behind the making of his film are simple and earnest – all he wants is to pay homage to all of the spy films he has watched before, a genre which he loves, and for the audiences watching his film to be entertained and thrilled.
Even so, don’t be fooled by his candidness. Here is a director who has clearly thought through his filmmaking process thoroughly and incisively, who is interested in the intersections of cinema and politics, and who knows his historical facts about the Cold War and espionage to create a thrilling and authentic film – impressive enough to garner several awards and nominations in 2019. The film was officially selected for the Best Feature Film at the 4th Inca Imperial International Film Festival, and won the Best Feature Film for Montevideo World Film Festival.
Set in Germany, 1974, when the nation is divided into East and West, The Man on the Other Side tells the story of Sophie Zimmermann (Mari Bensel), a spy who is double-crossing West Germany by feeding top-secret government information to her boyfriend. She assumes that they are selling the information for money to finance their escape out of Germany. What she doesn’t know is that her boyfriend is a Stasi agent. Stasi was East Germany’s intelligence and secret police, known for its efficiency and repressive methods.
Marcus’ love for spy films first sparked when he watched Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) in Hong Kong when it was first released. The experience, as he put it, had “blown him away.”
“I felt that it’s the first time in a long while that I couldn’t keep up with the film, because the filmmaker was smarter than I was,” he explained over a phone call with Sinema.SG. “And that made me intrigued, and I think that’s one way to really engage your audience. Because if they can’t tell what’s going on, if they cannot tell what [the filmmaker’s] next move is, then they’re fascinated by it.”
Inspired by the sheer brilliance of the film, Marcus went on to watch other iconic spy films, such as The Ipcress File (1965) and The Day of the Jackal (1973). And these films, in turn, would inspire his first feature-length film, The Man on the Other Side.
Once Marcus decided that it would be a spy film set in the 1970s Cold War, all of the aesthetic choices fell into place. And one only needs to look at the film’s trailer to see how he was heavily inspired by the 70s spy films. The trailer features scenes that look gritty and retro. A long zoom closes in at Mari Bensel walking along a building. The shots are also saturated with brown and shadowy hues, a sinister and dirty atmosphere that is accentuated by a soundtrack reminiscent of Hollywood classic spy films.
To Marcus, such aesthetics were key to the vision of his film. As he explained, the 70s spy films have a distinctive style – such as the long zoom – which may be passé in today’s filmmaking, but it is a style, a film aesthetic that belongs to its own unique era.
In fact, he found it sad that today’s filmmaking lacks a distinct, timestamped aesthetic: “If, twenty years down the road, what would a person in 2040 say about a film made in 2020, or 2015? It’s going to be quite hard for [the person] to figure out [that it’s made in this era.] But for the 70s, it’s the zoom.”
But if there’s one aspect in which Marcus consciously decided to depart from the conventional stylistic choices associated with spy films, it’s the lead character. Instead of going with a male lead, he chose a female lead instead. “Spy films tend to be very masculine,” he explained. “The women will either be your femme fatales or your damsels in distress… [And] all of your protagonists and antagonists [tend to] always [be] people with very high status.”
Such archetypes were sensationalised by spy films. Not wanting to pander to them, Marcus wanted instead to paint a grittier, more realistic picture of espionage, which he pointed out is actually all “very mundane.” For instance, in the film, there are Romeo agents in East Germany that are sent to West Germany to seduce secretaries in federal ministries – low-level employees who have access to top-level information. Romeo agents are spies who use the art of seduction and sex for espionage activities.
As he put it: “I wanted to show that the reality is [these agents or spies] are not good-looking. Not hot. But these [espionage activities] still happen. It is still the very primal human instincts that are being preyed on.”
The Man on the Other Side was jointly produced by Militancy Films and Doghouse Filmproductions. Militancy Films is Marcus’ own boutique production house since his junior college days. Doghouse Filmproductions is founded by Thomas Hillenbrand, who is the co-producer of the film. Contrary to our hopes for a juicy story, the backstory behind their collaboration is actually not complicated, although it was convenient for Marcus. Both of them have been good friends since university, with similar tastes in film. So when the opportunity to work together came up, they collaborated.
As one might expect, a Singaporean working on a film in Germany presented itself with many challenges. Marcus couldn’t speak German, which meant that he wouldn’t know if the actors were speaking the correct lines and cadences. They all communicated in English off-set, thankfully. Marcus and Thomas also lacked resources, such as money and cameras.
COVID-19 was also another obstacle that they faced in the post-production process of the film. Even though the film had racked multiple awards in 2019, their sales came to an abrupt stop once the pandemic crashed the global film market. It was especially tough on them since their sales agent was based in Italy.
But things picked up again once cinemas were gradually reopening. Marcus and his team are now working tirelessly to sell the film’s rights to other distribution companies, be it for streaming or for theatrical release. In fact, just last week, the film was acquired by Capitol Motion Pictures for North America and U.K. rights.
And although he faced many setbacks during the production process, he thoroughly enjoyed working with the crew. “At the end of the day,” he said, “I still look back at [the whole filmmaking process] with very fond memories. Because there’s a great deal of camaraderie [involved].” He recounted how the crew was excellent at balancing between work and rest time, and how the crew didn’t hesitate to challenge him if they thought that things weren’t going right.
When asked about why he chose to set The Man on the Other Side in the 70s, and specifically in Germany, Marcus explained that espionage activity set in contemporary times isn’t as exciting as analogue espionage. Contemporary espionage, which involved cutting-edge technology, would look boring on screen because of the lack of physical movement and tension. Analogue espionage, however, espionage has a lot more potential for drama and physical action.
And even though the film is set in Germany, he believed that it is still relevant to Singapore today. Espionage activities created an atmosphere of paranoia and distrust back in Germany during the Cold War. This paranoia is reflected in the film.
He explained: “If you’re a West German in the 70s, who are the people spying on you? The East Germans! So here’s the thing: your enemy is exactly like you. Your enemies speak the same language, your enemies look the same, your enemies have the same culture…and eat the same food as you do. So how do you protect yourself against something like that?”
It is this paranoia which makes the film relevant in today’s context, since Singapore is not free from the dangers of espionage. Such political nuances definitely add authenticity to the film. But in the end, all Marcus wants for the audience is “to be entertained” by his film, and to also remember him when his next film comes out.
Marcus is now working on his second feature-length film, a political thriller film called August Men about a high-level meeting convened by Singapore’s first parliament cabinet the week before 9 August 1965. Besides his personal project, he is also working with Thomas and Doghouse Production again to jointly-produce a film. This time, it will be a Western-genre film that is, interestingly enough, set in the 80s or 90s Soviet Union.
The Man on the Other Side will be showing in EagleWings Cinematics on 30 January, 5 February, and 20 February 2021. Marcus will be present for post-screening Q&As.
And stand a chance to win the tickets to the film in this giveaway! Tickets are selling fast so this may be your only chance to catch the spy thriller. The giveaway ends on Friday, 29 January.