Interview: Derrick Lui, Director of Singapore’s First Racing-Themed Movie ‘Oversteer’
Back when MTV Asia and Channel V were the go-to sources for the latest in the music world in the region, Singapore directors, such as Derrick Lui, played a vital role in shaping and maintaining the on-air images of both emerging and established artistes. During his time with MTV Asia in the early 2000s, Lui was largely involved with shooting artiste image spots: promotional pieces half the length of most music videos, broadcasted in between and during on-air programming.
Since leaving MTV Asia to start production house Vogue Films in 2005, Lui has established himself as an acclaimed filmmaker. His short films have travelled the world, bagging several awards along the way. Against all odds, Lui released his debut feature 1400 in 2015 — a film SINdie described as a “Herculean accomplishment” given its shoestring budget, lack of support, and its seven years of production hell.
The 44-year-old director looks to accomplish the impossible again with his next feature Oversteer. The film, dubbed Singapore’s first car-racing themed movie, has taken countless production detours. Oversteer is now in the post-production phase.
Shortly after graduating with a film degree in 1998, Lui joined Mediacorp’s Caldecott Productions International division (CPI) as a production assistant, working on TVCs and corporate videos.
He shared on a call with Sinema.SG: “I basically wanted to do everything, including buying food for the crew every day, setting up the lights and helping the art director. I was a grip, gaffer… I think just about everything. That’s how I learned. I think that really helped me a lot by giving me a very good foundation.”
He would be engaged as a director by MTV Asia in 2000. While offices were around the region, the channel only had producers based there. That was where Singaporean directors such as Lui stepped in, flying around the region and working with the local crew for the channel’s programmes and artiste image spots. He recalls working with world-famous musicians such as U2 and Ricky Martin, as well as then-emerging singers such as Stefanie Sun.
While Lui was a part of the channel during what he described as “the golden age of music videos”, he shared that there were not a lot of local music videos produced nor aired at that time. There were clear logistical difficulties with the high cost of production and limited means for film editing. In the Chinese music sphere, rising Singaporean singers such as Kit Chan and JJ Lin hardly shot anything in Singapore after they moved to Taiwan. Music labels were reluctant to produce videos here.
After leaving MTV Asia in 2005 to pursue other forms of productions, Lui would work on his first music video in 2007. Not a lot of filmmakers were involved with the medium in those early days. Without any mentors or any easily accessible references, Lui mainly relied on his experiencing working on artiste image spots.
Even now, the director follows a straight-forward approach for his music videos: “I check out the singer’s background, their image, what’s the song and the lyrics, and just start working from there.”
He remembers his first music video as a “very low budget” production shot on DV tape. “People were doubtful about shooting music videos in Singapore; they were giving me the looks, saying that ‘you can’t do it’ since most were shot overseas.”
Lui has since directed a number of music videos, of which he expressed “Rented Happiness” 《租来的幸福》, sung by Chinese songstress Tao Ran, as his most memorable of the bunch. It’s a combination of him liking the song, having it be the accompaniment to his award-winning short film When Night Fa11s, and the video being “one of the rare times” he could do what he wanted to do. “Rented Happiness” would go on to win the Best Music Video award at New York’s GIAA Festival of Short Films and Videos
The lifelong music fan looks to direct more music videos but finds it difficult to get his name out there. Lui considers himself “old school”, where, unlike the current generation, he is unsure how to do so. The director pointed to Sinema.SG’s list of music video directors and praised how these filmmakers have recognised the importance of self-marketing. He feels that his name has been lost in the shuffle, especially when it is unlikely that MTV Asia still has an archive of his work.
While the director has tackled a broad scope of work spanning from TVCs to feature-length productions, Lui credits his experience with music videos as invaluable in shaping how he approaches filmmaking. He explained: “I think [working on music videos] is also why I don’t really have a lot of dialogue in my films and long-form productions… in certain ways, I think they feel like music videos; they are quite music-driven.”
Lui cites his latest short film Rose as one example. Starring local veteran actress Xiang Yun, the short details a heartrending look into the isolation faced by a widowed grandmother afflicted with dementia. Produced as part of CreativesAtWork’s STOREYS initiative in 2019, Lui endeavoured for the film to be visually-driven with minimal dialogue. Wrapping around the poignant narrative is the Chinese classic “Love Without End” 《不了情》, with its lyrics detailing the sorrow of being unable to forget an expired love relentlessly tugging at the heartstrings.
Lui shared that his films are passion projects and his key outlet for expression. 1400, his feature-length debut, follows four intertwined stories on love. The self-financed film, starring local actors Desmond Tan and Xu Yahui, was based on his own observations on love and on the traumatic dealings his friends have had in relationships. “So this is me, you see,” The director added, “When I feel very affected by certain things, I need to put it out. To me, film is the way I express it out.”
Despite several obstacles — namely a shoestring budget, lack of a script, and lack of local support — the film was completed in 2015, going on to score numerous accolades throughout the world including winning the Best Feature Film award at Sydney’s flEXiff that same year. 1400 saw a limited theatrical run and is now available for streaming on Vimeo on-demand.
Lui looks to bring the same determination to his next feature, which unfortunately has been dogged by countless setbacks as well. Conceptualised back in 2004, the film was to be based on a close friend’s true story. After penning the treatment and scene breakdown in 2014, he convinced a well-known producer and friend to take on the project, working on the script with local writers over the next two years.
When the film, then titled Warrior of Love, was presented at the Hong Kong – Asia Film Financing Forum in 2016, the story had changed to be a drama centring around a single mom racer who falls in love with a playboy. Soon afterwards, Taiwanese writers Gavin Lin and Hermes Lu were brought onboard and, again, the story was changed to be a romantic comedy, this time following a talented delivery driver who saves her racing idol. The script was worked on for one and a half years until financing broke down.
MM2 Entertainment then took over, with the team starting back at square one. Garage D was conceptualised, following a gamer who becomes an accidental racer. However, the project would fall apart after a year.
Now an indie film, Oversteer sees Lui bring the story back to its roots. At one point projected to have a budget of S$2.5-million, the project is now self-financed. He added: “No money to make the film is already difficult; no money to make a car racing film — everybody called it crazy! One car scene can sometimes cost you a whole film.”
Yet, Lui also considers himself fortunate. Being an ex-racer, he managed to loop in friends for help. All the film’s races and car chases are done by real racers, which made shooting these sequences dangerous affairs. “Normally, these scenes are done by stuntmen because they know exactly how to work the camera and follow safety procedures. My friends don’t. They just know how to race.”
The last Sinema.SG checked in with Lui about the film was a year after its shoot concluded in 2018. The challenges have not waned since then. Post-production was done in Bangkok but the pandemic prevented Lui from flying over to the country to do the “finishing touches of the edit”. Audio post-production work was done in Myanmar. Yet a week before he meant to head earlier this year, the country saw a military coup. Lui shared that who he engaged is currently out on the streets demonstrating.
Plans for Oversteer’s release are currently up in the air. Shot and produced with a largely Malaysian crew and cast, Malaysian cinemas will have to put up the film; it’s a policy that Lui hopes will remain unchanged by the time the film is ready.
Whether Oversteer will see a local release will be based on domestic support. But if Lui’s resume and the tremendous grit he has shown over the years are anything to go by, the successful release of the film — and every project the filmmaker will embark on — will certainly not be a matter of “if” but “when”.
Banner image credit: Derrick Lui