Interview: Filmmaker Huang Junxiang on NYFA Film Facilitation Programme 2020
Huang Junxiang, National Youth Film Awards (NYFA) 2020’s Youth Inspiration Award winner and producer at Zhao Wei Films, has been behind-the-scenes of genre works that have challenged the shape of Singapore film. With the NYFA Film Facilitation Programme, he looks to pay forward the opportunities he was presented to the next generation of filmmakers.
From horror with HBO Asia’s Folklore series to martial arts-western with 2018’s Buffalo Boys, his filmography covers a wide range of genres — with no shortage of acclaim in between. Boo Junfeng’s Apprentice and animated short Piece of Meat, which he co-directed with Jerrold Chong, both represented Singapore at Cannes. Most recently, he is the producer of the charming and visually striking Tiong Bahru Social Club.
Teaming up with *SCAPE for the first time, Junxiang — ever-optimistic about the local film industry and ever-candid about its shortcomings — conceptualised the NYFA Film Facilitation Programme. The programme aims to connect youth filmmakers with industry veterans to foster their professional development. It brought together five veteran filmmakers from across the globe to mentor and work with five NYFA alumni to produce five short films spanning action, horror, comedy, drama and animation.
Henchmen, directed by Alistair Quak under the mentorship of veteran producer Mike Wiluan, is now available on The Projector Plus. Every last Thursday of the month will see subsequent releases from the programme.
On why he decided to kickstart the programme, Junxiang relates that while there are a number of mentorship programmes in Singapore, there tends to be a lot of emphasis on arthouse projects and “HDB dramas”. He observes that an overwhelming number of final year student projects leaned towards drama, with only a handful venturing into other genres such as musicals and horror.
“It’s kind of a shame because the ratio [of genres] isn’t reflective of what we see globally as well. So rather than limit it, I thought the programme can really expand and encourage filmmakers to try to embrace [genre films] through a systematic approach.”
The nine-month mentorship programme kicked off right after NYFA 2020 in August. He adds: “For me, I was very excited about this because I have always been thinking about these kinds of initiatives and programmes to groom younger filmmakers to take on the challenges of tomorrow…. When I told all these mentors overseas about the programme, its format and how we were given free rein to do it, they were all very excited to come on board.”
The qualifications for applicants were broad: any NYFA finalist in any category could apply. Mentors would then read through their proposals and conduct interviews to pick and determine who they could bring value to. Mentees spent four to five months working with their mentors before embarking on their shoots towards the tail end of Phase Two last year.
While each short film did not veer away from their original pitches, they did evolve throughout the mentorship process. In addition to imparting their experience, mentors broadened their mentees’ perspectives on how they can tackle their genres. One example brought up is Tan Siyou’s Strawberry Cheesecake, and how the encouragement from her mentor Amanda Nell Eu to explore a wider spectrum of the horror genre made a difference for the short film.
Junxiang shares that *SCAPE was very encouraging in allowing the filmmakers the freedom to fully realise their works, particularly with no determined rating set for the films. “That is a huge part of allowing the creators the freedom as well. Censorship, in some sense, really dictates how we condition our creation of content.”
Directors aside, part of the programme’s aim was nurturing producers. Junxiang adds: “We are always talking about directors but growing producers who are interested in [genre] content is very important as well. I think we don’t have enough commercial producers in Singapore.”
Bringing his overseas experience back to the programme, he looks to cultivate a community here akin to tightly-knit producer groups in Europe. One step was through monthly meetings between the films’ producers throughout the programme’s timeline. Junxiang shares that he noticed there is “very little communication between producers and different directors” here in Singapore discussing what they are doing. He notes the importance of these conversations and friendships in leading to broader perspectives, more self-awareness and fresher ideas.
“These happen organically. We see it happen in arthouse but rarely in the commercial side of filmmakers. You don’t see a group of horror filmmakers sit down and talk about films, right? But that’s exactly how Masters of Horror was made.”
He believes that much more can be done for filmmakers to explore different types of films. “Even if it seems tokenistic at the beginning — you don’t build anything without tokenistic measures at the start — wouldn’t it be great to have a genre section [at a local film festival] where we see genre shorts from around the region? Why not? These are art as well.”
Despite the ongoing pandemic and the systematic challenges filmmakers face, Junxiang is optimistic Singapore will see a “really solid” genre film within the next five years. He feels that the IMDA is on the right track with their writers’ programmes and co-production grants.
Citing how working on Folklore has opened up opportunities for Zhao Wei Films to work with more overseas directors on other projects, Junxiang adds: “Having local talents work with foreign directors and hopefully a broader diversity of foreign writers, including more genre directors, would really create possibilities.”
“I’m just very lucky to be in this position with Zhao Wei. That’s why I would love to share the perspective with other people; for others to [work with overseas filmmakers] as well because it really changes your worldview and how you think about creation.”
Summing up the goals of the Film Facilitation Programme, Junxiang hopes that the programme will push filmmakers to dream broader by seeing the breadth of works that can be created. “What it means to be a filmmaker is much broader than the definition many of our young filmmakers ascribe filmmaking to be. For example, you can’t be a filmmaker and only watch arthouse films; it’s shortchanging yourself and potentially the audience.”
With these films part of the participants’ filmography, he also hopes that this will help them pursue similar genre films in the future. The shorts’ staggered release dates and geoblocking measures look to facilitate the films’ submissions to genre festivals while building up to sustained interest for NYFA 2021.
Preparation for the next season of the NYFA Film Facilitation Programme is now underway, with Junxiang back on board.
Junxiang is currently developing a 2D animated film, directed by the Zhuang brothers and produced together with Tan Wei Keong. Meanwhile, he is also in talks with two German producers to collaborate on a programme dedicated to grooming scriptwriters for series writing here, which he feels needs to be tackled aggressively.
He explains: “I don’t think we lack the talent but I do think we lack the technical training. No superficial three-to-four-week programme would hack it. We need a nine-to-year-long course to at least gain some foundation in order to fight with some of the bigger names in the world for series writing as well. And if that’s Singapore’s goal, then we need to start now.”
NYFA 2021 is now open for submissions till 9 May 2021. This year’s edition, themed “New Dawn, New Beginnings”, looks to celebrate resilience and a new hope in the post-COVID world. Follow the platform’s Facebook page for the latest updates on all things NYFA.
Banner image credit: NYFA Facebook page; Grace Baey