Interview: Perry Lam, Genre Filmmaker and Director of Award-Winning Sci-Fi Short ‘After_Life’9 min readReading Time: 7 minutes
We first learned about Singaporean filmmaker Perry Lam when he floored us with his sci-fi short After_Life, made through the STOREYS initiative. A year on, Perry has continued to promote his award-winning film, recently tagging us on an Instagram post of After_Life’s stills with its caption declaring: “We produced the sci-fi best film of 2020 and the best Singapore film of 2020.”
The assertive statement isn’t uncharacteristic of the young filmmaker. An unmistakable streak of sureness can be found both in his social media posts and in his works, to date consisting of award-winning genre short films. It’s a confidence that can be rare when it comes to the filmmaking craft, and it was the first topic we asked Perry about in our interview.
“I think confidence is really important for filmmakers. Locally, I think everyone is so focused on their film, they don’t know exactly how to promote it. I don’t think it’s enough to put the film’s link out there and go, ‘#supportlocaltalent’. The way I do it is, look, every time I release a film, it’s going to be an event.”
“I believe in who I am, I believe in the work that I do. I’m confident about the work I do. I don’t want to put the film in a hard disk and then put it in a drawer in the basement for the rest of its life. Considering how much work everyone puts into a film, it will be a waste to let the opportunity to promote the film well go. I think that it is important that the hard work of the crew, the cast and the director and producers are matched with any many eyeballs as possible.”
Perry was first inspired to pick up the camera after watching Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and was awed by its groundedness and directorial style. The Republic Polytechnic alumnus would devour countless films during his National Service years, checking off an eclectic mix of movies from top 100 lists. After his service, Perry would uproot to formally pursue filmmaking at Macquarie University in Australia.
Juggling between work and studies (both at the university), he made Black Rat in 2015, a documentary short about Sydney’s real-life superhero. Perry cites Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line and Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express as key stylistic inspirations for the documentary. Black Rat’s blend of documentary and action film sensibilities coupled with impressive cinematography led to a slew of nominations and awards internationally, including the Best Documentary prize at Phoenix Comicon Film Festival 2016.
It was from the making of Black Rat, a second-year school project, that Perry realised the importance of standing out within the filmmaking circle. “I was very happy I got selected to direct the film. At the same time, I also knew that opportunities like these can be taken away from you really quickly.”
“It was a very competitive environment and if [others] think you don’t know what you are doing, they will take over your project. I learnt that my spot is not concrete and I will always have to fight for my spot… Everyone is replaceable, but at the same time, you have to enforce your will.”
Perry’s 2018 follow-up, Tony, is his first foray into science fiction and genre films — movies he set out to pursue from the beginning. The short film peeks at a post-apocalyptic world and follows the eponymous character tasked with pushing a button every 12 hours to prevent another disaster.
The film’s aesthetics and style would draw from Perry’s love of the 1980s and of direct-to-video movies. Featuring clever set design, props and creative usage of its aspect ratio, Tony looks to capture the end of the world through the lens of the 1980s. He has also cut a trailer for the short reminiscent of one found in a long-lost Japanese VHS. Beyond film, Perry posts vaporwave edits and graphics on his Instagram and Facebook pages.
Following a passionate recommendation of action film Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (“People need to watch that movie. It’s a David Lynch-esque kung fu movie. It’s insane”), Perry elaborates on what it is about the 1980s that draws him in: “I think it’s the combination of the nostalgia element of [the era] and how the films were just a lot more hard-edge… There’s this sense of fake nostalgia that, in a way, gives you fake memories; it’s a sense of nostalgia that you may or may not have experienced.”
In a previous interview, Perry notes freedom as an essential theme of the 1980s. In contrast, he identifies the key theme of today to be loneliness and solitude — a topic he explores in his latest film After_Life. Featuring an affecting leading performance by Kris Mavericko, the sci-fi short follows a young man alienated between reality and the virtual world while struggling with loss and regret.
Inspired by a news item about a Japanese man marrying a hologram, and his experience being away from his family for eight years, the short reflects upon how we are becoming a “happy society with unhappy people”, featuring brightly lit scenes in contrast with a moody plot set amidst Singapore’s iconographies. Of note is the film’s integration of religion and culture, depicting a near-future where advanced technology has melded with — but not eradicated — familiar Singapore life.
After_Life is Perry’s first film shot in Singapore. On the different experiences shooting in Singapore and Australia, he notes: “More or less, they are the same system-wise and infrastructure-wise… We have clear hierarchies of roles. But culturally, I think Australia is a bit more open in terms of what they want to do and what they want to see.”
“[In Singapore] we are more into dramas and comedies — and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s just the way the industry is built. We are built to look at the numbers more than we look at anything else. If you look at the budget for Mad Max: Fury Road, no way anyone is going to greenlit it in Singapore.”
We put forward the observation that local films have been particular about winning awards in the festival circuit. Pointing to a Black Rat poster behind him, the award-winning filmmaker shares during the call: “I do understand that. The legitimacy of film festivals is a very alluring thing. But at the same time, we shouldn’t be alienating our audience. I think there is an audience out there who wants to see new stuff. If we are always going to give them the same, it’s going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
“I personally think winning awards is very important; I would love that as well. But at the same time, we have to balance that with the commerce side of things. It’s an industry, not an art form. I think that is a very important thing that we all have to understand — that filmmaking is more business than art and we should adhere to the business side of things as well… I think it’s not just about chasing accolades because chasing accolades doesn’t mean anything if there is no one there to watch it.”
With genre films being uncommon in Singapore cinema — or at least with perceptions of it — we asked Perry about the trend and if there is an uphill climb for filmmakers like him to gain an audience.
The filmmaker shares his diagnosis: “I would say, maybe, it’s a cultural thing. We value timeliness more than timelessness. We are a country that values everything ‘now’ — how much to pay for CPF now, how much taxes to pay now… And it’s totally fine because we are a country that went from third world to first in a generation. Everything was now.”
“We don’t value timelessness as much because we never had the opportunity to look into the future and think about what we could be. We never sat down and thought about this at a ground level.”
Through his films, Perry hopes to add to this conversation by exploring and examining what we are and who we are as a people, while bringing in fresh new storytelling elements to his narratives. While the filmmaking process is undoubtedly taxing — perhaps even more so for genre films — he remains motivated by his love for the sci-fi genre. He hopes to work on more sci-fi family dramas similar to After_Life.
As for dream collaborations, Perry names Nicolas Cage and actor/writer Kris Mavericko, who he has worked with for After_Life. In many ways, he feels that he is already living his dream, right now collaborating with creatives he enjoys working with such as Kris. “We are currently developing ideas together. I love working with him. He’s a phenomenal actor — absolutely one of the best in his generation, I feel. He is someone I want to continue working with in the future and we are collaborating on different ideas.”
Ultimately, Perry looks to continue upping his game to reach a stage where he can be ready to direct films on a larger scale. In between his work developing content for a sports apparel company, he has been busy penning scripts and promoting his films. “The films are out there. I’m not going to stop promoting them because I believe in who I am, I believe in my ability as a filmmaker, I believe I can be the best I can be… I’m confident that the work that we did is the best there is.”