Interview: Thong Kay Wee, Programme Director of Singapore International Film Festival 202119 min readReading Time: 13 minutes
Another year brings another set of unprecedented challenges for the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF). This year’s edition marks the festival’s return to the cinema-only format after its first hybrid edition in 2020. However, to deliver on their commitment to present over 100 films by filmmakers from over 40 countries on the big screen was no easy feat amidst the ever-fluctuating pandemic measures.
For Thong Kay Wee, Programme Director of SGIFF 2021, dealing with the constant unknowns was only one portion on his plate. Between his appointment to the role in June and to the festival’s start, he had less than four months to be to assemble his full programming team and present this year’s festival programme.
Kay Wee was formerly the Asian Film Archive’s Programmes and Outreach Officer. During his 7-year stint, he programmed and handled key events and regular programming, including State of Motion, the Asian Restored Classics film festival, and Singular Screens for the Singapore International Festival of the Arts.
For his inaugural programme lineup, Kay Wee introduced five new sections to the festival — Foreground, Milestone, Standpoint, Undercurrent, and Domain. Through these sections’ goals and our conversation with Kay Wee, it’s clear that film programming for him is far more than picking suitable choices for a lineup; more than just grouping films into genres or countries and calling it a day. Sharp curational decisions can have the potential to expand the palate of film-going audiences who otherwise might be disinterested in giving a seemingly intimidating film a shot, and to broaden their perspectives to cultures and issues hitherto unknown.
Read on to find out about Kay Wee and the team’s race against time to deliver SGIFF 2021, the possibility of a genre section in the festival, his philosophies behind film programming, and more.
Tickets for SGIFF 2021 are now available, with several screenings now sold out. Grab your tickets and dive into the festival’s full lineup at sgiff.com.
What were the first changes you wanted to make about the SGIFF lineup?
Kay Wee: Last year’s edition was held in quite extraordinary circumstances — similarly with this year and the ongoing pandemic. It’s not so much of wanting to come in and immediately introduce sweeping changes. It’s firstly to understand the constraints that the festival is facing with the whole situation. When I came in, I was interested to look at the legacy of the festival’s 32 editions, as well as its reboot since 2014; to look at how the festival profiles and positions itself before looking at how I can bring in my own flavour.
What I really wanted to do was to profile the films — maybe, in my opinion — slightly better. The sections were always profiled in terms of where they come from, in terms of the region. [For example] if they are more internationally based and are not competition titles, they would be under the Cinema Today section.
So I think rather than just looking at these films as from Asia or from the rest of the world, I think there were perhaps more interesting ways to make it more accessible to people in terms of how they can relate to these films. That was something I really wanted to bring in. Also, from the early years of SGIFF, such as in 2014 and 2015, there were a couple of sections I really liked. One of them was the Imagine section.
That was changed but what the section entails and represents was something that I really identified with. The Imagine section was about allowing more imaginative treatments of moving image and of cinematic treatments the space in such a big roster of films in a festival like the SGIFF. I think allowing spaces for different types of expressions… films that have a wide appeal and films that feature stories or issues that have been more urgent that also needs the space — I think all these can find their way onto one whole festival selection. That is what I really wanted to account for while striking a balance.
What went into the decision to make SGIFF 2021 cinema-only and when was the decision made? Did it mean drastic changes to the lineup you put together during the early months?
The festival was already inclined towards that format before I officially joined in late June. This was with the agreement of the previous Artistic Director and the rest of the team. I also came in knowing that cinemas have been operating in limited capacities in Singapore. However, as with any festival organisation or arts organisation that is working with the situation now, which is always unpredictable, every day has a new change. We are also reacting to that but there’s a certain point that we can respond to. When I joined SGIFF, it felt like, for the large part, in-person cinema events can happen. It was just about in what capacities.
Firstly, of course, we all prefer to watch films on the big screen. There have been challenges in terms of creating a hybrid festival. In terms of negotiations with distributors and rights holders, sometimes, sometimes people don’t really want their films to be available online for piracy and privacy reasons. It’s also easier for us to get films when they are only allowed to be screened physically.
We also need to understand that the situation around the world is different from last year. A lot of the bigger film festivals such as in Europe, America and China have opened up. I think we are also competing against these festival showcases. So it’s with the times, with the vaccination rate, and with the confidence from the local government in terms of transitioning into an endemic status, that we gain the confidence to decide to stick to our guns over the last four months and make a return as a physical event.
Between your appointment in June and the festival in November, you and your team only had four months to put the festival together — what was the biggest challenge?
I think it’s with the time. If you really want to be technical about it, it was actually about three and a half months for myself and my team to really put everything together before things were rolled out to the public. Everything you can imagine, in terms of usually having a full year to prepare, was condensed within this time frame.
As a bit of context, my full programming team wasn’t formed when I joined. So aside from myself transitioning into the role learning from the handover, learning about the festival’s procedures and learning what needs to be done in my capacity, I also needed to start recruitment building my own team. All of these were happening concurrently while Cannes was happening so I had to watch films. It was in the heat of everything.
Time really was the biggest challenge. Not to mention, this year’s edition is a bit different from last year’s as well because I think, maybe, at least last year there was a certain point of certainty that some things can’t go through so the festival could only plan towards virtual. This year, because we are planning to get certain overseas guests within what is permissible, there were also uncertainties in terms of the VTLs and what we have to look after, such as the management of the hospitality aspects. Whoever comes also affects the programming here as we look to have as many in-person events as possible.
Dealing with the constant uncertainties and the time crunch made [the preparation] a really big challenge. I think speaking to you now with everything released, it’s a big relief to reach this point. I think this was unprecedented in terms of planning for a festival.
Share with us why Edwin’s ‘Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash’ was picked as this year’s opening film.
I think we always start with the film itself. I got to preview it and liked the film on its own without the background and context. I was already eyeing the film before it won anything so [the film’s Golden Leopard win] was almost like a bonus.
I like the film for how it is, I guess, quintessentially an Indonesian story. The film is something that is very much seeped into the Indonesian psyche or society, especially during the film’s time period. It is also, to me, a very pulpish, fun film with martial arts elements and genre elements that would be instantly attractive to the general audience, while ticking boxes in terms of the moral complexities or issues the film deals with. Vengeance deals with a certain kind of machismo which is still very much prevalent, I think, in the country because of the film’s historical context.
The film also ticks a lot of boxes in terms of artistry. I mean, it is beautifully shot, the martial arts is beautifully choreographed, and the acting is great. It appeals to both the general audience and someone who wants something more out of cinema. Furthermore, Vengeance is a multi-Asian collaboration. There is an Indonesian director and producing team but the film is also lensed by a Japanese crew and cinematographer. The film is also one of the first batches of recipients of IMDA’s Southeast Asian Co-Production Grant.
I think everything fell into place and the film felt like the only choice I wanted.
I’m curious to know your opinions on the possibility of a genre section at the SGIFF
I mean, I’m not ruling it out. I think we’ll still stick to the new sections that I’ve just designed for a while. There’s always a possibility we could add to that. But I think, for me, it’s interesting sometimes to section or profile films in terms of categories that we might not be so attuned to. Genres are quite easy ways for people to identify what they want to watch or not. However, if you [add on to the curation], in the sense that it doesn’t need to neatly fall into those genre boxes, I think there is the potential to reach out to another person.
It really depends on how we profile these films. It could be easy, for instance, to have a sci-fi section; Karmalink would fall nicely into that. However, I chose to put it in a section like Milestone. What this allows is for those interested to watch a sci-fi film in Milestone to explore the other films in the section they otherwise wouldn’t check out. My whole philosophy to this is that I want to use these opportunities to expand people’s appetites. To encourage such unusual profiling and to encourage cross-pollination of interests is something that I’m always quite invested to do as a film programmer.
In your opinion, what are the films that work and doesn’t work for the Singapore audience?
My thinking is that I’d rather not think of what doesn’t work because, eventually, our job is to not rule things out. I think films can always work depending on the audience type. The Singapore audience is not homogeneous either so we need to be quite conscious of the different profiles that we have in Singapore. But generally, we know what works for a general audience — and this isn’t specifically for Singapore. These are films that are platformed by cineplexes, because, of course, the game is ruled by logics of box office, finances and resources, and these films have a certain level of production or from certain countries.
These are the kind of market forces that we all need to be very conscious of, and then naturally, it’s also a cultural influence that came from that context. A lot of Singaporeans as we know would be attuned to the latest blockbusters, which is all fine and good if they’re good cinema on its own. So those work.
In this year’s SGIFF programme, we were also conscious to use some of these films almost strategically in a way. Although my foundation to this is that all the films that are picked at the festival are good films on their own. For instance, The French Dispatch by Wes Anderson was picked for its merits but I’m also conscious that having the film could attract a lot of people who might pick up the programme booklet to try something else as well.
I’m more interested to expand people’s appetite and my job, at least in my opinion, is to push that needle for the Singapore audience so that in the end, we don’t see cinema as just purely entertainment, that we can critically look at cinema because it deserves to be seen as an art form, that we can also then get more out of cinema.
What I can also largely just comment on is that there’s so much potential in Singapore. We have one of the highest cinema-going rates in the world and it is one of our favourite pastimes. So that opportunity with film festivals to expose them to more types of cinema, no matter where it’s from, is something that I believe in and what we need to continue cultivating.
Have you ever been discouraged by the audience turnout or negative reception to your programmes?
I haven’t had the opportunity yet for SGIFF so let’s see how that goes. I think I’m ready for it — let’s just put it at that. Because I think, essentially, as film programmers, we need to stand by our selection. To me, if you hate this film, that’s fine as well — but we can have a discussion about it. That is what matters, right? You don’t have to love every film that you go watch. But the worst thing is if you don’t have an opinion, just shrug your shoulders, and don’t remember it after a week.
I think to me, every selection, whether you love it or not, I do believe that there is a value in showing it. That’s the principle to this. Back when I was with the Asian Film Archive screening films, to be quite honest, I don’t… maybe people have not been honest with me but I don’t feel like people have come up to me to say that they hate this [film]. Or maybe we were just not having enough dialogues with the audience. But, I mean, that’s another thing.
When it comes to low attendance, which of course has happened, that, to me, is something you have to take in your stride because it is, again, part and parcel of building a culture. People will term certain films as cultural vegetables but you still need to screen them because they are important on their own. It just might be that people don’t see that, or people are not appealed to them. And that is fine. But the most important thing is that maybe one day when people look back at catalogues or websites, they know, this place, once upon a time, screened this film before and then know that, okay, this institution is to be trusted in terms of tastes and in terms of it stands for.
So even if you are screening for five people, which maybe has happened before, so be it. At the end of the day, you’re also serving five members. So I personally don’t want to feel too discouraged. But of course, there are also other factors such as KPIs, the financial outlay, how do you justify — those are the other conversations that need to be considered in any funded institution. So, those are the challenges that you need to negotiate as well with the other powers to be.
Has your experience as a filmmaker played a part in film programming? Have these two experiences gelled together in any way?
I personally see them as quite separate. I mean, what I’ve done before is almost like my past life. It’s not that I’m not proud of them, or I wouldn’t return to them. But even if I were to go back to filmmaking again, I probably will be quite a different filmmaker. But I think that is also besides the point because to me, I would like to differentiate my work. One is almost like you are focusing on yourself and your own expression. With the other, you need to be conscious that you’re serving the audience and public.
I think maybe how my two experiences come together will be when you know about making films and the difficulties behind it. You can appreciate the work that goes behind it more and, of course, you know the work itself. I think that just immediately informs me in terms of the labour that goes into certain films and how I can also judge certain films. I think, essentially, behind these two practices is also the act of consuming, watching films and learning more about filmmaking.
Beyond films, the SGIFF is also home to several programmes, panels and talks, such as the Youth Jury and Critics Programme, and the Southeast Asian Film Lab. In your opinion, what type of assistance do Asian filmmakers require the most at the moment?
I think every developmental programme and the objectives behind them all have their importance. The growth needs to be concurrent. In my opinion, inclusivity is one of the most important areas at the moment. A lot of the biggest platforms around the world are American-Euro based. I mean, let’s be honest, we usually use festivals such as Cannes and awards such as the Oscars as benchmarks, which goes on to influence market forces.
Imagine if Parasite didn’t win an Oscar, I think it wouldn’t have the [same] kind of attraction and appeal, and maybe cineplexes wouldn’t pick it for multiple rounds of screenings. Maybe Parasite would have just been another Korean film. So we have to be honest about what the market forces are.
Returning back to Asian films, I think it’s important that there are also other platforms that understand Asian sentimentalities. And, I mean, not solely seeing Asian film [as monolithic] since Asia is so complex and so diverse — it’s almost to decolonise that lens since ‘Asianess’ is quite a Euro-American mindset. I think it’s important to level the playing field and have enough strong platforms around the world that can represent this region well and account for its specificities. And I think SGIFF very much plays an important part in this but of course, it’s not just up to us, it’s also up to other players in the world.
We also need to be conscious of what SGIFF stands for. The other Asian film festivals, such as Tokyo, Busan and Shanghai, are also East Asian-based festivals and platforms with their own knowledge and biases — I mean, to be very honest. That’s why we keep saying that we need to promote not just East Asian but Southeast Asian and other Asian types; to talk about inclusivity, talk about understanding and appreciating diverse expressions rather than have a big platform such as the Oscars [determine films such as Parasite and Minari to be representing Asian cinema as a whole]. I think it simplify things sometimes so we need to come in to do that representation work too.
How can someone interested in film programming be involved and get started?
To me, there are a few answers to this. If you want to think of film programming as a practical career then it’s usually the institutions around that you need to get a foot in. Practically, of course, you need to have the [necessary] studies behind that. It’s what you study, what you apply, and of course, realistically, you also need to put yourself out there, whether you start as a volunteer, you start as a student programmer, or you start by getting internships around, whether it’s production work or an internship at an institution that shows films. So these are the starting points that everyone knows.
Then the honest truth is also, you know, networking is important. Knowing people that can support you, believe in your work, and then choose to work with you. I think these are all fundamental steps.
Having said that, I think we have to acknowledge that it’s a very scarce industry in terms of the positions available in certain institutions that are even doing film programming, and who does it consistently for you to get a career out of it. I acknowledged that, for myself, I am lucky that maybe it’s a ‘right place, right time’ situation. So a lot of things boils down to luck, you know. There was a job opening at a time when I was looking for one. Then I was given the opportunity to hone my craft before I got to this place today. So then we cannot discount just luck as well, right? Right place, right time.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.