Interview: Mark Chua and Lam Li Shuen, Directors of ‘A Man Trembles’10 min readReading Time: 7 minutes
Catching a new film by Mark Chua and Lam Li Shuen is always an exciting affair. The duo, collectively known as Emoumie, remains two of the most stylistically distinct filmmakers in Singapore today.
Their latest, A Man Trembles, made its world premiere at the 65th BFI London Film Festival, and will now head back to our shores to compete at this year’s Singapore International Film Festival’s (SGIFF) Southeast Asian Short Film Competition.
The film marks yet another return to the festival for Emoumie. SGIFF was home to the world premieres of their feature films Cannonball and Revolution Launderette, while their delightful pandemic short The Cup competed in last year’s edition.
Set in 1998 amidst the peak of the Asian Financial Crisis, A Man Trembles follows a family spending their last day on Earth on Sentosa Island — to say more beyond this brief synopsis would be criminal.
In their directors’ statement, they shared that A Man Trembles looks to reflect the uncertainties and anxieties during the Asian Financial Crisis to mirror today’s emotional climate. While still creatively bold, the film features a noticeable detour from the experimental escapades of the pair’s recent work.
The film swaps playful eccentricities for a linear narrative structure that plants existential dread front and centre, backed by the haunting atmosphere conjured by the exceptional work of Cinematographer Lincoln Yeo and Sound Designer Cheng Lijie. Leads Lina Yu and Oliver Chong similarly deliver fantastic performances as parents simultaneously holding on to both a sense of hope and hopelessness, barely masked by the mundane normalcy of their dialogue.
Speaking of dialogue, how they are sprinkled with passe — but familiar — Singlish and Cantonese phrases is a welcoming touch that lends authenticity to the film’s time period. Inspired by the duo’s trips to Sentosa in the 1990s, the film’s eye for detail — from the wardrobe to the locations — makes it double as a love letter of sorts to both the time period and the ever-renovating holiday island.
Then, there is the film’s ending. And the less said about it the better. It’s destined to be seared into memory.
A Man Trembles will be screened to a sold-out theatre during SGIFF 2021. After wrapping up the shoot for their next film, the pair recently took time off their busy schedule to share with us the creative process behind A Man Trembles, the lengths the team went to recreate the time period, their thoughts on the end of the world, and more.
How has the past year been?
The past year we’ve had the chance to work on new films with some amazing collaborators and friends as well as produce new sound work for a group exhibition at Yeo Workshop. We were really thrilled to premiere A Man Trembles at the BFI London Film Festival in October too. So it’s been a fun one!
‘A Man Trembles’ is exceptional at capturing the 1990s — from how it looks to the wardrobe, props and the dialogue. What was the most difficult part about recreating the mood of the 1990s and of Sentosa during the time period?
That’s awesome to hear! Actually, the most difficult part was with the locations. When we were shooting the film, work had already started on the ongoing redevelopment of Sentosa. The mosaic fountain and the Merlion, for example, were both midway into being torn down. And we’re also in the midst of this pandemic period with the visual changes in our environment, such as the TraceTogether points and safe distancing taping on floors, etc.
It made us think about the island’s changing face and it made us very careful about what was in the frame in creating the setting of the film. We discussed a lot about what our memories were, on our trips and outings to Sentosa during that period, as children. The pace of the afternoons and the sounds we would hear.
Shooting this script on location in Sentosa was something already tricky but with one of the locations, Mount Imbiah Battery, new signboards were erected and entire trees cut down, two weeks before we were shooting. So we had to re-create the original signboards and replace them as well as re-work the way the scene was shot!
And securing a hotel room that evoked the same mood as the now-defunct Sijori resort was quite a challenge that wound us at a far corner of Singapore. Once we had the room, our gaffer Eric [Darmadi] and DP Lincoln [Yeo] had all the bulbs swapped out for old tungsten bulbs to create the hue and feeling we remembered from the old resort rooms.
What went into the research for the film?
With research for this film, we looked very much into the history of Sentosa island to think more about this often-visited island’s place and role in Singapore’s history and life here. The juxtaposition of its present, being marketed as the State of Fun, to its history of being called Pulau Blakang Mati (Island of Death Behind). From its name stemming from different accounts ranging from early piracy to deaths from what is now thought to be a malaria epidemic. As well as it being a location of a POW camp, bombings and one of the sites of Operation Sook Ching during WWII.
We found its history and present trajectories to be really rich in exploring and layering this story set during the Asian Financial Crisis, a period of tribulation that it would have borne witness to as well and also in pursuing the idea of the closeness between salvation and terror. Something we wanted to think on, with the present emotional climate here.
Additionally, we looked through the National Library’s newspaper archives and family Video8 tapes from trips around that time to Sentosa as well as photographs to develop and design the wardrobe, props and script. We were really excited to find local magazines and newspapers from 1998 that we used in the film!
The film draws from the sounds and tones of the historic sites featured — tell us more about this!
Yes! In visiting the site of Mount Imbiah Battery, we really wanted to incorporate into the sound design and the music, the idea of the site’s traces through different periods of history. At the site, we found that we could use contact mics and percussively play on the bolts and structures as well as use a violin bow to generate tones from the bent, old metal from the gun emplacement as well as around the battery, dating to the late 1800s/early 1900s!
This was really exciting for us, as it was a way to work into the sound, a tension between the metaphysical and the physical. It worked nicely to something we were exploring, which was the characters’ motivations and circumstances, stemming from their bondage to material circumstances and historical situation.
Is this the first time you have employed 3D modelling and 3D printing for your works? Were there any challenges from that front?
Yes it is. We really wanted to utilise a blue screen process with a physical model of the object. And so we found that 3D modelling and printing would allow us to have more control of the model of the object that we could conceptualise and design. With the design, we had wanted to think about fatalism and the individual. To play on the idea of an object of willed unburdening being expressed as a return to the beginning of life. To design something at once organic and machine-like.
There were some challenges doing this as we had to consider factors such as the printing material, mounting points and weight distribution of the object as it would later have to be mounted to be shot against a blue screen. Something we had to pick up was also working with an engineer friend to create accurate blueprints that designated the exact design to be printed, with its curvatures, crevices and protrusions. It was also really cool to see it being printed on a Fortus 450MC 3D Printing machine.
Finally we hand-painted the object using paint for miniature models (Mark used to paint Warhammer miniatures). All in all, with each step of the process, it took quite a bit of time to complete but we’re really happy with the result!
In your directors’ statement, you shared that setting the film on the rapidly redeveloping Sentosa island was something really important, both personally and historically, to the notions you were trying to pursue. You have also paralleled this change to Singapore as a whole. In your opinion, what will we stand to lose the most with this rapid pace of change?
We felt that Sentosa and its functions to the Singaporean landscape represented the type of change we often see here. A rebrand, a meeting of demand as a matter-of-fact practicality. All dynamically occurring on a land that witnesses the trials and layers of hyper reality that writhe and morph over it — changing and proposing new desires and trespasses, thinking new salvations.
Perhaps what we stand to lose the most with this change is our relationality to our being, in time and ending up in a nightmare of seeking for salvations (that we could never believe in).
For us, the protagonist is a man that is representative of such a possibility. Someone who is bonded to this material world in such a manner that he can never escape from. With the upheaval of its stability only driving him into the gaping hole that was always beneath its illusions.
The film has a more sombre tone to ‘The Cup’, which was shot during the Circuit Breaker last year. Has the pandemic changed the way you view grim uncertainties and, perhaps, the end of the world?
It hasn’t really changed but it’s certainly more keenly struck us, the effects of large grim uncertainties on our behaviours and psyches, collectively and individually.
Since The Cup, and with the ongoing pandemic situation, we felt it was really important to take aim at another side of the human in a state of trial and uncertainty (perhaps one at a subjective end of the world). That being a will drawn to and drawn by salvation and terror. We wanted to express and play along these lines and picture it in an absurd happening, from which to think and reflect on our terrors!
Not to spoil the ending but would you have made the decisions as the family in your film if you were in their shoes?
In our heads no, but thinking about the possible reality, our fallible selves might say yes… haha!
What’s next for you? We’re always excited to know!
At the moment, we just shipped out boxes of 16mm film that we just shot for a new psychedelic short film! We are also writing and developing our next feature film project, something we hope to share more about next year.
Banner Image credit: Martin Loh