- HWP PRESENTS
Koh Jia Ler, the first-time child actor in the award-winning local film Ilo Ilo, was caned for real several times in two takes while shooting a scene.
It is a literal example of how director Anthony Chen cracks the whip to achieve his vision.
Says Jia Ler, 12, whose mother was fine with the caning since she used to cane him when he was younger: "Anthony talked to me about it and I was fine with it. It was painful, but it's okay, because I know he wants everything as real as possible. The caning is just a small thing to me.
"I was much more scared of the chicken," he says, referring to another scene where he had to carry a live chicken in his arms.
"I am really very, very scared of chickens, but Anthony told me to overcome my fear and just try my best to do the scene. Whenever I could not do a scene, he would come over and teach me."
From real caning to real chickens, Chen knows what he wants in his films and will not budge until he achieves it. Such an uncompromising artistic stance has reaped rich dividends for him.
Ilo Ilo won him the prestigious Camera d'Or for best debut feature film at Cannes Film Festival last Sunday. It is the highest honour a local film-maker has ever received. In 2007, Chen had won a Special Mention Award at Cannes for his short film, Ah Ma (Grandma, 2006).
Ilo Ilo, set during the Asian financial crisis of 1997, explores the relationships between a Singapore family and their newly arrived maid from the Philippines. It is set for release in cinemas here on Aug 29.
Chen, 29, says the reality of his historic win at Cannes has finally sunk in, although his head is still spinning.
"After days of international and local media interviews, I can confirm the win is real and my trophy is still around. It's not a dream," says Chen, who is currently in London with his wife, Rachel Yang, 31. She is a PhD student there.
Before returning to Singapore next month, he has to go to Paris, where Ilo Ilo has been selected for competition at the Paris Cinema International Film Festival, which runs from June 28 to July 9.
He is eager to properly celebrate his win with the cast and his supporters here.
Of the many congratulatory messages that he has received from Singapore, he says: "I really appreciate that everyone feels it's not a personal win, but one for Singapore."
The sense of collective triumph aside, the cast and crew members of Ilo Ilo have only complimentary words for Chen.
The very first thing that every person says in response to SundayLife!'s query about Chen's qualities as a film-maker, is this: He knows what he wants.
His directorial vision is strong to the point of stubbornness.
Actress Yeo Yann Yann, 36, who stars in the film as the mother of the household, says that he gave the production crew a headache over the look of certain props.
She recalls: "There was a scene in which we were hanging clothes up and Anthony asked, 'Who's wearing these clothes?' Usually other directors would make do with just any mock-ups, but he wanted to feature only something that the family in the story would wear during that period of time. So the production team had to take a long time looking for specific colours and cuts of clothing from the 1990s.
"Every tiny thing in Anthony's films is thought through, nothing is accidental."
Mr Broderick Sim, 20, who worked as an intern on the film for six months last year as a production assistant, recalls that Chen was so particular about the main location he wanted for the film that he and other interns went knocking on the doors of some 500 flats around Singapore.
Mr Sim says: "Anthony wanted a five-room flat with a very specific look. He wanted the floor tiles to be clean with no colours on it and the flat had to be on the second or third floor.
"He also wanted only a certain type of door grilles. I can't explain to you what they're like, but they are more old-fashioned, with oval-ish or rounded rectangles. We started calling them 'the Anthony grilles', because when we found them, we would get very excited and knew that Anthony would be happy with them," he says with a laugh.
He was one of three former students from Ngee Ann Polytechnic's School of Film & Media Studies who interned on the movie. They acted mostly as production assistants, doing everything from taking care of the cast and crew to sourcing for props to transcribing subtitles during post-production.
Chen, who graduated from the same school himself in 2004 before going on to get his Master of Arts in Film Directing at the National Film and Television School (UK), received a $200,000 investment from Ngee Ann Polytechnic to fund the film that cost $500,000. The movie was also partly funded by the Singapore Film Commission's now-defunct New Feature Film Fund.
The 500 HDB homes his interns visited sound like a lot until one finds out how many children he looked at before casting Jia Ler.
Chen visited more than 20 schools and saw over 8,000 students, picking 2,000 for auditions. From the auditions, 150 were picked to undergo more than 100 hours of acting workshops before Chen finally decided on Jia Ler.
Chen, who received the Young Artist Award in 2009, tells SundayLife! that he chose the boy, who had never acted before, because he had a "natural quality" which made his performance "feel effortless".
He adds: "There were times, of course, when he didn't hit the right note, and we got impatient with each other. There were two kids on set, one in front of the camera and another stubborn one behind the camera - that's me."
By all accounts, his intransigence as a film-maker does not translate into a mean and uncaring personality outside of work, as in the cases of some famous directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick.
Ilo Ilo's cast and crew describe Chen as "very caring" and "helpful".
As busy as he was with making his own film, he took the time to give advice to his young interns.
Ms Sirin Thongudomporn-Yeoh, 20, an intern who worked on the set for six months, says: "He even read one of my scripts and gave me feedback, and later on helped write me a lovely recommendation letter for one of my college applications while he was busy with post-production of Ilo Ilo."
Another intern Veronique Ham, 20, says that "he would also buy us meals because he knew we didn't have much money, and he would ask us about our future plans over meals".
Even after their internships were over, Chen would regularly call up his former interns to ask them if they wanted work elsewhere. The interns, who have recently graduated, are doing freelance production work now.
Ms Ham says: "Thanks to him, I got to work on another feature, horror movie Ghost Child, a few months later. He would always ask us if we were free to work as production assistants on other sets, which was really nice and great of him."
Ms Charlotte Wong, 20, a sound assistant who worked on the set for only one week, adds: "One of the biggest things I took away from working with Anthony was that you don't forget the little people. I spent only a week there and he didn't forget me. During the wrap dinner, he even thanked me for helping out."
When filming physically demanding scenes such as Jia Ler's caning, Chen would push to get what he was after while showing sympathy for the actors at the same time.
Ms Wong remembers one scene in which Jia Ler had to push another boy to the ground.
The child actor had difficulty pushing the boy "forcefully or realistically enough", so Chen got Jia Ler to practise the pushing on himself a few times before filming started again.
Ms Wong says: "Jia Ler ended up pushing the boy so hard that he tripped and injured himself. When the shot was done, Anthony could hardly say 'cut' because his first instinct was to rush to see if the boy was okay. As a director, he knew how to get what he needed, but he never forgets the safety and welfare of his actors."
Jia Ler says simply: "Anthony is really very nice, patient and a very awesome director."
Ilo Ilo opens in cinemas August 29. This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on June 2, 2013. For similar stories, go tosph.straitstimes.com/premium/singapore. You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.