Anthony Chen: Never Resting on His Laurels

Film Writer & Director
Text by Wy-Lene Yap; Photography by Yew Jia Jun
May 7, 2015
Become – Trendsetters

I quicken my pace for fear of being tardy. It is just after 1pm on a Friday and from a distance, I see Anthony Chen walking towards the entrance of 10 SCOTTS at the Grant Hyatt. Our arrival seems perfectly timed – like a well-rehearsed scene, with each move in synchrony sans the lights, camera, action! In person, Anthony is disarmingly suave and exudes a fresh-faced charm that could send hearts aflutter. His perfectly coiffed hair and navy blue suit hugs his muscular frame nicely – cycling everywhere in London, as his only mode of transportation appears to have paid off. Not only does he possess enviable thighs of steel, it helps him to stay grounded since his meteoric rise to fame after winning the Camera d’Or for Ilo Ilo at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013. “I lead a very simple life in London. I’m quite domestic, so I cook a lot. I also cycle for 2 hours every day.” Anthony tells me – his voice mellifluous, melodic even.

Before we order our midday caffeine fix, I decide to set the record straight by raising a technicality that could potentially be a bone of contention. “Oliver Stone once said in an interview that Quentin Tarantino makes movies and he makes films. Which one are you?” Anthony pauses before giving me an astute response, “I see myself as a filmmaker, which is why I will never call myself a movie director. I equate films with cinema – personal works of expression and art. Movies, on the other hand, have that connotation of being a work of commerce.” With such strong passion and conviction, 31-year-old Anthony Chen is well on his way to become the doyen of Singapore filmmakers.

WY-LENE YAP: What was the first thing you did after winning the prestigious Camera d’Or?

ANTHONY CHEN: I rang my wife, who was in London.

WY-LENE: And you told her that you won?

ANTHONY: Yes, I think so and she was really happy. The thing with award ceremonies and having done so many of them is that; you think you have time to enjoy the win but you get whisked into photocalls and interviews. Cannes is actually the second biggest media event apart from the Olympics, and there were 4,000 journalists. I remembered being whisked into a huge room right after the win – they gave me headsets and were speaking in French and I was asked all sorts of questions. Thereafter, I had a photocall and after-party. Now it has all settled down, but it feels like ages ago… for a whole year after Cannes, I didn’t have time to enjoy or take stock of what it really meant or how I really feel.

WY-LENE: You have been in a whirlwind for so long.

ANTHONY: Somehow this film [Ilo Ilo] had started a life of its own and I was playing catch up all this while. After Cannes, literally every other month, the film was winning awards – all the way up to the Golden Horse. In a funny way, I have always felt happy for the film and not for myself.

WY-LENE: That’s very intriguing.

ANTHONY: Yes, I was quite detached from the process. Basically, I had to say the right things and play a certain role because I represented the film. So I was happy all the time, yet tired too. Since the premiere in Cannes until now, I would have probably done about 500 interviews around the world. It’s been 1 year and 5 months of press/promotion and the last one was in October, when I was flown to Japan to meet the Japan media for 3 days. I did like 32 interviews. My day would start at 8am and end at 8pm (comprising magazines, photo shoots, newspapers, radio, TV, periodicals, etc.)


Ilo Ilo will always be an important milestone in my career for a long time to come.

WY-LENE: Do you feel like a broken record then?

ANTHONY: No, it’s like my first baby – I will always be proud of the film and I think I can continue to talk about it even 10 years later. Ilo Ilo will always be an important milestone in my career for a long time to come.

WY-LENE: Did you expect to win?

ANTHONY: In Cannes? No… there were 26 films from 26 different countries in competition for the Camera d’Or and my film is so humble and delicate – almost like a Haiku from Asia. It’s not a muscular, sort of loud, bombastic film with big stars and a huge budget. It’s also not that kind of mega art house film. To be honest, I was very pleasantly surprised. I could remember the exact moment: I was packing my bags in the apartment and I was about to take a cab to the airport, when I received a phone call. “Anthony, are you still in Cannes?” It was the deputy festival director on the line. “Where are you now? Change into your tuxedo and I will see you on the red carpet at 6pm.” So I knew something was happening.

WY-LENE: Is there a particular scene that speaks to you the most?

ANTHONY: [long pause] This is a very tough question. There is a scene that has always moved me, but I’m not sure if it speaks to me the most – it is towards the end of the film where the husband [Teck] goes home after work (as a security guard) and has injured his foot. His wife [Hwee Leng] is in the bedroom with an ugly face mask on. As she watches the news, she discovers that she is a victim of fraud…

WY-LENE: Teck lies on her lap too.

ANTHONY: And you feel like all the secrets and lies dissipate – not really explode, but implode in that scene and it’s quite heartbreaking. Every time I watch it, it still moves me.

I think what is interesting about relationship dynamics, whether between family or friends, is: what you know I know, and what you don’t know I know.

WY-LENE: There is an element of rawness – especially the part where they reveal their true feelings to each other.

ANTHONY: Yeah! That’s the thing which I love about people and I seek to investigate and explore that in my films. I think what is interesting about relationship dynamics, whether between family or friends, is: what you know I know, and what you don’t know I know – it’s all about the secrets and lies, and a lot of times, they are white lies.

WY-LENE: Everyone puts on a persona.

ANTHONY: There’s something very sad and melancholic, but it almost feels quite foolish to look at them – at the same time, we see and read characters like that (be it our parents or even ourselves). I’m not sure if it is completely universal, but the scene mirrors a lot of Chinese families or Asian families. It’s a very Chinese thing to coop everything up and pretend that everything is fine.

Especially in a place like Singapore, we are always so afraid of showing our flaws, cracks and fragility. It’s also about saving face – you see it in your parents and grandparents and you tend to inherit it as well.

WY-LENE: You can’t show weakness or be vulnerable.

ANTHONY: Yeah, especially in a place like Singapore, we are always so afraid of showing our flaws, cracks and fragility. It’s also about saving face– you see it in your parents and grandparents and you tend to inherit it as well. It’s here to stay for a long time despite how westernised or modernised we are. There are certain values that we will always be (sort of) shackled by.

WY-LENE: I absolutely agree. Do you think that if Ilo Ilo wasn’t such a huge success on the international scene first, it will be hard to convince Singaporeans to watch it? Because somehow in Singapore, you need to make it big ‘outside’ before people start to take notice.

ANTHONY: I find it hard to answer this, but because of the award in Cannes (the first time a feature film from Singapore had won), there was so much media spotlight on me and the film, and it definitely piqued the curiosity of a lot of audiences – whether they were the more sophisticated ones or the heartlanders, and it made them want to find out more about the film. My sense is that after they have seen the film, many of them realised that they could understand it as it wasn’t that cheem or a highbrow arthouse thing. I think the film needed the awards to act as an impetus for people to go and watch it. In 2013, we were the longest running film in cinemas – we ran for months and months, even crossing over to 2014. Eventually, Ilo Ilo became the third highest grossing Singapore film in 2013 – of course, it was nowhere near Ah Boys to Men, but it was the first time an arthouse film had done well critically in terms of accolades and box office hits. So it’s hard for me to say if the film hadn’t won so many awards, would people have gone to watch it? Maybe it wouldn’t have done so well, but the awards definitely helped to bring a lot of unconverted audiences to the cinemas. It’s a good thing for Singapore cinema and has helped to open doors – not just for myself, but for other filmmakers too.

WY-LENE: Was it difficult to find a suitable Aunty Terry?

ANTHONY: It was difficult but not that difficult. I couldn’t possibly cast a maid because of MOM laws (they’re not allowed to work and act at the same time). Furthermore, it doesn’t make sense to cast a real maid because it was such a heavy role for a non-actor. I knew from the early stages that I needed to do the casting in the Philippines, so I rang a Filipino director/friend and I went to the Philippines for a weekend with my producer. We didn’t have much money, as it was a low budget film, so we took a budget airline and stayed at a very cheap one star hotel. We also didn’t have money to rent an audition room so we used our hotel room instead – it was quite dodgy and even the receptionist became suspicious as to why there were so many women going in and out of my room.

WY-LENE: [laughs] How many actresses did you see?

ANTHONY: Over thirty. I found out that Filipino actresses were very good at being dramatic. I think they come from quite a melodramatic culture and if you watch both Filipino and Spanish dramas, it’s very rah-rah. They were also very good at crying on the spot – their tears were like a water tap and that did put me off quite a bit. I just couldn’t believe it and I thought it was some technique they used for soap operas. Angeli [Bayani] was the last one I met. She almost didn’t make the audition as she had just finished a play and was so tired. Plus, she had to deal with traffic jams. Anyway, she came in the end, and perhaps of her tiredness; she didn’t try too hard and was the most natural out of all of them. There was an honesty there.


WY-LENE: Aunty Terry and Jiale have a very special relationship which slowly evolves throughout the movie. Is chemistry hard to fake onscreen?

ANTHONY: To be very honest, when we were shooting, I think they hated one another.

WY-LENE: Really?

ANTHONY: Yeah, somehow they didn’t gel as well. But I thought the tension was nice for the film. I always like it when it’s not sort of reductive and simplistic where I like, like someone. I love it when there are other undertones and that’s what I try to do; by adding layers to these characters. Now that the film has been made and they have travelled together, they have a much better connection.

WY-LENE: Meryl Streep kept her distance from the cast and crewmembers when she was filming The Devil Wears Prada because of her character. So this wasn’t on purpose.

ANTHONY: Somehow, it just happened and he [Jiale] was such a naughty kid too.

WY-LENE: In real life?

ANTHONY: I mean, on set. They had a few squabbles, “This spoilt kid! This spoilt brat!” It wasn’t the most pleasant relationship at the start. But slowly, they came together… just like the film.

WY-LENE: What’s up with Jiale’s obsession with lottery tickets?

ANTHONY: I’m not sure about Jiale’s obsession with lottery tickets, but I would say what’s up with Singapore and their obsession with lottery tickets. My mum and even a lot of my friends’ parents will have diaries where they will jot down numbers and keep an archive of all the winning numbers, so that they can make their own predictions. Money is very big thing, not just in Singapore, but also in Asian societies. We are driven by numbers and the myth of prosperity and I painted this small little quirk onto this boy, who is obsessed with numbers… I think that makes him interesting.

WY-LENE: How long did you take to make the film?

ANTHONY: The script took 2 years. The casting took 8 to 10 months. I started in May/ June 2010 and we premiered in Cannes, so a full 3 years. It was very intense and it’s not easy to make a film. A lot of films in Singapore are made in 6 months or even shorter.

I don’t believe in sequels, and usually they are not very good.

WY-LENE: Any plans to do a sequel?

ANTHONY: Never. I don’t believe in sequels, and usually they are not very good. The word “sequel” sounds opportunistic as though you’re trying to jump on the bandwagon. A film exists because you have something to say and I have said what I needed to say with these characters and made my observations on the slice of family life in the 90s, during the economic recession.

WY-LENE: Do you feel the pressure to live up to a certain kind of expectation now?

ANTHONY: Well, there will always be pressure. My friends were also saying, “What kind of stroke of good luck do you have? It’s ridiculous!” The film to date has won 40 awards around the world and if you ask me how did that happen, I have no idea. There is an incredible amount of expectation on what Anthony Chen will do next. He’s either going to make a big step up or take a great fall. [laughs] Ang Lee said to me after the Golden Horse, “You have hit so high on your first film. It’s going to be even tougher to climb since you started here. I made my first film when I was 37 and you’re only 29. My first film was nominated for a Golden Horse but I only won a small Jury prize and you won 4 prizes, including Best Film.” I have learnt not to let the pressure get into my head because you can be worried about everything: how people are going to judge you, your work, critics, etc. It’s not really healthy, so I rather spend that time on productive things like writing or developing the next story.

I have got offers from Hollywood, China, big budget films, interesting projects with A-list actors, but until I have found the right project, I am not going to jump into it just because I can work with whoever now.

WY-LENE: Pressure tends to be self-inflicted.

ANTHONY: Last year at the Berlin Film Festival, I had a short chat with Tony Leung, who was a jury member. He said he saw me go up on stage at the Golden Horse and I asked him if he had any advice or pointers. There is something very zen about him which I love. He told me that the truth about pressure is that everything comes from yourself and not other people. His advice was useful and I’m very careful with what I do. I have got offers from Hollywood, China, big budget films, interesting projects with A-list actors, but until I have found the right project, I am not going to jump into it just because I can work with whoever now. I spend most of the time trying to get my mind into the same kind of mentality, when I was making my first film; without any baggage or expectations (from making money at the box office or winning awards) and if I can continue to make every film with the same uncompromising/free-from-baggage attitude, that would help me.

The key to making good films is when you observe people. The moment you think you are better than them, that’s when you don’t see the truth anymore.

WY-LENE: That’s really admirable. So how do you keep yourself so grounded?

ANTHONY: I love living in London as it humbles me. I lead a very simple life. I go out for meetings with my writers and producers. Work aside; I’m quite domestic, so I cook a lot. I don’t take the tube or the bus because public transport is rather expensive so I cycle everywhere for 2 hours every day. I try to go back to a very simple routine with my life and the key to making good films is when you observe people. The moment you think you are better than them, that’s when you don’t see the truth anymore. In London, it almost feels like nothing you achieve is ever good enough for the city. I have friends who have been nominated for an Oscar, won a BAFTA for their short films, but are still struggling to pay rent. It’s very easy to rest on your laurels and I find that dangerous.


WY-LENE: Of all places, why did you choose to study in London?

ANTHONY: I went to London based on the advice given by my tutors at Ngee Ann Polytechnic – The National Film and Television School is a very good school and it’s very competitive and hard to get in. In every department, they only take in 8 students every year and it is one of the few establishments in the world where you get to specialise as a director. That was what I wanted to do – hone my craft more in directing.

WY-LENE: How did your love for filmmaking start?

ANTHONY: I have no idea, but I knew from very young age (at 15) that I wanted to be a filmmaker. I think it was planted in my subconscious mind when I was 4. I remember vividly my first experience going to a cinema, as it left quite an impression on me. My parents brought me to watch was The Last Emperor and a lot of images (the opulence, grandeur, costumes) stayed in my head for a long time. It drew me in.

WY-LENE: Knowing what you want at the age of 15 is quite rare.

ANTHONY: When I was 9 or 10, I was involved in children’s theatre and drama. For the longest time, I thought I would go into theatre. But it changed when I was in Secondary 2 because I had to do literature, and somehow, me and Shakespeare didn’t get along – I just couldn’t understand his English. If I couldn’t like the most important playwright on earth, how will I ever go into theatre? In Secondary 3, I started to come into contact with foreign films and all of a sudden, my opinion of cinema changed – it wasn’t just about car chases and gunshots and that’s when I realised; maybe I want to be a filmmaker.

WY-LENE: Can you share with me your creative process when you are making a film? How does it begin?

ANTHONY: It usually begins with an idea. I don’t think I’m a man of ideas. I will never work in advertising because I’m not the type who will come out with 10 ideas a day. When I’m obsessed with an idea, I will never let go. I held onto Ilo Ilo for 3 years as there wasn’t any other film that I wanted to make. When something comes to my mind and if it just keeps coming back, until I have figured it out, I can’t move on… that’s how I have made all my films.

WY-LENE: What are you obsessed with right now?

ANTHONY: I am developing a few films and there is a film that I’m beginning to write – it might be the next film I make in Singapore. It’s about a teacher’s salvation of her own soul (from a female perspective) and how she is able to find her identity again. It sounds very abstract, but that’s something which has been in my head. I can’t tell you the exact story…

WY-LENE: How many films are you working on?

ANTHONY: I’m working on a few. There are some which I’m not writing by myself. I have read 60 to 70 scripts in the past one and half years, and out of all of them, I have responded to one. I have been attached to it for more than half a year. Right now, we’re casting and it is going to be my first English language film with American and British actors. It’s a period piece set in the 1950s in the UK. The story moved me to tears and I thought very hard about it and also did my research.

Filmmaking is such an organic process and it changes every day. What you think your film is, ends up being something else.

WY-LENE: What’s the most difficult part of directing a film?

ANTHONY: Everything is difficult. Directors are all control freaks. Filmmaking is very much about having control over the actors, performance, lighting, location, costumes, make-up, camera movement, etc. However, filmmaking happens to be the medium where you lose complete control – you can be shooting outdoors on a sunny day and all of a sudden, it rains. You might have to rewrite the scene on the spot, or change the dialogue. It could be a day when one of the actors woke up on the wrong side of the bed and he’s not performing up to mark. From what I have learnt, filmmaking is such an organic process and it changes every day. What you think your film is, ends up being something else. It’s such a schizophrenic journey where there is constant irony.


WY-LENE: How would you describe your filmmaking style?

ANTHONY: My films are obsessed with details: glances, nuances and objects. There are directors who care about the ‘big things’ like drama, murder and rape… I care about the small things, which can perhaps say more about humanity and our human experiences.

WY-LENE: What is the formula for a successful movie?

ANTHONY: I don’t think there is any formula. A good film has a universal truth and if it moves you in a profound way, it has done the job of being a good film.

WY-LENE: Is there any actor or actress you would love to work with some day?

ANTHONY: Cate Blanchett. Last year, a producer whom I have been working with in the UK, was also producing the new Todd Haynes film with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. He invited me to go and observe the shoot for a week in Cincinnati, Ohio. I have always adored Cate Blanchett and watching her live was one of the most amazing works that I have seen from an actress. I would also love to work with Tony Leung. I’m a fan of Kate Winslet, Jennifer Lawrence and Michael Fassbender… the list goes on… I hope to continue making films until the day I die, so that I have enough material and opportunities to work with everyone that I want to work with.

WY-LENE: What are some of your favourite movies?

ANTHONY: I love The 400 Blows by François Truffaut. I am a big fan of the late Taiwanese director, Edward Yang, and my all-time favourite film is by him called A Brighter Summer Day. I also like Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story. My taste is not the most mainstream, but I love cinema and I watch a lot of films.

WY-LENE: Will you ever move into television?

ANTHONY: Yeah, why not. These couple of years have been very exciting for television and a lot of television shows can be better than films. It’s the golden age for television both in the UK and the U.S. In fact, I was talking to HBO about developing something…

WY-LENE: Do you watch a lot of TV?

ANTHONY: Yes, and I highly recommend the Amazon Prime series called Transparent. You have to watch it.