Boo Junfeng: Singapore’s filmmaker with a cause

Boo Junfeng: Singapore’s filmmaker with a cause

As the first Singaporean to have a film debut at the Cannes International Film Festival, Boo Junfeng hopes to help Singapore open up to taboo subjects
Boo Junfeng
"Sandcastle": A coming of age story artfully shot with a cast of non-professional actors.

Singapore is often viewed as a lightweight when it comes to world cinema.

Censored, marginalized and unpopular with local audiences, Singaporean films have struggled to make an impact.

But one filmmaker is bucking that perception: Boo Junfeng, young, talented and unafraid to tackle issues such as human rights, homosexuality and national identity.

One of the most promising directors to emerge from Singapore in recent years, the 27 year-old's first feature film, "Sandcastle" (2010), was shown at Cannes International Film Festival. His short films, "Un Retrato De Familia" (2004), "Katong Fugue" (2007), "Tanjong Rhu" (2008), "Keluar Baris" (2008) and "Bedok Jetty" (2008) have screened at various film festivals around the world.

Acclaimed at home and abroad, Junfeng was named Young Artist of the Year by the National Arts Council of Singapore in 2009.

Here he talks about his work and the local film industry.

CNNGo: How did you get into filmmaking?

Boo Junfeng: I was 15 and very intrigued by the idea that cinema was all about make believe. I was particularly interested in watching behind-the-scenes documentaries of different movies, and understanding how things were done.

At 16, I enrolled myself in a film diploma program in Singapore and that was how my film education formally began. I specialized largely in art direction while I was there, until I got the chance to go on a student exchange programme in Barcelona, where I wrote and directed my first short film.

That film -- "Un Retrato De Familia" -- got selected at the Singapore International Film Festival, and that was when doors started opening for me. 

CNNGo: What did you get out of your time living in Spain?

Sandcastle"Sandcastle": Inspired by the concept of memories and his grandmother.Boo: I was 19 and wide-eyed, barely spoke a word of Spanish and had to write and direct my first short film.

I pretty much threw myself in the deep end. But the experience in the end was extremely rewarding.

CNNGo: Why is it important to tell Singaporean stories in your films?

Boo: For now, it is the only place I know intimately enough to represent on film.

CNNGo: Your films touch on various subjects such as historical places, love, personal memory, homosexuality as well as politics, human rights and censorship. Why is that?

Boo: Some of these issues are considered taboo in Singapore and I think it is necessary for society to address them.

I also feel that I have some responsibility as an artist living in Singapore in making that happen.

Some of the issues have already been discussed in Singapore literature, theater and other art forms. I'm only contributing to the discourse.

CNNGo: What was it like having "Sandcastle" screened at Cannes?

Boo Junfeng On stage at the Cannes International Film Festival.
It took me some time to believe that it was happening.

I spent a long time developing the film, and the process of it was rather intimate -- involving many close friends and family members.

To have it presented at a platform like Cannes was encouraging, but at the same time surreal.

CNNGo: Which filmmakers do you look up to?

Leong: I look up to filmmakers like Hou Hsiao Hsien and Lee Chang Dong.

I'm fortunate to have many mentors, from veteran filmmakers like Eric Khoo to my lecturers from film school whom I still keep in contact with.

Khoo is a pioneer and there's no better person in the film industry here to be learning from.

CNNGo: You've been called the next Royston Tan. How are you dealing with the spotlight and media scrutiny?

Boo Junfeng Boo's artful eye has given "Sandcastle" a "quietly observant" quality.
If I had the choice, I'd rather not be in the spotlight so that I can focus on making films.

I've come to realize that that's not possible if I also want people to come and see my films.

The media scrutiny adds another layer of pressure, but I try not to let it distract me too much.

CNNGo: What has been your favorite film to make and what is your favorite film in general?

Boo: It's hard to identify one, every film is special in its own way. In general, I love the films of Edward Yang, Lee Chang Dong and Ang Lee.

CNNGo: What's your view on film censorship in Singapore?

Boo: A lot needs to be changed. I think it is important for people to be exposed to different perspectives and to have an open dialog on things, and film is one of the best ways of triggering that.

Censorship restricts genuine public discourses and has an impeding effect on the way society develops. The process of censoring is also always arbitrary. Filmmakers and distributors are now encouraged to self-censor before submitting their films for classification in order to get a lower rating and avoid some of the bureaucratic procedures.

This culture of second-guessing the authorities and self-censorship has huge effects on the creative process.

CNNGo: How do you feel about the current state of the Singaporean film industry?

Sandcastle Local musician Joshua Tan was cast in the lead role of "Sandcastle."
These are exciting times! 

There are many young filmmakers who have been making short films and starting to make their feature films.

Support from local audiences is always encouraging and we can only try with each film to gain that support.

CNNGo: What kind of films would you like to make given the opportunity?

Leong: I would love to make a period film, something set in the 1950s and 1960s in Singapore. The design aesthetic of that era is very attractive.

"Sandcastle" will have a limited screening from February 18-26 at The Arts House.

John Davidson has been a journalist since 2003, working in both Singapore and Australia. A former editor of Marketing Singapore magazine, his work has appeared in publications such as Time Out Singapore, Asia Image, Television Asia Plus, Australian FourFourTwo, AdNews, Television Asia Plus and Inside Sport, as well as the sport websites The Roar and Back Page Lead. A football fanatic, he has written extensively about advertising, marketing, sport, the media and business during his career.

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