Yeo Siew Hua is a director and writer from Singapore who won the 71st Locarno Festival’s Golden Leopard prize for his film ‘A Land Imagined’ (2018). His debut feature, the experimental ‘In The House of Straw’ (2009), was lauded by critics as a significant film of the Singapore New Wave. Yeo is a member of the Asia Pacific Screen Awards (APSA) Academy and a founding member of the 13 Little Pictures film collective in Singapore.
Luna Kwok (Guo Yue) is a Chinese actress best known for her outstanding performance in the independent arthouse film, ‘Kaili Blues’ (2015), which bagged multiple awards at international film festivals, like the 68th Locarno Festival, 52nd Taiwan Golden Horse Film Festival, and Nantes Three Continents Film Festival in 2015. Since then, she has starred in a number of films, including ‘From Where We’ve Fallen’ (2017), which competed in the 65th San Sebastian International Film Festival 2017.In 2018, she won the Best Actress Award of the Independent Critics Association of the 71st Locarno International Film Festival and the Outstanding Women of Motivation Award of the 29th Singapore International Film Festival for her film “A Land Imagined”. In the same year, she won the Best Actress Award at the 25th Beijing University Film Festival for her film “Xiao Ying”
On the occasion of “A Land Imagined” screening at the 25th Vesoul International Film Festival of Asian Cinemas, we speak with them about the film, their career, coproductions, and we ask them to comment on some of the most iconic stills from the film.
“A Land Imagined” is a co-production of companies from Singapore, France and the Netherlands. How did that occur?
Yeo Siew Hua: Since Singapore is a very small film market, it is very hard for us to make a film all on our own, so international coproduction is almost a must, especially when we are talking about a film that is not commercial one. Ultimately, we had to find producers that we trust, because we managed to get funds from CNC in France and one of my producers, Jean Laurent Csinidis, from Films De Force Majeure, knew CNC from before, and always wanted to work together and this is what happened. We had an amazing relationship, one of trusting. And then, almost at the same time, we managed to get funds from Netherland Film Fund, through IFFR. So this is how we managed to set up the coproduction with France and Netherlands. In essence, this was a creative collaboration, because they did not just came up with money, they also came up with suggestions and helped make the script better.
Luna, you starred in two of the most successful independent Asian films of the latest years, “Kaili Blues” and “A Land Imagined”. How do you feel about this accomplishment?
Luna Kwok: Really good (laughter)
What do you search for in the roles you choose to play? What made you decide to play the role of Mindy in “A Land Imagined”?
Luna: Usually, I will look at a script from the audience’s point of view, not as an actress, and then decide if it excites me, from this point of view. Regarding Mindy, I felt that the character seemed very charming, very pretty and I liked that. Moreover, it felt that this character is somewhat abstract, detached from the main plot of the film, but at the same time very cool. The same applies to my character in “Kaili Blues”, that is also detached from the main story, compared to the rest of the characters, who have a past and a future, a background in essence, whereas my character is only from the present and lives only in the present of the film, has no background. I think this element makes Yang Yang a very special character, and this also applies to Mindy.
How did your cooperation in the film came to be?
Yeo Siew Hua: I was looking for an actress, and I met with a few producers, one of which was Taiwanese veteran producer, Peggy Chiao and I got a number of recommendations for Luna. Therefore, I thought I have to try her out, because I had already seen “Kaili Blues” and I had an impression of her, but at the same time, that character was very different than the one I wanted her to play in my movie. So, we had a call and we spoke and also we spoke about Bergman and characters that we like and the films that inspired us, and that is what clicked for us, and I thought I really have to hire her and that was the beginning of it.
In the film, your character is a manager of an internet cafe, where a lot of people seem to spend their whole day in there. Do you feel that this is the case with the current generation, that young people spend too much time on the internet instead of actually communicating with each other?
Luna: I am very concerned about society and I never thought that the film was about this topic actually, but I think this is a very good question. Actually, I am also one who goes to the cyber cafes and gets lost there.
And what about you Yeo?
Luna: According to my own experience, I was actually very lost in the cyber cafe life for a whole year of my life before, but I do not think it is something I have to worry about. If my own experience is one to learn from, I think that there are two kinds of people who spend too much time in cyber cafes. The ones that become almost professional gamers of some sort and the ones that finds something else in their life, like me, I found acting.
How similar are you in real life with Mindy, who is mysterious but also violent and harsh at times?
Luna: Yes, I think there is a lot of me in Mindy. Actually apart from the producers, there was also another person, Gu Xiao Dong, who is a very good programmer and curator, who also recommended me for the role, and in general, there were a lot of people who suggested me for the part, and that is saying something about me. I am a person who gets frequently into arguments and debates I have a very fighting personality and that is also an element of the character. I get lost in my characters, it is something I do very often and in fact I got lost in the character of Mindy for six months after the shooting. I was even keeping my hair short for a long time, and I have just started letting it grow now.
Can you give us some details about your latest film, “When Love Blossoms”?
Luna: The film screened in Pingyao International Film Festival and was actually completed one month before “A Land Imagined” but was not out until recently. The adaptation of the script was a real challenge, because it is based on a great stage play but the adaptation was not so good. The challenge was not so much the character, a realtor, because I have played this kind of character before; actually it is the third time I play a real estate salesperson (laughter). One of the challenges in the film was that it required a lot of improvisation during the actual shooting, because we did not follow the script so much, since it was not that good. We were playing around with the film and we tried to make it as good as it could be.
Now I would like to show you a couple of pictures, which I feel are the most iconic ones from “A Land Imagined” and you could comment on them, about how you shot them for example. The fist one is this
Luna: This scene took place very early in the shooting of the film, and I was not fully immersed in the feeling of the film and neither have we worked so much together so I really had to use my own kind of inspiration and talents (laughter all over).
Yeo: I totally agree, it was very much us testing each other out and I did not give her so much direction, I told her, move, go with your feelings, just walk and we will try to capture that moment for you. It was her trying to interpret the character from a very early point in the film and at the same time, us trying to capture that and use it as a starting point. For me, this moment is very mysterious because neither she nor the character is “in the film” yet.
Luna: I want to add that both the director and the cinematographer were able to inspire her, but at the same time, I had to trust the cinematographer, so there was a mutual understanding, even though it was early in the shooting.
And this is the next picture
A large part of the film is a mood piece. We wanted to create cinema that is not just storytelling, this film wanted to create images and an atmosphere and an ambience that would stick to the minds of the audience. Regarding this staircase, it was very important for us, because we would see it countless times since it even becomes a kind of a portal to another world, to a dream, to the two different characters, who, although they do not meet, they keep passing through this portal. So for us, the image of the staircase is very important and we put a lot of attention towards this but we also did not want the audience to feel that this a film that will set them merely to sleep, into a dream, we also wanted to have some edge in the film.
Last time we spoke, you told me about your latest project, “Stranger Eyes”. How is that progressing?
Since we last spoke, the film was in two more film markets, in Busan and Rotterdam, where “A Land Imagined” also screened. We did a lot of meetings and it was very tiring but I feel we made a lot of good connections.
So, do you think you will be able to shoot it after all?
I think so yes.