From the archive (June 19, 2014):
An up-and-coming filmmaker from Singapore, Kirsten Tan has shown her work in New York, at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and at the Director’s Guild of America. She is now based in Brooklyn. She writes, directs and produces in both narrative and documentary genres, as well as creates accomplished commercial work.
Her short film Sink (2009), made in Thailand, is a poetic parable about the loss that accompanies growing up. It won the Best International Short Film Award at the Planet in Focus Film Festival, in Canada.
Cold Noodles (2010) is a masterly piece of black comedy, shot in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A man clad only in his underwear tempts fate by eating ramen on his fire escape on a cold New York day. A strong gust of wind slams closed his window and shuts him out. What happens next is unexpected, brutal, and funny.
For a change of tone, watch Tan’s documentary on New York-based Singaporean photographer and artist John Clang, a highly sensitive portrait of another image maker.
SP: On your website, you describe yourself as having “a penchant for visual storytelling and quirky humor.” Why tell stories in moving pictures?
KT: Stories can be told through different mediums but what is perhaps unique to cinema is that every element in it (whether story, action, movement, characters etc) is tied to time. Everything has a linearity, nothing exists in stasis. Characters grow, they come together, they fall apart, the sun rises, a train passes—all in constant flux. I like that time is perceived or manipulated in film the way life is experienced—play it forward like daily existence or go backwards to access a memory. In heightened situations, time expands and a moment can feel like eternity. Then, entire decades can go by in a flash. Like an accordion, film lets you stretch or compress moments to create a tonal ebb and flow of experience. I’m in love with the inevitability. The way film is inextricably bound up with time—it mirrors existence too well.
SP: What do you find funny?
KT: I instinctively find the “funny” in almost every situation, especially traumatic ones. This is great for screenwriting, and people call it “black humour”, but it’s got me in trouble in real life before. Sometimes in an argument, I unconsciously detach, and the hilarity of how ridiculous things are gets to me, and I let out an untimely laugh or two—which is the worst thing. Kurt Vonnegut has a line “We laugh in self-defense” and I immediately thought—that’s me! Kurt understands.
SP: You grew up in Singapore, you have lived in South Korea and Thailand, and now you reside in Brooklyn, New York. What has each place contributed to your development as a filmmaker?
KT: I spent a year in South Korea with the Asian Young Filmmaker Forum, an artist-in-residency program sponsored by the Korean Ministry of Culture & Tourism. I was 24 when I left Singapore and I had no idea I wouldn’t be back since.
In Korea, I was often people’s first impression of Singapore. I was commonly referred to as a “Singaporean filmmaker”. That raised a lot of questions as to what being a Singaporean or Singaporean filmmaker actually meant. I’d made two short films before Korea but at that point I still didn’t call myself a “filmmaker”—it felt too lofty. It was in Korea that I came to terms with the fact that there was nothing else I’d rather do with my life and my identity crystallized.
I went to Thailand after Korea; I had some savings and no concrete plans and it seemed like a good idea at the time. In Thailand, I met some truly amazing people. My landlady in Bangkok was an ex-film producer who had built a B&B by the sea, brick by brick, with her own two hands, after she left the film industry. Her frequent visitors included a homeless man who had couch-surfed his entire life. No one had anything in common, which was great, because when everyone came together for dinner, there were so many stories to tell. They had each led such rich lives, and every time a sad story was told, they laughed about it, and poured each other more rounds of Singha. It didn’t matter that everyone was from a different place or was a different age or came from different social classes. It was like watching the best Thai movie (without subtitles) every night. In Singapore (and Korea, really) I found that people tended to band together in similar demographic groups and perhaps as a result of a continually reinforced groupthink, our perceptions can get a little narrow. But there, living with them, I was exposed to a real range of human possibilities. It made me see that as long as one carries some grace and dignity, there is no one absolute or right way to live, and from then on, I applied that understanding to characters I was creating.
In Chiangmai I lived with an older ceramic artist and his print-maker wife, who had been quietly working on their craft for the past 30 years without pomp or fanfare. From them, I really learnt to respect craft and saw that a lifetime isn’t enough to practice that one thing you love.
It was in Thailand that I experienced the magnitude of kindness. Maybe I just met the right people but while I was living there, no one ever charged me rent. My mother (a full-fledged capitalist) would tell me, doubtless with the best intentions, “I’m sure they’d want something from you.” But when it was time for me to leave, they simply wished me well. For a long time, I’ve really felt that my semi-charmed life as a person and a filmmaker has been, well, lifted, by the kindness of friends and strangers, so how could I not aspire to inject a bit of something (almost embarrassed to say here but maybe humour, poetry & pathos?) into this world while I’m still here?
By the time I was in NYC to do my Master of Fine Arts (Film) at NYU, I was 27. I’ve been here for the past 6 years but it’s hard for me to formulate a firm perspective about a place while it’s still happening to me. For now, all I can say about New York is that it is inspiring to be surrounded in the company of brilliance.
SP: Your most recent screenplay “Popeye” was selected to participate in Berlinale Talent’s Script Station 2014. [Editor: "Pop Aye" premiered in 2017 to critical acclaim.] What did this participation involve?
KT: The Berlinale (Berlin International Film Festival) is one of the leading film festivals in the world and it was just wonderful to be there and be around other lovers of cinema. The script station was a screenwriting workshop that ran concurrently with the festival. Due to the clout of the Berlinale, they were able to bring in some of the best script doctors in the world as mentors to provide feedback on our screenplay. Since there were only 10 selected projects, we each received really focused attention. At the end of the script station, we each had to pitch our project to a hall-room full of strangers. It was an adrenaline rush to present your idea to hundreds of film industry professionals. I think I was the only Asian in the room and that experience made me grow up, I suspect, a tiny bit.
SP: What’s next for you?
KT: Next up, I’ll be attending the Torino Film Lab that will happen both in Mexico and Italy. I’m in the midst of getting a second draft of “Popeye” in time for that. Apart from “Popeye”, I’m in post-production for “12.12”—my thesis film at NYU. I’m also co-writing another feature screenplay with an extremely talented Singaporean writer—but I’ll keep the identity of the writer secret, for now.