If there’s anyone who can silence sceptics of Singapore’s nascent film industry, it’s 23-year-old Anthony Chen. The up-and-coming director sealed his place in local film history books by becoming the first Singaporean filmmaker to be honoured at the queen of all film festivals – the prestigious Cannes Film Festival – in May this year.
Anthony bagged a Special Mention award – the first ever presented at Cannes – for only his second directorial effort, Ah Ma, a short film based on the passing of his grandmother in 2005. The film made its world premiere at the festival and was selected to compete alongside 10 other international short films for the esteemed Short Film Palme d’Or award – another feat no other Singaporean director has yet to accomplish.
“It feels real good to have a film that I hold really dear to my heart be honoured by such a distinguished group of people. Cannes is like the Olympics of the film industry so to be recognised means a great deal. My original intention for making this film was just to commemorate the death of my grandmother. This award surely came as a pleasant surprise,” shared Anthony.
But the honour from Cannes was not entirely a bolt from the blue for the considerably new filmmaker. In 2004, at the mere age of 20, Anthony’s debut film, G-23, received international acclaim the following year, winning 4 awards at film festivals, including the Asiana International Short Film Festival in Korea, the Brussels International Independent Film Festival in Belgium, and the Lyon Asian Film Festival in France. The movie was made when he was a graduating student of the School of Film & Media Studies (FMS) at Ngee Ann Polytechnic (NP), which has groomed most of Singapore’s young and successful filmmakers.
“For someone who aspired to be a filmmaker as much as I did, the past few years really have been a dream come true. To have 2 films be successfully produced and receive as much hype and recognition as G-23 and Ah Ma did is just such an affirmation and a wonderful way to begin a career, and the award from Cannes just topped all these events beautifully,” he told UrbanWire.
Yet, the fame and recognition haven’t got the better of the modest chap, who feels that he’s “just been lucky that the 2 films [he’s] made so far had the chance to travel around and be appreciated by film enthusiasts all over the world”.
Even after what seems like an all-too-soon back-to-back success with G-23 and Ah Ma, Anthony is far from settling down. In fact, the Ngee Ann Polytechnic graduate has bigger plans lined-up ahead. “I’d like to make another short film before the year ends, if I can find enough funds and get enough support, that is. But what I’m really looking forward to is embarking on my first full-length feature film, hopefully in about 3 or 4 years.”
Most recently, Anthony lent his directing hand in 7 of this year’s National Day Parade filmlets, which gave Singaporeans a perspective of the lives of 7 different locals, including a taxi driver, a samsui woman and a roti prata entrepreneur.
“The project was commissioned to NP and I was invited to work on it. I conceptualised, wrote and directed the 7 pieces – the cool thing is that they are all based on real people, real stories, so it was really a lot of work, whether researching or directing real-life personalities. It was good because I had a strong team comprising of alumni, mostly people I have worked for some time and current students from FMS.”
Even as a child, Anthony had a deep appreciation and love for the arts and was especially fascinated by films and stage productions. “One of the first films I ever saw as a child was The Last Emperor, which was a breathtaking experience for me. Watching the journey take place within the Forbidden City was really a visual spectacle. Since then, my love for film has never stopped developing.”
In fact, that love expanded so much that it overflowed into other fields and areas of the arts. Theatre was another interest of Anthony’s since he was 9 years old. Radio and stage acting came along later on as well. Eventually, he chose to pursue a career in film because “it was more personal and it possessed more reality, in terms of bringing justice to real human emotions and human conditions”.
Anyone who gets to know Anthony as a person will come to find that, despite the deep perspective and interest for the arts, together with the major success he’s achieved, the guy is just like any typical homegrown Singaporean, except maybe with a few additional interesting characteristics here and there.
“My friends say I’m like an old man, which is true because I don’t really like to go out. I prefer to stay at home, watch DVDs, read articles off the internet [and] enjoy my own personal, private time, which is what all my older relatives seem to like doing too.”
It’s such personal time that offered Anthony some of his greatest ideas as well as “taking the bus [because] most of [his] inspiration or ideas for films and characters emerge out of [his] time spent daydreaming”.
“In a busy society, like Singapore, it’s always difficult to be able to take time out or find a peaceful environment to let your thoughts flow, which I find essential as a filmmaker. So daydreaming is what I usually resort to for inspiration, and, to the surprise of many of my colleagues, it works!”
Singapore needn’t have to look to imports from major film-making industries like Hollywood or Hong Kong to find the next potential Martin Scorsese or Ang Lee. With a bit of hope and faith, and what Anthony describes as “a tinge more support from the local government”, we just may see the day when a Singaporean finally wins an Oscar for Best Director! After all, he’s living proof that a little daydreaming can bring one really far.
Pictures provided courtesy of Anthony Chen