Meet the Singaporean director whose film is premiering at Sundance

We’ve said this a few times: 2016 has been a great year for Singaporean film directors. The latest buzz revolves around Kirsten Tan, whose debut feature film Pop Aye is slated to screen at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival next year, making it the first Singaporean film to compete at an indie film fest of this scale in the States.

Sundance critics said of the film: “Pop Aye is a humane ode to the power of simple acts of kindness in a world of lost innocence and missed opportunities, punctuated by well-timed bursts of deadpan absurdity. Director Kirsten Tan, in her impressive feature debut, deftly weaves the poignance and humor of Popeye and Thana’s journey with a series of indelibly beautiful cinematic images of the film’s gigantic star in this lyrical road-trip dramedy.” While it’s her first full-length film, Kirsten is no rookie—she’s already won numerous awards for her short films, such as Dahdi, Thin Air, Cold Noodles and many more.

We recently got in touch with Kirsten, who tells us a little more about the film, her experience in working with Anthony Chen on the film, and being a female director.

Could you tell us a little bit more about your new film Pop Aye?

Pop Aye is a road movie with an elephant set in Thailand. It’s a story of a disenchanted architect who bumps into his long-lost elephant on the streets of Bangkok. Dissatisfied with his current life, he takes his elephant on a journey across Thailand, in search of the farm where they grew up together. The film is an interplay of tragedy and comedy—I hope it feels light in its delivery, yet deeply human.

What was the inspiration behind it?

As someone who’s lived in four countries within the last decade, I’ve always felt somewhat like a vagrant. I’ve always felt more for outsiders who don’t really fit within one particular system and this story is essentially about two misfits—a man past his prime and his street elephant—searching for meaning and belonging. That being said, the main trigger of the story came while living in Thailand—I witnessed a group of village boys pulling an elephant to sea to shower him. The power and innocence of that image stayed with me through all these years before I penned a script based on the feelings of that particular memory.

Is the elephant a kind of metaphor in your narrative for the film?

I am aware that many potential symbols could be read into an elephant in a film but when it came down to directing the elephant, I personally shied away from any metaphorical interpretations myself. It’s my first duty as a director to have the elephant as a character come across as authentic and believable. I spent a month in Thailand on an elephant research trip so I could better understand elephants and be able to portray their behavior realistically. I did not want some cutesy Disney elephant based on vague uninformed impressions. If I were to direct him as a visual symbol, it would probably require less work and rigor on my part to get his performance right. Of course, once we got his behavior down pat, it really is up to the audience to further read into him as a metaphor or a symbol. 

What were some of the challenges you’ve faced during the production of the film?

It was an extremely difficult shoot to say the least. From my shoot, I can pretty much confirm that global warming is real. Our shoot coincided with the hottest summer in Thailand in four decades. We were all decked out in safari outfits to battle the heat and on a daily basis I would put ice-cubes in my hat just to stay sane. Over the shoot, about nine crew members went down with fever. Weirdly enough, despite the heat, we would have flash rains in the middle of the day too, which affected the schedule. Apart from that, we were also filming with animals, which is one of the toughest things to do. It was a shoot that required a lot of patience and resilience.

How has it been working with Anthony Chen?

Apart from being a producer, Anthony Chen is a very strong director so I had some initial trepidation on how to broach our collaboration. I found out soon enough that he left me a ton of space to create and was supportive of my vision. He was generous and without fail, was always there for me and the project. I especially appreciated his direct and no-bullshit approach to life and how he places work above everything else.

Will it ever make it to the screens in Singapore?

Yes, after the festival circuit, we are planning to release the film in Singapore in the later half of 2017.

As an Asian female director, have you ever found it tougher to compete in a male-dominated industry?

I am not here to whine and I have always found it uncomfortable to publicly voice these concerns because people get really sensitive around such topics. I guess the fact is that a female director is very much a minority in this industry. Being a female director, you are unfamiliar territory to a lot of people and so you’re naturally subjected to a tad more scrutiny, especially in a high-stakes and highly-hierarchical environment like a film set. It takes just a bit more time for people to trust you and to get used to you. Pop Aye may be my first feature film but I’ve crewed in a variety of film productions for over a decade and have seen how gender (and even race) affect attitudes on a film set. There isn’t necessarily outright discrimination but there is occasional unconscious bias levelled at females in leadership positions, from both men and women alike, across all sorts of industries.

Ta-Nehisi Coates mentioned in The Atlantic: “If I have to jump six feet to get the same thing that you have to jump two feet for: that’s how racism works.” Same thing with gender. If you spoke with any minorities of the world, they would know how this feels like. For me, I have accepted that this is the kind of playing field we have and it isn’t productive for me to keep thinking about it. All I can personally do is to continue making good films to challenge existing status quos. Thankfully my collaborators see me as a complete person and not just as someone labelled “female” or “Asian”. 

You’ve earned numerous awards and have screened at many big festivals. What’s your one greatest achievement so far? 

My greatest achievement, not just in filmmaking but in life, is to complete my first feature film Pop Aye. It really took a lot out of me and I am proud that I have given it everything. For the past three years, it was what I lived for and by the end of the shoot, I was spent—I felt very much like a ghost in a shell. Funnily, when you watch the film, it feels rather breezy and effortless, but so many people have given their blood and sweat to make this film happen in extremely trying circumstances. Regardless of how it eventually performs critically or in the box office, I will always be proud that people came onboard this project, not for money, fame or glory but for that purity of love for cinema. That is why I make films and to have witnessed that coming from everyone onboard is humbling to say the least.

Perhaps you get asked this a lot: do you consider yourself a Singaporean filmmaker? 

Yes, I very much consider myself a Singaporean filmmaker and I feel proud when my films represent Singapore in international film festivals. That being said, I do not necessarily think I only have to tell Singaporean stories. I feel that the role of an artist extends beyond her nationality and to consider art or filmmaking as something that falls within national lines is confining to say the least. If push comes to shove, I would privilege humanity over man-made borders any day.