It Changed My Life: Film-maker Kirsten Tan's journey from quirky distraction to movie magic
About 10 years ago, Ms Kirsten Tan was living what she then considered the perfect life.
It was an unshackled existence: no mortgage, no rent, no nine-to-five drudgery and no parents breathing down her neck telling her to grow up and be responsible.
She didn't have much money either, but the universe was kind to her. A generous Thai friend shared her Bangkok home with her; artist friends in Chiang Mai and other parts of Thailand extended her the same kindness.
To get by, she took on the odd video-shooting job and sold T-shirts at Chatuchak Weekend Market. For the most part, she was travelling, dreaming of film scripts or writing music and jamming with her rock band, Century Ache.
For more than two years, she revelled in her peripatetic way of life.
"I was happy to be a free-spirited, ne'er-do-well; I was pretty happy with everyday realities and felt like I didn't need more," she says with a laugh. "But something at the back of my head told me I was too young, and it was too soon, to be experiencing nirvana."
So she applied for, and got, a scholarship to study for her master's degree in film production at the famous Tisch School of the Arts in New York University.
Today, the 35-year-old is one of Singapore's most exciting film-makers with a robust slate of award-winning short films and documentaries under her belt. Her first feature, Pop Aye - an offbeat tale about a disenfranchised architect and the elephant he adopts - just nabbed prizes at two of the world's most important film festivals: Sundance and Rotterdam.
An accomplished cinematographer, she also makes a more-than- decent living lensing commercial work for the likes of fashion label Giorgio Armani, coconut water brand Vita Coco and Heineken beer.
Embracing her identity as a film-maker took a long time, says the younger of two children.
Her Chinese-educated parents are conservative business folk who wanted her to study science or economics. When the former student of Dunman High got into the arts stream at Victoria Junior College (VJC), her parents were so upset that they asked to see the principal.
"Mrs Lee Phui Mun sat my father down," she says, referring to the former VJC principal. "She said: 'Look at your daughter's results. How could she survive in science?'"
She is grateful, however, that they encouraged reading.
And the bilingual film-maker was a voracious reader, devouring everything from English classics by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens to wuxia (swordfighting) novels by Jin Yong and the Sandman comics by Neil Gaiman.
"Reading was my first escape, an immediate access into a larger world outside my household, and my small world," she says.
By the time she hit her teens, she had started writing prodigiously. Besides short stories, she also wrote poems, sometimes on squares of toilet paper which she would flush away.
"It was personal stuff, not meant for public consumption," she lets on. "Writing was a creative outlet, a valve to let off pressure. I had no inkling then I'd be doing it for life."
By the time she finished her A levels, the rabid pop culture fan was pretty sure she wanted to study film.
But her parents put paid to her plans of enrolling in Ngee Ann Polytechnic's School of Film and Media Studies. "They die die wanted me to go to a university," she says, lapsing into Singlish.
So she settled on what she reckoned was the next best thing: English literature at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
She took all modules related to film. Because there were no film-making activities on campus, she set up NuStudios, a film production outfit, with a group of friends.
"We were literally making films without guidance," she says, adding proudly that NuStudios is still around.
Her first project was producing a short film called Eye To Eye.
"To be honest, it's pretty bad and I honestly don't know what it's all about," says Ms Tan, who went on to produce two more short films
She left NUS in 2003. Having fulfilled her parents' wish for her to get a degree, she reckoned it was time to listen to her heart and study film at Ngee Ann.
She managed to snag a Media Education Scheme scholarship from the Media Development Authority.
In Ngee Ann, she finally got the formal training in film-making she craved. Besides technical know-how, she also got exposed to a wide range of movies.
With a grin, she remembers going into the restricted section of the film library to "steal" titles by the likes of Agnes Varda, known as the mother of the French New Wave movement, Wim Wenders, a major figure in New German cinema, and Roy Andersson, an acclaimed Swedish director.
"The good stuff was for teaching purposes only and restricted to students so the only way was to 'borrow' them for a while and put them back after that," she says with a cheeky shrug of her shoulders.
There were moments when I told myself, 'If I totally disappear now, no one would find out for days.' I think it's important to experience extreme emotions like that. It gave me a lot of opportunities for introspection.
MS KIRSTEN TAN, on feeling lonely during her year in Jeonju, South Korea.
To be honest, it's pretty bad and I honestly don't know what it's all about.
MS TAN, on her first project, producing short film Eye To Eye, while in NUS.
She came into her own in Ngee Ann, writing and directing two short films - 10 Minutes Later (a tale of the interweaving lives of 10 characters) and Fonzi (a story about a movie character who wants to be a real person).
The two films won not just awards at the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) but also at a host of festivals around the world, including the Ohnekohle Video & Film Festival in Austria and the International Women's Film Festival in the Philippines.
Her films took her places - to Palm Springs, Tel Aviv, Hanover and Beijing, among others.
"I got to watch films which were so different, it was so intoxicating. And I'm nerdy enough to take notes while I'm watching films."
Despite her triumphs, it was a confusing time.
"What I did was driven by love. I loved the craft of film-making but at the same time I also felt I was blindfolded. I couldn't see a future for myself in Singapore. There were only two film-makers who were doing well in Singapore - Eric Khoo and Jack Neo - but they felt so distant. I was a young female film-maker and, in many ways, I couldn't see how I fitted in," says Ms Tan who graduated from Ngee Ann in 2005.
An opportunity to sort the thoughts in her head presented itself: a one-year artist-in-residency at the Asian Young Filmmakers Forum, organised by the Jeonbuk Independent Film Association.
The residency in the city of Jeonju came with a generous monthly stipend, and also allowed her to attend all the major film festivals in South Korea, including Busan and Incheon.
Her year there was not all hunky-dory. For the first time in her life, she experienced searing loneliness. "There were moments when I told myself, 'If I totally disappear now, no one would find out for days.'"
She adds: "I think it's important to experience extreme emotions like that. It gave me a lot of opportunities for introspection.
Often, after a long solitary walk, she would head home and start writing.
"The loneliness made me sensitive to everything. I became more observant. Snow falling felt more beautiful. It was great fuel for writing," says Ms Tan, adding that her stint in South Korea also helped her embrace her identity as a film-maker, a label she was not comfortable with before.
After Jeonju, she headed for Thailand. The decision worried her parents but Thailand, she says, opened her mind to many things.
"Singapore and South Korea are both societies which are very structured and controlling," she says.
The friends she made in Thailand were a lot more free-spirited. The Bangkok friend who gave her rent-free accommodation, for instance, was a former film producer who built her own bed and had breakfast by the sea.
"She sometimes took in this homeless man who would stay a few days before he went somewhere else. It showed me that outside of our existence, there are many ways to live life, there's no one absolute path. And as long as you live with grace and dignity, you're fine," she says.
She made a short film, Sink, about a sink in the middle of an ocean.
The meditation on lost innocence went to many international festivals and won a few awards, including Best International Short Film at the Planet In Focus Festival in Toronto, Canada.
If the Land of Smiles opened her mind, the Big Apple stretched and expanded it.
"I always felt like an outsider in Singapore, the one without a job, the one who was completely aimless. The great thing is when you land in New York, there are a million people weirder than you. I found it extremely liberating," says Ms Tan, who also worked as a teaching assistant in NYU.
"The city draws a lot of people who have the capacity to dream and work towards that dream. And the level of brain power in New York is pretty seductive," says the recipient of the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts fellowship.
She got into cinematography in a big way and because she acquitted herself well, several of her professors recommended her for gigs, which was how she came to shoot for Armani and TED Talks.
Ella, the fashion film she co-directed for Armani, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, won an AICP (Association of Independent Commercial Producers) honour in 2014 and is now part of the archives at New York's Museum of Modern Art.
She made several other short, award-winning films, including Cold Noodles, Thin Air and John Clang. Her graduating work, Dahdi - about an elderly Singaporean woman and a Rohingya woman who comes into her home - picked up, among others, the Best South-east Asian short film at the 2014 SGIFF and an award from the famous National Board of Review in New York.
"Writing Dahdi was heavy; I felt bogged down. I wrote something else as a distraction, and that turned out to be Pop Aye," says the film-maker, who was featured in CNN International's Ones To Watch programme in 2015.
The idea for Pop Aye came when she was on a beach in Thailand and saw a group of boys showering an elephant in the sea. It became a road tale about a man who takes an elephant he saw performing on the streets of Bangkok to a small village, and the characters they meet along the way.
Pop Aye went to several film development labs, including the Torino Film Lab, where it was awarded the top production prize. It was also one of 15 by-invitation projects to be showcased in the distinguished Cannes Film Festival's L'Atelier, which highlights the world's up-and-coming talents.
Produced by Singaporean film-maker Anthony Chen, whose Ilo Ilo won the Camera D'or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, Pop Aye took more than a year to develop and a month to shoot.
Ms Tan auditioned scores of elephants and even spent a month living with a community of mahouts (elephant trainers) before shooting.
Because of the positive buzz it generated at film labs, Sundance reached out to her and gave Pop Aye the opening-night slot for its World Dramatic section last month.
"It was a huuuuge honour," says Ms Tan, whose film was the first Singaporean one to compete at the festival.
The audience at the screening "laughed a lot more than I expected and reacted very warmly". Film critics from the likes of Hollywood Reporter and Variety gave it an equally warm reception.
"I felt a huge weight lifted from my shoulders," says Ms Tan, whose film won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance. Not long after, it nabbed the VPRO Big Screen Award in Rotterdam.
Other festivals are clamouring to screen Pop Aye, which will be released in Singapore by Golden Village in early April.
Her parents, meanwhile, have come around to the idea of their daughter as a film-maker.
"They will message me, and my dad will say things like, 'You have to keep striving for the next one.'"
The success of Pop Aye does not give her any pressure, she says.
"With every film, there is a lot of self-expectation. Before Pop Aye, I gave 101 per cent to everything I did. I will not change, it's impossible for me to demand more."
When young and aspiring film-makers approach her for advice, she tells them: "You have to want to do it despite the naysayers and the impossibilities. I did. I had to really fight for it."
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