Sunday, December 08, 2019

The torture within

Feb 20. 2019
Singaporean Daniel Hui's fiction
Singaporean Daniel Hui's fiction "Demons" had a successful screening in the Forum section of Berlin festival. It stars famous filmmaker Glen Goei and newcomer Vicky Yang in a mysterious story about abuse, madness and cannibalism.
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By Donsaron Kovitvanitcha
Special to The Nation

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Indonesia scores high at the Berlin Film Festival with a movie about food while Singaporean director Daniel Hui brings his little house of horrors to the big screen

The 69th edition of Berlin International Film Festival, which ran from February 7 to last Saturday, brought cinephiles films from around the world but sadly only a few Southeast Asian titles made it into the selection this year.

In the section Culinary Cinema, which presents films about food, Edwin’s latest feature “Aruna and Her Palate” became the first Indonesian film to be shown in this special section of the festival. The Indonesian-South Korean-Singaporean co-production was released in Indonesia in September and screened at the International Film Festival and Awards Macao in December.

Starring Dian Sastrowardoyo and Nicholas Saputra, “Aruna and Her Palate” is the story of Aruna, an epidemiologist who is sent to investigate an outbreak of bird flu and also uses the trip to satisfy her obsession with food. 


Vietnam's Pham Ngoc Lan brought his latest brief work "Blessed Land" to compete in Berlinale Shorts 2019.

Culinary Cinema is a special section of Berlin and ticket prices include a special dinner created to fit the theme of the film. For “Aruna and Her Palate”, ticket holders enjoyed an Indonesian-inspired dinner created by The Duc Ngo, a top Vietnamese chef based in Berlin.

In Berlinale Shorts, Singaporean Tan Wei Keong’s “Kingdom” and Vietnamese filmmaker Pham Ngoc Lan’s “Blessed Land” were screened in competition. Although neither film won a prize, it provided a good opportunity for young Southeast Asian filmmakers to present their films in Berlin.

Singaporean film “Demons” directed by Daniel Hui had its European premiere in the Forum section after making its debut at last year’s Busan International Film Festival. A graduate of the School of Film/Video at the California Institute of the Arts, Hui was also behind the 2011 feature “Eclipses” and 2014’s “Snakeskin”, which was shown at the World Film Festival of Bangkok in 2016. “Demons” is the director’s latest work and also his first fiction feature, and like his previous works was entirely shot on 16mm film. This time, he says, he wanted to make something that was more personal. “This is a very personal film and that makes it hard for me to talk about it,” Hui told The Nation after its successful screening. 


"Aruna and Her Palate" by Edwin was the only Indonesian entry at this year's Berlin International Film Festival. A commercial title, it's co-produced by South Korea's CJ Entertainment.


“I read a lot and I get many of my ideas from books,” he continued, adding that the inspiration for “Demons” came from Chinese literature.

“The original idea was to make a film about poetry. One part of it is based on a short story by Lu Xun called “A Madman’s Diary” about a man who is losing his mind. He reads lots of classical texts from Chinese literature that teach virtue and morality but in his confused mind sees that they all say that you should eat people. He starts to believe that cannibalism is part of his tradition and culture and goes out on to the street where he thinks he hears passersby people talking about eating people. The cannibalism in my film is inspired by this story,” he explained. 

The main character in “Demons” is Vicky (Vicky Yang), a new actress who is thrilled when she lands the leading role in Daniel (Glen Goei)’s latest play. But her role casts her into endless torture at the esteemed director’s hands. When she turns to supposed allies for support, Vicki finds that they encourage Daniel’s abuse as part of her artistic growth and his genius. 

“I started this project four years ago, and after that I kept writing and writing. The film has many different versions. The first version was an adaptation of Dostoyevsky, which is why it’s called ‘Demons’. Then it changed and changed until it became the way it is”, Hui says. 


Short animation "Kingdom" by Singaporean Tan Wei-Keong had its international premiere in the festival's Berlinale Shorts competition.

The film features several people from the Singaporean film scene, among them the producer Tan Bee Thiam and the director himself. For the main characters, Daniel chose to work with his friend Yang, even though she had little acting experience, and Goei, a well-known film and theatre director whose 1998 movie “Forever Fever” was the first Singaporean film to be distributed in the US by Miramax.

“Vicky is a close friend of mine,” Hui explains. “I’ve known her for 10 years. She played a small role in ‘Snakeskin’. We talked a lot about our pasts and our own experiences. She was hungry to perform something very personal.

“I needed somebody who already had a reputation as an artist. Glen is a very famous in Singapore and he’s very open to working with young filmmakers. He always finds it very challenging and stimulating for him. Without him, we couldn’t have made the film.

“We shot over 10 weeks but it was difficult. There were many accidents. Glen fell during the production and had to go to hospital. It was quite scary,” he continues, adding that because there was no script, much time was taken up trying new things,

“We had a general outline, which is not a script. We knew that we would show up at the location and that these people would be in the scene. I didn’t know what exactly they were going to say or react with each other, so the night before, I would write something and send it to them. Sometimes on the day, I’d just tell them. We rehearsed a lot and talked a lot and then shot the scenes. We would shoot for six hours a day, then go back and think about the next day’s scenes. I then spent 18 months editing the film.”

Daniel decided to ask Thai sound designer Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr to work on this project “I’m big fan of his works. Not only from Apichatpong [Weerasethakul]’s films but also from [Sompot Chidgasornpongse’s] ‘Railway Sleepers’. We worked together for five months. At one point, after he’d spent two months on the sound, I decided to reedit the film, so he had to rework the sound again, but he was extremely generous.”

Another part of the film deals with LGBT issues faced by the character Daniel and his boyfriend, who is played by Hui. 

“LGBT in Singapore is still criminalised. I am gay myself, but I didn’t want to show that because you’re LGBT, you’re also a victim. I wanted everybody to be unsafe in the film. This guy is gay but he also rapes women, says Hui, adding that the Singapore authorities will not like the LGBT aspect.” 

And despite the opposition to LGBT themes in his home country, Hui says he is still planning to release it in Singapore. 

“I’m not how easy it will be but we will try. I don’t expect it to be plain sailing but I also don’t expect to be banned by the censorship board.”


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