A Firm Gaze: The View from Boo Junfeng

Boo Junfeng is a filmmaker whose films have been nominated at the Cannes Film Festival multiple times. His debut film Sandcastles was the first Singapore film to be invited to the International Critics’ Week at the Cannes Film Festival. He is a recipient of the Young Artist Award and the Singapore Youth Award. Hanniel Lim interviews the filmmaker for Tembusu’s Inaugural Dinner for Academic Year 2019/2020.

Firstly, on yourself. How would you introduce yourself to the average youth today?

I’m a filmmaker. [both laugh] That’s my primary role and still what I’m in love with doing.

What common misperceptions do you have to clarify when you introduce yourself as a filmmaker?

Usually they’ll be like “Filmmaker ah? Do what wan? Mediacorp ah? Jack Neo ah?” [both laugh] Those are what taxi drivers usually ask me. I would have to explain that we do other kinds of films. Unfortunately, most people are unacquainted with Singapore films, other than Jack Neo’s, so that’s what we have been working on.

Given these misperceptions, do you believe there is a genuine divide between mainstream and the more artistic films?

I’ve never liked to look at it that way simply because what may seem very artistic to you may be extremely mainstream to someone else. It is very subjective, but I also think that there is a cinema for everyone. I think what is more important is for the general public to be exposed to different kinds of films so that there isn’t just one set of ideas about what cinema is.

Do you think Singaporeans go to the theatres enough?

No. Unfortunately, the numbers have been dropping, maybe because there is Netflix and Amazon. Not just because of streaming, actually; you can be entertained just by watching YouTube. I think people feel less of an impetus to come out. But I’m optimistic. I think at some point, people are going to prefer the human connection of watching films and taking chances with films, rather than relying entirely on the algorithm to tell them what to want.

Speaking of taking chances, how do you attract viewers to take a chance with your films especially with the competition from Netflix? Do you even feel pressured to compromise to attract viewers?

I don’t see Netflix necessarily as competition for me, especially because I am a filmmaker. It is a competition for cinemas, theatres, and established distributors. But for me, Netflix, HBO Asia—all these platforms actually offer more opportunities to make films and tell stories.

But to attract people in general to be interested in my films or the films of my peers, I think it takes a lot of tender loving care. First of all, you need to make a good film, then it is at least something that is able to speak to an audience; you know what kind of audience might be interested in the film, and you try to reach out to them and nurture their interest.

Also, I’m on the board of the Singapore International Film Festival. A large part of our role is to grow an audience for different kinds of films, especially in a festival setting where you get to meet filmmakers and attend masterclasses, so you have a deeper appreciation for the film you are watching.

There are many arts festivals today such as the Singapore Writers Festival and the Singapore International Festival of Arts. They seem to be growing an audience, but do you think they truly reach out to the public or preach to the choir?

I think it depends on which festival. Each festival has their own audience. I think works that are in an arts or film festival setting tend to be more challenging. Naturally, you will want to reach an audience that has some understanding of what the form or medium is about. Therefore, you may consider that in a way, you are preaching to an already learned audience.

But I don’t think that necessarily means that we are preaching to the choir, because I think within particular segments, there will be new audiences that haven’t been acquainted with the works of particular artists, filmmakers, or writers. I think that is part of the function of such festivals.

But I also think that there is a function of some festivals to come up with programs to grow attendance, reach out, and educate the wider public. So I think each festival has a different way of assessing how successful they are, depending on what they set out to do.

In Singapore, festivals are usually funded by the government through the National Arts Council. Singapore has a history of censorship, even in festivals. What do you think of the role of the government in the arts in Singapore, especially for filmmaking?

What I know is that censorship exists in Singapore even though the IMDA doesn’t like to consider it censorship. It still is censorship when they require film distributors to second-guess what ratings the films will get and therefore edit them even before they are submitted to the censors.

I think it needs to be an ongoing conversation about why it is important to see a work as intended by the filmmaker or the artist. First of all, you would imagine that someone who buys the ticket to come to an arts or film festival would already know more or less what he or she is paying for. Therefore, it is an audience that is naturally primed for these contents. So why do we need to edit them, especially for some which are already rated R21 and the audience are all adults? We should be able to make up our minds about what we want to see. But it is an ongoing conversation.

At the Singapore International Film Festival, we have a rule that any filmmaker would appreciate. Basically, any film screened at the festival will be screened uncut. If the censors require any edit at all—even if it is beeping out a word—the film will be withdrawn from the festival and all tickets will be refunded. It is a stance the festival has taken since its inception. For thirty years now it has held on to the principle that none of the films shown will be edited, because it should be seen as intended by the filmmaker. It is a very noble principle to stand by.

Just one last question to close off. We are seeing more Singaporean names in the film scene. Singaporean directors are rising and winning awards even in international festivals. What advice would you give to a young person who wants to be a filmmaker?

Just be prepared to give a lot. [laughter] It is a lot of work. Everything you have probably heard about filmmaking and how difficult it is is true. But I say, once you care enough for it—now that there have been several filmmakers who have paved the way, showing that it is possible to live your dreams in filmmaking—you should just go for it.

This article is part of a series of interviews of Singapore’s cultural icons who were guests for Tembusu’s Inaugural Dinner for Academic Year 2019/2020. See the other interviews here.

Header and feature images by Malcolm Fu.

About the interviewer

Hanniel Lim is a Year 2 NUS Student. Somehow, he still hasn’t declared his major.