I first watched Innocents, director Wong Chen-Hsi’s debut feature, when it premiered in Singapore in September 2013. It had a small but successful run at the Arts House. I watched it for the second time last November when Objectifs held its “Watch Local” rooftop screenings, where the DVD was launched. When Wong Chen-Hsi came to our school last Friday (9 Jan) to present Innocents, where I watched it for the third time, I felt as if I was revisiting an old friend. Nevertheless new things could still be discovered. It is a film that grows with each viewing.
Innocents offers us privy access into the world of two children, Syafiqah and Huat. Neglected and misunderstood in their own ways, they find solace in the company of each other as they struggle against a cruel adult world. Played by newcomers Nameera Ashley and Cai Chengyue, they brought to their roles a peculiar quality of awareness and sensitivity.
“When you work with child actors,” Wong emphasized, “the most important thing really is that you have cast them for their instinct. You really want to preserve instinct. You want to keep them in as comfortable and real an environment as possible so that they are free to go with their instinct even when they are shooting.”
She continues: “There are some really interesting things that they do that they really just did on their own. It’s not just that they done it on their own. But you are creating the perfect environment for them to do it.”
Also the producer of her film, Wong had to work with a reduced budget. The film had originally secured the S$250,000 New Feature Film Fund, the old scheme whereby MDA invests money in films. But “it came with a lot of difficult restrictions,” Wong said.
“We had to prove return of investment […] We had to prove that we could somehow get all the money back and sell the film to a certain level. […] We had to jump through so many hoops. They wanted us to deliver this and this and this. It would have turned into a different film. It would have become a very commercial film. To me, it’s like no point making the film.”
Eventually, Wong decided to slash the budget and raise the money privately. The film was made for about S$150,000. The budgetary reduction forced Wong to rewrite the script to make it less expensive to shoot. Some characters were dropped; scenes that were logistically taxing or needed a lot of extras were cut; and some scenes had to be condensed to fit into fewer locations.
“At the end of the day,” she said, “the elements are reduced but the story is still there. When you make a film, it should really be: What can I make well, based on the budget that I have.”
Innocents made its world premiere in late 2012 at the International Rome Film Festival where it competed in the Alice in the City section. It went on to travel to Jeonju International Film Festival and the Shanghai International Film Festival where, at the Asian New Talent Awards, Wong won Best Director.
More than two years after its world premiere, the film has yet recoup its budget but Wong is optimistic. “The budget is small enough […] we actually have some hope of slowly—it will still take several years—recouping the costs of the film, if people continue to go for screenings and buy the DVD. I have a sales agent who tries to sell it into little territories here and there, not for big sums of money but in little pieces. But at least because it was scaled so small, we have some hope of it.”
Wong advised that “It’s best to have a sense of where you want to go. If you want [your film] to hit theatrical and have it commercial, then you do need to hit a certain level of production value. And if you think you want to make some small indie film, then keep the budget tight. […] You must know exactly what sort of film you are making.”
It should be noted, by way of ending, that Wong Chen-Hsi belongs to a generation of Singaporean film-makers, mostly in their thirties, whose works often seek to explore their subjective experiences of childhood and adolescence, and to question and interrogate the Singapore polity, and in the process, trace the connections between the personal and the political. This generation of film-makers, whom some have labelled the “Singapore New Wave”, also includes Anthony Chen, Boo Junfeng, Kirsten Tan, Looi Wan Ping, Liao Jiekai, and Daniel Hui.
Ho Say Peng is a Year One student at the Puttnam School of Film. He loves to watch films and aspires to be a feature film-maker.