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13 May 2008

mr nice guy : boo junfeng

Young film director Boo Junfeng talks about Tanjong Rhu, his newly completed short film based on an incident when 12 men in Singapore were arrested for gay cruising.

There's been a lot of media coverage of Boo Junfeng lately, and while a number of articles emphasise his talent, his youth, and (occasionally) his good looks, no one yet seems to have written about how nice he is.

Top of page: Boo Junfeng (centre) picked up the Best Director and Best Film Awards for Keluar Baris at the recent Singapore International Film Festival, with sound engineer Lim Ting Li. Above (top to bottom): Boo with Darryl Pan, lead actor of Keluar Baris; Director of Photography Sharon Loh who won Best Cinematography for Keluar Baris at the recent SIFF; and Nick Shen (bottom pic) who played the lead role in Tanjong Rhu.
You get a strong sense of this at his wrap party for Tanjong Rhu, held at Play late last month. "They say it's a director's film, but I need to have wrap parties so my cast and crew can feel what I feel at a screening," he tells his audience of friends, activists and sponsors. "It's a time when everyone who's worked on the film can come together to appreciate the work and appreciate everyone' else's contributions to the piece."

Tanjong Rhu is Boo's new 19-minute short, based on the notorious arrests of 12 gay men in a police entrapment exercise back in 1993. It takes us back to a time, not so long ago, when homosexuality wasn't accepted in any form in Singapore - and yet suggests that real relationships must have been formed even then. It's touching and evocative - Boo's technique of having the events of the present permeated by a background story comes into full force here. And of course, it's terribly relevant - too often, us gay people forget that we even have a history to deal with.

The film also boasts a remarkable cast: theatre and film star Yeo Yann Yann (who also acted in 881), former recording artist Scott Lei, and, as the protagonist, Nick Shen Weijun, an artiste with Mediacorp who's currently in the TV series En Bloc.

(Nick's straight, but he's led a life of crazy drama - running away from home to join a Teochew opera troupe, and going on to play a mad range of characters in Mandarin and English TV, including an autistic patient, a murderer, a gynaecologists, a mute and a monk. This is the first he's playing a gay man, though - and possibly the first time Mediacorp's allowing one of their actors to play such a role. He says the movie's a great learning experience, but complains of having to kiss two men for the part. Considering how cute his co-stars are, I have very little pity for him.)

I met with Boo on the Monday after his wrap party and asked him about the making of this film and his other recent successes. (It was his third interview of the day, but he was still as sweet as ever, and even insisted on paying even though I was an hour late.)

æ: Age, Sex, Location?

Junfeng: 24, male, Singapore.

æ: So, why don't you tell us about Tanjong Rhu?

Junfeng: The shoot was one of the most challenging I've ever done. As you can see, there are so many locations, because we rely a lot on flashbacks and a lot of it was shot the night scenes a lot of them were actually shot in the day - and as Scott said at the wrap party, anything that could go wrong did go wrong; it was like Murphy's Law almost entirely throughout the shoot. When it wasn't supposed to rain it rained when we were at the beach it poured, right after all the lights were set up we were shooting it against the order of nature!

But what was interesting was the crew which was almost entirely students from LaSalle who worked very very very hard and passionately for this film. They were very very motivated. And as the director, the leader, when you see a whole crew of them like that, it just drives you.

æ: Where did you first get the idea to do a piece based on the 1993 arrests?

Junfeng: The incident has always kind of intrigued me. If you ask me for the impetus, I guess it was when I was in secondary school. I remember my Moral Education teacher warning the boys in my class about carrying water bottles at East Coast Park because there were "perverts" hiding in the bushes. And I think that came shortly after the publicity from the Tanjong Rhu incident. So I always kind of knew something like that had happened.

æ: Was your film based on an actual interview with one of the arrested men?

Junfeng: Actually, of the 12 men that were arrested, I had remote access to one of them, but it was a big ethical concern whether or not I wanted to approach this person, to ask him to please revisit those terrible memories. I couldn't bring myself to do that. So I thought it'd prefer to create a fictitious character and base the story only on the facts that were reported in the papers.

æ: By the way, weren't you originally planning a feature film on this subject, based on Alfian Sa'at's short play The Widow of Fort Road (from Asian Boys Volume II)?

Junfeng: When I heard about the feature films script development grant under the film commission grant, I thought Widow of Fort Road was perfect, with the kind of human emotions involved and kind of stories that led to and were a result of the incident. So I applied for a grant last year, but that didn't get approved.

æ: I wonder why

Junfeng: I wonder as well! (laughs) But I wasn't very proud of my script; I was just trying to meet the deadline. So I don't know if it was because of the subject matter. After considering it for some time, I felt maybe making a first feature film with queer content might not be a very good idea for me. So I just kind of shelved the script for some time, and then when I got into the Puttnam School of Film at LaSalle, I thought it was opportune to make this film.

This is also the first time my application for the short film grant was rejected by the Singapore Film Commission. No reason was given - I've actually had very healthy working relations with SFC - and because the news came too close to the production date I didn't submit an appeal. I managed to get adequate funding thanks in part to Fridae.com.

æ: Your other recent short film, Keluar Baris, just won Best Director, Best Film and Best DOP (Director of Photography) at the Short Film Awards. Anything you want to say about that night?

Junfeng: I think what was especially meaningful is the awards this time round was that Sharon Loh [the Director of Photography] and I won awards for our particular roles together. Because in 2005, when my film Family Portrait got the Best Film and Special Achievement awards, she was there with me and we were celebrating for the film. Following that, she shot Changi Murals, Katong Fugue, my Lucky 7 segment and Keluar Baris - and as you know, working for short films, you're doing it for free. It's quite a lot of work to do for something that is not paying, but she believed in what she was doing very much.

For Keluar Baris, I told her: "After this I'm going into film school. This is possibly my last short film for some time, so could you work with me this one last time?" And it took some convincing but she decided she wants to do this. And the first award of the night went to her.

And I think that was the only time that night I was close to tears. When she was on stage and just said - after she calmed her nerves - she basically just said, "It's really difficult to be a female and a cinematographer in Singapore."

Recently she shot Brian Gothong Tan's Invisible Children, so I believe she is the first female DOP to be doing a full-length feature in Singapore. And this is at a time when she was about to give up and just do wedding videos - not that there's anything wrong with that, but I just felt that her talent really could bring her places, and these two events probably gave her a lot more confidence.

The director always becomes the poster boy or poster girl for the work, but cinema is so collaborative - I see my job as a director as making sure that what I've envisioned is realised. This whole group of artists are also my collaborators - without any of them doing what they do, something is bound to fail. And I would say the other person who's helped me is Lim Ting Li, the sound engineer for almost all of my films.

You know all these people, they work for the passion, and they do it willingly, and they know that when recognition for the work comes, the spotlight will never be on them. And that is very admirable.

æ: What's next?

Junfeng: I need to I need to make a decent living! I mean, I've been surviving, but I think I need to do what every filial son does and just make money You know settle the bread and butter things first.

But before that I'm going on a sabbatical for a month. Then I'm joining Zhao Wei films, for probably my first feature film and some TV commercial jobs. I'm also in talks with Rain Tree pictures also for possible collaborations.

You know, some of my crew have been asking me: "Can you do a commercial soon and hire us? Help us make some money." So it's not just about me - it's the people who've had faith in me. Hopefully I'll be benefiting them as well. I think I'm quite a communal-spirit kind of person.

Fridae is a sponsor of Tanjong Rhu. Due to the controversial subject of Tanjong Rhu, no public screenings have been planned so far, though the work's being sent for overseas festivals. To find out more about Boo Junfeng, go to his website at http://www.witheringtravis.com or click on the related article links below.


Reader's Comments

1. 2008-05-13 17:08  
Try selling it to Channel 4 or BBC4 in the UK, I think they would like it, depending on quality.

Looking forward to seeing it when there is a screening!
Comment #2 was deleted by its author
3. 2008-05-13 19:00  

It's a great film which I was fortunate to watch. A story, though fictitious, that needs to be told. How many lives were ruined during that period is hard to ascertain. But we must never forget that our history here in Singapore is made up of all these events that a lot of us prefer to forget.

The future is always built on the blood and sacrifices of those who came before.

Click the link below for a fuller picture of the events that the film was based on: http://www.yawningbread.org/arch_2005/yax-420.htm
4. 2008-05-13 20:52  
I saw three intriguing words in there - a 'Moral Education teacher'. A... what?!
5. 2008-05-13 20:58  
Oops, hit 'Post' too soon! As I was about to say, I find that concept of a Moral Education Teacher to be a fascinating concept. Does such a thing still exist in Singapore? I've never heard of that! It just sounds very, well, Wrong in that context, as morality is something passed on through family life etc, rather than being a suitable subject at school. Schools generally follow the government's stance; therefore, it is state-defined morality, to potentially suit a political stance, rather than community or social morality, which is best taught and developed in the family and situational context. After all, it does not seem very moral to me that forced conscription still exists in Singapore, and that girls/women are not equally forced into that - but perhaps a Moral Teacher would not/can not pursue that train of thought. Also, in the context of police entrapment in the gay world, as this film points out, that is also not very moral, I think...
6. 2008-05-14 01:14  
congrats to Boo and Fridae for funding the film. When i first came across Family Portrait, i was surprised to meet Boo. the film's maturity of pacing, depth and simplicity belied the youth of Boo. He is headed when I drew the trajectory, more of such heroes needed...
Comment #7 was deleted by its author
Comment #8 was deleted by its author
9. 2008-05-14 04:11  
I saw keluar baris at sinema on monday and loved it! Oh darryl pan is super hot! The film is still showing with the other film fest finalists for the rest of may..

May 12, 2008 - 7:30 pm
May 18, 2008 - 9:00 pm
May 19, 2008 - 7:30 pm
May 25, 2008 - 5:00 pm
May 26, 2008 - 7:30 pm
May 31, 2008 - 7:00 pm

Can check out: http://www.sinema.sg/oldschool/calendar/spore-shorts-finalists/
the trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r27-1D0d29k
10. 2008-05-14 11:46  
any chance the film can be streamed on the net?
11. 2008-05-14 13:02  
he's cute! lol
12. 2008-05-14 16:26  
Needs a wider audeicne, will it be on the LGB Film festival trail? Oh btw he is v cute... come to Edinburgh Sweetie we have a big film festival in June
Comment #13 was deleted by its author
14. 2008-05-14 20:47  
Beautiful quote :)

"You know all these people, they work for the passion, and they do it willingly, and they know that when recognition for the work comes, the spotlight will never be on them. And that is very admirable. "

Not-so-beautiful quote:

"I remember my Moral Education teacher warning the boys in my class about carrying water bottles at East Coast Park because there were "perverts" hiding in the bushes"

Reminds one of 80s-90s Singapore- where two men/holding hands in public will elict that
rat-like "eeeeeeee" squeal fr the ignorant schoolgirls & aunties. =p
15. 2008-05-15 07:59  
"So I thought it'd prefer to create a fictitious character and base the story only on the facts that were reported in the papers."

Nice to know that Boo has been interested in reading these news when he was 9 yrs old!

16. 2008-05-19 13:13  
17. 2008-05-28 08:56  
no public screenings have been planned so far?
a pity...
18. 2008-05-30 19:55  
can we buy a copy of it in dvd form somehow?
it sounds a very admirable project.
could be earning some pink dollars for Sg!
well done Boo baby
f xxx
19. 2009-03-03 13:24  
He's so damn CUTE leh :-)!

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