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The Singaporean Filmmaker Who Is Changing the Local Film Industry

By Terence Poh

Boo Junfeng, one of Singapore’s most prominent filmmakers, believes he’s just getting started — in both his personal craft and cultivating domestic appreciation for the nation’s film industry.
 
Rosalynn Tay
Boo Junfeng, one of Singapore’s most prominent filmmakers, believes he’s just getting started — in both his personal craft and cultivating domestic appreciation for the nation’s film industry.

Although Boo Junfeng is presently one of Singapore’s most successful and recognised filmmakers, he never thought of himself as a professional in the industry until the making of his first feature film, “Sandcastle,” in 2010. “I remember when I was making short films, I would still introduce myself as an aspiring filmmaker,” he says. “Even though, on hindsight, I was already doing it professionally.”

In 2015, Boo attended the Asian Film Academy in Busan, South Korea, and the experience has remained the most transformative of his career. “The Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao Hsien was the dean of the programme and he opened my eyes to a different school of thought on filmmaking,” he says. Hou’s remarkable style of lengthy one-takes, with minimal camera movement yet intricate actor and spatial choreography, has been frequently replicated by admirers — including Boo.

It takes time to achieve such a complex, fleshed-out approach to storytelling. “It always starts with characters I’m interested in, and because the development process of a film takes years, they need to be characters that I want to be stuck with for a long time,” says Boo. “The first step is in finding my own point of entry in understanding who these characters are.” He draws inspiration mainly from human relationships in his everyday life. “I’ve always loved observing people and seeing how they react to things or to one another,” he says. “I think, over time, I’ve become quite perceptive about human dynamics and people’s feelings. That helps me a lot both in writing and directing.”

Rosalynn TayJunfeng, photographed at The Projector.
Junfeng, photographed at The Projector.

Today, Boo regards anyone who has made short films as filmmakers. However, for one reason or another, filmmaking hasn’t been wholly embraced by the art scene in Singapore. “Film is a bit of a lost child,” says Boo, “and often left out of discussions surrounding art and cultural policies in Singapore.” When considering the sustainability of Singaporean films, commercial viability not only accounts for its success — but also ensures longevity of the art form itself and helps retain the commitment of filmmakers to their craft. “The Infocomm Media Development Authority used to only see the commercial aspects of filmmaking,” he says. “It has taken filmmakers in Singapore a long time to nudge the government into recognising filmmaking as an art form.” The lack of governmental support has largely stunted the growth of Singapore’s film industry as funding remains a concern for Singaporean filmmakers who often find themselves unable to sustain their craft, in addition to having to confront unfavourable cultural attitudes.

According to Boo, who serves on the board of the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF), there can be a lot more space for diverse films to be appreciated. “There are efforts by organisations like the SGIFF and Asian Film Archive, but the odds are often stacked against them primarily because of preconceived notions about film,” he says. This diversity and recognition for films in the nation can be addressed by promoting greater film literacy in the wider public. “SGIFF’s long-term goal is to grow the audience for a diverse range of films,” he says, “to allow people the chance to be informed, transformed and inspired by cinema.”

Courtesy of Boo JunfengA sketch from the making of Boo's first short film, "A Family Portrait" (2004), which he shot on a student exchange in Barcelona, Spain, when he was 19.
A sketch from the making of Boo's first short film, "A Family Portrait" (2004), which he shot on a student exchange in Barcelona, Spain, when he was 19.

The 36-year-old filmmaker points to creating a script good enough, while being unclear about what that standard was, as his biggest challenge during the early years of his career. “It’s hard because a lot of it had to come from life experience and because I started young, I always felt rather inadequate,” he says. “I often doubted myself — if the characters’ emotional responses were authentic, or if my understanding of the world was too juvenile or naïve.” To overcome these insecurities, he has had to learn to trust that his perspective on things, even if it came across wide-eyed and innocent, was valid.

The difficulties he struggled with have evolved over the years. Now, as one of the industry’s power players, Boo wrestles with devising effective plans to attract audiences to come and watch Singaporean films. And the obstacles hit closer to home than most might expect. “In Singapore, we have a great crop of films that have been doing very well overseas,” he says. “But the response from the local audience is still rather lukewarm.”

Courtesy of James PageThe design of the hangman's lever, sketched by the production designer, James Page, for Boo's film "Apprentice" (2006). The film earned him the Singaporean entry for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars.
The design of the hangman's lever, sketched by the production designer, James Page, for Boo's film "Apprentice" (2006). The film earned him the Singaporean entry for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars.

Besides influencing policies to support and change local narratives on filmmaking, Boo is currently writing his next feature film, which will likely commence shooting next year. And he’s only just starting out. “I see the exploration of cinema as a lifelong journey, and my first two feature films, as well as the short films I had done prior to that, are parts of this journey,” he says. “The experiences of making ‘Sandcastle’ and ‘Apprentice’ have taught me a lot, not just about filmmaking but about life as well.”

With “Sandcastle” in 2010, he became the first Singaporean filmmaker to screen at the International Critics Week of Cannes Film Festival; “Apprentice” brought him to Cannes a second time in 2016, and earned him the Singaporean entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 89th Oscars (he still keeps the hangman’s lever from the film as a souvenir from the whole process). “As I write the scripts and realise them into films, I guess I live vicariously through the characters in them,” he says. “And when I get to present the films at film festivals and interact with audiences who respond to them, that’s when the films really come to life.”

In 2018, the celebrated Singaporean filmmaker Boo Junfeng met T for a conversation on the relevance of celluloid filming’s craftsmanship in the current digital landscape.