Cannes Facetime: Filmmaker Boo Junfeng and the Singapore New Wave

Claims of Singapore having a filmmaking New Wave put Boo Junfeng — in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard with “Apprentice” — in the front row, alongside Anthony Chen (“Ilo, Ilo” was in 2013 Directors’ Fortnight) and K. Rajagopal, whose “A Yellow Bird” screens this year in Critics’ Week. All are youngish, have soaked up international influences, and honed their craft with years of making shorts.

The French press have labelled “Apprentice” as ultra-violent. Is it?
Far from it. My film is very humanist. It would be easy to make a story only about the death penalty, but it is much bigger than that. Making this film, I learned so much about the value of human life. I hope that comes through.

After the Cannes acclaim for your first feature, “Sandcastle,” in 2009, why did you take seven years to make a second feature?
I needed to think about what I wanted to do next. Actually I did plunge in, but it then took a while to come to fruition. I started “Apprentice” in 2011 and it was five years in the making.

“Apprentice” was workshopped at project markets and ended up as a five-nation co-production. Where did the journey take you?
When I first started writing, I had a certain idea of how one of the characters might be. But I needed more and went out to look for some former executioners. The first one I spoke with shook up my ideas. He was likeable, charismatic, grandfatherly, jocular and open about what he did. He forced me to rethink how I would approach the character and the subject.

Your films span dementia, judicial killings, homosexuality, identity and family – are you trying to be political, or are these the subjects that get under your skin?
All are subjects that I care about. Some are socially, curiosity driven. Some are quite universal. For me it is important to meld the two, because I don’t want to stand out as making political films. Precisely because some of these are difficult it takes a lot more effort to make them accessible and palatable. For me, the most important thing is inspiring empathy.

You seem a well-rounded filmmaker, yet your personal website signs off as “director.” Why?
That website is a window for my commercials work and is a reel that puts together my prettier images, for jobs, honestly. … I usually consider myself as a filmmaker. I love writing and directing, and creating for cinema. I stared out in production design. Telling a story well is something I’ve always sought to do. But the reality of filmmaking, especially in Singapore, is that we need to do other jobs on the side to pay for our bread and butter. And directing commercials is one of the ways that I do that.

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