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Singapore’s Female Directors Tell Their Unique Stories

Emerging helmers combine different origins and backgrounds to convey their visions

What do an itinerant elephant in Thailand, a time capsule, a teenage girl on a mystic journey in Japan and a civil servant facing eviction have in common? They are the latest creative products of Singapore’s most promising female directors.

The works of Kirsten Tan (“Pop Aye”), Tan Pin Pin (“In Time to Come”), Nicole Midori Woodford (“You Are There”) and Wong Chen-Hsi (“City of Small Blessings”) reflect a fascination with temporality, loneliness, and quest for national identity and personal roots.

“Pop Aye” follows a Bangkok architect taking his elephant back to their native province. The project participated at Atelier Cinefondation and won the script prize at Sundance’s World Dramatic Competition. Dubai-based Cercamon handles world sales and clinched deals in 14 territories including the U.S.

The film was shot all over Thailand using local cast and crew led by veteran producer Soros Sukhum. Before making films, Tan spent two years selling T-shirts at Bangkok’s Chatuchak weekend market, and backpacked from south to north. Her experience formed the backbone of her story, which deals with the transience of success, love, ownership.

The protagonists of “Pop Aye” are all drifters, some by choice. Homelessness is a motif in Tan’s earlier shorts that portray outsiders such as a young Rohyinga refugee or a man stranded on an island.

“I left Singapore in my early 20s and over the years have lived in Jeonju, Bangkok, Chiang Mai and now New York,” says Tan. She’s studying film at NYU. “I was never sure where and when and how I fit in, so I’ve always felt for cultural misfits and outsiders who don’t sit comfortably within one particular system.” This is a source for her creativity: “For now, my personal anchor is cinema. It’ll always be there for me across space and time.”

Woodford is another filmmaker with the audacity to shoot her first film abroad. “You Are There” tracks the coming-of-age of 14-year-old Ami, who communicates with the dead. Her psychic visions of disaster take her from Singapore to Rikuzentakata near Fukushima to find and warn her estranged Japanese mother.

Descended from a Hiroshima survivor who married an Englishman, Woodford channels her own pluralistic identity to evoke the mysteries of genesis, mortality, love and loss through parallel threads of lives.

The co-founder of boutique production studio GreyXGray, Woodford was invited to join Eric Khoo’s Zhao Wei Films in 2014. Her project is in script development at Seafic Lab in Thailand. The producer is Jeremy Chua, who co-wrote and co-produced K. Rajagopal’s “A Yellow Bird” and co-produced Lav Diaz’s “Lullaby of a Sorrowful Mystery.”

Homelessness and solitude again color another female filmmaker’s work. Wong took the director prize at the Asian New Talents competition at Shanghai Film Festival for her 2012 debut feature “Innocents.” Her latest project, “City of Small Blessings,” based on her producer Fran Borgia’s favorite novel of the same title by Simon Tay, continues the theme of displacement in “Innocents.” Whereas that film depicted two children who feel estranged from the cynical world of adults, Wong’s new protagonist is a retired civil servant battling government eviction. Wong and Borgia are attending Cannes together for the Atelier Cinefondation.

Tan Pin Pin is known internationally for her unique visual poetry and piercing insight into her compatriots’ bright and dark sides. “I am interested in work that expresses feelings, people and ideas that has not been expressed for various reasons, or can’t be expressed because the protagonists don’t have a voice or aren’t allowed to speak,” she says.

“In Time to Come,” her newly minted fourth documentary weaves images and soundscapes of Singaporean life around the ceremonial exhuming of an old state time capsule and the compilation of a new one in 2015. Comparisons could be made with Tan’s debut feature “Singapore Gaga,” which records the sounds of the city. Making more daring moves in cinematography and editing, the film is an equally intriguing take on Singapore’s evolving environmental and cultural mosaic that also serves as an abstract meditation on the passage of time. The documentary was showcased at the Vision du Reel and Hot Docs film festivals, among others.

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