Thursday, January 28, 2016

Where Art Meets Life: Interview with LEE

LEE is a film noir aficionado Director whose passion for black-and-white films as a child slowly morphed over the years into a fine appreciation of cinematography. Lee especially loves Kurosawa, Wong Kar-Wai, Frank Capra and Orson Welles films. Having grown up on a diet of TCM-aired English classics, and Mandarin, Japanese, Malay, Hindi and Tamil black-and-white films from the 40-60s as well as 90s Hong Kong movies and contemporary arthouse foreign films, Lee has a very unique perspective on things and themes. Being a nomadic wanderluster, Lee first started making documentary-style private videos of her roadtrips while working in the US at age 21— and finally completed Ji Fan 4 years after it was first written in 2011, amidst a very busy life as a corporate professional. Ji Fan was Lee’s first publicly-released short film after Lee’s US-only My Singapore, My Ferguson, soon to be followed by Xiao Ning (Heart of Darkness). Lee also directs and produces Youtube music videos.

Interview with LEE of Chillifish Productions

Tell us a little about yourself, LEE. What made you decide to become a Film Director?

LEE: I had always been interested in film from a very young age. I wanted to be a lot of things, like an Air Force pilot, a radio broadcaster, an army general…but I never saw myself becoming a director. After living a soul-less life in the corporate world and the penniless life of academia, I decided I would make films during my sabbaticals. And another. And another.

What films influenced your decision to Direct?

LEE: Actually, it was the absence of films on the contrary. I felt that there were no films out there that represented my perspectives and my eye, so to speak, so I wanted to put a film out to the world that represented my perspectives as an observer and director and social commentator at the same time— and I got addicted to making films.

I would have to say also, that my favourite films like the Manchurian Candidate, In the Mood For Love, 12 Angry Men, Z, The Trial, Yojimbo, The Idiot, Rashomon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Mr Smith Goes to Washington definitely inspired me in my directorial pursuits.

Who is your idol Film Director?

LEE: Without a doubt, Wong Kar-Wai. I’m very proudly Asian, so I think In The Mood For Love, for instance, has got to be one of the best films— Asian or otherwise— of all time. In it, you can see his mastery in every single detail and every single shot. It’s just haunting, and seductive and heart-breaking on so many levels.

What are the major challenges you find being a Film Director in this industry?

LEE: Money and exposure. Working on a tight budget is always painful, not just for me but for the people who work for me too of course. And I’m actually a director and producer who believes in paying good and fair value for good work done, alas I’m often not able to due to budgeting constraints. A lot comes out of my own pocket, honestly.

My films are not mainstream enough to get government funding (I don’t want to, anyway), and the local media is also not interested in featuring such highbrow and social commentary type of films. They just want fat or bald Malay actors in lampoonish costumes delivering benign slapstick humour on screen— anything slightly more cerebral than that is a no-fly zone. So I actually get a lot of interest from international media from other countries but not from Singapore itself! Ironic, isn’t it? So yes, more of money and exposure in the local media would be really helpful.

You've released five films so far, with a new film on the way called Xiao Ning. What film are you most proud of and why?

LEE: I think it would have to be Xiao Ning. Xiao Ning has all the elements of an arthouse film gone mental, in a sense. So it’s arthouse not because it’s shot in a certain cinematic arthouse style or that it has profound existential or metaphysical conundrums, but because the whole film itself feels psychotic that you kind of don’t know what it’s about other than an intensity of feelings and a crazy evil girl— until it hits you right at the end. Kinda like Orson Welles’1962 film The Trial, based on Kafka’s work.

Tell us about your newest project Xiao Ning? What is it about and what do you most love about this film project?

LEE: Xiao Ning is a film that would screw with your mind. And that’s probably because it’s from the perspective of a girl who screws with people’s minds.

The film is based on a true story— about a mentally disturbed and morally bankrupt Singaporean Chinese teenage girl from a broken family, who falls for and becomes obsessed with her savior-mentor. Xiao Ning is the sort of black-hearted person who goes out of her way to step on snails and dark things like that. She’s an alcoholic, delusional and has no qualms about doing things that ruin other people’s lives and she typically gets away with a lot of things because people are deceived by her cherubic face and quiet demeanour. Basically, in my character treatment for it, I have her description as a “psycho with the face of an angel”.

When the older lady (who is completely straight) spurns her advances and goes out with a man, Xiao Ning loses it and gets on a destructive path of vengeance.

What I loved most about the film is the fact that we did not have a script! I basically scribbled the entire script on scraps of notebook paper and gave my cast and crew pictures of the pages! I had it all in my head vividly for about 2 years, and dialogue was minimal except for a couple of scenes so that worked. That was good fun, and being on set with my crew who are from a prestigious film school was a nice treat because they understood things I was talking about and were quick to get the feel of what I wanted. It was of course challenging without us having a proper, typed out script for me to convey my shots and meaning, but on many levels they rose to the occasion.

When does Xiao Ning get released and will it be released in the US?

LEE: The short version of Xiao Ning will be released online in the last week of January 2016, but because it will be submitted to international film festivals and they almost always stipulate that the films being entered are not to have been shown publicly prior to the festival, the full version will probably only be publicly available in 2017. Of course we hope that it gets picked up for distribution in the US, but failing which, we probably will try and do the small film festivals circuit internationally— especially in the US where I call home.

Just like Quentin Tarantino repeatedly works with Samuel L Jackson, Kurt Russell, and other actors, lots of Directors continue to work the same actors throughout their careers on several film projects. What actors do you love working with?

LEE: It’s true. I hate going through the whole casting and auditions process, so I try to get people I already know to act in my films. People I can trust, and feel comfortable around. People who know that I am exacting and try to match up to my standards, instead of dismissing things as being ‘too hard to do’ or just making do with half-assed efforts.

Two actors I loved working with despite the fact that they aren’t even established actors are Jon Sim (“Wei Kiat”) from Ji Fan, and Syazwana Kamarshah (“Professor Lisa Rahman”) from Xiao Ning. My characters are not melodramatic, so I prefer the kind of very natural acting that doesn’t involve theatrics— and these two are great at it. Additionally, they take their roles seriously and make sure they understand the back story to their scenes. They give helpful and constructive comments and suggestions on set and when we’re going through the script, so you know they are looking at it from the big picture perspective. I think they can really go far as actors, and I hope they get other opportunities for bigger roles in time to come.

Actually, I really hate working with actors who are divas and think they’re above it all. Or actors who cannot follow instructions (either willfully or due to some cognitive impairment). Some actors do have the skills or the ‘look’ but they have a rotten attitude or frustrate you to no end. It’s really infuriating, in trying to both keep your cool and not compromise artistic integrity when dealing with a diva. I’m someone who has a very low threshold of tolerance for nonsense, so on set it’s really a challenge for me to work with such divas.

What else is on the horizon for LEE and what can expect from you in the coming months?

LEE: I am actually working on writing a script for a feature film that I hope will be my first commercial film. Without giving too much away, it will involve a female banker (I think you can see the pattern of what my lead characters are like) who gets framed for a violent crime she didn’t commit and losing everything she had in life when she serves time— when she is released, she trains up and goes on to become a boxing champion. It’s kinda a little like Raging Bull maybe, except that I don’t actually have $18 million to make it!

Lee from ChilliFish Productions.

Director of:
- Xiao Ning
- Ji Fan
- My Singapore, My Ferguson
- Ah Gong
- Crashing Through Barriers

More LEE of Chillifish Productions:
Website -
Crowdgift link for Ji Fan -
Free version of Xiao Ning link -

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