Junfeng is one of those people that you see on TV or read about a lot on newspapers but that you never get to meet. We had crossed paths a couple of times, since we share some common friends, but I'd never had the chance to get to know him. I have, though, been watching his films and noticing his work since the start of his career, from his short films Katong Fugue to Keluar Baris to his first feature film, Sandcastle. And of course, his second and latest feature film, Apprentice, which was recently announced to be representing Singapore's bid at the Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category.
His work always struck me as being quiet, calm, layered. And these were the same qualities I noticed about Junfeng when we finally met. He actually feels like the physical manifestation of his films, which is interesting. These qualities made me feel instantly at ease with him.
We had met a day after I'd arrived in Tokyo. He was living here for awhile. The sun was out - deceptively so, since the weather would prove to be terribly gloomy the next few days - and we were sitting at a cafe in Daikanyama, his dog Peanut waiting restlessly by his side.
It was a perfect day to be in Tokyo.
It's interesting that we are meeting here in Tokyo! How long are you staying here for?
I'm only here until end of October. I've been here since the start of August. My partner works here - He's Singaporean - so I come and visit as much as I can, but I don't live here because my commercial work - my bread and butter - is mostly in Singapore.
You don't seem to talk about your commercial work much.
I don't usually post about them [on social media] but sometimes, because the kind of commercials that I do tend to be more narrative driven, the clients like to identify the director, so that's when I am identified. But most of the time I'd rather be anonymous, because it's not technically my work. I'm just commissioned to do it.
I still see myself first and foremost as a filmmaker. If I want to be known for anything, it would be for my own films and not for what I'm commissioned to make.
But do you enjoy doing commercial work?
Yes, I think they allow me to try different things. They tend to be stories or messages that I wouldn't usually explore myself. And sometimes stylistically they also allow me to try something more conventional. It also always helps if the ad agencies have come to me because they appreciate my work. So they understand what I do and that makes working together easier.
So let's talk about Tokyo, since we are here. What do you enjoy about living here?
I can't say I'm living here - I think I'm just a long-term visitor, but I like that the weather changes and shifts. It makes the year feel a little shorter, and it's more comfortable, but of course it's been a very long summer, and only now is it starting to be a little cooler. I'm going back to Singapore soon, but I'll be here again in December.
That's nice. What's life like here?
Usually what I do here is, I come here and I do my writing. So what I like about being here, apart from the typical stuff that most people like about Japan, is that when I'm here I disconnect from Singapore and all the distractions there - people calling me out, people giving me things to do.
Are you bad at saying no?
Yes, quite! So when I'm away I can concentrate on work, on writing my own films. Sometimes when I get jobs, I can also work from here. In fact, one TVC that I did in May was mostly done via video-conference and I only went back for pre-production and the shoot. So it works quite well for me. I also need to be in Singapore for post-production, for editing, but towards the tail-end I don't need to be there.
Are you constantly writing for your next film?
I'm constantly... thinking. I have a few stories in mind, but I'm deciding what's the next immediate one. Being away, having the time and space to think is also important. I hardly socialise here. If I go out it's just to meet some closer friends that I have made here, but my social circle here is really, really small. Whereas in Singapore my social circle is very big, so I have a lot of distractions.
Many people must be curious. What's one day in your life like?
I typically wake up around 6.30am, because the sun rises very early here. I walk the dog, then I go out for breakfast, usually at a cafe or at T-site, sometimes at Ebisu, and I will sit there until lunch time, doing my work, clearing my emails. Around lunch I will go back home and usually I'll get a salad from the supermarket. In the afternoon, if there's a film I want to watch, or if I want to go to the museum, read a book, I will do that. But this is my life here. When I'm in Singapore I'm a lot busier, things are a lot more hectic. So I won't have that time and space to think, whereas here I have a schedule that allows me to do that.
How did you achieve this kind of wonderful balance before coming to Tokyo?
My partner used to be based in Sydney, before that New York, so it's been like this for 9 years already.
Let's talk a little about your creative process.
I think I tend to control a lot. I write my own films. I work with my producer while writing it but I write most of it. So when it comes to writing, production design, cinematography, sound, most of it I tend to be quite involved with the decision-making. But nowadays I'm trying as much as I can to let go and allow my collaborators to surprise me. Because sometimes when you hold on to it too much it ends up becoming just you, and not collaborative enough. But it's a process.
So you're learning to let go?
I think with Apprentice I have learnt to let go quite a bit. I tend to be quite obsessive about what and how things are done, so the films have been very "me". But I realised there is something very limiting about that, because if a film is just that, I get tired of it. When I watch it, I'd wish that there were something else that adds to it. That's why with Apprentice, a lot of it was in finding collaborators who can add sparks and allow the film to be bigger than what I'm able to do singularly.
Can you give me an example?
Like music. The first composer I worked with is a French composer. His name is Alexander Zekke. He's a cellist and he's worked with Pina Bausch. So a lot of it was in asking him to interpret the moments in the film. He then gave me the themes that were necessary for the film. The second composer, Matthew James Kelly, he provided sounds that were a cross between music and sound design. If you've seen Apprentice there are moments in the film where there are these very low frequency type of sounds and sounds that pull you in - those were done by him. So it's two very different purposes and two different types of music.
What do you love so much about film as an art form?
I like that I'm able to affect people. A film takes people on a journey. The audience comes and is willing to suspend their disbelief to sit with you or a story that you want to tell. That is a privilege. That's what I have always tried to work towards, to be able to engage people in a story that I care about enough to spend a few years of my life working on.
So not to give you pressure, but when can we expect the next film?
Apprentice took five years, hopefully the next one won't take so long. Hopefully in three years? I'm working on it now, but it's still in the germinating stage. I'm quite excited about the next story.
Since you spend so long working on a film, do you ever get bored of it?
Not really. I don't think I have ever gotten bored of my personal films. Precisely because I am the one who wants to make them. And at every step of the way, until it is finally shown, it's a work in progress. So even if I finish a draft, I always want to add things to it. I don't ever feel like I have arrived at a destination until the film is completed. It is when the film is completed and I show it and I show it again and again, that is when I start to feel like I should move on. That's the current phase that I'm in, although I also enjoy traveling a lot, so now I'm going all over the world with the film. It's something that I'm looking forward to. I also enjoy hearing different responses to the film, and once in awhile there will be a response that will be refreshing and that's nice. But if it tends to be the same, then it becomes a bit boring.
Would you describe yourself as an introvert?
I think definitely an introvert (laughs).
So as an introvert, how do you deal with working with so many people? As we all know, film productions concern a whole lot of people, and you are right in the center of it.
I don't see being the director as necessarily needing to be someone who is outgoing. I am blessed to always have a good team that supports and protects me. That gives me space to do my work. The kind of films that I do tends to be author-driven, so I tend to need to be the one publicizing it or to be the face of it. And I do it because I want people to watch the film. I know there is a value in me fronting it and promoting it, so I'd do it only because of that.
Do you enjoy all the photoshoots then?
I don't mind photoshoots and interviews. If it's meaningful and it brings people to the cinema and creates awareness for the work that I do, it's fine. Once in awhile it gets a bit too pompous, fake or pretentious - and in the film industry there can be many occasions where things are a bit unnecessarily pompous - then that's when I don't enjoy it. But I know sometimes I still have to do it, because walking a red carpet means I get photographed, and it means people will be more aware of my work. I accept that as part of the job.
What has been a memorably tough moment in your career?
There have been many tough moments, but I have been very fortunate in my career so far and people have been supportive and I have received attention for my films. But naturally that also comes with pressure.
And it came early. You made your first short film when you were in school, and that immediately garnered you awards at the Singapore International Film Festival. And you were so young then.
Yes, but I got used to it. I remember one of the more memorable tough moments was when I was making my first feature film Sandcastle. I was only 27. Two days before the shoot, I had a bit of a nervous breakdown. Everyone was already prepared for it, I was prepared for it, I also had a known sales agent, Fortissimo Films, backing it. There was a lot of pressure. If I screwed it up, it wasn't a film that I could hide. I knew there would be significant attention on it. And this was my first feature film. At that time I remember being very uncertain about whether I could pull it off, but my producer at that time reassured me, "We are all on board, and we are on board because we trust you, and you have us on board because you trust us right? So it's time to let go and trust that everyone will do their best." In the end it turned out well. It was just jitters. Anyone would have jitters before a performance. So for me it was before the shoot.
Did you have that kind of pressure for the second film?
Less so. Because it was so long drawn out, I was like, I can't wait to get it finished!
Are you a filmmaker who is inspired by actors?
For me I'm inspired by filmmakers and stories, not actors or actresses. I look for actors to fit a role or character. Maybe eventually I may have a muse, but not now.
Are you playing with any other art forms apart from film?
I have been venturing a little bit into visual arts. I had an exhibition earlier this year - it was a two-artist exhibition - and a few years ago I was part of the Singapore Biennale. They were still film-related because that is still my area of interest, but to bring it into a gallery space and to have a work in a form that is more interactive and less restricted by a frame of cinema, I think that was very liberating. And I enjoyed that very much. I wouldn't say there is a particular form exactly, but other modes of expression and representation are things I have always been very interested in.
I've been very curious about working with lenticular printing. It's a very old-school technology. Sometimes the final product looks 3D, and sometimes you can create the illusion that it's stereoscopic. I find that very interesting because it's also an optical illusion that can exist in a very different space. It doesn't require a video or a screen but it still falls into the realm of a moving image. I hope to be able to explore that. And it can be very tacky sometimes, like those postcards, but also because of how tacky it is, I'm quite attracted to it (laughs).
So apart from making films, you also are part of Pink Dot, the non-profit movement that advocates for LGBT rights through a very well-attended annual event in Singapore. Can you tell us about that experience?
I was part of the organising committee from the start and I was there at its genesis. To me Pink Dot came about in order to change hearts and change minds for LGBT people in Singapore. It was actually tailored for a society like Singapore to hopefully try and steer the conversation in a slightly different direction, so that we can look at it in terms of love and family rather than always being so obsessed with the sex part of it. In trying to focus on these universal themes, hopefully society will be able to have a better entry point, and perhaps that will inspire more empathy for the community. So that's how it started and that was its purpose, but Pink Dot should never be the be-all and end-all of LGBT rights and activism. There are so many other areas that need to be explored. But to a lot of Singaporeans who were previously unaware of some of the concerns of LGBT people, it's a good starting point.
It will need to constantly evolve and it will need to continue to keep the conversation going in the mainstream consciousness. I think that is one of its key roles. So for as long as that conversation is needed, I think Pink Dot is needed.
A big question next. What do you think is the meaning of life?
I am quite an agnostic. For me now... I think there are a lot of problems in the world and there are a lot of people who are being denied their rights to all kinds of things. I care, and I care enough to have some of these subjects and topics in my films. To me I think that's what I try to keep my focus on. At least when it comes to according someone else the dignity in life, that's what I try to do. I try to inspire some conversations, and hopefully people will watch a film and be able to contemplate some of these issues.
Last question, what are you working on right now?
I am working on the idea for the next film; I am also working with my producers and sales agent on trying to get Apprentice to as many territories around the world as possible, to do the effort behind the film justice.