Tanjong Rhu was filmmaker Boo Junfeng's second gay-related short film. Partially funded by Fridae, the 19-minute movie is based on a real-life incident in which 12 men in Singapore were arrested in a police entrapment exercise in 1993 (see main article:Fort Road beach: gay aspects). Despite having participated and won awards at a string of festivals around the world including the Berlin Film Festival (Teddy Award Nomination) and the Torino GLBT Film Festival (Audience Award), Tanjong Rhu was pulled from the 6th annual Singapore Short Cuts festival in 2009 at the last minute without any explanation.
The film takes viewers back to a time when homosexuality was not accepted in any form in Singapore - and yet suggests that real relationships must have been formed even then. It is touching and evocative - Boo's technique of having the events of the present permeated by a background story comes into full force. And of course, it was terribly relevant - too often, gay men forget that they even have a history to deal with.
The film also boasts a remarkable cast: theatre and film star Yeo Yann Yann (who also acted in 881), former recording artist Scott Lei, and, as the protagonist, Nick Shen Weijun, an artiste with Mediacorp who was then acting in the TV series En Bloc.
Nick Shen is straight, but he has led a life of crazy drama - running away from home to join a Teochew opera troupe, and going on to play a mad range of characters in Mandarin and English TV, including an autistic patient, a murderer, a gynaecologist, a mute and a monk. It was the first he was playing a gay man, though - and possibly the first time Mediacorp allowed one of its actors to play such a role. Shen said the movie was a great learning experience, but complained of having to kiss two men for the part. Considering how cute his co-stars were, audiences had very little pity for him.
In 2008, there was a lot of media coverage of then 24-year old Boo Junfeng and while a number of articles emphasised his talent, his youth, and occasionally his good looks, no one yet seemed to have written about how nice he was until he was interviewed by writer Ng Yi-Sheng for Fridae that year.
Ng met with Boo after the wrap party to his film and asked him about the making of it. Boo said that the shoot was one of the most challenging he had ever done. As viewers could see, there were so many locations because they relied a lot on flashbacks and many of the night scenes were actually shot during the day. As Scott Lei said at the wrap party, anything that could go wrong did go wrong - it was like Murphy's Law almost entirely throughout the shoot. When it was not supposed to rain, it rained. When they were at the beach, it poured right after all the lights were set up. They were shooting it against the order of nature!
But what was interesting was the crew which was almost entirely students from LaSalle who worked very hard and passionately for the film. They were extremely motivated. And as the director, the leader, when Boo saw a whole crew of them like that, it just drove him.
Boo revealed that the incident of the 1993 arrests had always kind of intrigued him. If one were to ask him for the impetus, it would be when he was in secondary school. He remembers his Moral Education teacher warning the boys in my class about carrying water bottles at East Coast Park because there were "perverts" hiding in the bushes. And he thinks that came shortly after the publicity from the Tanjong Rhu incident. So he always kind of knew something like that had happened.
Of the 12 men that were arrested, Boo had remote access to one of them, but it was a big ethical concern whether or not he wanted to approach this person, to ask him to please revisit those terrible memories. He could not bring himself to do that. So he thought it would be preferable to create a fictitious character and base the story only on the facts that were reported in the papers.
Fridae: By the way, weren't you originally planning a feature film on this subject, based on Alfian Sa'at's short play The Widow of Fort Road (from Asian Boys Volume II)?
Boo: When I heard about the feature films script development grant under the film commission grant, I thought Widow of Fort Road was perfect, with the kind of human emotions involved and kind of stories that led to and were a result of the incident. So I applied for a grant last year, but that didn't get approved.
Fridae: I wonder why.
Boo: I wonder as well! (laughs) But I wasn't very proud of my script; I was just trying to meet the deadline. So I don't know if it was because of the subject matter. After considering it for some time, I felt maybe making a first feature film with queer content might not be a very good idea for me. So I just kind of shelved the script for some time, and then when I got into the Puttnam School of Film at LaSalle, I thought it was opportune to make this film.
This is also the first time my application for the short film grant was rejected by the Singapore Film Commission. No reason was given - I've actually had very healthy working relations with SFC - and because the news came too close to the production date I didn't submit an appeal. I managed to get adequate funding thanks in part to Fridae.com.
Fridae: Your other recent short film, Keluar Baris, just won Best Director, Best Film and Best DOP (Director of Photography) at the Short Film Awards. Anything you want to say about that night?
Boo: I think what was especially meaningful is the awards this time round was that Sharon Loh [the Director of Photography] and I won awards for our particular roles together. Because in 2005, when my film Family Portrait got the Best Film and Special Achievement awards, she was there with me and we were celebrating for the film. Following that, she shot Changi Murals, Katong Fugue, my Lucky 7 segment and Keluar Baris - and as you know, working for short films, you're doing it for free. It's quite a lot of work to do for something that is not paying, but she believed in what she was doing very much.
For Keluar Baris, I told her: "After this I'm going into film school. This is possibly my last short film for some time, so could you work with me this one last time?" And it took some convincing but she decided she wants to do this. And the first award of the night went to her.
And I think that was the only time that night I was close to tears. When she was on stage and just said - after she calmed her nerves - she basically just said, "It's really difficult to be a female and a cinematographer in Singapore."
Recently she shot Brian Gothong Tan's Invisible Children, so I believe she is the first female DOP to be doing a full-length feature in Singapore. And this is at a time when she was about to give up and just do wedding videos - not that there's anything wrong with that, but I just felt that her talent really could bring her places, and these two events probably gave her a lot more confidence.
The director always becomes the poster boy or poster girl for the work, but cinema is so collaborative - I see my job as a director as making sure that what I've envisioned is realised. This whole group of artists are also my collaborators - without any of them doing what they do, something is bound to fail. And I would say the other person who's helped me is Lim Ting Li, the sound engineer for almost all of my films.
You know all these people, they work for the passion, and they do it willingly, and they know that when recognition for the work comes, the spotlight will never be on them. And that is very admirable.
Fridae: What's next?
Boo: I need to I need to make a decent living! I mean, I've been surviving, but I think I need to do what every filial son does and just make money. You know settle the bread and butter things first.
But before that I'm going on a sabbatical for a month. Then I'm joining Zhao Wei films, for probably my first feature film and some TV commercial jobs. I'm also in talks with Rain Tree pictures also for possible collaborations.
You know, some of my crew have been asking me: "Can you do a commercial soon and hire us? Help us make some money." So it's not just about me - it's the people who've had faith in me. Hopefully I'll be benefiting them as well. I think I'm quite a communal-spirit kind of person.
See also[edit | edit source]
References[edit | edit source]
- Ng Yi-Sheng, "Mr Nice Guy: Boo Junfeng", Fridae, 13 May 2008.
- Jeremy Sing, "Tanjong Rhu : My memories of the flyover", Sindie, March 2008.
Acknowledgements[edit | edit source]
This article was compiled by Roy Tan.