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Interview: Djinn (director of PERTH)

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Enterline Media: Why did you want to PERTH? Was it the taxi drivers who wanted to move to Perth?

Djinn: The film was inspired by my trips around Singapore in cabs(They’re cheap and an accurate political barometer). Strangely, I found out that many of the cabbies (A profession that many fall back upon when retrenched) wanted to migrate to Perth.

Then as I served my annual reserve army call ups, the Army ranking NCOs over copious amount of hard liquor also mentioned their desire to retire to the Western Australian Desert city.

Finally the last straw was one of my uncles, an ex-merchant marine seaman who had served as first mate navigating ships up the Mekong/Vietnam for contractors supplying the US war machine in the Vietnam war.

He too mentioned his desire to emigrate to Perth!

I had always thought of emigration (from Singapore at least) as a white collar dream but it suddenly struck me that this was a blue collar dream too and it was the muscle and not the brain that was draining out of Singapore!

 

EM: Was the intent of some scenes running long to get the audiences to feel the brutality of a scene like Harry beating his wife?

Djinn:Its exactly like you said. The brutality of the violence was all important. The violence was important as despite his verbose nature, Harry really only communicates to us in his quietest moments. That is when he shows his true feelings beyond the sickening mantra of "retiring to Perth".

Being that he is unable to communicate his deepest hurt, he unfortunately takes to the fist. He is someone who goes ‘Amok’(A Malay word). Unable to take constant simmering pressure, he finally explodes and when he does, it is an orgy of violence.

In the wife beating scene, we actually had it planned to shoot one long continuous take so that Harry would hit till he got tired. This was in relation to a real life experience and unfortunately, the sad thing is that in most spouse abuse cases, the man doesn’t really stop until he is spent of his rage.

We therefore wanted to keep it real. In fact in the shooting of the film, this was (understandably) veteran actress Liu Qiulian’s most petrifying scene as she had heard that Kay Tong (when in character) would really hit someone. Some of those shots landed but she very cleverly shielded herself between her protective arm and the sofa cushion. In fact she was trash talking him to hit harder(apparently to make him angrier! Bless her.) and Kay Tong later admitted to a strange sense of sexual arousal(Its in the DVD special)…Hmmmm.

 

EM: One of the things I liked about PERTH is the way things are resolved. Why did you decide to go that way where other films dealing with a guy saving a prostitute don't go that far?

Djinn:I think its because the saving the prostitute thing is not the most important part of the film. Harry is really trying to save himself by finding a small semblance of dignity in his life …which he hopes still exist.

I like to see this film in a way as Don Quixote. Harry is the Don stuck in his past glory and unable to stomache a changing future whilst riding his Horse (A Mercedes) around town. Selveraja (whom many in Singapore identify with) is Sancho Panza, the straight talking voice of practicality.

Harry’s death is inevitable and inconsequential to the average man on the street but the true end to his means lie in the resolved (or unresolved) snippets of those around him affected by his rash action.

His wife’s emotions for him despite his brutality (and regret)toward her, his robotic son’s sense that he might have missed something in his life in his father’s death. AB coming good in honoring the code of honour of the underworld in freeing Mai of her servitude and ultimately Mai returning home(even if she didn’t fully appreciate Harry’s self sacrifice)

 

EM: Was it funny that other army units were confused about which unit your actors belong to? Did some of the units finally get it you were just shooting part of the film there?

Djinn:The Army is a very integral part of Singapore life. When Seleveraja and Harry mention the "Mexican Jews" in the coffee shop scene, that is a reference to Singapore secretly bringing in Israeli Army advisors to build up our armed forces in the late 60s. Because of sensitivity to our larger Muslim neighbours, the Israelis were disguised as Mexicans!

But the army they built up is not Mexican. Tiny Singapore has now one of the largest most sophisticated militaries in South East Asia and it is Israeli style where the reserves are the true frontline.

 

So in the army cock up scene(which itself is based on a true experience witnessed by myself…I was in an Infantry unit), it was not unusual for the other units to have thought that they were witnessing a real unit since all our actors were dressed in their own reservist uniforms. They probably thought we were one of those endless recruiting commercials(although those things have ten times our budget!)

But I have to say in defence of it, that the army for me, is actually a good thing in that it has become one of the great social equalizers where rich meet poor, Hindus meets Christians, Malays meet Chinese etc etc.

EM: Why does PERTH strike such a chord with people in Singapore to cause the DVD to sell out?

Djinn:I think its an introspective piece as to who we really are. Singaporeans in general suffer from a sense of identity crisis. We are so small and very much influenced by both East and West that we are somewhat schidzophrenic.

In PERTH, the whole identity issue of being Singaporean comes to bear as the film’s main character is of a passing generation trying to emigrate to his paradise on earth for whatever reasons. I think the Straits Times editorial on the film noted that this was the first time that Singapore’s hidden multi-cultural side has really been seen where as most of the other films tend to be focused on the Chinese Singaporean majority issues.

And it is important that Perth is the central element in this discussion as many of the more disgruntled minority races (watch DVD special for more info on this!)were the first to emigrate to what is essentially Singapore’s south Florida.

To this end, the generation gap exposed between the early pre-independence baby boomers(as in Harry Lee) and the younger ‘wired’ generation whose lives are governed by paper qualification and not experience, comes to fore.

If you read a lot of the latest forums discussing Singapore issues, this over emphasis on a scholar bias society is a big hot potato. People are concern if this will actually make Singapore less competitive and in Singapore, the rat race is everything. Hence the desire to migrate to the simple life…Perth.

I think maybe, that’s why there has been quite an interest in this film. Or maybe it is just the parallel to "Taxi Driver"!? I dunno.

 

EM: Has Kay Tong been getting more leading roles since PERTH?

Djinn:Since PERTH, Kay Tong has strangely been cast into many roles as an abusive man which he has been spuriously trying to avoid. However he has recently appeared in a number of Hallmark productions, one of which I believe he plays the Mongolian mentor to Marco Polo.

PERTH incredibly was Kay Tong’s first lead role in a feature film despite his many years as one of Singapore’s finest ever actors both on stage and screen.

Trained classically in London, he had been frustrated with being typecasted into too many movies as either a Chinatown gangster or a Vietnamese General. I guess PERTH offered him a respite although he still had to learn Vietnamese for his scene with Mai (No avoiding that).

I truly appreciated working with Kay Tong. He was intense, sage like at times, and worked through a shit load of pain with his broken foot sustain from getting into character by over indulgence in drink!

 

EM: How many people speak English in Singapore? So far, I have seen THE MAID and PERTH and both feature English as one of the languages in the film.

Djinn:Singapore is a bit of an international nut case. Aside for our awkward reputation of being a fine city (in which I mean there are rules and fines for everything you can think of), we are also a strange concoction of the British who put together Chinese , Malay, Indians (even some Jews, Armenians and Arabs) not 100+ years ago.

Consequently, because of our small living space (the whole country is the size of lesser LA), the various races have mixed their vernacular. In Singapore, the national language is Malay(as we are in a Malay speaking region), the majority language is Chinese (78% of the population is Chinese) and the main language is English (So everyone is happy)

But it is a strange pidgin English which has evolved very quickly over the past 30 years.

In fact one of the fundamental issues in the film is language. As the film serves as essentially an archive to the changing human landscape in a country that physically and mercilessly eradicates(or sanitizes) its history by the second, the language element becomes paramount in that Harry’s generation does not speak English in the same way the younger (post independence) generation does.

For example, we found that on screening the film in Singapore, the older generation identified with Harry’s brand of English and his marriage to a Chinese speaking woman where as he himself is what is called Peranakan (or Chinese who have been malaynised and consequently only speak English or Malay) But to our surprise, a lot of the younger generation thought that his character was fictitious.

The language landscape has shifted within the space of a generation with an emphasis on Mandarin. Hence, the propensity for the older generation (gangsters) to speak in their more florid old school Chinese dialects with poetic hidden meanings (eg. Big Boss and his cryptic Fukkienese gangster speak)…it is fast dying.

 

EM: Do you get tired of people thinking of PERTH as a rip-off of TAXI DRIVER?

Djinn:I think some people are mistaken in understanding an homage to Taxi Driver as a copy of it. It’s not quite the same.

The parallels are there and for a reason. The milieu which "Taxi Driver" is set in is not the same as the habitat or circumstance that Singapore in the late 20th century might represent.

It was actually a lot harder to make a film with its own story to tell and still draw parallels to Scorcese’s great classic then I thought but I think we did it (he says modestly) very successfully.

As my lead actor points out, Harry Lee is not Travis Bickel. Whereas Travis Bickel has a murky past and no real future, Harry’s future is much more defined and is heavily influenced by his past. His estranged ties to his family (imaginary or otherwise) bind his every move toward the future.

Whilst ‘Taxi Driver’ deals in personal redemption, PERTH dwells upon the theme of regret. Harry is stuck in his past whereas Travis is confined by his present. Yet PERTH’s protagonist is also interested in his own selfish redemption(aren’t we all).

So it’s really a different film altogether but there are useful parallels.

I think it’s an ultimate homage to Scorcese in that the language of his 1976 classic still bears relevance to a different part of the world in a different age and different social circumstances.

 

EM: What do you have planned next? Any films you want to do in the USA?

Djinn: I reside in Santa Monica so it makes more sense for me to shoot out here rather than trudge across the pond and shoot in Asia. In fact my first short "By The Dawn’s Early Rise" (about a landlord in the San Fernando valley approaching senility) was totally American in genre so I guess I have always had the confidence that I would be able to shoot an American subject film.

Unfortunately since I’ve shot a low budget independent (award winning I might add bashfully) Asian ‘serious’ films, I face the challenge of being classified in that genre. I’ll need to make a good A-B grade action drama fast! Anyone?

 

EM: How is the food at your wife's restraunt in Los Angeles?

 Djinn: I would have to say excellent (or she’ll kill me!). She started the little Vietnamese Bistro in Venice Beach whilst I was shooting PERTH. She called up and announced she was starting it with my then 9 month old daughter in tow. I was out in Singapore for 3 months so I suggested she wait for me to return but her response : " It’s OK I am Vietnamese, when you come back there will be an eaterie up and running"…which there was. I guess in a Vietnamese woman’s household, it’s the woman that wears the pants! In Singapore, we guys wear sarongs! What to do?

 

EM: What are some of your favorite films?

 Djinn:Naturally, ‘Taxi Driver’ comes to mind (Surprise surprise!)…but I also like Abel Ferrera "Bad Lieutenant’, Lee Tamahori’s " Once Were Warriors", even James Mangold’s much maligned "Copland" all of which I’m sure has influenced PERTH in some minute way. I guess, what ties them together is the fact that the lead characters are all conflicted and struggling to realise their own sense of worth, in judging for themselves(within their own warped standards) between what’s truly good and what’s evil in a very grey world.

EM: Last good movies you have seen on DVD?

Djinn: Well I’m a massive Johnnie To fan and since we are being released by Tartan, I got a copy of "Election". Good stuff. I’ve always liked his juxtaposition of characters and the grey areas in between. I also recently just caught "Old Boy" which was very interesting…would love to match my own cork screw wielding Harry against the hammer…but I suspect the Korean guys gonna win hands down!

 

EM: last movies you saw at the theater?

Djinn: Bond. It was a good revamp and I thought Wots-his-name Craig made a good ballsy new Bond but it was a tad of a chick flick with the Conde Nast scenes. Bond wasn’t quite as Randy as Austin Powers and there weren’t any sexy half naked girls in the opening sequence…shame. I was also a little disappointed that they didn’t quite take the Aston Martin out for a drive but at least they’ve got a British car at last! Next movie I’m catching is Borat.

 

EM:   why should people see PERTH and what people shouldn't see it?

Djinn:I think you can see the film on several levels. On the most simplistic yet equally palatable level, you could see it as an homage to "Taxi Driver" with its story parallels. On a deeper more socio-political level, it is a comment on a society that does not tolerate failure and the digitization of the human element into a commercial capital. In its most personal level, it is about an individual who lives in regret and desires to find his own nobility for selfish reasons.

But like Rashomon, tthe viewer really sees what he/she wants to see…that’s the fun it in all in the end ain’t it?