Singaporean filmmaker Anthony Chen is on a roll – his English-language debut Drift is premiering at Sundance Film Festival, he has Chinese-language drama The Breaking Ice being readied for festival play later this year, and several other directing projects in different languages at various stages of development and pre-production.
Drift, which stars Cynthia Erivo as a Liberian refugee scratching out an existence on a Greek island, is thematically not a million miles away from Chen’s previous two features – Ilo Ilo and Wet Season – in that they’re stories about outsiders or people struggling to find their place in the world and fit in. “I seem to gravitate to telling stories about outsiders and the bonds, or the human connections, that we make between strangers,” says Chen, who has some experience with feeling dislocated, as he grew up in Singapore but spent many years living in the UK.
Chen shot the film, based on Alexander Maksik’s 2013 novel A Marker To Measure Drift, on location in Greece and the UK last year, starting pre-production just a few weeks after wrapping the winter shoot of The Breaking Ice in China’s Jilin province. “Chinese productions always have a lot of crew, so I went from working with a crew of 120 people to just 40 in Europe, and from shooting seven days a week to just five,” Chen recalls of this rapid shift from China’s frozen far Northeast to Southern Europe. “But it was very efficient and we had some of the top heads of department on the film. “
The crew of Drift includes DoP Crystel Fournier, who shot Celine Sciamma’s ‘Girlhood’ trilogy, and first assistant director Dominique Delany, who worked on Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name and a few projects with Olivier Assayas. Scripted by Susanne Farrell and Maksik, the film is produced by Emilie Georges, Peter Spears and Naima Abed, who all worked together on Call Me By Your Name, and sold by Memento International.
Memento also sold both of Chen’s previous two films, so he’d known Georges for several years before she brought him on board Drift, because she felt his sense of restraint and approach to character would be a good fit for the project. “Whenever I make a film, I feel the need to be really honest with the subject matter, but especially when you’re making a film about a black African woman, who’s a refugee, because there’s so much baggage to it,” Chen explains. “It’s not about being politically correct, it’s about being honest to the human experience, because the last thing I want is to be emotionally manipulative or to exploit the characters.”
The film is the first of a few English-language projects that Chen is attached to, including Amazon Studios’ Secret Daughter, set to star Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Sienna Miller, and Notes From An Exhibition for Film4 and Potboiler. He is also gearing up to shoot the third part of this Singapore-set, Chinese-language ‘Growing Up’ trilogy, We Are All Strangers, which like the first two films, will again star Yeo Yann Yann and Koh Jia Ler. “This time they’re playing strangers forced to become a family,” says Chen. “And Koh has literally grown up, because he was 11 on my first film and he’s now 22.”
Chen sat down with Deadline in Hong Kong, where he moved last year with his wife and son, due to his wife’s job, and expects to remain a few years. He says he’s already working on a script set in Hong Kong that he hopes to shoot next year. “This city is so cinematic and has elements I can relate to, because I grew up in a cosmopolitan city, surrounded by concrete, glass and steel, so it would be difficult for me to make a film set in a third-tier city or rural area in China.”
He’s also been closely observing the class structures and divide between rich and poor in Hong Kong, although he adds that he makes films about characters, not politics, and never sets out to make films about social issues. “I’ve just been thinking that this is such a perfect city to make an epic family drama.”
Being fully bilingual and at ease working between different languages and cultures, Chen is not stopping at Chinese and English projects, and is also developing a feature in Korea, a couple of series in various languages, and continues to work as a producer of Southeast Asian films through his Singapore-based Giraffe Pictures.
Chen says this burst of activity is a consequence of the pandemic. His first feature Ilo Ilo won the Camera d’or at Cannes in 2013, but he took another six years to make Wet Season, only to see its rollout stymied as Covid emerged and festivals engagements were cancelled and cinemas shuttered.
“I had a huge crisis during the pandemic, because I believed cinemas would reopen and audiences would come back, but maybe only for the big tentpole films, and where does that leave me, because my work is restrained, so do I even exist as a filmmaker?” says Chen, no doubt echoing the fears of many directors over the past few years.
“But if there’s one thing I learned during the pandemic, it’s that life is too short,” he continues. “So I decided I’m just going to go out there and make a lot more films, either as a director or producer.” After taking several years over the script for his second film, he wrote The Breaking Ice within a few months and finished the script just 10 days before he started shooting.
He also says that, as a filmmaker from Singapore, he doesn’t have much choice about being a cultural chameleon. Hailing from a small country where it’s relatively expensive to shoot means that he’s forced to have a global perspective. “I’ve always said it’s important for Singapore filmmakers to look outwards and that’s what we’re trying to achieve, not just for directors and producers, but also the rest of the crew. I’ve been lucky and now I’m trying to bring everyone else along as well, because otherwise we’re just too small.”
At the same time, he believes his Singaporean identity travels with him. Returning to Drift, he says: “In terms of style, it might be different to my previous two films, and if you didn’t know already, you’d probably never guess it had an Asian director. But there’s so much in the mis-en-scene and the emotions that makes it feel like an Asian film. I think it also reads the same way as my other films in the sense of not judging the characters and humanizing the subject matter.”
Drift will have its first Sundance screening at Park City’s Eccles Theatre on January 22.
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