LUNCHBOX 2 - Chai Yee Wei

Yee Wei sips his Coke Zero while he awaits to find what we have packed into his Lunchbox.
Friday 31 July, 8pm
Esplanade Library/Mrs Fields Cafe

Jeremy starts off by explaining the raison d'etre of LUNCHBOX that it wants to explore what goes on behind the great minds of filmmakers and gets a violent reaction from Yee Wei

Yee Wei: Great mind! Please. You make me look like an obnoxious asshole. Haha.

Before we even get onto our first question, Yee Wei goes off-tangent onto talking about his idol Michael Jackson until Jeremy interrupts to say he is here for ‘quality control’ so we were all knocked back on track. Then Yee Wei sees the word childhood photo on our scrapbook under ‘requests’ and starts off in another thread of his own again!

When I was in primary school, I frequently took part in Chinese storytelling competitions. And the funny thing is I also got 2nd Prize. That’s because I was very unconventional. I liked to add special effects and sounds to my storytelling. I guess it does not go down well with the usual scoring criteria. But my teacher liked me for that and often sent me for inter-school competitions. But I still like watching people’s reactions I entertain them, whether they are laughing or they get scared when I tell them ghost stories. I remember telling the story of ‘The 3 Little Pigs’ and I would start off with ‘Kok Kok Kok Kei!

Assertive waitress (bordering on rude) interrupts our conversation as she served the tea. Our eyes roll for a moment.

Then when I reached primary 4, I started feeling more self-conscious. I don’t know why I started feeling so self-conscious, getting stage fright and all. I stopped telling stories. Then in secondary school, the entertaining people thingey in me came back so I joined the CLDDS which stands for er… er…. What’s that?Jeremy: Chinese Language Drama and Dance Society.

Elfe: Very long.

I did Chinese sword dance and then I was in choir for 3 years. Got to travel. I really enjoyed those days. Then when I joined the AVA Club, we did our first Orientation video using video cassettes! So those days very happy days for me. I did not do well in my studies in school so I have fond memories of these activities!

(pause)

I have always been a Cheeena boy. I didn’t speak English until I went to junior college. Though I was aware it was not hip to be so Cheeena and listen to 933 FM. Then I went to CJ (Catholic Junior College), everyone spoke English there. They were all from CHIJ Toa Payoh, SJI, all English speaking! So I had to force myself to start speaking English. And I had a girlfriend who doesn’t speak Mandarin. And I realized on thing, if your English sucks, then all your other subjects will suffer because everything else is taught in English. I really struggled all the way until I reached Uni.

Not afraid of 'hairy' issues
What’s the funniest rumour or remark about you?
I was pretty low-profile. I was a pretty ugly boy. Nobody cared about me (laughs). Though my girlfriend was pretty cute!
Any hobbies besides filming?

Yah I like Karaoke. I love singing. I like photography. Oh yeah, I do wedding videos. (Pause) Actually I didn’t think of becoming a filmmaker when I was younger because I am a typical Singapore. I am not even a film-major la. I am a business major. I wanted to do film only 3 or 4 years ago. You can call it an epiphany. I was 29 turning 30. (there he goes side-tracking again) You know, my family has always been doing business doing business so I naturally thought of pursuing a business path. CJC had accountancy. But I did badly. Then I ended up in the ‘scholar platoon in the army. In all 160 of them in the platoon, I was the only one who did not make it to University. I remember the day we went to collect our A level results, we took the RPL (topless boat) back to Singapore from Pulau Tekong. The scholars all around me were complaining how many As they missed getting and I was miles apart from them. And they still asked me ‘Are you ok? How did you do?’ So I said ‘2 A’. They said ‘not bad’. Then I said ‘2 A level pass la’.

Someone turned off the lights on Yee Wei.

But later on, things got better. I went on to do my TOEFL in army and then entered University of Michigan. I studied very hard then. But that was not enough. I was being assessed even for my participation in class. There was definitely a change in pace. But I liked it. Those were the happiest times of my life. But towards the end, I started to fear again cos this is it… no more school holidays, no more skipping of school, no more chao keng…. this is the real world. So that was really an interesting juncture in time. Then I would say the other juncture is when you have a mid-life crisis.

I started a business, failed in it, went to work, saved enough, came back and did another business which is the current ‘Curry Favour’ restaurant. This business did eventually get profitable. But something was still wrong – I was still not happy. So I started questioning myself why. While all these were happening, I had already been doing wedding videos at the side and for fun. I started asking myself why can’t I extend this interest of mine, So 3-4 years ago, I started making short films. One thing led to another. And now ‘Blood Ties’.

Proud father of his baby 'Blood Ties'

Anyway, would you starve for art?

Cannot la. You need to find a middle way. Look at Buddha, he starved, starved, starved himself in order to find out the meaning of suffering. But he soon realized h could not do this because he would starved himself to death and not learnt anything. One day, he was meditating and still starving, he realized someone was pulling a boat with a rope. If pulled too tight, the rope will snap, if too loose, the boat will float away. So, the middle way is the key. So he realized the important thing is to keep himself in the right state, right mind in order to achieve what he really wanted and be able to focus clearly on your goals. It is certainly not true, that if I don’t starve, I will make very lousy art.

Yee Wei marvels at the kiddy grub we packed into his lunchbox.

Will I work for my art? Yes. Will I starve for my art? I would say not very wise.

We adjourn to Mrs Fields Cafe, also in the same building as the library was closing. Yee Wei goes on to share some unforgettable moments from his work as a wedding videographer.

There was a couple. The husband’s mother had Alzheimer. But the wife accepted the family. You can tell that he is very grateful that his wife do not question. One of the most memorable moments was when he entered the room to receive the bride who was waiting by the bed he got down on his knees and took out a lyric sheet and sang the song ‘The Young Ones’. And when he sang the verse ‘to live and to love, while the flame is strong, for we may not be the very young ones very long’ the whole wedding had a different level of meaning to me. It was very emotional. That was one of the most touching moment.

There was another couple that I shot. Everyone else wasn’t happy that they were getting married. The bride was probably in her late forties. The groom was probably in his late thirties. I had a feeling that the groom might be younger than the bride. There were three other eighteen to nineteen year old kids who were actually the son and two daughters of the bride. One of the daughter was very displeased with the wedding. Over at the groom’s, his eighty year old mother was up since five in the morning doing all the preparation while four of her elder sons did nothing to help. They even came late because they couldn’t be bothered and you can tell why the mother loves the groom more than the others. After I shot their wedding the boyfriend of one of the bride’s daughters came up to me and was grateful that I shot all the happy moments in the wedding because he said it mattered most to the bride and groom knowing that everyone else was against their wedding yet they went through all the odds to make it happen. When you see that kind of tension in the family and how much they still are together it makes you realize how strong their relationship is.

These are all stories that interest me. As a filmmaker you get moved and interested in stories like that. You don’t know what the guy over there is reading but there’s probably a story behind it. Those stories that I’m most interested in are those from people that are seen as underdogs. For example, it was past midnight, I saw an aunty selling tissues at a kopitiam. I asked her to sit with me to have chitchat. She was very puzzled. I asked her why is she doing this and where are her children. At that moment, she told me no and not to let her children know.

From that statement you know that she doesn’t really need to do this and that she is only doing it for self-worth. She didn’t want her children to know so as not to shame them. It reaches into something very human about it just by that one statement she made. You can start extrapolating what is behind her story. You can imagine how her son is like, how she probably is and living that kind of life. It doesn’t have to be a woman selling her body. This is a similar double-life story and I’m surprise that no one has done a story or a documentary about these aunties. None of our filmmakers are covering things like these. Why? We are covering things that are petty and not so important. I always question why are we not reflecting more of our lives.

Do you reckon that most filmmakers, half the time, they try to be more original than the other, that’s why they don’t want to submerge into these everyday people?

I don’t think its not because they don’t want to. I think it’s simply because of age. It’s not an important thing that they see or affect their lives at this moment. You can tell that things are starting to change. Young filmmakers produce films that are closest to their hearts - things that affects them directly. In their films you can find typical lines like What about me? You can find this line in a lot of Singapore’s short films. We are still at our infancy of our film industry. It has been neglected for way too long and we’re just starting up now, all trying to play catch up. We don’t even know what is a Singapore film. We look at Korean films – the way they dress, their architecture, you know it’s Korean as well as Japan, Hong Kong, China and Malaysia – are all distinguishable. Singapore doesn’t really have that “Singapore look” yet. We are still searching for that. although, ‘881’ does have a very ‘Singaporean look’ to it. Jack Neo’s films reflect our society a lot and that is why his film sells because local people see themselves in it. As much as local filmmakers like to dismiss it for artistic reasons, you can’t deny that a lot of his films reflect the common Singaporean.

To be honest, I am a Jack Neo fan. Maybe as a filmmaker he does not have the traditional training and that is why his films does not have those taste. He hasn’t been train as a filmmaker. His strength is his dialogue. Hi story-telling skills may be all over the place but he has very good dialogues. People can relate very well to his films. He is part of Singapore film history. Royston has his own style so does Jack Neo. Royston’s films have high aesthetics and visual design. Eric Khoo is very strong in his ‘moments’. He is able to capture very intimate moments and allow people to ponder on it.

Is it true that many filmmakers have some kind of obssessive fixation on certain films that they would watch it over and again? (Read an interview in which Royston watched Rule #1 several times)

What is an important essence that you need to have in your film?

Other than feeling entertained I do hope viewers leave the cinema with questions. If people do leave with questions pertaining to things in general or the things that I reflect in the film, thatn I would have achieved my goal. I am a curious person and love to ask questions but in our society we don’t ask too much questions. But through films I am able to raise those questions. I think, as a filmmaker, it is my responsibility to reflect the time that I am living in now. I don’t have to do it directly. I can sugar coat the issue but not address them directly.

It’s all about expressing one’s thoughts or opinions though a medium. Books, music, writing poetry – it’s just a different way of expressing themselves. For example, maybe your uncles and aunties might express themselves through karaoke? It’s a way of expressing themselves.

I know you did a short film called Lao Sai. Captivating title. Tell us about it!

It’s very stupid. We spent $300. It was Vesak Day, I grabbed five of my friends, we rece the toilet around our place. We went to the shopping mall, haven’t started shooting the security guard came. I went down to look for the Supervisor and bribed him with $50. He told me we’ve got half an hour. We quickly shot and left. Had chicken rice and went for a spa after that. We actually got a boom mic but we realized that the mic wasn’t on when we watched the tapes. So the audio was like shit. My friends and I we acted in it. We won cash vouchers. After that we joined Fly By Night and won Merit award. Subsequently I made two more short films, which was just for practice I don’t show it to anyone. Then finally, I made a short film to see if the concept can be made into a full-fledged film. One of the mentors whom I chose as a mentor that I did not approach for help, watched it and wanted to go for the idea.

Yee Wei is one of the most prolific filmmakers in Singapore, having made several shorts which include Lao Sai, Blood Ties (short film) and My Blue Heaven. Blood Ties was his first feature film that has already ended its run. But I bet you can watch out for the DVD soon!
Learn more about Blood Ties here.

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