“Sandcastle”: Both Sides Now

Aug 13, 2010
*Special to asia!

A conversation with Boo Junfeng and Joshua Tan, the director and male lead, respectively, of the made-in-Singapore feature film.

I would have taken three years if I could, which is not uncommon for movies. But I guess for Singapore there’s a constant sense of urgency. (Laughs) But also because when I dedicated myself to this film, I made sure I didn’t do anything else. So in a sense I needed to move on to be paid for doing other things – it’s thus also a bread and butter issue.


(To Joshua) How about for you? What was your biggest challenge?

JT: The biggest challenge was acting because I had never done it before.


What about acting?

JT: I mean everything. The whole process. Internalising the lines such that they don’t just become lines. Throughout the whole shooting process, Junfeng was always reminding me, or pointing out to me that as the takes went on, my dialogues became lines, just recited from memory. So a lot of it was trying to make sure that they were not lines, but conversations between people.

JF: Actually I think it must have taken a lot of courage from Josh to do this. As you would know, he doesn’t speak Mandarin. (Joshua laughs) He really couldn’t in the beginning – the words just couldn’t come to him. But he really put in a lot of effort. Of course in the beginning a lot of the other actors were more experienced, and over the first few days he needed a lot of guidance from the veterans and the trained actors. But over the course of the shoot, you could tell, and the other actors would tell me, that he ended up leading them – and that was very important for me. That was the reason why I decided, or I needed to link professional and non-professional actors. Some of the other actors were TV-trained, or stage-trained, but no one was film-trained, and I needed Josh to inject that naturalism, which I think he did very successfully and a lot of people at the preview and press screening were very impressed.


It seems that many of the reviewers at Cannes had a problem with the soundtrack. Do you think that is because someone from a non-Singaporean background would not be able to understand the resonance of a song like “Home”? Or, for that matter, the experiences of the lead character himself, such as National Service, dealing with conservative Chinese parents and grandparents?

JF: I don’t think it’s a cultural thing – I read those reviews, those issues are not with “Home”, but with the soundtrack, the score of the movie itself. The music composer is Darren Ng, and I’m a fan of Darren Ng – and I think that the eventual soundtrack was a culmination of my sensibilities and his; and I felt that it carried the characters emotions and mood quite well. I don’t agree with the reviews – I believe it carries the film through.

With “Home”, it was sung twice in the film, in Mandarin, by the choir which En, Josh’s character is part of; and then in English, by Donald Pan, who is based in Melbourne. I wanted that song from the start. I’m doing National Day this year, and I know for a fact that “Home” is the most popular National Day song in Singapore, of all time. It resonates with a lot of people and its theme is quite universal. It’s precisely because of how universal it was that I felt it could be interpreted in a different way and in the context of this film – of a boy questioning his, or rather, starting to question his sense of identity – which the lyrics could carry. So I felt it was a little touch that I felt was quite nice to top off the film. As a trivia, I got in touch with Donald through my editor – who is also a musician, and Donald’s grandfather happened to be a political detainee before. When I found out I was like “oh wow!” – it just adds another layer to the film.


In general, do you feel that film is one of the ways in which Singapore students can deal with history? The number of history students falls every year. We don’t study enough of it. Is film one of the ways in which we can move forward?

JF: You mean history as a subject?


I mean our history – as a country. Beyond the compulsory Social Studies and the National Education, very few actually want to study history, let alone Singapore history.

JF: Well, out of all my O’ Level subjects, history was the worst. I mean I didn’t fail it, but it was my worst subject and I was the worst in class. But when I started to make films, I was totally indulging in history. A lot of my work is based on the past. “Changi Murals” is one of them, “Tanjong Rhu” is another. And I’m obsessed with period films – I’m fascinated by the idea of recreating a world that used to exist. It’s not nostalgia; it’s a certain art, an appreciation of the texture in the past and its various nuances.

So yes, because of that, I’ve had to read up a lot, and I read all these stories and it fascinates me. I can’t say whether it will be movies that might make a difference, but from my perspective, history was interesting to me because of its stories, not its timeline. When you base history on a timeline, it inevitably becomes boring. But I feel that if you base it on a story, from there I know the dates, and with that I know what happened, and with that, things fall into place, with that, there is a map to history, and that is interesting to me. Of course there is National Education – the official narrative – and there are the alternative versions, and it becomes multi-faceted and multi-layered and so much more interesting to me.


Thank you.


Related Stories:

A Story in a Sandcastle

Imagine All the People

Lim Jin Li is (among other things) a post-graduate student in History at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Contact Jin Li