An Interview with BLOOD TIES Director CHAI Yee-wei

CHAI Yee-wei is quite the prolific short-film maker in Singapore, having made a number of shorts that have won various awards both locally and abroad. He now joins the ranks of those from Singapore making the leap into feature filmmaking with his debut feature film Blood Ties, which was funded under the Singapore Film Commission's New Feature Film Fund. Principal photography began on 1 March this year, and it made its World Premiere on 10 September. I have this opportunity to catch up with Yee-wei over a period of time to talk about the transition, and his film.
Stefan S (SS): Hi Yee-wei, thanks for agreeing to this interview, amidst your busy schedule. Almost all your shorts, such as LoserLau Sai (Diarrhea) and My Blue Heaven amongst others, dwell in the realm of comedy. Now Blood Ties is sans comedy of course, was it a surprise to you that your first feature will be of the supernatural-mystery-thriller genre instead of a forte you seem to be comfortable with? My Blue Heavenwas insanely comedic!

Yee-wei (YW): I am amazed you had caught all of my short films over the years! (Laughter) I have always liked the comedy genre as it comes to me most naturally. But considering how the supernatural/action/thriller genres probably have more market potential, I am not too terribly surprised.

SS: Blood Ties was a short film, and I've seen it in September 2007 during a festival screening, where you had made the announcement that a feature film version was in the works. How daunting was it to develop the feature length version, without feeling that you're repeating yourself. I thought you had mentioned that the short film was somewhat like a teaser to a bigger story, so was that like a calling card of sorts?

YW: I was able to make the announcement because we were fortunate to have a production house back the project (Oak3). I am extremely grateful that they stood by me for these 2 years while I was developing it. Making the leap from a 10 minute film to a 100 minute one takes a lot of leap of faith. And to feed that faith consistently for 2-3 years is not easy. There will be sceptics and also people who encourage you. And the biggest challenge wasn't in trying to make sure it is different enough from the short, but whether it can stand out on its own in the market amongst the rest of the competitors out there from the rest of the world.

The short film was a calling card of sorts, yes. But so is every one of my short films I guess. All filmmakers who start out making short films are in a way building up a body of works that will showcase their ability to tell a story and give others a chance to see if they could be capable of more.

SS: You've always managed to get well known faces to act in your shorts, be it in the lead role, or cameo appearances. Now Cheng Pei Pei and Kenneth Tsang, two Asian cinema veterans who have made films internationally. How did you manage to get (or convince!) them to act for you, especially when you're just starting out?

YW: Ingredients that will help are a good story/script, having credible producers and investors, and of course plenty of sincerity goes a long way.

SS: Any moments where the film fan in you was in awe of their presence on set, or jitters when it comes to directing these veterans?

YW: I was quite concerned if I there would be any issues with them taking instructions from someone as fresh and new as I am. After all they are so much more experienced. But from what I've learnt through this production, is that as long as you are professional and explain properly the reasons to justify why you want things to be done, people will follow. I think during the initial meeting with them I was quite nervous, but as you enter production, everyone just focused on getting the job done and they just become another person you work with on set.

SS: Joey Leong was quite the sensation in the film, having convincingly carried off the role of the central character Qin which, if I may put it this way, is both the saint and the sinner, being that wide-eyed teenage girl, and the avenging angel by way of possession by her dead brother's spirit.

YW: We had a hard time looking for a suitable actress for the Qin character, and had held numerous auditions. We received Joey's profile, but it was not until her audition that we knew instantly that we had found the perfect actress to pull it off.

SS: I had sort of hoped to see some of the original cast from the short version, like Loke Loo Pin, in the feature version, whether be it reprising their roles or being casted in new ones. Vincent Tee (from your short My Blue Heaven) happened to be a key cast member!

YW: I was trying to make this one as different as I can from the short film. Vincent Tee was not in the short film (of Blood Ties), but I saw that he could act as one of the characters in the feature, so I decided to use him. It was good that he was not in the short film too so there's no expectations. But many of the local actors that I've casted are excellent performers who are usually not given the chance to shine. I promise you will be pleasantly surprised by the performance of the local actors in this film - especially the "bad boys".

SS: And yes I was, as they really had this street-edginess about them! You had credited your art director in the short film version with coming up with many of the ingenious sets and props seen in the short, from the altar right down to the fake tombstone in a real cemetery. How much more was accomplished, production wise, given the expanded budget to translate your vision across as intended?

YW: Zoe Chu was my art director in the short film, and I asked to have her join me in this feature film. It was on a scale many folds larger - scope wise, budget wise and of course effort wise too. Much was accomplished, and she designed some really beautiful sets. One of which was the room where one of the bad boys was going to be slaughtered. And many of the set design and props, required so much attention to detail and though not everything are shot in close ups, they are in such abundance that they generally make certain scenes so much more lush and intricate. Thanks to her work, Blood Ties is able to look like a big budget production.

SS: For something shot under S$1M (approx US$690K), I'd say the production values have been pretty impressive. For the benefit of those not familiar with the Chinese culture here in this part of the world, let's talk about the mystique in your story, since the release date of the film is also during the Lunar Seventh Month this year, which ties in somewhat with your story involving the supernatural. There are at least 2 long held beliefs that you've included in your film, one involving dressing the dead in red for burial so as to make the spirit vengeful, and the other involving a spirit's return on the 7th day after death. What made you decide on these 2 beliefs amongst many out there? My knowledge of them is quite basic, and if your research had turned out any interesting nuggets that may spook us some more?

YW: I guess because these 2 beliefs are quite familiar to many Chinese across many regions. I added the use of blood to complete the curse, so as to add a level of distinction between my implementation of the myth and traditional practice. I think it also adds an additional step to make it such that it wouldn't be as straightforward as how we traditionally thought it would be.

SS: Here's the perennial question I have for local filmmakers. Your short My Blue Heaven had 2 versions, one of which is the uncut/uncensored version that was screened in a special one-off screening in Singapore. So we know how naughty you can be! From the trailer, we can see numerous gore-filled moments. Have you faced any pressure from the local censors so far, or felt the need to self-censor yourself while shooting some of the scenes?

YW: Censorship is always an issue when you are making films that might provoke not just on a visual level, but also on a content standpoint. The plot of Blood Ties requires some gory scenes, but I also have to weigh the consequences of how it will impact the box office if it was rated too high. While I hoped the film could be NC16 or even PG, some cuts if made would directly impact the story's effectiveness. So we are taking some sacrifices in box office by protecting the integrity of the film and keeping some violent shots, while still making sure we will not make it too violent that will push it to R21 as we will not be able to even sell the DVD. Who knows, maybe if the film does well, it might justify us to release a R21 version? That said, I assure you that at M18, it is still going to be the most violent Singapore film so far.

I do hope that one day, our films can be rated at the same level, and with the same standards that the censor board uses with foreign films. We are already at a disadvantage having a film industry that is still so young, and to have the censors be harsher on our films than the foreign films is really unfortunate. How are we able to compete with another similarly rated film if our film pales in impact compares to the foreign import? As you know, Singaporean filmgoers are a demanding bunch when it comes to watching fllms! And they will end up saying "agh ... How come our local rated film is so weak compared others? Singaporean film sucks!" Our censorship board might unknowingly be killing our own film market.

SS: Yes, the ratings applied toward local films may be somewhat harsher I feel as well, and of course an R21 rating will not allow for DVD sales here. We know how anything higher than a PG will somehow dent box office numbers, and Jack Neo too had seen none-too-spectacular (by his track record) box office for his unexpectedly rated NC-16 film earlier this year. But given the theme of your film, coupled with the rare M18 rating for a local movie with an integrity of not re-editing for a lower rating, I hope that it'll make some local history with audiences giving recognition for that at least!

YW: I do hope so as well, but the numbers for any M18 film (local or foreign) does not look that great. So I do have to make realistic expectations as well.

SS: Now with one feature length film under your belt, will we continue to see some more short films from you, or have you bitten the bug and will focus your energies in developing more stories for the feature length format? Would there be a chance of watching a Chai Yee-wei comedic film?

YW: I do hope to make a comedy some day, as you can tell, it is in my blood. But really, what gets made next is usually determined by which script comes ready first. I do have a few ideas for comedies, but I will not commit until a script I am happy with gets written. As for short films, I wish I will continue to make more as I find the opportunity to. It is all about timing I guess!

SS: For those curious, will there be any planned DVD release of your earlier short films? I think they do deserve a wider audience!

YW: Unfortunately, due to licensing issues, some of them might never ever get released.
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