HOW A TEOCHEW STUDENT FILM WENT VIRAL — The Student Film Series
Or The Art Of Being Resilient In Film Making
First The Idea
In my previous life as a screenwriting lecturer, I was always on the lookout for emotional ideas for my student’s Final Year Project. In 2018, a student pitched to me an idea based on an incident from her life. Her grandmother had recently passed away and one of her biggest regrets was not being able to communicate with her in her grandma’s dialect. This became the premise for Longevity Peach.
A young girl must learn Teochew so she can communicate with her grandma before her grandmother passes away.
I thought the idea could be fleshed out into an emotional story, while at the same time, highlighting the need to not forget dialects as our children may lose the means to connect with their elders. Thus, I agreed to the premise and took on the role of supervising the team.
The student, Shi Ning, who pitched the idea ended up as the producer. The student who went on to write and direct the story was Xin Min. She did not know it at that time, but the journey in bringing this story to life on the screen would nearly break her spirit.
BREAKING THE STORY
In trying to flesh out this familiar story between a grandmother and her grandchild, I drew the director’s attention to a very good Korean film, The Way Home. I employed the same structure when I wrote a telemovie script titled My Time With Ah Gong. Basically, for whatever reason, the grandchild must be left with the grandparent to stay for a short duration, perhaps two to three weeks, which is sufficient time for an emotional journey. It would begin with the child disapproving, even disliking, and eventually, learning to appreciate the kindness and sacrifice of the grandparent. Giving the story a timeline would also foreshadow an ending, as once the parent returns to pick up the child, there would be a bittersweet parting of ways.
The plot for Longevity Peach became: Claire was a twelve-year-old who had not seen her grandmother since her father took her to Australia, but after her father got retrenched and had to look for another job, he sent her back to Singapore to live with her grandma for two weeks while he settled his job matters.
Settling the structure of this story, was the easy part.
Then came hell.
FINDING THE IDEAL CAST
The two main characters in the film were the grandmother and her granddaughter. Finding the child actress to play the granddaughter was relatively easy. They found Isabelle, who had a slight accent, which was good, as she played a character who lived abroad for some time. Finding the right grandmother took longer. Other than the story and script, casting would make or break the film. Find the right cast and your job as the director is nearly done. Find the wrong one, and hell will follow you all through pre, pro, and postproduction. Xin Min eventually had to decide between two elderly actresses. One was very inexperienced but had the right look. This was Mary. The other lady had more experience and even appeared in a Singtel commercial before. However, she didn’t have the right look or gave Xin Min the gut feel that she could be credible as the grandmother. Because Mary did not have much experience being on set, Xin Min and her team were very worried as they anticipated that working with Mary would mean long hours of helping her remember the lines. The director kept asking the team to look for more acting talent, but eventually, crunch time arrived. She had to decide. We met in a room above the school’s tv studio. Xin Min looked like she was trapped between a rock and the proverbial hard place. I pressed her. In your gut, who do you feel is the right one for your film and don’t think, just answer. And she said, Mary but…
I cut her off. There is no “but”. Go with your gut.
And so, it was decided that Mary and Isabelle would play grandmother and daughter, respectively. We did not know it but the war had just begun.
WHAT A VETERAN ACTOR BRINGS TO A STUDENT FILM
The team wanted to look for supporting actors who could lend some hype to the film. They found out that veteran actor Chen Su Cheng, who has starred in many classic Channel 8 television series like The Awakening, was a Teochew and they sent the script to him, through his manager. To their amazement, Chen Su Cheng agreed to act for them. I’ve not had the pleasure of working with many of these veteran Mandarin actors as much of my work revolved around English-speaking actors. Sitting at the table reading, with Chen Su Chen, I acquired a new level of respect for the actor’s craft. He read through the lines and gave many valuable suggestions for backstory and behavior. One that stood out to me, was when he raised his voice slightly whenever he addressed Mary, the grandmother character. The reason being, he explained, that old people could be hard of hearing. And that’s what I realized how these veteran actors bring value to student films. Student filmmakers, being young, do not have as much experience with a broad spectrum of humanity as these older actors who can draw on life, and insert details that ground their characters in convincing realism. So often, characters in student films seemed like portrayals of characters you see in an American film or a Taiwanese film, as opposed to real life.
With Chen Su Chen on board to help Xin Min as well in the directing of the cast, I thought we were all set to go with the filming.
How wrong I was.
CONFLICT ON SET
In the film, the granddaughter eventually bonded with the grandmother. But on set, the bonding was elusive. We sometimes forget that life as portrayed on screen is only a perception of reality and not reality itself. Xin Min summoned up every last ounce of effort but it was futile. Both actors were at loggerheads. She could not get the two of them to sync with one another. In one scene, the grandmother was supposed to slap the little girl. When Xin Min yelled “Action”, Mary literally hit Isabelle. The slap was so loud the sound carried across two meters to the camera crew. Whether Mary misunderstood the director’s instruction to “pretend” slap, or whether Mary was expressing her frustration, or whether she was employing the techniques of method acting, I’ll never know. But the tension was rife. And it ended with Isabelle, the child actress, threatening to walk off and not return for the shoot. Sometime in mid-December, I received a call from Xin Min who tearfully told me. My film is dead. I managed to calm her down. Eventually, she and her team managed to bring the two talents back to complete the scenes without killing each other.
But the ordeal was far from over.
A DISASTROUS FIRST CUT
The first cut of any film is painful to watch. You see all your mistakes exposed like a red raw open wound. You realize you missed coverage shots because you were in a hurry to finish. You despair at the compromises you made to complete the shoot. To your horror, you realize the perfect story vision in your head has mutated into something clunky, and draggy, and you’re face to face with the realization that you may have just wasted five months of your life doing something that everyone will hate.
It is a sobering moment for any student director.
As in life, how you behave, during and after any crisis, will determine the strength of your character. I think for any creative artist, it is okay to despair, even wallow in self-pity.
For one minute.
That’s all the time you allow depression to own you before you own depression itself. You have to buck up. Which, to her credit, Xin Min did. The first cut of her film was awful. It was so bad, that I and some lecturers were worried that if nothing was done, she might actually fail. The team members were tired at this point. And demoralized to the point of giving up. I huddled with another lecturer to figure out a way to save the story.
And we came up with a strategy.
It would require the shooting of some new scenes to bookend the film. It would require writing a voice-over to link some scenes, and combine them into a montage so that we could edit out the scenes that did not work. It would also require finding new actors for the bookend scenes. There was no guarantee that doing any of the above would save the story but it was better than not doing anything. If you must go down, at least you went down fighting. I called up Xin Min and described to her the steps to take and again, to her credit, and my admiration, she did not once waver. She thought the plan was good. She was not going to waste time whining about how bad her first cut was. She was going to forge ahead and do the best for her story.
I’ve mentored many student directors since then and I believe that any student film can be saved if the resilience of the director continues to burn brightly through all the setbacks. Let that flame die, and the film will die along with it.
MEMORABLE MOMENTS IN THE FINAL CUT
Xin Min found the actors for the bookend scenes. She shot the scenes and supervised the editing of the final cut. Memorable moments in the film include, the single tear coming down the granddaughter’s cheek as she sang happy birthday to her grandmother in Teochew. The wonderful performance of the actress who played the adult Claire in the bookend scenes. Chen Su Zhen selling the same flavor of ice cream to Claire. Every time that scene plays, it gets a laugh. And the heart-warming scene of Chen Su Chen teaching the grandmother English and the grandmother practicing “I love you” in front of the mirror. Sound recordist, Marcus, did a wonderful job putting together the soundtrack, the mix, and the sound design of the final cut. I watched the film during the final presentation, in the green room and turned to a lecturer and asked; Am I seeing things or did I just watch a damn good emotional film? The lecturer nodded.
I was not seeing things.
What I saw was determination made visible. Xin Min and her team pulled through. I thank her for not giving up. For reminding us of the importance of resilience in student filmmaking. And finally, for never giving up hope on the power of an emotional story.
Longevity Peach would go on to win the Audience Choice Awards at Viddsee Juree. In 2018, the short film went viral and went on to garner 1.3 million views on its Facebook page — Teochew sharing.