Keeping it Reel

Published on 26 January 2017

Despite the odds, New York-based Singaporean film-maker Kirsten Tan has carved a way into the industry, while staying true to herself.

Despite the odds, New York-based Singaporean film-maker Kirsten Tan has carved a way into the industry, while staying true to herself.

By PAMELA HO

“I grew up in a very conservative Chinese household, where doing arts is a little unimaginable. Because my parents are practical business people, it was a real struggle at the start,” reveals Singaporean film-maker Kirsten Tan, who describes herself as a nerdy kid from Dunman High School who found liberation switching from science to arts at Victoria Junior College.

“Films became my portal to the wider world, and my gateway out of that very traditional space,” she explains. “I already knew at 15 that I wanted to do film; but back then, the prominent players on the scene were Eric Khoo, Jack Neo and Daniel Yun. There was no room for someone like me. It felt pretty impossible, actually!”

But her love for film compelled her to join The Necessary Stage’s Lenses of Youth programme at 18. “Jasmine Ng was my mentor. She had just returned from New York University and had co-directed Kelvin Tong’s Eating Air and edited Eric Khoo’s 12 Storeys,” Tan recounts, adding that Ng was a good role model. “She kept it very real, very sincere.”

Upon graduating from the National University of Singapore, where she majored in English Literature and co-founded nuSTUDIOS, Tan enrolled in Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s now-defunct Advanced Diploma in Film Production programme. She later pursued a Master’s in Film Production at New York University, receiving the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts Fellowship.

In her “angsty, soul-searching 20s”, she travelled and lived in South Korea, Thailand and New York City (where she’s currently based), making short films such as Come (2007) and Sink (2009). Her shorts have screened at Rotterdam, Toronto, Busan and Singapore; garnering over 10 international awards and grants, including Best Director for Fonzi (2007) and Best Southeast Asian Short Film for Dahdi (2014) at the Singapore International Film Festival. In 2015, she was conferred the National Art Council’s Young Artist Award.

Tan’s first full-length feature film, Pop Aye (by Giraffe Pictures), became the first Singaporean film to compete at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. The film — which traces the journey of a disillusioned architect and his long-lost elephant across Thailand — is set to tour the international film festivals circuit this year.

On why she chose this as her debut feature, Tan says, “I just write what calls out to me. I’m not the kind of film-maker who tries to brand myself. I feel that if I’m true to myself, a sort of branding will inevitably emerge.”

Updates: 

POP AYE has won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Screenwriting at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival at Park City, Utah; as well as the VPRO Big Screen Award at the 2017 International Film Festival Rotterdam in the Netherlands. And we’re pretty sure it’s not done yet…   

So how did Tan do it? The award-winning writer/director shares her creative process in our web exclusive, or click here to find out more about her work.

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