One Small Voice: Boo Junfeng

Published on 21 June 2016

Film-maker Boo Junfeng, whose Apprentice made waves at the Cannes Film Festival, highlights the complexities of screenwriting.


Writing for film, at least from my experience, is vastly different from writing a play or a novel. The cinematic sensibility is quite obvious if you read a proper screenplay from a trained screenwriter. The moments and the beats, how the dialogue is written or how scenes are written, need to be cinematic.

Many film-makers end up writing scripts themselves. Otherwise, there would be a lot of adapting to do! It took me three years to write Apprentice, and it was a huge learning curve for me in every area. One of the key areas was in writing.

The difficulty of finding good screenwriting is increasingly recognised, especially for younger film-makers, which is why many film labs are appearing all over the world. While working on Apprentice, I went to a script-lab in Israel called the Jerusalem International Film Lab, where we had script editors from Europe as mentors.

When I went there, I already had a rough structure of what the story would be. But it was difficult for me to look beneath the structure and really go into character. I struggled with it for a long time, because usually, I plot things out before going into the development of the character. That’s because you’re always worried about structure, about the plot points, always worried it will be boring. That’s what they teach you in film school. “What is the first plot point? What is the second plot point? Where is the mid point? And where is the climax?” These classical structures are what they keep feeding you in film school.

But I’ve learned that at the beginning, this isn’t very helpful. Structure helps later in the process, when you want to move things around. I’ve learned that when I next start work on a script, I will work on character and structure simultaneously — especially if it’s a character-driven film. The character’s soul and motivation need to be at the core of it.

That’s not to say structure isn’t important, but there are so many ways of looking at cinema, and so many ways of directing and writing that are outside the classical Hollywood model.

I had a huge moment when I went to the Asian Film Academy in Busan in 2005. The dean of that session was Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien. And it was incredibly fascinating for me to see how he worked: his film-making was just on the other end of what I had learnt up to that point.

Beyond all that, it’s also about soul. I’ve come to realise the more you look inward — into humanity, into yourself, into the human condition — the more you’ll find that the work becomes universal. I just saw amazing new films by Romanian film-maker Cristian Mungiu and Iranian film-maker Asghar Farhadi. Both seem very specific to Romanian and Iranian society. But at the heart of both films is the human condition, and I could completely feel and understand it. I think that makes a good film.

With Apprentice, even though it’s set in Singapore, at Cannes, people would come up to me on the streets and say how the film stayed with them even after they had seen other films in between. So there is something a little bit haunting about this story. And yeah, I think that’s quite encouraging, I think that’s what we were hoping it would do.

BOO JUNFENG made his feature-length directorial debut in 2010 with Sandcastle, which premiered at the International Critics’ Week at the Cannes Film Festival. Trained in film schools in Singapore and Spain, his award-winning short films include Un Retrato De Familia (2005), Stranger (2005), The Changi Murals (2006), Katong Fugue (2007), Keluar Baris (2008) and Tanjong Rhu (2009). He is a recipient of the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award and the National Youth Council’s Singapore Youth Award. Apprentice opens in cinemas 30 June.

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