Growing up, going to the movies was a holy experience for director Wee Li Lin. It was a ritual of sorts, to look up at a movie banner hanging outside a cinema, just before walking down a darkened aisle in respectful silence. Life was but a dream then. And a mildly melancholic one at that.
Wee often felt lonely as her parents worked long hours to grow their local company into a global distributor of tyres and wheels. It did not help that she is sensitive by nature. At home, she would retreat into her imagination, building buses and cars out of cardboard boxes, which would be her “set” back then. She went on to play with Barbie dolls, but not in the way most girls do — she built a townhouse for them, with an elevator shaft that allows them to commit suicide by jumping down.
“Looking back, playing with dolls, puppets and toys, making up scenarios and getting them to talk planted the seeds of storytelling in me. Movies helped raise me, taught me about humanity, the world I knew and the world I didn’t,” shares Wee.
After having graduated from the New York University Tisch School of the Arts Asia, armed with a Master of Fine Arts in dramatic writing, Wee’s works have been highlighted at international film festivals and awards. Her modus operandi is to develop the theme and the characters in depth first, before she starts on the script. As she figures out the goal of each role, internally and externally, the storyline evolves.
To the actor-driven director, filmmaking is collaborative. Directors lean heavily on the cast to bring each role to life, giving them depth and new dimensions. “Once the actors are cast, we workshop together to discuss our interpretations of the characters — their needs, wants and vulnerabilities. We bring the actors’ own personalities into the roles as well.”
That was her process with her debut film Gone Shopping, which had veteran thespians Kym Ng and Adrian Pang in the lead. Ng, well-loved by audiences for her expressive emotiveness, continued to do so in her role as Clara — a tai tai (a slang term to describe ladies who lunch) undergoing a mid-life crisis, exploring how a nation’s obsession with shopping can change the course of her life. The satirical drama that hit the big screen in Singapore in July 2007 travelled to international film festivals, scoring Wee her first international review on Variety.
Even in Wee’s short films, time is always devoted to the emotional development of her lead characters. Her claim to fame rolled out in 2003 with Autograph Book, a dark comedy about how an autograph book stiffens the competition between two school-girl-rivals. It snagged Wee her first overseas award at the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival and was one of Singapore’s first productions to be shown at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
Her 2017 production, Areola Borealis, shows her development as a director with its smooth, easy flow. Over the 13-minute film, the conflicts between two generations come to be resolved, with bras — including one flashing LED-lit version — used as a motif to symbolise female empowerment and liberation.
These days, since Wee has just wrapped up an independent short film named East Coast Park Lovers, she stays up past midnight on Los Angeles time to attend a “live” masterclass in directing. In the daytime, she educates film students and come August, she will continue to teach undergraduates at the Nanyang Technological University on scriptwriting.
If like Wee, you love to get “sucked into the world of each movie”, read on for her insights and recommendation lists.
On What We Should Look Out For When Watching Movies
“Visually, there is so much filmmakers do to help with characterisation. A small accessory, a colour scheme or a particular hairstyle creates something memorable in the character.
In films such as Pretty In Pink, the wardrobe defines protagonist Andie Walsh’s originality, her independence, her societal standing and her need to be herself. In In The Mood For Love, actors Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung are transformed into uber-romantic figures being styled in the classic, romantic way of their era.
In Falling Down, the anti-hero D-Fens (Michael Douglas) is a seemingly nondescript man with a melt-down on a very hot day in LA. The frustrated unemployed defence worker’s military-style buzz cut, short-sleeved shirt with pens in its pocket, geeky glasses and suitcase manipulate our impression of him but these elements slowly unfurl through a narrative that says otherwise, lending the thrills with the spills later on.”
On Her Golden Oldies
“From the 80s, Stranger Things on Netflix. For music, hits of Prince, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Alison Moyet and Ah-Ha, among many others from the same decade.
People Are People by Depeche Mode is a great song that I feel more people need to hear, as so much divisiveness is being born out of Covid-19 when the reverse should be happening — although perhaps in some places, that is happening. Many people escape and relax with drinks, smokes, computer games… I unfurl by listening to this decade’s music.”
On Her Junk Entertainment
“Goop! Hahaha. I love it. I follow the site and I’ve seen the series on Netflix. My husband teases me mercilessly about it — but he also watches it :’D
I also love SGAG, they made a spoof of my National Day Parade 2018 video, which I love. I watch it every now and then for a laugh, which is quite often!”
On Her High-brow Entertainment
“Anything by Brene Brown. She speaks with such humour and honesty there is so much to learn from her teachings. She also has a one-off show on Netflix called The Call To Courage.”
On Her Must-Watch Films
Wee shares: “I’ll select a list which are different from my favourite directors list below, in no order of preference.”
01 | Wings Of Desire, directed by Wim Wenders in 1987 Germany, is a fantasy romance. In it, invisible, immortal angels who listen to the thoughts of Berlin’s human comfort the distressed. One of them falls in love with a mortal and becomes one himself to experience love and life.
02 | Roma was screened just two years ago to show the tumultuous life of a middle-class family in Mexico City in the 1970s. Directed by award-wining Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, it was the most nominated film of 2019 for the Academy, and eventually bagged three awards out of 10 nominations.
03 | Happy Go Lucky chronicles the adventures and misadventures of a cheerful, optimistic school teacher, as written and directed by Mike Leigh.
04 | Hurt Locker makes one giddy with hyper-realistic cameraworks depicting wartime chaos and a gritty perspective of the Iraq war. With Jeremy Renner’s convincing performance as Sergeant William James leading a bomb disposal team in races against time, he snagged multiple awards together with director Kathryn Bigelow.
05 | The Insider is headlined by Hollywood bigwigs Al Pacino and Russell Crowe, who bring to life director Michael Mann’s account of the struggles of a whistle-blower in the tobacco industry, based on a true story.
06 | In Boys Don’t Cry, Hilary Swank’s award-winning performance brings a sense of poignancy to the true tale that encompasses deception, romance, betrayal and hurt, all entwined.
07 | In Monsoon Wedding, director Mira Nair’s heady concoction of a stressed father, a bride-to-be with a secret, a smitten event planner, and relatives from around the world coming for an arranged marriage in India becomes one big dramatic affair to remember.
08 | Singapore GaGa, Singapore’s first documentary with a cinema release, is Tan Pin Pin’s whimsical take on Singapore’s soundscapes ranging from buskers to veteran musicians.
09 | Ilo Ilo, with its Mandarin title meaning Papa and Mama are not at home, put our flag at the Cannes Film Festival by snagging an award in 2013. It showcased a realistic portrayal of a spoilt child who was left to be brought up by a hapless domestic helper as his Singaporean parents are stressed out over money.
10 | All Lines Flow Out, a short film made in 2010 by Singaporean director Charles Lim Yi Yong (Wee’s husband), a fine art graduate from Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design. With artistic cinematography, he directed a powerful visual trail that follows the flow of the drainage system, our lifeline, going in, through and under Singapore. It won a special mention at the Venice International Film Festival.
11 | Sepet found international acclaim for Malaysian director Yasmin Ahmad when it launched in 2005. It explores social attitudes towards an interracial love affair between a Malay girl and a Chinese boy.
12 | Dreams by auteur Akira Kurosawa, who wrote and directed on a collection of his dreams. Some of these artistic tales pander to childhood curiosity of mythical folklore, while underlining the impact of mankind on earth.
13 | Shall We Dance features an awkwardly charming lawyer with a newfound passion. But we are not talking about the American version made memorable by Richard Gere. Way before that in 1996, there was an original, equally charming and a tad funnier version in Japanese directed by Masayuki Suo. It was one of Japan’s highest-grossing movies outside the country.
14 | The Lunchbox, directed by Ritesh Batra in 2013, is a Viewers’ Choice awardee that will bring a smile to your face when a fateful twist of lunchboxes and handwritten notes brings two lonely hearts together.
15 | Raise The Red Lantern is Zhang Yimou’s famous 1991 epic about sexual enslavement among wives and concubines — the last of whom was brought to life by Gong Li — due to old Chinese customs in the 20s.
On Her Obsessions
“I’ve been following the films of Warwick Thornton, an Australian director of aboriginal descent, for a few years and I think he has very interesting things to say about race, religion and identity. He is very visual in the most interesting and elegant way. I would highly recommend Sweet Country, a western period drama he shot about the racial tension between aborigines and the “white” settlers, which I saw at Singapore International Film Festival a few years back.”
“More recently, I watched When They See Us on Netflix by Ava Duvernay and thought she delivered a very emotionally intense and potently visual series. It is based on the true story of five African American boys wrongly accused of raping a female jogger in Central Park in New York in the late 80s.”
“I enjoy stories based on real people so another biopic film I thoroughly enjoyed was Richard Jewell by Clint Eastwood. It was one of my favourite films at the cinema from this year. Mostly because of the steady and confident hand of Mr Eastwood, but also for the casting of Paul Walter Hauser as Richard Jewell. I thought he gave a very understated and unselfconscious performance.
I’ve also very much enjoyed Invisible Stories on HBO Asia done by Ler Jiyuan. I think the writing, acting and themes explored were a big step up for Singaporean content and sets a new bar. So that is very exciting for a Singapore narrative content.”
“And lastly, just before Covid-19 hit hard, I got to host a small discussion for the documentary For Sama by Waad Al-Kateab. That film changed how I looked at the war in Syria and how little I (like many others) knew of the Syrian civil war and their struggles versus what the mainstream press paints for us. To see that personal, traumatic and beautiful journey of Waad, her husband and their daughter Sama, and their friends who remained in Syria to keep a hospital (and their cause) going, was to see humanity pushed to its extremes. One can’t help but feel changed after watching it and I think that’s what great films do, they change you.”
On Auteurs She Finds Awesome
“Many… Ang Lee, Sofia Coppola, Jane Campion, Eric Khoo, John Hughes, Cohen Brothers, James Ivory and Alexander Payne, to name a few. I grew up with the films of John Hughes and I feel his writing and directing left an indelible mark on me. I also love the photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Mary Ellen Mark and Jeff Wall. During my undergraduate years, I did several photography classes before I ventured into a few film classes.”
On Her Go-To Author
“In the past few years, I’ve been following Eckhart Tolle who is a spiritual teacher and author. I first saw an interview clip of him with Oprah Winfrey on YouTube 🙂 I would highly recommend his two books “The Power of Now” and “The New Earth”. They have really helped me understand spirituality in a way I never could. It has helped me grow bit by bit in profound ways. He is also pretty funny in an understated and deadpan way, which I love.”
“My filmmaking trajectory has taken me to a few highs and a few lows, all in a pretty public realm. For an inherently shy and sensitive person, this took a big toll on me and hampered my creative journey. Eckhart Tolle’s teachings, among others, have helped me find a more grounded, wise footing towards a more authentic and joyful path.”