The Straits Times called her “a director to look out for”, and her work has been screened in over 40 film festivals, receiving 10 over international awards, including Best Director at the Singapore International Film Festival and a National Prize at the Kodak Film Awards for outstanding cinematography. A director/cinematographer with a penchant for visual storytelling and quirky humour, Kirsten Tan was raised in Singapore but has lived in South Korea and Thailand before going to New York City to pursue her Master’s in Film Production at NYU where she received the Tisch School of the Arts Fellowship.

Her short film Sink is currently featured on the SGFilm Channel (www.youtube.com/sgfilmchannel), an online channel that showcases the creative and film talents from Singapore through their short films. The channel is presented by the Singapore Film Commission, Media Development Authority of Singapore and managed by Objectifs. Puiyee from Objectifs chats with Kirsten to find out about the thought process behind her work.

Puiyee: It’s been almost 4 years since your film Sink was first screened in 2009. How does it feel to see it being shown on the SGFilm Channel on YouTube, where people from all over the world are now able to watch this film?

Kirsten: Having Sink on YouTube is one thing but having it endorsed by the Objectifs’ SGFilm Channel makes it much more awesome. 🙂  

I know the other short films on SGFilm Channel very well and have had the chance to watch these quality works in different film festivals over the years. To be included as one of them is really an honour.

Puiyee: How did the story for Sink come about? Can you share with us the production process behind this film as well?

Kirsten: Sink literally came from a dream. In my dream, I saw a sink standing singularly in the middle of the ocean. It was a simple but arresting visual, and upon waking, I quickly wrote it down. I spent sometime interpreting that dream before I eventually came up with a loose narrative for it.

Still, a few years passed before I got to get it made. I wanted the visual to stay as true to the vision I had. I wanted to convey a feeling of minimalism and quietness and the beaches in Singapore were just too crowded. And it was during a road trip in Thailand that I saw a beach from a fishing village and immediately, this idea that’s been sitting with me all these years came to mind again. 

Puiyee: Your films explore and deal with a wide range of themes and topics. For example, your film Come deals with the topic of sex, and Thin Air dwells on the theme of solitude. What inspires you when you are creating stories for your films?

Kirsten: I’m a very easily distracted person and so a lot of random ideas come to me. Over the years, the notebooks that I’ve collected feel almost like a junkyard of thoughts.

In general I realise that what fascinates me most is the idea of existence and the way we relate to the universe we know. The more I’ve lived, the more I realise that life in some ways is somewhat ridiculous. Not in a bad way, but the way life unfolds is so unpredictable to the point of being slightly absurd. Concrete reality isn’t so concrete. So the concept of reality vs dream/illusion is something I like to explore. I’ve always been fascinated by strange things in ordinary existence.

So looking back at all my films, even though they often have different subjects, I think they often have a touch of something surreal in it.

Puiyee: You are currently based in New York. How different is it like working in New York compared to Singapore?

Kirsten: Instead of just talking about work, I think it’s more fun to talk about being a filmmaker in New York vs being a filmmaker in Singapore. In some ways, it’s really quite different and it’s something that intrigues me when I travel between these 2 places.  

In NY, filmmaking has existed for a long time. There are so many film shoots going on here to the point that film shoots are almost viewed as a nuisance by New Yorkers. In this environment, being a filmmaker is really nothing special. It’s just another profession.  

In contrast, filmmaking is still rather new in Singapore and so people react to it more strongly. The attitude towards filmmaking really ranges from, “it’s cool that you’re doing something different with your life!” to “so when are you going to find a real job?” Generally, I think people are a lot more curious in Singapore about filmmaking and I get a lot more questions here. 

It’s hard to say which is better or worse – to be ordinary but accepted or to be different but constantly questioned. I think it’s easier to be “out and proud” about my identity as a filmmaker in NY whereas in SG, depending on who I talk to, I find myself downplaying it a little. I guess attitudes are slowly changing but I think some Singaporeans still carry certain misconceptions about filmmakers or artists as being frivolous or pretentious.

Puiyee: Do you think that the filmmaking scene in Singapore has changed a lot, compared to how it was like 10 years ago?

Kirsten: I think the filmmaking scene is definitely changing and not just in Singapore.

In fact, everything about the film scene is evolving very quickly. And we’re not talking about change in terms of decades but in terms of months. We have new social media platforms popping up; new cameras coming out every year; distribution platforms evolving; people crowd-funding in new ways and other weird new things being talked about like interactive cinematic experiences etc. Not to mention 3D movies (argh.) It’s changing so quick and fast that it almost feels like we’re on a new frontier where people are figuring out where to go next and what to hold on to.

But in some ways, while it’s good to be aware of changes, all these are just external factors. I feel that the most important things about filmmaking will stay the same and that is simply really just to have a good story and good actors. And that’s what I want to focus on.   

Puiyee: Can you share with us which are some of your favourite films from Singapore?

Kirsten: I remember growing up watching Eric Khoo’s 12 Stories and walking away intrigued, not just because of the story but because it was the first time I saw Singapore on celluloid. Like, “Hey, that’s how we look like on the big screen!”  

And then, as I started filmmaking, I was exposed to the works of Royston Tan and Wee Lilin and saw how Singapore could look stylised and different.

And then the short films and features of filmmakers like Sun Koh, Boo Junfeng and Anthony Chen came along and they all make good films and they’re constantly creating new work. Over the years, I saw how everyone really worked to stay on this path but the great thing is also seeing how everyone grew as filmmakers. We’re all still pushing on but it’s certainly comforting and inspiring to know that there is a community of people around you doing the same thing.