Singapore-born filmmaker Djinn, 38, made his feature debut with the horror
cheapie Return to Pontianak (2001), which was successful
enough to allow him to direct the much more polished, more mature
Perth, recently released on DVD by Tartan Video. Lim Kay-tong stars as
Harry Lee, a self-proclaimed "simple man" living in Singapore, who
dreams of retiring to Perth. When he loses his job as a security
guard, he takes another, working for a band of shady thugs, driving a
Vietnamese prostitute, Mai (Ivy Cheng), to her various gigs. Since
Harry has irreversibly cut himself off from his wife and grown son,
he begins to transfer his paternal feelings to Mai. Unfortunately,
this does not sit well with his new bosses. Perth has been
compared to Taxi Driver, and, if nothing else, it shares with
that film a sense of history, psychological realism, and
fearlessness. Djinn, who journeys back and forth between Singapore
and Los Angeles, was kind enough to respond to a series of questions,
via e-mail, about the film.
First, I'm curious about the languages and dialects in this film.
It surprised me to hear bits of English, even if the dialect was very
heavy, and I needed subtitles.
In Singapore, we have four official languages: Malay (which is the
official language as we sit astride the Malay archipelago... although
Singapore is majority Chinese), Chinese (now predominantly Mandarin
although some older generation types still break into dialects like
Hokkien, Teochew, Hakka, Hainanese and Cantonese), Tamil (a southern
Indian language and a true minority language although some words
occasionally creep into popular use) and lastly but most important of
all, English, the great compromise for racial stability. Since
Singapore is a small country, like Jamaica, but smaller and more
densely populated, we have ended up developing our own "Creole
Pidgin," which we call Singlish. It's a harsh, staccato-sounding mix
of English words with mainly Malay and increasingly Chinese. This
language is itself involving. For example, as Singapore has always
been an important port of call, the word for going in reverse is
"Gostan" which is a bastardization of the nautical term "Go Astern."
However we don't hear this in as much use these days as the
government's "Speak Mandarin" campaign has come into effect.
Lim Kay-tong (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Brokedown Palace) gives
an amazing performance in this. Did you write with him in mind?
Actually, no. I modeled the character in many ways after an uncle of
mine who spent 30 to 40 years as a first mate on ships around the
world. Like all sailors, he was fond of sharing his nautical lore
(e.g., a trip up the Mekong during the Vietnam War, etc.) over
several bottles of beer, or better still, hard liquor (my poor
liver). Although I had in mind perhaps to find someone like my uncle
to play the role (God forbid the real man himself), it was always a
risk, as the role was heavily dialogue-driven. I couldn't shave off
too much dialogue as it was crucial to the film for the characters to
I've always been a fond admirer of Kay Tong's work. At about the time
we finally got the funding together for Perth
, he looked
suitably ripe for the role. So I decided on Kay Tong, and he was
amazing to work with. It was the first role he had undertaken (and
indeed after all the years his first lead role in a feature), wherein
he abandoned somewhat his London stage training into some form of
method acting which involved drinking from his extensive wine
collection. It resulted in a fall (from the roof of his house) and a
broken toe. The limp you see on screen is real! What's most amazing
about Kay Tong was that he was playing opposite all these non-actor
types; Victory Selvam
, who plays Selveraja the taxi driver,
is a real cab driver and Sunny Pang
[who plays Angry Boy] is a bouncer/street
fighter. They frequently went off page and he had to keep to his
lines whilst steering them back, and he somehow managed to do this
How did you arrive at Perth, of all places, as the dream place to
retire? Is it really a retirement community for Singaporians?
It's our Miami. But even more so, it's our second city outside our
little red dot ("red dot" is what they call Singapore on the map).
The whole genesis occurred in frequent cab rides across town. Most of
the taxi drivers, who never shy away from an opinion in "opinionless"
Singapore, voiced a desire to emigrate to Perth, which I thought odd.
At the end of the 90s, Singapore was experiencing a brain drain, a
sort of white-collar exodus; however, this dream of Perth was totally
Then I remembered my days spent in the Army Reserve. (In Singapore,
we have an Israeli system military where the Reserve is the
frontline). The ranking NCOs were extremely dissatisfied with the
government's paper bias policy and felt slighted for promotions.
They, too, mentioned Perth!
The final straw came when I completed the script and my uncle
(without knowledge of the story) mentioned that he too was thinking
of spending his savings either retiring to Perth or, at age 60,
joining the Hawaiian iron man triathlon. On a side note, when I sent
the script to Kay Tong much later, he was en route back from Tuscany
and mentioned he was only dropping into Singapore for a day before
going down to Perth to see his relatives! He now has a house there!
I noticed you often withdraw from the violence (at least up until
the ending), setting up the camera across the room or looking through
a doorway. Can you please talk about this technique?
The process of observation seems more unsettling and uncomfortable. I
also tried to keep it to as long a take as possible to allow the
audience to feel the full vent of Harry's fury as he expels it onto
his unfortunate wife in the only way he is able to communicate. In a
way, it's like a throwback to one of my favorite movie scenes ever,
the last shot in The Bad Lieutenant
(1992), where the camera runs on
a long take from across the street as a car drives by [Harvey] Keitel
and pumps him full of lead. Minutes after the action, the camera is
still running with people walking by, oblivious.
Funny thing about the wife-beating scene was that the wife, Liu Qiulian
(she was a name in Chinese drama in Singapore from the 80s) had
mentioned to me her concern with Kay Tong. She had heard that, when
in character, he would rarely hold back and had punched a couple of
actors for real. Oddly, on the take, she decided to goad him on and
call him names. But she was very streetwise; she tucked her head next
to the cushion and blocked most of the punches with her arm. A couple
got through, though, and she had some bruises. Fortunately, Kay Tong
was a lousy puncher!
I see you worked with the Shaw Brothers. How different
is that studio from the days of Sir Run Run and Runme?
The Singapore side of the organization I worked with mainly does
distribution these days, although their last great contribution to
world cinema was investing in Blade Runner
! The guys in Singapore are
from the son of Run Run whilst the son of Runme went the other way to
Hong Kong. The strange thing about Shaw is their main office. It's
very cinematic. It's on the 13th floor in a swanky skyscraper off
Singapore's fashionable Orchard Road and it's like a set straight out
of a Bruce Lee
film. The whole place is mirrored and there is a second level with
a Chinese parapet (perhaps they had recycled their sets?) and there
are lots of old men (probably ex-filmmakers who did not fulfill their
contracts) mulling around. Until recently, they were only on