Ler Jiyuan on the magic of film making and telling compelling stories on-screen

Ler Jiyuan is a Singaporean filmmaker who is an experienced storyteller. His diverse portfolio includes telemovies such as ‘Gone Case’ based on the award-winning novel by Dave Chua and ‘The Love Machine’ which was nominated for five awards at the 2016 Asian Television Awards. He’s also worked on TV projects like ‘Fiends and Foes’ and ‘Zero Calling’ as well as many short films.

One of his short films, ‘The Drum’, was in competition at the 2017 Clermont Ferrard Short Film Festival and has won the Viddsee Jurree Awards this year, placing Gold. The 25-minute short film follows the journey of Kang, a recently retired man in his 60s dealing with the sudden onset of a late-life crisis and a strained relationship with his son.

We caught up with Ler Jiyuan recently to talk about ‘The Drum’ and his work as a filmmaker.

Q: What was your inspiration behind ‘The Drum’?

I was asked to be part of the NAC Silver Arts Festival, to make a short film centred on the elderly and the arts in Singapore. I was really interested since I had not done short films in a decade.

I contacted Dave Chua, my favourite Singaporean novelist, and asked him to work on this project with me. I’ve always been a huge fan of Dave’s work and had previously adapted his novel Gone Case into a telemovie.

Dave and I came up with the story for The Drum after a number of meetings, sharing our thoughts on what were the plights of elderlies in Singapore. Many of the scenes were inspired by actual events. For example, the taxi driver character in the film was based on a real-life taxi driver whom I had met, who told me that his wife was dying. Other characters were all based on people we knew or observed in everyday life. Dave combined all this into the screenplay, and the result was a really simple yet poignant story about a man dealing with the emptiness of old age, learning to let go of all the hate and anger in his life.

Q: Many short films, at least the ones I’ve watched, including ‘The Drum’ seem to be able to convey quite a full story and emotions with very little dialogue. How did you go about doing that?

I guess the old adage “show don’t tell” applies. I always believe a good film lets the audience fill up the blanks themselves. This way, the audience is more emotionally invested in the film. They feel like they own the film rather than just being a passive observer.

In The Drum, the dialogue was used very intentionally, always to express some kind of subtext. For example, there was one scene in the film when Kang (played by Yu Qing) visited his estranged son. In that scene, Kang speaks in Hokkien while his son speaks in Mandarin. Both understand each other perfectly but just refuse to speak in each another’s language. I thought this was a really poetic expression of the relationship between them.

Really!? I didn’t catch that since I don’t speak either Mandarin or Hokkien, but now that you’ve explained that scene, it adds a real depth to that relationship. So what got your into film making?

Failing my A Levels!

After I screwed up my A Levels, I was thrown into the army. When your head is shaved and you’re doing push ups for no reason it really makes you think about life. So I started asking myself – what do I want to do?

My first choice was actually to become a musician. Of course, that was a job that required real talent which I quickly realized I didn’t have. So I went for my second choice – filmmaking.

So what is it about film making that makes your heart sing?

Film making doesn’t really “make my heart sing” in the typical sense of the phrase. The film making process is hard work – long hours, very little money, and very frustrating. In fact, you often ask yourself “what the hell did I get myself into?” at some point in making the film.

For me, the true fulfilment comes only when you have finished editing the film and it is ready to be shared with your audience. Up to this point, the film is still yours. Once it crosses that threshold and goes on screen, it is everyone else’s. That, to me, is the magical part.

You’ve been involved in many other projects including TV shows and movies, how is making a short film different than other projects?

Short Films, to me, are pieces of a filmmaker’s soul. This is because, usually, only very limited amounts of money is involved in the making of a short film. This also means nobody will be on your ass, “giving you notes”. This, in turn, means that you can really make a short film the exact way you want. And this cannot be said about a lot of feature films and especially TV dramas, where there are numerous stakeholders involved.

This will be the main difference. Other than that, the principle of visual storytelling is the same across all mediums. As a director, I learn the rules of each medium and adapt accordingly. For commercials I will be like “Can you raise your energy and finish the entire action in 5 seconds?” For film I will be like “Can you don’t rush? Just take your time and say the lines at your own pace.”

Can you tell me a little bit more any other future projects you’re working on?

After The Drum I adapted another of Dave Chua’s work into a short film, called Paper House. The film is set against the backdrop of a traditional Chinese funeral and features the disappearing craft of making paper offerings in Singapore. You can google the film and watch it for free on StarhubGo.

Right now, me and my wife Wendy are working on a documentary about our dog who passed away due to cancer in 2015. The title of the film is “Vios” – also the name of our black Labrador.

“Vios” is a basically a short documentary that captures the last days of our dog’s battle with terminal cancer, and how we struggled with the decision to let her go. When Vios fell sick 3+ years ago, we shot a lot of videos of our lives back then – taking care of her, spending time with her, etc. The original intention was to make a canine cancer awareness video. However, after Vios died, we were too emotionally distraught to do anything. Only now, more than 3 years later, we are able to face the footage. After assessing what we have, we decided we would make a documentary.

Making this film has been extremely emotionally exhausting for us. There isn’t a single time Wendy can sit through the edit of the film without crying her eyes out. For me, I have made the decision to never watch the film again after we are done with it – which will be soon. It’s too painful.

You can follow the film on Instagram @viosfilm and Facebook

Finally, who are your favourite filmmakers?

Overseas: Hirokazu Kore’eda, Lee Chang Dong, Jia Zhangke, Stanley Kubrick, David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky, Denis Villeneuve

Locally: Royston Tan, Eric Khoo, Wee Lilin, Tan Pin Pin, Rajagopal

You can watch ‘The Drum’ on Viddsee’s website