Silencing Singapore

By Lawrence Ferber

Originally published on Advocate.com June 03 2009 11:00 PM ET

For Singaporean filmmaker Zihan Loo, the love that dare not speak its name doesn't require words. Solos, the gay 25-year-old's feature debut -- which he wrote, codirected, and stars in -- is a dialogue-free, emotionally fraught meditation on a student's (Loo) deteriorating relationships with his 40-something male teacher-lover (Yu Beng Lim) and physically frail mother (Guat Kian Goh), punctuated with bursts of modern dance, surreal imagery, nudity, and sex.

The film caused a stir in Singapore, where homosexuality is still illegal -- it was pulled from its world premiere competition slot at the 2007 Singapore International Film Festival due to cuts made by government censors. Deprived of any screenings in its homeland, Solos went on to play international festivals, including Los Angeles's AFI Fest and San Francisco's Frameline, and impressed the likes of Ian McKellen and John Cameron Mitchell, both of whom appear in a pair of hour-long video conversations with Loo on the film's DVD release (it's now in stores and also available online via Amazon and TLAVideo.com).

Solos evolved from a 2005 short film, Untitled, also codirected by Loo and Kan Lume, but its roots are planted firmly in Loo's own life, including a clandestine relationship he had as a teen with a man 25 years his senior. He has directed several additional shorts, choreographed and danced in Royston Tan's Cut, and acted in Ekachai Uekrongtham's 2007 feature Pleasure Factory (available from Strand Releasing). Loo recently completed a new short film, Threshold, inspired by a Singaporean police entrapment case, and come fall 2009 he will begin work on an MFA in film, video, and new media at School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

From Singapore, Loo discussed Solos and its controversy, the relationships that inspired the film, and getting his name etched into Ian McKellen's gay history book.

SOLOS 02 X390 (PUBLICITY) | ADVOCATE.COM

How did you and Kan come to collaborate on Untitled and Solos ?I met Kan in a filmmaking workshop organized by the National Museum of Singapore in 2005. It was like an open call for filmmakers, and they accepted a wide variety of people, from students like myself to Kan, who had done a few short films before. We basically spent about week together, culminating in a short film made at the end. By pairing us up they were testing our chemistry, and I found I could work with Kan on a very instinctual, base level. We didn't need to communicate much, so from there we went on to do the bigger project, which became Solos. This workshop was also significant because several of the filmmakers went on to be quite prominent today. Kan made a lesbian flick [ Female Games ], which was banned this year at SIFF, and there was Ding An, who went on to direct a popular local film on soccer called Kallang Roar.

Did you consider using dialogue in Solos ?Yes, in the original script there was dialogue. Very minimal, and the dialogue always happened offscreen because the lack and breakdown of communication is such a critical theme in Solos. But when we got to the editing stage it became clearer that the dialogue didn't help the aesthetic at all. Especially to my codirector. I wanted to keep the dialogue because I was the scriptwriter, but in hindsight I was too close to the project. He understood and had the maturity and guts to take out all the dialogue, and it worked better because you could really focus on the music, the visuals, all aspects.

And the dancing. Are you trained as a dancer?I had been dancing intensively for one year prior to the shoot just in pursuit of a parallel passion. I specialized in the Lindy Hop, a.k.a. swing, which originated in Harlem in the 1930s. But I knew if I didn't record it now for posterity in film, in time I would lose it. And ultimately Solos itself is about the different states of the human body in dance, in sex, in love.

SOLOS 03 X390 (PUBLICITY) | ADVOCATE.COM

The promotional materials for Solos mention that the film was "inspired by" true events but shy away from specifying that the true events were in fact from your life.The reason is because a lot of it has been fictionalized. It has been exaggerated in some areas, changed in others. I realized it wasn't accurate to say it was my personal life -- it was inspired by collective experiences, like people from my generation.

Let's tackle the relationship between the student and teacher. When did your real-life relationship with this much older man occur?I was 15. It lasted four years. We broke up when I was 19.

Did anyone know about your relationship at the time? And was, or is, there a fear of being caught and punished legally?Nope, no one knew. Yes, being caught and punished is a concern. For him especially. Even now.

What do you feel is the biggest challenge to an intergenerational relationship, legal matters aside? Change. The hardest thing will be the immense changes happening to the younger person as compared to the much more stable, settled life of the older person. You realize that you are not the person you started out the relationship as, and neither is he. I have received a lot of criticism from the gay community for a negative portrayal of gays in the film, but for me at the time, I was looking for the truth in the situation, and that was the truth of it. The boy grew and changed while the man remained stagnant because of the age difference. I've become hopefully more focused and stable in terms of a relationship.

Was he aware you decided to make a film inspired by your relationship with him?He was very supportive of the film. We were still in contact, but both of us had moved on to see other people. He was one of the first people I asked when I had the seed of the idea; I felt it was something I had to get off my chest and out of my system. A lot of times in an older-younger relationship people don't realize it's not a predator-victim kind of situation. It's a mutual exchange of ideas, and we keep learning things from each other. I think a lot of who I am today is actually from him. How he conducts himself, his ambition, drive, ability to communicate -- he's a great speaker and team leader. I was grateful to have him as a mentor. I would be a lesser person today without his guidance and generosity.

Is your relationship with your mother as strained as your character's?It used to be strained. It has improved. We communicated a lot more after [she saw] the film. She is much more accepting of my sexuality. We do talk about [my being gay] more openly, which does help. I think her main concern as a mom, particularly an Asian, is who do I know, who I am with, and when. When you don't talk about all those things she definitely gets concerned. But once you open up you are able to give her more information about your life, and the sharing is very important.

You showed her the film yourself? Was that awkward?Yes! It was a difficult afternoon, but I decided it was best.

Can you elaborate upon the film's being pulled from the SIFF and who exactly was responsible for censoring the film?It's the Board of Film Censors. It's under the Media Development Authority, which is under the Ministry of Communication, Information. and the Arts. They approve and censor all films and public screening materials in Singapore. It's ironic to have the Singapore Film Commission, which provides funding for local films, and the BFC under the same body [MDA]. Filmmakers have requested that both entities be separated. SIFF wanted to include the film in their competition lineup and submitted it to the authorities. The censors saw Solos and wanted several cuts. SIFF has the policy not to show any films that are cut -- they will be withdrawn from the festival. So the filmmakers, producer, and SIFF decided that the cuts shouldn't be made in accordance to the policy and [the film] should be withdrawn from the festival. It's the exact same case with Auraeus Solito's film in this year's festival, Boy.

Were Singapore's antigay laws a concern while making the film? And were they the reason it was censored?Honestly, the antigay laws weren't the problem -- censorship laws are. I believe even if you replace the [gay] sex scene in Solos with a graphic male-female sex scene, it will still be censored. Murder is illegal too, like anal sex, but you see people being murdered on-screen.

The actors who play the teacher and mother are both quite well-known in Singapore. As codirector, was there an advantage to playing the student and interacting with them on-screen?It helped to create the sense of trust. It also helped to create a very intimate set. Most of the time there were only two other people in the room as we filmed. In fact, the total crew and cast was probably around six people. I could also guide the scene where I wanted and see how [the other actor] responded and use that response to shape the scene. Both actors were very open and gave a lot of input. They were in fact cocreators of sorts.

How did Ian McKellen become involved?My producer Gerald [Herman] wanted some other aspect for the DVD. After the repercussions of everything that happened around the controversy -- how it got banned and withdrawn from the Singapore festival -- we felt we had the responsibility of showing something else, so we wanted to conduct interviews with people outside Singapore with perspectives coming from a more matured gay [society]. Ian came to Singapore a few years ago to do King Lear, and it was a milestone for Singapore's gay community because he went on prime-time TV and said he was gay. I wrote a very long e-mail to his website saying what I wanted to do and what this film meant to the Singaporean community. I waited two weeks, and amazingly, he replied. From there we set up an interview, I flew to London, and he was amazing. He took me out and we went to watch plays and he was so generous with his time, much more than was necessary for the interview. He had this directory of queers in history -- it was published a few years ago -- and he flipped to the page with L in it and wrote my name down on the page itself, and that was the single most significant moment of the trip. I will remember it forever.

Did he take you to London's famous gay bars, like Compton's?Not really. But he showed me around the West End, Soho, and Covent Garden. It was amazing to be with him because everywhere he goes he gets stopped.

And John Cameron Mitchell? John was a personal contact of my producer; they had been in touch. I really admire his work, especially for Shortbus -- how he portrayed sex as a part of life and how brave he was to show sex on-screen.

You guys seem to be flirting up a storm on the couch during your chat.Ha ha. Nothing happened, if you are wondering. He was just a very generous and open person. I guess it was the energy.

I find that John has a lovely, affectionate, and intimate way of communicating.Yeah, he has this amazing ability to make the rest of the world disappear. He's focused on you when he's talking to you and devoting his time to you. An amazing quality.

Tell me about your new short, Threshold, which also has its roots in real life.What happened was in 2006 a young medical trainee was entrapped by two narcotics officers. They arranged it on Internet chat channels, promising a threesome in exchange for him bringing drugs to the hotel. You can read more about the case online .

Now that it's available on DVD, how has Solos been received at home?Actually, it's not released locally because of censorship. People can buy it from Amazon. People talk about it on bulletin boards online, and I sometimes take a peek to see what they've been saying -- mostly interesting interpretations of the film, some negative comments, but mostly good.

What themes or personal issues do you want to explore -- or exorcise -- in your next films?The arrogance and ignorance of my generation, the culture of instant satisfaction, is something I'm interested in exploring.