"Nurture and develop your unique voice"

Wee Li Lin is one of the pioneer female Singaporean filmmakers with 14 short films under her belt. She has won awards locally and internationally–in 2005, her short film Autograph Book was the first ever Singapore film selected for the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival in New York, and in 2011, Li Lin received the honorary award at the Singapore Short Film Awards for her outstanding contribution to the Singapore short film scene. Together with her husband, visual artist Charles Lim, Li Lin founded Bobbing Buoy Films in Singapore.

She has made two feature films, of which Gone Shopping marked her full-length directorial debut in 2007 and recently screened at Singapore’s ArtScience Museum during the 28th Singapore International Film Festival to mark its ten-year anniversary. When it first debuted, it received international acclaim with its poignant commentary on themes of identity, individuality and desire. It was selected for screening selected for screening at the 10th Udine Far East Film Festival, the 11th Shanghai International Film Festival, the 31st New York Asian American International Film Festival, the 12th Puchon International Film Festival and the 28th Hawaii International Film Festival. Also written by Li Lin, it is a bittersweet satire of Singapore’s consumerist culture, and ten years on, is now rife with nostalgia, as some of the malls in which the film was shot have since been fully revamped.

Image: Bobbing Buoy Films

Is there any significance to your company’s name, Bobbing Buoy Films?

Charles (my husband) is a visual artist whose work is very much based on his observations of the sea. We liked the symbol of a Buoy, which is strong and guiding, and we wanted something fun to go with that, so we thought of the word Bobbing which also suggests how currents and trends change and move. The Buoy remains rooted yet able to adjust to the waves of change.

Film still from ‘Norman on the Air (1997)’ Photo Credit: Bobbing Buoy Films

What was your first film project? Do you still remember how it felt to make it?

My first short film was made in 1996/97, it was a short film entitled Norman On The Air and was shot on BETA SP (with a nylon stocking put in front of the lens to give it a film look). It was about a young man who calls into a radio show that gives love advice, and he confesses about a relationship he had which turns out to be more of a figment of his imagination. The film was made when I had just graduated from University and I knew I wanted to make a short but I had no contacts, having been away for 4 years. I was also unsure of where the film could be seen after; I knew nothing of film festivals except the really famous ones, let alone that there was a Singapore International Film Festival, which was also very well regarded.

I had no other ambitions for the film other than wanting to see the story, characters and vision of it come to life.

When I heard there was a Singapore International Film Festival, I decided to use all my savings over the years and plonk in $7000 to make Norman On The Air and submit it, with zero expectations but at least with a knowledge that there would be a platform to show it. My parents, friends and relatives were practically like my producers, giving me contacts and locations and cast suggestions. The cast were non-actors and I filmed primarily at my Uncle’s home and I met a group of people who would help me make the film. It was a really special experience because I was just making it out of a deep creative desire.

I had no other ambitions for the film other than wanting to see the story, characters and vision of it come to life. The film went on to win the Best Director Award at SGIFF in 1997, beyond my wildest dreams at that point–an awesome moment of course but not really as awesome as writing the script then seeing it come to life.

Actress Kym Ng as Clara Wong in ‘Gone Shopping (2007) ‘ (Bobbing Buoy Films)

You once said in an interview that you’re probably perceived as “privileged and goofy”. Could you elaborate a little more on that?

Put in the context of my work: “Privileged” because I do feel more at home telling stories about English-speaking Singaporeans or characters from a middle class, westernised, female perspective. Having said that, my first two features were in Mandarin and I have made a Mandarin telemovie so I do love the language and feel at home directing in Mandarin. I just feel more confident in English. “Goofy”, I have an irreverent and cheeky mind and spirit and the more I embrace that, the richer and more original the work becomes, not to mention, a lot more fun and joyful in the process.

What has been your experience as a filmmaker in a region where freedom of speech isn’t necessarily supported?

I feel that there are films coming out from places which have much more restriction than Singapore but are bold, inventive and have interesting things to say and interesting ways to say them. Singaporeans suffer from self-censorship and self-consciousness. It’s something quite ingrained in the way we are brought up and takes an amount of courage and gumption to have creative confidence. I do see it happening over the years with a handful of filmmakers and it’s certainly inspiring for me.

Film still from ‘Areola Borealis (2017)’ (Bobbing Buoy Films)

Where do you see independent filmmaking going to be in 10 years’ time, and how has it changed since you started?

I think there will be a lot more VR (virtual reality) content even from independent companies, and on the other spectrum, a real resurgence in more ‘low tech’ but hands-on crafting forms like stop-motion animation and puppetry, and possibly even a strong revival for 35/16mm. Just guessing! When I started out (in the mid to late 90s) this was pre-social media and pre-mobile phones! In 10 years there will be even greater connectivity and ease for talents and partners to make a film happen, and, I think, more options for platforms for distribution and sales.

Film still from ‘Gone Shopping|(2007) ‘ (Bobbing Buoy Films)

What advice would you give to current filmmakers starting out right now?

What I still remind myself all the time and it’s not easy: go for that personal story and go in deep. Nurture and develop your unique voice. Try, at least once a week, to watch a seminal film (long or short of any genre) that is even out of your comfort zone. Think about how it was made, how it made you feel, read some reviews or essays about it and write about it in your own way.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on indie shorts, so going back to 20 years ago when I first made Norman On The Air … no lofty goals other than to tell that personal story in the most original, fulfilling way I can.