“‘There is no one I respect more than my audiences’.
With that one gutsy punch line, 25 year old Daniel Hui opened his debut feature, Eclipses.
There is no better way to start talking about the film than from its title - deceptively simple yet so rich with meaning and thought. Structurally, the film functions in two wholes, the first being an apparent fictional story about a woman (Vel Ng) mourning the loss of her husband; the second, where the woman disappears, splinters into a documentary about the people around her (Vel) and the filmmaker.
Yet, save for the abrupt cut to black in the middle of the film that signals the film’s transition, or eclipse of the initial other, the film’s fiction/documentary dichotomy holds little bearing to genre defining labels. Here, the lines between documentary and fiction are blurred not because of the film’s apparent schizophrenia, but because the filmmaker sees little difference between the two.
With Eclipses, Daniel seeks to make a film that transcends cinema or what little has become of it, rather than to conform. Cinema appears to have forgotten its roots as a medium to document, to listen, to simply, allow for its audience to see what they want to see rather than to tell them what to see.”
Vicki Yang: Tell us more about Eclipses as your first feature length film. Has it got anything of special significance to your life or your love for film?
Daniel Hui: I didn’t choose Eclipses to be my first feature film. Instead, I chose to make it because I thought it was going to be the last film I’ll ever make. It came at a time when I was graduating from film school and that meant losing access to all the resources I had to make a film. So I felt that if this was going to be the last film I’ll ever make, I should show everything I wanted to show about Singapore in this film. Anyway I think it’s always better to assume that every film you make would be your last. It makes you panic, and panic makes you think long and hard about what you want to make. Nothing is arbitrary. The more I thought about the film, the bigger it became and it gradually became, in my mind, this epic 4-hour experimental film.
Thankfully I realized halfway through that to make a film that represents everything in its totality is merely stupid megalomania, and that it’s better to make an incomplete film that contributes to an existing (and future) discourse, than to make a film that claims to say everything. You see these megalomaniacal films everywhere. In Hollywood, of course, but also, especially, in art-house cinema. That Terrence Malick piece of shit The Tree of Life is a perfect example of that. It aims for the stars, but ends up being ignorant, racist, and self-absorbed.
In the post-screening Q & A at SIFF, you mentioned that you had an initial idea of showing landscapes and other people, but eventually many were cut from the film. That left your family and the people you care for, at its core, at least in the second part, where you had to “listen” to them. How much more did you learn through listening to these people close to and around you, within your film and on your set with this different approach?
The biggest difference for me in this film is that I decided to open up my process. When I was making Night Lights, I was completely alone in that I was making all the directorial decisions. Since I had no script, I was basically making stuff up on the spot. I would go on set and everybody had their eyes on me and they would ask me, “What are we going to do now, Daniel?” That put a lot of stress on me, and halfway through the month-long shoot I had a breakdown and I felt I couldn't continue. That experience really changed the way I made films. I realized how much I hated making films, because the director is always alone. He or she sits at the top of his ivory tower, yelling at his people and abusing his subjects. The director is the ultimate fascist leader. The violence he or she inflicts on his crew (people who were helping me too!) is incredible. I tried a different approach in my short film Rumah Sendiri, where it was just me with the camera, and Yanti as the subject in my film. In that film, I asked her to tell me what to do, to tell me where to move and etc. That process revived my interest in filmmaking again. I realized that a different mode of filmmaking was possible, that I didn’t have to conform to the system- I could create my own system of working that I’m comfortable with, that I felt wasn’t so violent.
Fuck good films. There are too many good films out there that don’t have anything to say at all. I would much rather watch a shit film that has something interesting to tell me about the world, than an empty good film that doesn’t illuminate anything about the world. Empty good films make me want to kill myself. [...]
Besides, the very idea of “a good film” is a concept invented by people who are in power to permanently marginalize and suppress people who can never have the same resources as them. It’s a form of cultural colonialism. The notions of what makes a film good are notions set in place by Hollywood producers, precisely so as to justify their own films and to ensure that no one else can make films like them. It’s funny how Asian people try to ape Hollywood films by making their versions of expensive blockbusters. Is it any wonder that these films feel like they were made by monkeys?
It’s even worse with arthouse cinema. European cinema has dominated cinematic discourse since the camera was invented. The other trend of thought is that if a film gets into a film festival, it is a good film. Well, the arbiters of taste that decide who does and does not get in a film festival are Europeans themselves who have a very specific notion of what cinema is. Asian cinema, for example, is only accepted when it fits a certain idea of what Asian cinema should be – that is, it must already be neutered, tailored according to European tastes before it can even be considered as a film. Is it any surprise that the only Southeast Asian films we see in European film festivals are poverty porn? Again, it is a form of colonialism. Only an “Other” that is comprehensible to them qualifies as an “Other”. [...]
An artform has to be borne out of a country’s culture. We have the means, but not the inspiration. Because all we look at is across the ocean, at a mirror that does not reflect us.
Vicki Yang in conversation with Daniel Hui2