25th Far East Film Festival: In Conversation with He Shuming, Hong Huifang & Anthony Chen of “Ajoomma”

The Udine Far East Film Festival is probably one of the most prestigious and important film festivals in Europe that promotes Asian films over 9 days. This year, FEFF celebrated its 25th anniversary with Ajoomma as the Opening Night film. During the festival, we had the pleasure of speaking with He Shuming (director), Hong Huifang (actress), and Anthony Chen (producer), who are the creative forces behind Ajoomma. Released in 2022, and premiering at Busan International Film Festival in South Korea, Ajoomma has received positive reviews for its blend of comedy, drama, and social commentary. In our interview, we dive into inspiration for the film, its creative process, and their thoughts on the impact of Ajoomma on the future of filmmaking. 

He Shuming, Hong Huifang and Anthony Chen of Ajoomma / Image © Far East Film Festival

Ajoomma is your debut feature, which I absolutely loved. As you co-wrote the script with Kris Ong, how did you balance your creative expression with the demands of the industry, and the expectation of the audience? How did you approach your own script and collaboration with Kris?

He Shuming: I think when I first started writing this script, and this was in the very beginning when Anthony and I started the project and I began researching, I spent a lot of time reflecting on my relationship with my mum, as I said during the premiere at Udine this was a film that’s very much inspired by my mom. But at some point, there needs to be a distance between what is very personal to me and what an audience might want to see.

Primarily, I wanted to make a story that is accessible. It is a film that speaks to itself. I spent a few years writing it on my own and then, at some point, creatively speaking, I felt like perhaps I needed a new perspective and that’s when Anthony suggested bringing Kris on board. The working relationship with Kris was immensely helpful. I think she provided a perspective that was very different. She didn’t know what the story was about either. Also, we didn’t know each other, but I remember when I read the “rewrites”, [I noticed] that she didn’t change anything, but then I saw that she did. Kris brought in so much [into the script]. While I was thinking of some scenes that were precious to me and, in hindsight, I realised that it wasn’t important to the story or the character, and Kris [helped me with that]. And, to answer your question, whether the audience in Korea, or in Singapore, or in the West accepts the film, well, at the end of the day, it is a story that needs to come from me. And I think I thought of my mum [more than I thought of the audience], and whether she is going to like it or not. And I think if I can enjoy and understand it, the film might succeed with the rest of the audience. Also, the protagonist of the film [Lim] is an accessible character, so hopefully the audience around the world will find it recognisable.

This question is for Mrs. Hong. Auntie Lim is such a good character, you portray a widow, a mother, and a middle-aged woman who loves Korean dramas and later goes on a solo trip to South Korea where she sees things that she perhaps has missed all those years since her husband passed away. I wanted to ask you; how did you approach the character? How much research did you do and how much help did you get from director Shuming prior to filming?

Hong Huifang: In terms of building my character it was very much a collaboration with Shuming. We were workshopping for about a year. There were also a lot of rehearsals done with the actor who played my son. A big part of the workshop process was finding and sculpting this character. There were less rehearsals when we went to Korea because, most of the time, we were lost in translation. Although the actors that I worked with didn’t speak English much,or Chinese, we still worked very well together. We were playing two strangers that couldn’t communicate much and [I think] that language barrier on set also helped us, in some ways, in delivering our performances. Also, both of us are veteran actors, so our acting experience helped us along the way. Our glances, our expressions and our body language, you know, we could actually read one another and that’s how we worked together.

That’s true, you complemented each other so well. My next question is for Anthony, you are a filmmaker yourself; you write scripts and produce films as well. You produced Ajoomma, so I was wondering, what really interested you in the script and made you get on board? You mentioned you have known Shuming for many years, so was that a factor in why you decided to get involved in the project?

Anthony Chen: Making this film took seven years. You know, when Shuming pitched the idea, I immediately saw that I could relate to the story; I was very moved by it as well. I felt like Shuming really talks about a whole generation of Asian women, perhaps several generations of Asian women who spend their lives being mothers. Toiling for their husbands, taking care of their husbands, taking care of their kids, and putting everyone else before themselves. But what happens when the kids have left the nest, when the husbands have moved on or whatever, and suddenly, they’re in a certain crisis? How do I find a sense of identity for myself? It’s an issue that is very universal, particularly in Asia, and I found it incredibly moving and very empowering. Predominantly, that was the reason why I believed a lot in the power of this project.

And I think it was worthwhile spending all those years on making this film. I’m actually really proud that, against all odds, we made this film where I think, mainly in Asia, if you were to look at the canon of Asian cinema you have the sort of films where you’ve got older leading men, but rarely in Asian films do you actually see an older woman. You know we haven’t got Cate Blanchett, or Meryl Streep, or Nicole Kidman. In all honesty, it’s quite sexist, and as I was trying to raise the finance to make this film, for me to even convince financiers to give us money was a challenge. You know, do people really want to watch a 60-year-old lady [on the big screen]? I am glad to see that we did achieve some success with Ajoomma. I hope this film would bring a new conversation about women and established actresses taking on protagonist roles more often.

He Shuming, Hong Huifang and Anthony Chen of Ajoomma during the interview with View of the Arts / Image © Far East Film Festival

I would like to talk more about your [Shuming] work with Hwang Gyeong-hyeon, the cinematographer. Obviously, he is Korean, so I was wondering did you experience any creative differences while making the film, and did he bring your overall vision for the film the way you wanted it to be?

He Shuming: Our cinematographer didn’t speak English; I remember when we first met, I really liked the work he had done previously but I also recalled one of my notes saying he doesn’t speak English, and my biggest fear was we would get lost in translation while working together. I really liked this guy, but he doesn’t speak the language. But, I think when we finally met [and] he read the script, he had so many notes, he gave his perspective on the characters and how he envisioned it. But he was also trying extremely hard to do all this in English. 

I think there was an instant chemistry, and also it was built upon how he saw the film and how I saw the film. He understood the story very well and understood the characters very well. And I think he put in so much work making sure nothing got lost and that I didn’t get lost. He was always like, ‘You know what I’m saying, right?’ And to answer the second part of your question, yes, I am happy with the overall vision. I also wanted to have a Korean cinematographer partly because we were shooting in Korea, and I thought that we should have someone who speaks Korean, which I think made Hwang’s work easier [in some ways].

Hong Hui Fang, you are such an established actress. How do you keep your creative spark alive, and what motivates you to continue pursuing acting roles?

Hong Huifang: I’ve always been an introvert since I was young and it’s funny because only in acting I can sort of unleash a lot of stuff. For instance, getting angry, crying or scolding someone, I can unleash all those emotions through acting which I wouldn’t normally do in my private life. So, in a way, it feels like this job suits me so well because I can let loose that extroverted side of myself through performing, and through acting, and because of that, I always like playing roles that are completely unlike myself.

In every decade of my career, I’ve always tried new stuff, and I always look forward to playing a role that is completely different from who I am. And, as long as I remain healthy, and as long as my body can handle it, I’ll just keep going.

As this is a collaboration between Singapore and South Korea, I was wondering about the casting process as well as finding the entire team. What was that process like?

Anthony Chen: We got our Korean co-producer to get a casting director on, and then of course you start with a list of actors, right? Interestingly, Kang Hyung-seok’s name was on the list very early on because they found out that he did an exchange programme in China for a few years, so we thought that he could speak Mandarin. But the truth was he came to us [and said he only spoke a little, but] he was really enthusiastic.

He Shuming: He was enthusiastic though. I requested him to do some scenes in Mandarin so at least they can hear how it is because I didn’t have time to teach [him] the language. Having said that, Kang can hold a basic conversation in Mandarin, and he worked hard because he wanted to. He also had his own private teacher of Mandarin so that he could get his lines done right. And, you know, he is not only a good actor, but also incredibly good-looking, which also had its disadvantages as we needed someone rougher for his role. He is a young dad with gambling debts, so I really had to convince Anthony that Kang was good for the role of Kwon-woo.

We did want to internalise this character a little bit like OK, this is someone who’s a young dad. He’s obviously very charming, he used his charm a lot to get away with things, and then at some point that didn’t really work out. So, at some point I asked Kang to gain weight and eat more junk food, but no matter what he did, he was still this charming young guy.

Anthony Chen: After all the trials to make him look rough, and with nothing really working, he still performed well. We all know how much effort he put into this role and he worked intensively to learn the language as well [so] everything turned out fine. In terms of the veteran actor, Jung Dong-hwan, he was on our list as we wanted a strong, established actor from Korea. And he was one of the top on the list and we’re very glad that he accepted to do it because he’s quite formidable in terms of acting.

I think what was more challenging was casting the cameo, Yeo Jin-goo, who stars in Korean dramas. We were really aiming exceedingly high, but we got rejection after rejection until we got Yeo Jin-goo. And you know, we are glad we got him as he is on top of everything nowadays and an immensely popular Korean actor.

Hong Huifang, it felt like your character had her own K-drama moment without realising it. What was it like for you to film, and did you feel like you were in a K-drama?

Hong Huifang: I did feel like I was in a drama, you know like in a film within the film. I have always liked Korean dramas, and I loved being a part of recording drama-like scenes, and it felt like I was living part of that dream while [playing Lim].

Written and interviewed by Maggie Gogler

Featured image © View of the Arts

View of the Arts is a British online publication that chiefly deals with films, music, and art, with an emphasis on the Asian entertainment industry. We are hoping our audience will grow with us as we begin to explore new platforms such as K-pop / K-music, and Asian music in general, and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, music, and arts, worldwide.

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