SINGAPORE: In 2007, Green Zeng shot a short film called Sentosa. It was a fictional story about a former political detainee who returns to the island where he had once been placed in exile.
But something didn’t feel quite right. “After I made it, I wasn’t that happy about it. I felt I didn’t know much about the topic,” recalled the 44-year-old Singaporean visual artist and filmmaker.
Zeng’s initial foray into the world of political exiles and detainees would, however, eventually lead to his first full-length feature The Return.
The film - which premiered at the Venice International Film Critics’ Week in 2015 and was shown at the Singapore International Film Festival later that year - follows the fictional story of another former political detainee. Arrested for being an alleged communist in the 1960s, he now struggles to adjust to life after his release decades later.
After making its rounds at international film festivals for the past couple of years, it is now getting a commercial theatrical release in Singapore beginning Thursday (Feb 23) at Filmgarde Bugis+.
Co-written with his wife June Chua who is also the film’s producer, The Return stars veteran television actors Chen Tian Xiang, who plays the main character, and Vincent Tee as one of the children who copes with the arrival of his father after a long absence.
Veteran TV actor Chen Tian Xiang plays Lim Soon Wen, a former political detainee who struggles to adjust to life after his release. (Photo: Mirtillo Films)
FASCINATION WITH THE PAST
“One of the reasons I wanted to do the film was because the stories of political detainees are often written about in a very narrow manner in history books. We also don’t really know (much) about the lives of these people, especially after they’re released. I thought it would be interesting to highlight that,” said Zeng.
He added that there was also a more personal reason for making The Return.
“It’s dedicated to my father and the people from his generation. Like the movie’s protagonist, my father was also Chinese-educated and very interested in politics, the independence of Singapore, and things like that,” he said.
“When I was writing it, he was always on my mind. But he was already very ill during that period and he passed away before I finished the film.”
The tumultuous era of his father’s generation is a period that has fascinated Zeng.
In-between making the films Sentosa and The Return, he tackled the lives of student activists and unionists in art exhibitions that explored what he describes as “dominant and non-dominant histories” in Singapore.
A scene from The Return. (Photo: Mirtillo Films)
For instance, one series, called An Exile Revisits The City, showcased photographs of a fictional political exile going around Singapore.
This would find echoes in The Return, where the main character is seen visiting different parts of the island. In one scene, he stands in front of the original Nanyang University - or Nantah - Arch. Back in the 1960s, the Chinese school had been a hotbed of student activism.
Many of his works are about understanding different historical possibilities, said Zeng. “It’s about asking the audience to imagine or at least consider what if history was written or interpreted this way or that,” he said.
Zeng, however, prefers to tackle such issues creatively. He pointed out that The Return is fiction, with the characters based on people he had read about while doing his research at the National Archives.
“I'm not a historian. While facts are important, I believe that the role of the artist is to interpret,” he said. “I was trying to understand the mechanism of how history was being written.”
HOPING TO CONNECT WITH SINGAPOREANS
In recent years, works of art that have tackled historical themes deemed politically delicate have led to artists and filmmakers clashing with authorities.
Among the more recent high-profile incidents was the withdrawal of a government grant for Sonny Liew’s acclaimed graphic novel The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye due to “sensitive content”. Documentary filmmaker Tan Pin Pin’s film To Singapore, With Love, which looked at political exiles, was also given a Not Allowed For All Ratings classification.
But while he was making The Return, Zeng said he didn’t think much about such incidents. “I just concentrated on my work, crossed my fingers and waited.” The film was eventually given a PG13 rating.
The Return's husband-and-wife team, director Green Zeng and producer June Chua, at the recent Kerala International Film Festival. (Photo: Mirtillo Films)
Beyond the potentially tricky topic of The Return, the actual making of the film had been quite a journey for the couple, who run the indie outfit Mirtillo Films.
The film project, which began in 2013, would stretch for two years as the couple dealt with financial issues as well as crew and cast schedules.
“It’s not really a commercial movie, so it was quite difficult to raise funds or ask any studio to finance the project, so in the end, we decided to use our own money. We didn’t give up. We were a bit naïve and had hope that one day we’ll finish the film.”
Zeng said The Return will continue doing the film festival rounds, but at the moment, he is looking forward to its Singapore screening.
“Of all the places it has been shown, this is the one place I’m really looking forward to. The film is quite universal — it’s about a man who is displaced and struggles to find his way back."
A scene from The Return. (Photo: Mirtillo Films)