In Conversation: Curator of O.P.E.N. Film, Tan Bee Thiam

Law Xiao Xuan

April 04, 2017

Tan Bee Thiam profile

To wrap up this series of interviews, we catch up with Bee Thiam, the curator of this year's O.P.E.N. Film, to have a quick chat. Read on to find out more about his thoughts on all things film and Enchantment!

XX: What kind of themes are you looking to present in O.P.E.N. Film this year?

BT: Responding to the theme of Enchantment, I am particularly interested in films with a sense of humour and a spirit of generosity. I have also been looking at documentaries with moments of pure presence and wonder.

XX: As a filmmaker and film curator yourself, what is the first thing you notice when you watch a film?

BT: The first thing that I will look out for is rhythm — the rhythm and nature of the film. It is like meeting someone and looking them in the eye. Before the person even speaks, you know how you feel about them.

A film with an opening credit that is too long, that worries me. Usually within the first 5 minutes you get a sense of what the film is about, a sense of who this filmmaker is. That is usually the first thing I notice.

XX: Do you have any pet peeves when it comes to film?

BT: I don’t like filmmakers that take themselves too seriously. I like filmmakers who enjoy making films. You can tell when you watch a film – between filmmakers who are too serious and filmmakers who really enjoy making films.

It is like children playing. You know how sometimes when you see them playing, you notice that sense of wonder in their eyes? That sense of enjoyment brings as much satisfaction to the audience as it does for the curators putting the films together.

XX: What would you want audiences at O.P.E.N. Film to take away with them when they watch this year’s films?

BT: Especially responding to the theme this year, I wish that a member of the audience who has watched all the films we put together will walk away with a sense of hope, a sense of purpose in what is left for us to do in this world that is facing so much cynicism, so much fake news and people trying to sway others by capitalising on their desperation.

This year, we are shining a light on films with a sense of humour - irony, absurdist, satire, parody, deadpan, caricature and more. It is one of the hardest genres to make and I hope our audience will enjoy them. 

XX: Is there any particular comedy film that you like?

BT: One of my early favourites is a film called I Was Born, But… by Ozu Yasujirō. It was a film made in 1932, about two brothers who moved from a village to the city and now have to learn to adapt to city life.

It is a black and white silent comedy and an amazing film on what it’s like to grow up, what it’s like to be an adult, what it’s like when in your childhood, your whole world is about your parents and how great they are, and then one day you find out that they might not be who you think they are.  It’s a comedy that is bittersweet but doesn’t indulge in its sadness or in its themes and moves on with life.

It is a great film to watch — I always show it to my students. 

XX: You’ve probably seen many films in your line of work, are there any out there that you feel are underrated?

BT: There are so many.

Each year we can only show about 20 films, and there are so many that we would have wanted to include, if not for our budget, the number of film slots and the amount of time we have.

There are many every year. It is a happy problem. I always try my best to recommend films I can’t include in my programme to other curators here too so the Singaporean audience can get to watch them on the big screen.

This year, there were some big titles, obvious choices for us to include, but there were also little gems that we have included. These filmmakers are probably not known to many Singaporeans, and they are making films that don’t get much coverage from the media. But these are still great films.

I hope that there can be little surprises for our audience in O.P.E.N. Film and they can discover new filmmakers making great work.

XX: Is there one film that you feel that everyone should watch?

BT: I really hope that people can come and watch the entire programme, rather than having me choose one out of many.

I was really surprised last year, where we had the most number of films in the last three years, that there were members of the audience who came to watch every single one of them.

This year, we put together another programme that you would enjoy if you were to come watch all the films. It’s just like going for a 20-course meal; it would feel like a gastronomic extravaganza that stimulates different parts of your tongue.

XX: You did mention something similar in a past interview — “if you’re ordering a meal, you can’t just have ten courses of oysters or ten courses of cheesecake”. A film festival should have variety.  

BT: Yes, and this year we managed to find films from a great diversity of countries and filmmakers. For the first time we have films from Finland, India and Congo. And then we have films from Argentina, Mexico, China and Korea.

In our search for films that tackle and respond to the theme of Enchantment, we have ended up with one of the most international slate of films this year.

XX: Some of these films really are hidden gems — how do you come across or find out about them?

BT: We read and do a lot of our own research.

There are filmmakers on our radar and we would check out what they are doing next, especially if they are making films on a subject matter that we think is related to the theme. We scour film festivals, film magazines and online interviews as well.  

I am always grateful for the fellow curators and critics who do an amazing job, wherever they are based, being experts in areas that we can tap on. This network of critics and programmers from different parts of the world is a great source of information for us.

XX: Just curious, Moonlight or La La Land?

BT: I don’t really care much for the Oscars. To be honest, I think the films in O.P.E.N. Film are much better compared to what audiences can find in the Oscar-nominated films this year. They are not your usual fare but are still as enjoyable, if not much more enjoyable and meaningful.

The thing with Oscar-nominated films is that they always follow a certain formula, and after some time you just get bored of them. We are looking for filmmakers who have fresh things to say, and say them in a refreshing way, not people who say the same thing over and over again, or people who tackle the same issues with the same methods.

We are looking for films that shed new light on such issues and bring a new perspective to a world that we have been seeing time and again, allowing us to see something new.

  • 2017