The past few weeks have passed in limbo for the comedy film co-produced between Singapore and Korea “Ajoomma”. In a short time, it had its world premiere at the 27th Busan International Film Festival, earned four Golden Horse nominations, including Best Actress, Best New Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor in a supporting role. And Singapore selected the film as an Oscar nominee. But it took him seven years to get there.
At a workshop in Busan on Saturday, first director He Shuming, co-founder of Giraffe Pictures and the film’s producer Anthony Chen and co-producer Lee Joon-han explained how the film came to life. “Ajoomma: The Curious Case Study of a Singaporean-Korean Co-Production” was presented by mylab at the Asian Contents & Film Market.
The script took a while to develop after the story was first shared with Chen in 2015. Chen said, “I believe the script is the ‘Bible.’ He doesn’t need fat if there’s no money and I’m a firm believer in that. The duo brought Kris Ong, creative director of Singapore-based Momo Film, into the writing process and were instrumental in shaping the script. Chen also joked about assigning He a research trip with middle-aged women visiting Seoul from a sightseeing perspective to further tighten the storyline.
Chen, famous Singaporean filmmaker for “Ilo Ilo” and “Wet Season”, also has a producer’s eye. Finding funding and an experienced English-speaking co-producer in Korea proved difficult. There was also no official treaty between Singapore and Korea and no incentive for Koreans to do co-productions. Lee Joonhan, connected by Chen’s mentee at the Asian Film Academy (AFA), eventually joined the team. On what decided him, he said, “The script reminded me of my mother. I saw its value because Korean [and all Asian] the public could identify with it.
Although there are production discounts of up to 30% for any film shooting in Korea, after Lee’s arrival, “Ajoomma” received a Korea-ASEAN co-production grant from the Korean Film Council (KOFIC), likely as part of the ASEAN-ROK Film Initiative partnership that started in 2019. This is the first time that KOFIC has awarded a grant to a work from Southeast Asia.
The Seoul Film Commission also gave the team discounts of 25%, a higher than normal figure because the amounts given are usually 20%, but they may differ for specific films, depending on the producers. The only condition was to complete post-production within 12 months of signing the contract.
The team also received 300,000 Singapore dollars ($210,000) as a “New Director Grant” from the Singapore Film Commission.
Institutional funds were essential to the production of the film, but there was still a significant amount to be raised. “The huge share of equity in the budget meant a significant risk. There was no [comparables], which meant no one had seen a movie like it. There was no way to predict sales. His film wasn’t auteur enough to take the European funding route (common to most Southeast Asian films), but the project was also too small for major studios.
The script was well received but faced many rejections. Risk-averse investors were unwilling to bet on a CEO and the pandemic has worsened the investment climate. Chen pushed to retain He’s original vision.
On the verge of giving up, Chen won over a Singaporean financier who believed in the work and financed the remaining cost of the film. The feature film is considered Singapore’s most expensive independent film and is said to cost twice the amount of Chen’s “Ilo Ilo”.
Working with Korean actors, He and Chen praised the casting. The fake Korean drama scene in “Ajoomma” featuring Yeo Jin Goo’s cameo was shot in 2 days, and he said, “Yeo Jin Goo was so quick and fast, and they’re trained to do what they have to do. I understand why Korean TV and cinema are what they are today because of the quality and standard they set. Chen added, “They are so good. Tears just roll like that.” [snaps fingers] in one take.
On the other hand, Singapore has not developed a “star system” and this could be an area that the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) could work on. He said, “I don’t think we have the culture of a star system.” He referenced veteran Singaporean actress Hong Huifang working solo against Korean actors who have managers with them on set, providing support as they focus on their craft.
When it came to filming, harsh winter temperatures and COVID presented logistical challenges, but a lot of time was also wasted due to language barriers. Lee said: “Language is a big thing [in Korea]. If you don’t speak Korean, you lose time when shooting.
The scripts were translated and illustrated on storyboards like a comic book for clear communication. The team also had to navigate the 48-hour-a-week work policy for crew members. This is different from Singapore’s shooting schedule of 12 hours a day for 6 consecutive days. Post-production began while the crew was filming and was split between Singapore and Korea.
After Busan, “Ajoomma” will continue its journey to the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival and the Golden Horse Awards. European festivals have also reached out to express their interest. The team hopes to reach the United States and European countries due to the film’s Oscar contention.
Chen said, “For a [unprecedented] movie like this [Singaporean home] the market is becoming important because everyone is looking to see if it is doing well in Singapore. Box office performance is an imperative indicator for regional and international buyers. Chen said he would be very happy if “Ajoomma” could surpass the $1.2 million mark, the highest box office for an arthouse film in Singapore’s history set by “Ilo Ilo”. And with international sales agent Rediance on board, Chen would also like to see “Ajoomma” reach mainland Chinese audiences if political relations between China and South Korea thaw.
Singapore’s main cinema operator, Golden Village, will release “Ajoomma” in theaters on October 27, 2022. Plans for Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea are in the works.
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