Singapore filmmaker discusses his latest film, Demons, screening at 2019 Berlinale…
I wanted to chat with Daniel Hui ever since I read the introduction to his previous film, Snakeskin – experimental documentary narrated from the future – and unluckily missed it screening at Singapore’s cinephile haven The Projector. Fortunately, I got the chance to talk with him in Berlin about his latest film, Demons, his personal take on the horror genre. When we sat for an interview, Daniel turned out to be a person full of inner energy, fascination with the world, deep insight into the mechanism of society which he also depicted in Demons, creating a unique and very localized story of violence and horror.
Maja: Your previous film, Snakeskin, as well as Demons, has this primaeval and ancient feeling about them, even though Snakeskin narrative is set in the future and Demons are very much contemporary. Demons’ narrative has a lot in common with tropes known from Greek tragedies. Would you consider the film as a sort of Singapore mythology?
Daniel: What I was trying to do is to depict the emotion I feel while I’m in Singapore. I think this emotion is usually very hard to put into words, you I think everyone living in Singapore can feel it. To me, it represents some kind of madness which gets under everyone’s skin, so people feel very angry, but they don’t where to direct this anger. To me, it is a permanent state of madness, so I wanted to show his feeling on screen, that how the whole movie started.
It has many incarnations of course. Actually, the film first started as a Dostoyevski adaptation of the novel Demons, then it kept changing into a more and more autobiographical and personal film. But the starting point was to show this state of madness.
Maja: So originally Demons was supposed to be very theatrical and it is, also because the story is set within theatre circles. But going back to the topic of madness, you just reminded me that when I was living in Singapore I actually felt very angry all the time, but it seems without any specific reason.
Daniel: Yes, like I usually am not an angry person, but every time I’m back in Singapore there is this rage and you feel it everywhere. People are extremely impatient, they don’t know how to express this feeling of constant rage, so it sometimes gets directed at people around you. It comes out very violent psychologically, it’s not a physical violence.
Maja: There is just a lot of small things that get on your nerves, like all the talk about start-ups and upgrading. Singapore is all very clean and the flats are small.
Daniel: That’s what happens when you live in a society where conforming is a very important part of daily life, so you also feel like your body or your thoughts are not completely yours. So you always have to change yourself in order to function in society or in order for society to function. This is very uncomfortable for most people.
Maja: It’s very schizophrenic. Like you said in previous interviews, it is like having a double.
Daniel: I do feel like it is in many ways very absurd. When I talk to people from other countries or when I live in the US I see how different societies work and how different priorities are. For example in the US you’re always encouraged to express and develop yourself, it is considered the most important thing. Whereas in Singapore nobody talks about the self, it is very clear that the self is actually really not important compared to society as a whole. It is something that the government emphasizes from day one in your education, so you’re always expected to perform in this way at school – wear a certain uniform, have a certain haircut etc. That kind of mentality gets indoctrinated very early on in our society and as we grow up we can’t really get out of it.
Maja: Demons seems to be a cathartic process though. So it started with Dostoyevski, how did you develop the idea?
Daniel: I wanted to make an autobiographical film for a while now but I didn’t know it is going to be this film. I was very interested in Dostoyevski’s novel, because it was about a group of people who commit a murder in order to stay together, I was interested in this idea of how in order for every unit to function there has to be a hidden violence or a foundation of violence.
Maja: Some sort of scapegoat, a sacrifice to preserve the status quo.
Daniel: So that was the basic idea, then I started to add more of my own personal thoughts and reflections to the film. For example talking about sexual violence, especially the role of victim in society. The victim is always a person that has to be sacrificed in order for the society to function. Often such victims are women, they are being viewed as a being that can be sacrificed or does not have to be taken into consideration. All in order for the masculinity to express itself, because of that there is a lot of violence. I was thinking about these issues.
Maja: Plus, there is a lot of stigmas, like when Vicky’s doppelganger was saying that Vicky herself was a slut.
Daniel: Right, because we also internalize all the psychological violence in society, so we end up doing it to ourselves what society is doing to us. It is an ultimate form of control. These thoughts come back to me all the time and what paralyzes me the most is when I hear them saying: “You are the one, who is wrong, you did this to yourself, you deserve what you got”. These thoughts keep me awake at night and I can’t sleep, so that’s why I wanted to make a movie about it (laugh). To exorcise these thoughts, to get them out of my own mind.
Maja: It’s true that it is very hard to accept yourself in the position of power like a film director is definitely a powerful position (laugh).
Daniel: You know, one of my biggest fears it that I will become that person. Especially me as a man and as a film director. I have the position of privilege and power, so whatever would happen to me I could easily inflict on others, even unknowingly. My point of view is that a lot of times these people who perpetrate the acts of violence, most of the times it is not that they are intentionally cruel people. It is just that they don’t care or they don’t know, because they are in such a position of power that they don’t have to consider how the other person feels. These things happen, that is why in the film the character of Daniel doesn’t feel that what he is doing to Vicky is wrong.
Maja: There is no empathy or attempt to see the situation from another person’s point of view.
Daniel: As a director and as a man I’m always afraid that I will do the same thing unknowingly, because the position of power blinds me to the things I can do to people. So this is the big fear of mine. That I will be capable to be both a victim and a perpetrator.
Maja: You mention the character of Daniel, how did you start working with Glen Goei?
Daniel: I met him because my producer was producing his film, so we just started hanging out, talking. He’s also very interested in young filmmakers, he’s extremely supportive. I think one time at a party we just met and I was talking with him. We kept in touch and actually he is the reason Demons took its current form. At some point, I realized we need a figure, who actually has some weight in real life, who is quite famous in Singapore. When I thought of him as a character, suddenly all fell into place. And it was also because of him we managed to finish the film, he made everything very easy.
Maja: It is very cool that you and Yeo Siew Hua both work with Singaporean actors of the older generation. Even though Peter Yu and Glen Goei are extremely different people with different reputations, working in different fields of performative arts. Peter Yu gained fame as a TV star and Glen Goei as a critically-acclaimed stage actor and director. But they carry with them a certain image as a public figure, which adds new layers to the film. It seems as working with those actors makes contemporary Singapore films more connected to the history of Singapore cinema, film, TV, stage productions from the past.
Daniel: I never thought about it this way, but yeah, Glen is definitely very respected figure in Singapore cinema and theatre, when seen on screen you immediately recognize him as a person in the position of a certain amount of power, it is a bit of a shorthand.
Maja: He was amazing in the role of Daniel.
Daniel: A lot of times Glen would do a scene and then I would say: “Noo, can you do it like more intense?” and he would be like: “Wait, more?! No, it’s so exaggerated”. I wanted the acting to be hysterical.
Maja: The diagonal shots and the expression on actors’ faces definitely give off this atmosphere of hysteria and madness. A lot of scenes are quite disturbing and scary. For example the one with the fish, because for Vicky the situation is so painfully embarrassing and uncomfortable, but the two other characters at the table are just laughing.
Daniel: That is the scene which made me most uncomfortable when I was editing. It’s strange because when we were shooting it we were laughing so much, because we just found it so funny. It was hard to shoot and we were all ruining the takes, because we were all laughing. But then when I edited it, I suddenly realized I felt extremely uncomfortable with the scene. It is strange, like I said, sometimes we do not realize what we are doing until it is too late.
Maja: That’s why we watch films, because we can see our actions and behaviour from the perspective, reflect on ourselves, actually see the whole situation and notice other people’s point of view. Even though sometimes it is incomprehensible, which brings us to another interesting theme present in Demons, which is the language – in some scenes the characters use some sort of disturbing new talk.
Daniel: Actually, the original idea for making Dostoyevski’s adaptation was that there will be a cult that uses language, a language cult. So it was going to be a horror movie about the language, about how people speak and how they communicate. There is this idea that the language is something that possesses us, that we have no control over how we talk, because how we talk is the thing that positions us the most in a certain society and time. The way we talk comes involuntarily, it comes from all that we’ve experienced so that’s why still now you can see this initial theme in Demons.
Maja: True, the language determines us, it is like we are programmed.
Daniel: Yes, that’s exactly how I feel. As if we were automatically programmed by language, it determines our thoughts and the way we communicate, everything. Like in Demons in the scenes were language turns strange, incomprehensible and the word “obscure” keeps coming back as a keyword.
Maja: When we don’t understand the language it is actually a very scary experience, it triggers a defence mechanism which sometimes takes a violent form.
Daniel: Yes, you’re suddenly excluded from society. Especially in the scene where Glen has a meeting with funds committee, everyone understands each other, and they are laughing but he doesn’t understand so suddenly he’s kicked out of that unit. The same when you’re in the foreign country and you don’t speak the language, you’re outside.
Maja: True. On having an outsider’s perspective, I really liked the interview where you assumed the identity of a cat featured in Snakeskin. I noticed cat’s name was Max, the same as the name of a dog mentioned in one memorable story told by Glen’s character in Demons. I was wondering is it a coincidence?
Daniel: Oh, the story about Max in Demons, I was thinking about my cousin’s dog called Max and he had hip displacement, it’s a complete coincidence with the names. In Snakeskin there was a cat called Max too. Right, I didn’t think about it before.
Maja: I’ll keep being inquisitive because I would love to ask about the locations too. I guess you shot at one of your friend’s flat? Which district was that?
Daniel: Yes, it was in Jurong West, actually a bit north to where A Land Imagined was shot.
Maja: I was wondering about the location of the last scene too, because the space really stands out, it is different than HDB apartments where the rest of Demons takes place. It is like a huge stage, where the story finds its finale.
Daniel: We shot on the parking lot on the rooftop and next to People’s Park Complex. The building is soon scheduled to be torn down.
Maja: Ooo no way, but it’s Singapore Chinatown’s landmark.
Daniel: Yeah, but it is soon going to be destroyed.
Maja: The city is changing too fast. Going back to Demons, could you tell me a bit more about the ending? I was curious, because you shot on 16mm, how did you do the last scene with all the colours and multilayering?
Daniel: One of the references we were talking about with Wan Ping Looi, Demons cinematographer, was the Kenneth Anger film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. I wanted these very primary colours, red and blue. While shooting the last scene I was thinking about Italian Giallo films too, like the ones directed by Mario Bava. These were very important influences, we wanted very bold colours – Glen’s side blue and Vicky’s side red. When putting them together it would cause a big clash.
So that’s how we did it. The extras were all volunteers and we stayed up all night, from midnight till 8am. They all came out of the goodness of their hearts and it was a weekday, so some of them stayed up all night and then went to work right after we completed the scene. It was the most stressful shoot, because it was the last day, the sound equipment was flying off the next day, so we knew we had to finish filming that night.
Maja: But it was definitely worth it. The last scene leaves a big impression, it is hard to forget. How did the audience at Berlinale and Busan IFF react to Demons?
Daniel: It is split. Since I started showing people the film reactions were very polarizing, so some people would walk out of the screening room but the people, who stayed, they really loved the film. So every time during the Q&A the feedback is extremely good as those were the people who liked Demons enough to stay.
Maja: I think polarization is better, because there are films that you watch till the end but don’t remember anything after the screening, so it is better if the film leaves any impression in one’s memory, positive or negative.
Daniel: I realized while making Snakeskin, an experimental documentary, that the people who go watch Snakeskin are the people, who like watching experimental documentaries. When it comes to Demons it is a different sort of audience and reception, because Demons is a horror, which is a very popular genre, definitely there will be people who will not accept what I’m doing, because it is not a very conventional horror.
Maja: So Demons mixes genre and author cinema.
Daniel: Yes, I wanted to insist on the fact that it is a horror movie, because I love horror movies and I wanted to make one myself, but doing things a bit different and maybe subverting the genre conventions a little bit. But the baseline is, I just always wanted to make a horror film.
Maja: I can totally relate to this feeling. So what’s your plan next? You mentioned new documentary films project entitled A Short Film For the Dead, on what stage is its production?
Daniel: We still have to do quite a bit of research for A Short Film For the Dead. My plan after Demons is that I’m going to work with Fran Borgia, the producer of A Land Imagined. Our project is going to be an adaptation of a novel, but I cannot say more as it’s not confirmed yet.