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Home page > Interview-Portrait > Tzu Nyen, Ho (19 May 2009)

Ho Tzu Nyen

Photo by Luis Sens

Originally a student of Mass Communications in Singapore, Ho Tzu Nyen’s taste for cinema came rather gradually. Dissatisfied with his academic studies, he built his own education through the history of art, especially the avant-gardes and the work of Marcel Duchamp. One thing led to another: soon he would be renting videos, discovering Godard, Antonioni, Fellini, and the shocking Theorem by Pasolini. He would then major in sculpture and shoot his first short film in 2003, Every Name in History is I, set in an installation with 20 paintings, about a pre-colonial founder of Singapore.

The success of this project on the international art scene led him to experiment with more shorts, such as The Bohemian Rhapsody Project and Reflections. In the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, he presents his first feature film, HERE, set in a psychiatric hospital and inspired by painting, music and the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche.

How do you think your experience in visual arts influences your work as a filmmaker? My work with the moving image is definitely affected by my relationship with other arts, mainly painting and music, but also my engagement in reading artistic, historical and theoretical texts. In any case, my obsessions over the last few years have been with pre-20th century Dutch, French and Italian paintings, and maybe something of this went into HERE.

In your previous projects, you worked a lot with non-professional actors. Did you keep this choice for HERE? I worked with a cast of about 30 actors, mainly amateurs, retirees, as well as a couple of professionals who are just starting out (and not terribly well-known or overused at the moment). What I look for in a cast member is physiognomy, presence and a certain passion for adventure. I don’t believe in discriminating against either professional actors or non-actors. For me, a film’s “realism” is largely defined by the moment of encounter between the camera and the world, and the world is made up of all kinds of people who act and react differently to the camera.

You say HERE is about the characters “being here” in the film and for the public “being here” in the cinema. But aren’t all films about being here? In this film, I think of all the characters as pretty much trapped behind the screen, just as they are incarcerated in a mental asylum. I would almost even call it a kind of purgatorial space. As for the public, I was interested in making them feel that they are really ’here’ in the cinema, enclosed in this darkened room, losing track of time. But perhaps most of all, I try to make the public so conscious of their ’perceptual activity’ that they become aware of their own bodies, through the use of extremely low frequencies and a strategic use of the 5.1 surround sound system.

Your previous short films contain a particular kind of humour which opposes both the meaning of the narration and the image it comments. Commentary, or self-reflexivity, is an important ethical and aesthetic principle for my work, though I am always hoping to find new ways to prevent [this] from becoming a kind of didactic totalization. This is already achieved in some of the most magnificent paintings of the past - in Caravaggio, in Courbet, in Manet - in different ways, of course. I believe HERE to be a continuation of this project.

Both Reflections and The Bohemian Rhapsody Project are low-budget productions that use imagination and creativity to deal with complex sceneries and actions. Did you make use of the same kind of procedure in HERE? HERE is set in a mental asylum and the primary location for our shoot was a ’real’ disused mental hospital. This conflation of the past and the present was evoked in some senses, when many of my crew and cast claimed to have had rather spooky encounters. It gave us all the creeps being on location making our film. A large number of my works so far seem to be composed in relation to a dichotomy of space: studio/real, inside/outside; but my intention was always to keep this dialectic going, so that it is always reversing, inversing, etc., like an infinity of Plato’s caves within caves…

By Bruno Carmelo

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