Award-winning film-maker Boo Jun Feng is no stranger to tackling taboo issues. From a movie about the death penalty to one about AIDS and HIV, he wants to spur conversation, showcase the human experience and challenge long-held beliefs.

SINGAPORE (Dec 13): Film-maker Boo Junfeng, 35, is full of surprises. Slender, dressed in black with a boyish but serious face, he is soft-spoken yet intense. Our photographer managed to coax a smile out of him for the photoshoot and it lit up his face. He appears more at ease behind the camera than in front of it, although he gamely poses for pictures in the sweltering heat.

Back inside, Boo is all seriousness again for the interview with Options, choosing his words carefully. His voice is gently modulated and he sits slightly slouched, with his hands kept beneath the table. For a film-maker who has been making waves locally and internationally since he released his debut film, Sandcastle, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival’s International Critics’ Week in 2010, he is unassuming and earnest about his chosen craft.

“When I was 15, I fell in love with the idea of make believe — the ability to take an audience to different places through stories and the cinema. [That] was what I really wanted to be a part of,” he says when asked how he knew film-making was his vocation and his journey so far. “I didn’t absolutely need to be a director, I just wanted to be a part of this world.”

By his own admission, Boo did not do well in secondary school, so he was elated when he found out there was a film school in Singapore, at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

“I was never great in school, but when I went to film school, I was suddenly top of the class, because I enjoyed it. My parents realised this was something I really wanted to do, and there was no better way to prove that than through [good] grades,” he jokes.

First success

The spark that lit the fire of his career came when, in 2003, as part of his final semester at Ngee Ann, he got a chance to write and direct his first short film while in Barcelona.

He returned to Singapore with his short film — unedited — and then went on to do his national service training. In his spare time, however, he spent every moment editing the film.

The short film, which was shot in Spanish, was titled Family Portrait. He submitted it for the Singapore International Film Festival, and it won the Best Short Film and the Special Achievement awards.

“Suddenly, I was a film-maker,” he says, smiling. “And people were interested in what I was going to do next.”

In 2008, he became the first recipient of the McNally Award for Excellence in the Arts, given to the most outstanding student of the year at LASALLE. He also won the Young Artist Award 2009 (Film) and the Singapore Youth Award 2011.

Sandcastle clinched the Best Film and Best Director awards as well as the NETPAC (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema) Jury Award at the Vietnam International Film Festival. It was also listed by The Wall Street Journal as one of Asia’s most notable films of 2010.

Boo says despite his success, he still feels like there are stages he goes through as a film-maker and that it is not as easy as being described as one. “When you are finally [acknowledged as] a film-maker, it feels good, but you realise that it doesn’t stop there. Just because you’ve made a short film, it doesn’t mean that you know how to make films.”

It was then that he realised he could make independent short films that did more than entertain, putting across his view of the world. “There were issues I cared about in Singapore, questions I wanted to explore. So, in putting [my thoughts] out in the film medium, it was an attempt on my part to try to do that. Instead of getting into arguments or approaching these issues in a cerebral way, I wanted to approach them as human experiences and stories.”

Being a film-maker, he says, means being able to use the big screen as a canvas to open the minds and hearts of complete strangers to new perspectives or worldviews.

Narrating the human experience

This was why Boo wrote and directed Apprentice, a psychological prison drama exploring the taboo subject of the death penalty from an executioner’s point of view. The critically acclaimed movie, released in 2016, won the Critics’ Choice Award as well as the top prize, the Grand Prix, at the Fribourg International Film Festival (FIFF). The film was widely praised for its sensitive approach to a controversial topic.

Apprentice is a psychological prison drama exploring the taboo subject of the death penalty from an executioner’s point of view

“I wanted people to be moved by [the film] and to contemplate further than the usual rhetoric on the issue. At the same time, there was a human angle that I felt hadn’t been put out there before,” explains Boo. “The story of a man who wears the uniform of a prison officer, who believes in rehabilitation and helping [convicts] by giving them a second chance, yet confronted with something as absolute as the death penalty.”

Through interviews with prison officers and people who have been affected by or connected to capital punishment — religious counsellors, executioners themselves and the families of those who have been executed or been on death row — he found himself on a journey of his own.

“It took me three years to write the script. It was also my personal journey in questioning my long-held beliefs,” he says. “I think because the film was told through individual stories and experiences, even if certain things were said [in the film] that could be deemed offensive when taken out of context, it would be understood as it had been intended, because the film presents the context.”

His movies are never made on a whim, rather he puts his whole heart into research and tries to understand at a deeper level the personal journeys of the people whose stories he tells.

“I find myself needing to wear different hats and switch them around sometimes, because of how much I care about issues, especially in Singapore, where we tend not to like looking at difficult issues in a meaningful way,” he says. “That side of me is more like an activist. I care, and I want to put the message out there, but at the same time, I recognise that cinema isn’t only about issues. It’s about the human condition; how we see ourselves in characters and perspectives and how we relate to one another.”

Plague

In Plague, Boo tackled the issue of AIDS and HIV. The filmlet is based on the true story of health worker Iris Verghese, considered a pioneer advocate of HIV awareness. In the 1980s, she was one of the first few to come forward to help those afflicted by the disease — a brave act at a time when misinformation and fear surrounded the disease.

Plague is based on the true story of health worker Iris Verghese, considered a pioneer advocate of HIV awareness

When Boo heard about Verghese, he says he really appreciated what she stood for — and still stands for. “She was a devout Catholic, who, at the height of the AIDS crisis, with all the fear and disinformation, reached out to understand and care for the patients — her moral courage was truly inspiring to me.

“I got to meet her and listen to what she went through. She did house visits, she saw how the families would be wrapping up the beds and furniture in plastic sheets in fear of the disease, and she also witnessed how the patients themselves were fearful for their own families — the shame associated with it at the time. These are very real emotions, and you need not be a patient yourself to empathise with the story and the experiences.”

Boo is also a friend of the brand for Montblanc, which, through its partnership with (RED), raises awareness in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Montblanc launched its (MONTBLANC M)RED line in 2018 and this year, the brand has expanded the line with the introduction of a trolley and a new writing instrument. A donation of €5 is made for every purchase of a (MONTBLANC M)RED product, and the money goes directly to its global fund to support HIV/AIDS programmes in sub-Saharan Africa.

The cause is one that resonates with Boo, who is one of the founding members of Pink Dot, a non-profit movement in support of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community in Singapore. “I have friends who are HIV-positive, and it takes a lot of courage and trust for them to tell me. The journey for an HIV patient is so different today from back in the 1980s or 1990s, but there is still so much stigma. The de-stigmatisation of HIV is something I care very much about.”

Currently, Boo is working on his third feature film, but it won’t be completed until 2021, he reckons. “It’s always a long-drawn-out process. Apprentice took me five years, and this one probably will too. It’s a journey, and I always try to make sure it’s a worthwhile journey to begin with,” he says.