Arts & Culture

Jeremy Chua Recalls Life’s Illusions

In Singapore Art Museum’s Still Somehow, It’s Illusions We Recall, film programmer Jeremy Chua reflects on using cinema as an instrument for introspection in a time of disruption.

Words by
b-side staff

Text by Leticia Sim

Jeremy Chua has spent a lot of time observing and ruminating over the past two years. The multi-hyphenated Singaporean producer, screenwriter, and programmer has amassed quite an expansive résumé—one that sees him taking on a diverse range of films, projects, and collaborations. His film company, Pōtocol, focuses on developing and co-producing independent Asian films, with titles like K. Rajagopal’s A Yellow Bird and most recently Abdullah Mohammad Saad’s Rehana propelling him to Cannes and beyond. 

It only seems fitting, then, for Jeremy to channel these two years of introspection into curating the collaborative, international, and intriguing film programme that accompanies Singapore Art Museum’s ongoing exhibition The Gift. In Still Somehow, It’s Illusions We Recall, he draws on his observations and challenges to curate a line-up centering on filmic responses to our current state of unprecedented disruption and isolation. The films take their audiences from Japan, to Mexico, to Georgia, finally rooting themselves locally in the curated short films by Singaporean multidisciplinary artists.

In many ways, the eclectic selection of features and shorts are an exercise in contradiction—intimate yet alienating, hopeful yet uncertain. Though thematically diverse, they take their time to ruminate and explore the possibilities for the reanimating of a new future self, while pausing to provide a much needed artistic avenue for collective self-contemplation.

In the midst of the programme’s run, B-Side speaks to Jeremy to extend the conversation of affinities and entanglements, discussing his curatorial process, the importance of artistic collaboration, and how the pandemic has shaped his approach to cinema.

Still from And A Great Sign Appeared, Evidence of Things Unseen, or We Watch Them Disappear_ Image courtesy of Robert Zhao.

​​Hi Jeremy, The Gift is such a multifaceted and expansive exhibition, not only engaging in dialogue between the various collections of other museums, but within itself, and now with this film programme. How did you approach programming Still Somehow, It’s Illusions We Recall as an extension of these dialogues?

Hi Leticia, while I was thinking of how to shape the film programme, I considered how The Gift highlighted the act of gifting as more than just an exchange, but the generosity of it. Hence, I wanted to consider how this idea would translate into the medium of cinema at this current point in time. In my own life, I realised how the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed me to take action on things I had been procrastinating for a long while. I thought it was akin to awakening from a deep sleep. I also learnt that many of my friends and family members were doing the same. Amidst a world in lockdown, they were migrating, getting married, moving houses, ending relationships or changing jobs. Art and Cinema have a long history of capturing a zeitgeist, especially in times of catastrophe. So as a response to these happenings around me, I wanted to create a programme that did not try to intellectualise our new reality, rather to create a space for one to look inward rather than outward for a future that could be more certain.

Can you speak to choosing the programme’s title? By any chance, is it a direct reference to the lyrics in Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”?

Haha, yes, it is one of my favourite songs. Especially the 2000 orchestra version which she sang more than 30 years after she wrote it. In fact, I’m going to play it right now. The feeling I wanted to convey was the illusion of certainty in life and to suggest that everything we think we know true and real about our lives from before cannot be the same anymore. Hence, it is an invitation to evolve.

Was there a particular piece of art in The Gift that you used as a starting point for curating the films?

It started rather from a piece of research text that was compiled by curator of The Gift, June Yap, and her team at Singapore Art Museum that expressed how contemporary life and culture is after all a culmination of a long chronicling of exchanges, transactions, occupations, and wars in human history. I became interested in the idea of correspondence as more of an intra- rather than an inter-activity. That disruption was a starting point for introspection.

I’m curious to know if any of the films in the programme and artworks in The Gift work as a pair? Or if your curatorial process involved another way of seeing?

My process is different in how I was investigating my own sense of COVID-19 existentialism and I adapted the curatorial framework of The Gift to propose a new subjectivity and experience that only cinema can give.

Each of the feature films in your line-up explores the complexities of entanglement and relationships, not only thematically but also quite literally in their internationally collaborative production. Was this a deliberate choice on your part?

International co-production is a very common model of film financing right now. So it’s no surprise that the creative process in cinema is becoming more international. What I’m more interested in is rather the dialectics of form, aesthetic and language in contemporary filmmaking that international collaboration creates.

With all the films being responses to the uncertain and unprecedented nature as of late, has the pandemic changed the way you approach films?

Yes, I think of films as part of a living consciousness. It’s quite inescapable that whatever is happening in the world changes the way I watch or make films. After one and a half years of spending more time staring out of windows, I feel like I’ve become a more observant and pensive person. Even the slightest detail of wind or rain can be an enigma.

The Year of the Everlasting Storm stands out in the line-up, both as an anthology, and also because of the directors attached. As a curator, how do you evaluate such a project, ultimately programming it alongside the other features?

I like how this film is composed of 7 masterful interpretations of filmmaking possibilities in a pandemic. Inspired by Panahi’s “anti-film”, This Is Not A Film, they each propose a story with the premise of minimalism or counter-form: one location, small crew, some utilising hand phone footage or manipulating Zoom footage, some without actors, some without script. I think it lends to the conversation of how do we move forward rather than look back. The anthological approach also reminds us that our lives are just a diorama of a bigger universe and that in different parts of the world, there is a different layer to catastrophe, a different call to action, and a different response.

Still from The Year of the Everlasting Storm. Image courtesy of Golden Village.

The documentary The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) is incredibly immersive with the long run time and all its parts. What drew you to including this in the line-up? Did you have any concerns?

Interestingly, this film breathes and lives like a documentary, but is actually a work of fiction! I watched the film based on the recommendation of a visual artist, Liao Jiekai, and I was enthralled by how the film is composed by a montage of extraordinary happenings that languidly (and melancholically) eclipse time passing in an ordinary world. The narrative thread is placed almost as a mirage over the picturesque landscape of the Japanese countryside blurring the line between a naturalism of the everyday and a vivid cinematic construct. I knew that the durational quality of the work was going to be a challenge, but I would prefer to think of it as an epic. For the few who dare to overcome it, the rewards go beyond the imagination into the spiritual.

Still from The Works and Days (Of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin). Image courtesy of C.W. Winter, Anders Edström, Wang Yue.

I had the chance to catch What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?, which meanders and takes its time to tour around the city and the routines of its people and creatures. It also has a pretty long run time, scenes almost starting to meld into each other. Is there a scene in particular that sticks out/has stuck to you? 

Thanks for coming to watch the film. Without giving too much away, I think the folkloric and metatextual components that book-end the film was extremely profound for me. Suddenly the curse of the evil eye and long journey they took to arrive at the end becomes so poignant and magical.

Still from What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? Image courtesy of Cercamon.

In your pre-show introduction, I remember you said that the film attempts to make sense of the inexplicable, but is ultimately a love story. To me, I saw the film as a love story to the Georgian city of Kutaisi, in its rituals. This ties in with your selection of short films exploring the subconscious reality of life in Singapore. How did you go about programming these shorts as compared to the feature films?

You’re absolutely right. The director describes Kutaisi as the heart of Georgia, where art, science, sports and politics have thrived and co-existed and he spent a year living in the city to capture all its shades. I love that you also connected the film to the artist’s works in the shorts selection. It was a connection I did not make before, but totally can see how that you pointed it out.

For the artist films, I was interested to highlight works made by local artists in the last 2 years that reflected on the ephemeral existence of a remembered world. Elysa Wendi’s If Forest Remembered dwells in the quest of attempting to reverse a vanishing point – of recollecting a long forgotten memory of her first solo dance juxtaposed with the slow extinction of a species of rhino. Min Wei Ting’s If For Nothing Else Than For Sunday explores parallel spatial dramaturgies of Little India through a walkabout of the neighbourhood at two distinct times. And we show a capsule of Robert Zhao’s recent shorts investigating the unseen impact of urbanisation on the fragile lives of birds in migration.

Still from If Forest Remembered. Image courtesy of Elysa Wendi.
Still from If For Nothing Else Than For Sunday. Image courtesy of Min-Wei Ting.

You have quite an expansive body of work. Do any of the short or feature films in the line-up revisit any recurring or past themes you have previously explored?

I find it hard to separate my unexplained emotions and any work that I do – be it producing, writing or programming. I think they only exist because of each other. So I would say each work parallels the philosophical trajectory of my life. So there is a recurring theme since I’m the protagonist of my universe, but I’m not yet at the end of the journey to know exactly what it is.

Jeremy Chua

Lastly, to you, what’s in cinema’s gift?

To dream. I hardly remember any dreams when I’m asleep. To the point I question if I even dream at all. For me, Cinema is mysterious this way. I seem awake but not always aware that I’m dreaming.

Still Somehow, It’s Illusions We Recall is a film programme presented by Singapore Art Museum in conjunction with the ongoing exhibition, The Gift. The film programme will run until 4 November 2021 at National Gallery Singapore. For more information, please visit Singapore Art Museum’s website.

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