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Jiekai Liao, Before the Wedlock House, 2012, 14'58

Singapore, October 2015

Before the wedlock house traces the moments of a bride's wedding day as she prepares for her groom to gate crash into her bridal chambers to take her away. A photographic, observational piece where the bride occasionally addresses the filmmaker behind the camera, where the filmmaker captures the intimate conversations and quiet moments of a young woman at the threshold of a traditional Chinese marriage. The black and white film manages to encapsulate a familiar and timeless sentiment or nostalgia of an important event to any Chinese family.

Jeremy Chua: There is a great honesty and simplicity to this film, yet very layered and reflects so much about the local Chinese culture, beautifully depicting a transitional moment in a young woman's life. Quite unexpected for a "wedding documentary". How did this film come about?

Jiekai Liao: The decision to film my cousin's wedding was very spontaneous, decided the night before the wedding. My cousin was reminding me to bring her the red packet (monetary gift) as part of a Chinese wedding tradition, and I was annoyed, so I decided to make a video for her as a gift, but not something in the traditional sense of a wedding video. I edited the film a year after I shot it and put together this film.

JC: Was there a plan before you started filming this event? What did you want to capture? What was the initial intention?

JL: There was no plan, but a concept. I understood the kind of constraint I was facing – I had no crew and no lights; in some ways it helped the film because the film reflects the process of making it, which was an intimate process of observation. The only parameter I set for myself was to only film within the confines of the brides room, because I felt that it was a symbolic space for the bride. It was the room she grew up in, and she was about to leave the confines of this familiar space to a different world. It felt like the opposite of the scene in Satyajit Ray's The World of Apu when Sharmila Tagore first stepped into the room of Apu, the poor writer whom she accidentally got married to. Her character entered into a completely new world, just as my cousin, at the end of my film, stepped out of the completely familiar space.

JC: Complementing the black and white images, the sound reveals a lot about the emotions in the scene, in the candid conversations, the raw, stark silence, or the sound that comes from outside the bedroom as the bride waits for her groom to crash in. They all lead us through an emotional journey from moments of joy, candour, thrill and meditation. Take us through the decision making in piecing this film together after you have shot all the images.

JL: The editing process was not so exciting to be honest. I watched the rushes, narrowed down the interesting footages, and pieced them together in a way that worked for me emotionally. There were some very intentional juxtaposition of sound and image; when the bride was talking about our childhood we see these little children playing on the bed; they are my niece and nephews who are childhood playmates too. When I see them, I think that's probably what we were like when we were children, and when these kids grow up, they will have to leave the room of their childhood too. There is a very long and wide shot when the bride just sits on her bed and waits for the groom to enter, it made perfect sense to just let the moment roll and not make any edits at that point. I think in some ways, the way I shot it already dictated how it was to be edited.

JC: All your works have this very personal quality. We can sense your presence, we can sense your directorial force. What is your approach or style to short filmmaking and is it very different from your feature work?

JL: I think most of my works start from an intimately personal perspective; even with my fictional features I try to enrich the narrative by instilling my own experiences into the piece, be it filming in places that mean something to me, or to blend some of my own experiences into the script. Short films are fun to make because they are often made within a very short span of time, and focus a lot of energy onto this one work in a short time. Features take years to produce and make, and often it becomes important not to lose sight of the original intent and emotion that drives the piece over the long period of time. It is definitely more challenging to make a long form work.

JC: There is a small documentary film scene in Singapore, mostly broadcast programmes and some artist films. It is not a common medium. What is your impression or interpretation of documentary and how does it relate to you as an artist? I guess what I'm trying to ask is "what does documentary mean to you"?

JL: The word "documentary" means nothing to me. There is no such thing as "recording reality objectively" in my opinion. The moment I set my frame and roll my camera, whether the scene before me is a film set with actors reciting their lines or it is a slice of daily life I am observing in my neighborhood, I have already made an image that is highly constructed through my own decision to move the camera or not, to frame out certain things and to keep others within the frame, to move my focus from one object to the other, etc. Which is why the conventional understanding of what documentary is does not mean anything to me. On the flip side of the picture, a fictional piece of work does not necessary mean that everything in there is an act; often times, the emotions that drive a performance, or the rhythm that move the camera carry a very realistic weight to it, it is very real. Like Tarkovsky's films, very poetic and abstract or what some people term surreal, but the spirituality and emotions that it carries are very real, it speaks directly to the heart of the audiences.

JC: Can you share a little about your current plans or future projects? Is there anything that you are experimenting with or developing at the moment?

JL: I am in the midst of finishing another short film titled Silent light. This work was shot on expired 16mm film stock, documenting my grandmother's funeral. It is another highly personal work, but my approach is similar to that of Before the wedlock house. I don't want to see grief or sadness in the images, but rather I wanted these documentations to pay tribute to the passing of a generation; to start from a very individual point of view, and then step back to look at collective history of a generation that grew up in a Singapore which I never knew.