Jeremy Chua, Lavender Chang, John Clang Reteam on Singapore Documentary ‘Absent Smile’

Prolific Singaporean producer Jeremy Chua and filmmakers John Clang and Lavender Chang are reuniting after “A Love Unknown” (2020), which Clang directed and Chang shot. This time around, they have teamed for “Absent Smile,” co-directed by Chang and Clang, which is world premiering at the Singapore International Film Festival.

Clang is based in New York and visits his parents in Singapore intermittently. “Absent Smile” is a document of Clang’s parents and their mixed feelings of longing yet support for their son, using the format of family portraiture augmented with digital means.

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“Aging and separation are common occurrences that many are going through in our time. It is a theme that is close to our hearts that we may also find ourselves avoiding bringing it up. While modern technology seems to help to caress our longings for our loved ones, it also fuels the reasoning for the prolonged absence. However, this absence from our loved ones marks a duration of time that is irretrievably lost forever. In this film, we attempt to capture a single day of the elderly couple with continuous observation, hoping to capture the nuance and the underlying dynamic in their everyday life in the absence of their son,” Clang and Chang told Variety.

The film is also informed by Clang’s art project “Being Together.”

” ‘Being Together’ was done to showcase the diaspora situation commonly shared by many families and how we adapt and make use of the technology advancement, which reflects our time.

“When Clang created that artwork then, he had already decided to do something with the footage 10 years later. Though he didn’t have a concrete idea of what he wanted to do, he knew he would like to see how the family had changed and aged a decade after the initial portrait session. So, the film is not about the art project ‘Being Together’ – it takes on a life of its own. We want to see the moment after the portrait session ends, where one continues their everyday life and in this case, a decade later,” Clang and Chang added.

Premiering in Singapore is important for the directors. “This film includes many local families and it is a wonderful time capsule to bring them back to that portrait session. Many things may have changed since then, but the tight family value will remain. It will be a very meaningful experience for all of us,” Clang and Chang said.

The film was self-financed through the sale of Clang’s artwork by his long-time collaborator and producer, Elin Tew.

Chua said: “I find their approach to documentary innovative and unexpected. Their filmmaking practice tackles complex observations of society through delicate portraits of unassuming characters shot and edited with an intimate handcrafted texture, and then juxtaposing meta or hybrid elements to create tension and new perspective in the montage. In this case, a narrative that does not reveal itself directly, told between two timelines about the aftermath of a family portrait where themes are arrived from subjective interpretation and introspection. I find it to be a poignant look at ageing, missing a loved one and how time passes in the contemporary age – themes that I think are trivialized by my generation.”

“Absent Smile” is yet another addition to the burgeoning roster of Singaporean films bound for international recognition. “I think it reflects a time when filmmakers can find a voice of their own and are also more confident of their identity as Singaporeans. We have less history than our neighboring countries and so it is easy to be seen as the ‘shallow’ sibling in Southeast Asia. It takes time and courage to know that it is okay to just be who we are and that we do have something to share with the world,” Clang and Chang said.

Chua added: “Perhaps there is a new generation of directors who dare to be more ambitious with feature length storytelling and have better access to information and opportunities about coproduction. The mindset has evolved to become more world savvy. On the contrary, this is why I find self-funded, artist-driven films like ‘Absent Smile’ to also be so precious. It’s almost rebelling against the typical structure and textbook of how to produce a film. And this is precisely the diversity that makes Singapore independent cinema rich and exciting.”

Chua is currently in post production for four feature films while working in development with a new group of directors – Rafael Manuel, Russell Morton and Liao Jiekai. Clang and Chang have started another documentary film about family, which will take several years to complete as it is dependent on the passage of time to shape the narrative of the film.

“Absent Smile” premieres Dec. 1.

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