Heralded as the first-ever Singapore-South Korea co-produced feature film, Ajoomma has been making international waves in the short time since its release. After its world premiere at the 27th Busan International Film Festival, the film garnered four Golden Horse nominations (best actress, best new director, best original screenplay and best supporting actor), before being selected as Singapore’s entry to the 2023 Academy Awards for Best International Feature Film.
Ajoomma tells the story of Auntie (or Ajoomma in Korean), a middle-aged Singaporean widow obsessed with K-Dramas. As her adult son prepares to move out, she struggles when her identity is no longer defined by the roles of wife, mother and daughter. Inspired by her favorite soap operas, Auntie decides to visit South Korea for the first time, embarking upon an unexpected journey of self-discovery.
The film marks the feature debut of Singaporean screenwriter and director He Shuming. A product of The Puttnam School of Film and Animation (LASALLE College of The Arts) and the American Film Institute Conservatory (Los Angeles) – Shuming started by honing his prodigious talents through numerous acclaimed short films both in Singapore (Letters From The Motherland, Homecoming, Rehearsal, Boon Lay Place) and the United States (And the Wind Falls, Mrs. Alderman, La Bella, Loveland).
On the eve of Ajoomma’s theatrical release in Singapore, we spoke with Shuming about how his mom inspired him, K-Dramas, working with a South Korean crew, Hong Huifang’s transcendent lead performance as Auntie, and much more.
We’ve read that the story of Ajoomma was inspired by your mom. How did that come about?
My mom is an avid fan of Korean dramas and I was also observing how she’s navigating a new stage in her life when her kids are grown up and leading their own lives. I thought that was something a lot of us can relate to. The film and Auntie herself, were inspired by the mothers of my cast and crew.
Do you watch any K-Dramas yourself? If so, what are your favorites?
Of course. I just started on Little Women. I love The World of The Married, Crash Landing On You, and Kingdom.
The script for Ajoomma seems to have been around for a while, winning several regional awards as early as 2015 at the Singapore International Film Festival. Was the process of developing this script into a movie a difficult one?
Being a working filmmaker in Singapore often means you’re doing a few different things to make a living; besides directing TVCs, I also teach and design multimedia for theatre and developing other scripts. So I had to write my script on days when I’m not working, or after work. Anthony Chen is a tough critic so he really made sure we had a solid draft before we could began sending it out to potential financiers. Trying to get this financed was also really challenging because I’m a first time feature film director with quite an ambitious script.
After working on a number of successful short films, what were the biggest challenges you faced in making the jump to features?
A feature film is really quite a different beast altogether. It’s about maintaining momentum because it can take time, and fully understanding what kind of film you’re making. I think as a first time feature director, there are plenty of expectations that I’ve placed on myself because I have only one chance to make a first feature. I’ve gone through moments of self doubt and wondering what kind of director would I be seen as. At the end of the day, regardless of the outcome, I know I worked with sincerity, and that my team and I worked well together.
A lot has been made about Ajoomma being the first ever Singapore-South Korea co-produced film. What was it like to collaborate with the South Korean cast and crew?
There was a lot of sharing of our snacks. Food really became such a bonding moment for us. They requested I bring local snacks over and the one that proved to be quite popular was Bee Cheng Hiang’s pork slices (the vacuumed packed ones). So on the last day of shoot in Seoul, I got fresh Bee Cheng Hiang in Korea as a wrap gift for the crew. We also spent a lot of holidays together (Christmas, New Year’s Eve (also my birthday), various birthdays, Lunar New Year, Valentine’s Day) so we really became quite close. But ultimately, it was a mutual respect for each other to tell the story we wanted to tell.
Korean cinema appears to be going through its second “Golden Age” in the 21st century. Having spent some time working there, what is your opinion of South Korea’s thriving and vibrant film industry?
I had the best time learning from the South Korean cast and crew. It became very clear why the Korean cinema is so well revered. They are extremely disciplined and well trained, and approach every single thing with so much depth. I do think it has changed the way I approach filmmaking.
As a foreigner making a film set primarily in another country, what were some steps taken to ensure that the Korean culture and people would be represented accurately or authentically?
There were research and consultations done with our script translator and script supervisor to make sure we got the cultural and language nuances right. During pre-production, the crew would let me know of any instances when something aren’t reflective of their culture. I would then make the appropriate changes based on their suggestions. The same is said when I work with my actors. I worked with a translator Wan Sze, who is a Singaporean actress based in Seoul. She has a firm grasp of the languages and really became the bridge between me and my Korean actors.
Was the language barrier ever an issue in Ajoomma’s production?
The first and most important thing for me when I started pre-production in Korea was to establish a consistent line of communication, especially when it came to translation. With translation, things do take double time so it was important to make sure we make sure nothing gets lost and that we don’t lose precious time. Sometimes little hiccups do happen but we always make sure it gets resolved quickly.
Hong Huifang has been universally praised in reviews, and even recently received a Golden Horse nomination for her lead performance in Ajoomma. What was the casting and audition process like for her pivotal role? And when did you realise that she would be perfect as Auntie?
We met various amazing actresses from all sorts of backgrounds – television, theatre, non-actors – and everyone brought something so different to the character. At some point when Huifang was brought up by my casting director Chia Meng, I wasn’t too sure because I had a certain image of her as a celebrity, but I also know she’s a fantastic actor. She came in to read two scenes and we talked about the role. At that point I realised she is just like the aunties you know, but packaged like a celebrity. I gave her the full script to read and when she came back for the callback, she told me she had no idea she was going to be in every scene.
Finally, what was your reaction when the IMDA selected Ajoomma as Singapore’s submission to the 2023 Academy Awards?
I felt fantastic. It’s an opportunity for us to garner more attention to our film to an audience outside of Singapore stateside. I have some understanding of what it means to campaign for the Academy Awards so this would be a great opportunity and experience regardless of the outcome.
Ajoomma opens in Singapore cinemas on Thursday, 27 October.