Along with “Return to Seoul” and Kore-eda Hirokazu’s “Broker,” Singaporean comedy film “Ajoomma” joins a growing list of recent foreign movies set in Korea or probing contemporary Korean culture.
“Ajoomma,” which premieres at the upcoming Busan International Film Festival on Friday in the New Currents competition section, tells the story of stereotypical Singaporean middle–aged woman (or “auntie”). Her obsession with Korean TV dramas leads her to visit Korea for the first time and as a result, embarks on a journey of self-discovery.
This week, Singapore announced that “Ajoomma” will be its national representative in the International Feature Film race at the Oscars.
Variety spoke with the movie’s director, He Shuming about the story’s inspiration and cross-border production.
Is it correct that this story was inspired by your mom? How did the journey begin?
I was in LA for graduate school at the American Film Institute so there was a lot of Skyping with my family. My mother would go on and on about the two or three K-dramas she was watching at any one time. It was interesting to witness. So, I thought, “Would my mom travel on her own to somewhere? And what would happen if she went on a trip by herself?” It started there and evolved into the idea of this woman being the Singapore auntie that we can relate to.
What stood out for you while filming with the Koreans?
We’re lucky to have this Korean cast because working with them has been so good. (laughs) Working with a foreign director, actors never know what to expect. I learnt a lot from everyone, in terms of communication and watching them work on their craft. I have a lot of respect for the film industry in Korea. And I see why it’s so revered and still booming. There’s a huge sense of pride that comes with being a Korean filmmaker. They’re proud of their culture and films.
What were some of the cultural challenges encountered?
My script was written in English and had to be translated to Korean, yet I wouldn’t know if the translations were accurate. I got help from a few people to ensure each line captured the nuances.
With Mr Jung and Hong Huifang, they don’t speak the same language, so it was challenging to go beyond greetings and small talk. While filming the car scenes, Huifang would tell me they’re sitting there for hours without speaking. I’d create conversations via the walkie talkie since they shared a common interest in golf. By the end, they got close and friendly.
How did you resolve the cultural differences and smooth out the filming progress in Korea?
For a start by bringing admiration and respect for the people and culture. I wrote this story from an outsider’s point of view and I wanted to make sure I get things right. If not, I wanted them to tell me, so I could make changes. They were very open to giving suggestions. I had to put a lot of trust in my collaborators in Korea. When working with actors, I wanted to make sure there was a consistent line of communication. Because there was so much back and forth with translation, I had to train myself to keep my notes and make my direction very simple and straightforward.
What eventually brought both teams closer?
We all speak a similar language in filmmaking, but food is also one of them. It made connecting a lot easier. The crew always wanted to introduce me to new food in Korea. When the Koreans came to Singapore, every day we’d try a different hawker [street food] center. There was that mutual respect and understanding of making each other feel at home. Being able to shoot during COVID was a privilege. It is a fun film and I wanted to inject some of the same energy while producing it.