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A Conversation with Tzang Merwyn Tong - Director of A Wicked Tale
Conducted between July and August 2005
Interview Conducted By: Matthew Dean Hill

If you've been lucky enough to see A Wicked Tale, or if you've read my review (here), you know that it's a truly fascinating experimental fairy-tale/horror/art film, and your curiosity has been more than a little piqued. Recently, Singaporean A Wicked Tale director Tzang Merwyn Tong took the time to answer a few questions, wherein he reveals his inspirations, intentions, and aspirations regarding that film, and future endeavours...

Atrocities Cinema: Thanks for joining us, Tzang! Can you give us a little background on INRI Studio and A Wicked Tale? How did you get started in all of this?

Tzang Merwyn Tong: Thanks for having me here. INRI Studio is an underground outfit - a production house that specialises in making films that provoke the senses and open the mind.

A Wicked Tale came about because of my fascination with fairytales. I have always been intrigued by the Little Red Riding Hood story. It's a story about a little girl who willingly allows herself to be seduced by a ravenous creature she meets in the woods. Fairytales are often potent with symbolism. I made this film with the intention to tell the story in a way that has never been told before.

Atrocities Cinema: Well, I've found that many filmmakers and other people involved in genre films on one level or another have been deeply influenced...dare I say "scarred for life"...by fairytales. They're quite moralistic, but they have a decidedly nasty sting. I think this is especially true of the Little Red Riding Hood story, with its thinly-veiled subtext of sexual awakening, and the association of "men" and particularly "strangers" with a ravenous, bloodthirsty beast. In A Wicked Tale, that subtext is clearly brought out into the open in a way that had never really been properly explored in film. As strong as the film is in this regard, though, there is little in the way of explicit sexual content. As a filmmaker with basically "free reign" over the project, were you at any stage tempted to go in a more explicit direction?

Tzang Merwyn Tong: I'm not sure what you mean by "explicit direction", but if you mean the exploration of more taboo subjects, hmmm...I think I've done just what I wanted with A Wicked Tale.

The idea of Little Red as a story about sexual awakening, and the subtext of a man's fear of unbridled female sexuality is a topic which I had always wanted to explore. I like to mix the obvious with the not so obvious, the beautiful with the strange.

I feel relief to know that audiences are able to connect with the film in spite of its psycho-eccentric nature. Unnatural lighting. Fake sets. These experimentations worried me a little when I was making it. I thank the audience for being brave enough to open their minds - to accept this little oddity.

Atrocities Cinema: One thing that struck me about A Wicked Tale was the cast. These are uniformly excellent performances. I was particularly impressed with Evelyn Ng, who plays "Beth", the de facto "Little Red" of the story. Now, apart from the fact that Evelyn is almost supernaturally beautiful...almost like a "Liv Tyler" turned up to "11"...what was it about her that convinced you she was as perfect for the role of Beth as is evident onscreen?

Tzang Merwyn Tong: I knew she was the one the first time I met her. She's a natural...in fact, she doesn't even need to act much. She just needed to "be".

Everything about her...the way she moves, the way she talks and the way her eyes talk is exactly the way I envisioned Beth to be. Maybe it's hindsight. I don't know. There's a very enigmatic quality about her. I remembered saying to my co-producer during the auditions that she reminded me a little of Snow White in the Walt Disney cartoon.

Atrocities Cinema: I don't know if you're aware of this, but a lot of critics (myself included) have drawn comparisons...favorable ones...between the final act of A Wicked Tale and that of Takashi Miike's Audition. Would you care to address those comparisons?

Tzang Merwyn Tong: I watched Audition once, but I cannot remember what the final act is. I just remember the needles. The final act of A Wicked Tale was a sequence inspired by a dream within a dream which I dreamed about and woke up from twice. I could have embraced something from Audition subconciously, but it hurts to know!

Atrocities Cinema: Stylistically, A Wicked Tale is one of the more original and effective stand-alone short films that I've seen in quite some time. You made some interesting choices as a filmmaker, including the use of puppets and segments presented in the style of a slient-era film, with title cards and only the haunting classical melodies drifting in the background. Now, you must know that for some films and some filmmakers, this would all come across as pretentiousness, but in the case of A Wicked Tale, these techniques only add to the dreamlike, haunting quality of the piece. I'd like you to take a few moments to describe what your creative process was like when deciding on what technique to employ, and when. What inspired you to use such an artful approach to this subject matter?

Tzang Merwyn Tong: I wanted to present the film the way fairytales are presented to our subconscious. They are not presented to us as "real" stories. There is always some sense of make-belief.

It's like art. It's a piece of fantasy that is presented through a storyteller, a storybook with lots of pictures, a cartoon, an animation, words, poetry, drama, school plays, etcetera. There is a lot of pretending and play-acting going on. It's fun and subtle; it encourages us to interpret as well as to imagine.

One could also say that I used these elements (silent movie, puppets, animation, etcetera) to pay tribute to the various ways the story was presented before, or the way it could be presented. But, I also have a narrative arc that changes in style to become increasingly "real" with each passing moment. A Wicked Tale starts out pretty, and then corrodes to reveal the ugly side of seduction, sexuality, and make-belief.

Atrocities Cinema: Well said, Tzang! Now, during the production of A Wicked Tale, did you encounter any particular difficulties?

Tzang Merwyn Tong: Not really. Things went pretty smoothly for the better part of the shoot. Editing was a nightmare. I had some ideas in my head - about the colors, the style, the atmosphere, the pacing and the flow - and it took me a while to recreate what I wanted exactly. I actually adjusted the colors of the entire film frame by frame by myself!

Atrocities Cinema: Impressive! But, were there any moments where wanted to just throw up your hands and say, "Enough"?

Tzang Merwyn Tong: Not at all!

Atrocities Cinema: This is a question that I'm going to start asking all independent directors. If you had been in a situation, during the conceptualization and production of A Wicked Tale, where you had a much higher budget or more resources in general (time, materials, sets, what have you), would there be a "short list" of things that you would have done differently? Would you have taken a different approach to anything about the movie had your resources been a bit more plentiful?

Tzang Merwyn Tong: To be very honest, I would be happy to keep it the way it is. A Wicked Tale was never meant to be a big movie. It's an art project. It's a little experimental thriller that I wanted to do to show audiences a side of myself (and maybe a side of Singapore) that few have seen. I would not even change the length (the film runs at 45 minutes). A fairytale that is too long will look like a product of the mainstream where everything - the beat and the rhythm of the film becomes predictable. There is nothing wrong with predictability, it's just somthing I wanted to avoid for A Wicked Tale

Atrocities Cinema: Do you consider yourself a "horror film fan" in general? Could you indulge me with, say, your "top five" favorite horror films, and give us a bit of perspective as to why each of those ended up on your list?

Tzang Merwyn Tong: I'd like to skip this question because I think I have trashy tastes!

Atrocities Cinema: How do you feel about the state of the horror genre? Do you watch many American horror films these days? Where do you feel the genre is going?

Tzang Merwyn Tong: I like to watch American horror. It has the kind of predictability that makes it really fun to watch. But, if you are talking about "greatness"...it's been a while since I saw something that really makes me sit up.

Audiences are also getting more sophisticated. It would help for the industry to stop relying on old formulas and evolve with the times.

Atrocities Cinema: So, what's on the horizon for INRI Studio? What's next for you as a filmmaker?

Tzang Merwyn Tong: It has always been INRI Studio's mantra to make art that provokes the senses and opens the mind. INRI Studio is currently looking for new blood to work on a new project together. We're still in discussion as to what we would like to do.

Atrocities Cinema: If there's one "pet project" that you could be involved in as a filmmaker, regardless of genre, what would it be? We all have aspirations and dreams...what does Tzang Merwyn Tong the filmmaker dream about putting on the screen?

Tzang Merwyn Tong: The project that I always wanted to take on is an epic teenage black comedy about social misfits rebelling against a system, only to fail and realize that the system is really the way it's meant to be. People familiar with my work will know that I am talking about e'Tzaintes, a film I did when I was a student in 1999. I'd rather not talk too much about the new project, because a lot of it is still uncertain, but the new Tzaintes is to be a full-length feature that I will only make when I have the right and proper budget for it.

Atrocities Cinema: Well, that about wraps it up, I suppose! Thanks so much for your time, Tzang, and for sharing your thought with us on A Wicked Tale! Best of luck on all your future endeavours!

Tzang Merwyn Tong: Thanks! I consider it an honor myself. I hope I answered your questions.

More updates to come very, very soon.

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