Interview with Thomas Lim – Actor, Producer and Director based in Tokyo
By Mike Sullivan
In the past you have travelled through many countries, studied at Rose Bruford College in London and at the Beijing Sports University, and now live in Japan – how did you end up settling in Tokyo?
That’s right. I’m from Singapore and had studied theatre in London, and Chinese Kung Fu in Beijing at the institutes you mentioned. I have also lived in London, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Macau and now Tokyo for a combined 13 years, since 2001. For the longest time, I had always enjoyed living abroad while pursuing my career as an actor and filmmaker, as I believe the experiences I get while living overseas are richer and more stimulating. Such experiences are very important to have as an artist, and I’m blessed that my lifestyle and work go very well together.
Tokyo had always been a place that intrigued me for the longest time, but one that I’d never had the courage to live in. Mainly because I’d always thought of Tokyo as being extremely expensive. That was true back then, but I do not think Tokyo is any more expensive than the present day Singapore, Hong Kong or Macau (3 of the last places I’d lived in before Tokyo).
So finally, in 2011, I decided to fulfill this long time wish by moving to Tokyo and challenging myself to see how I’ll fare living in a foreign country where, for the first time, I don’t speak the local language. So far, it’s been the best place I’ve lived, and this move has been the most rewarding in all regards. I love challenges like these, as I believe they allow me to discover new things about myself. Self-discoveries are in my opinion our only real obligations as human beings.
How did you get into filmmaking? Are there any Japanese actors or directors who have inspired you?
When I was in my early 20s, I backpacked long and hard: across 30 countries before I turned 30. On one of those trips in 2002, I was unable to find accommodation at the Shaolin Temples of China, with the sun going down. From afar, I saw a Caucasian guy without his backpack (which means he had found a place to stay), and immediately approached him for help. This was how I met Michael Morris, a Hollywood screenwriter, who eventually became a mentor and remains a close collaborator and friend of mine.
After meeting as backpackers at Shaolin, Michael and I went to Cambodia two years later with a home video camera and made the film “Last Seen At Angkor” on a shoestring budget. This film is being distributed on all major online platforms (and DVDs) in America, and the experience of making it instilled in me the most important quality needed to make films – tenacity. I personally think the word “passion” is overrated when it comes to describing filmmakers. Many “passionate” people end up just talking about what their goals are, but it’s the “tenacious” ones that get things done and make progress. I learned that from making “Last Seen At Angkor” with Michael and indeed, I consider “Last Seen At Angkor” the mother of “Roulette City” and all other films I’d made.
Regarding influences from Japanese artists, iconic Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s films have always been inspiring, and Japanese TV dramas were very popular in Singapore when I was a teenager. So, I used to like a lot of the actors from what we called the “J-Wave Drama series” in the mid to late 90s.
You have now directed a number of productions, what was the trigger to move from acting into directing?
I evolved into becoming a filmmaker from first being an actor for 8 years. I started my career as a theater actor in Singapore, and then lived in London to do my Masters Degree (in Theater). After that, I moved to Beijing and became a TV and film actor before finally moving to Macau to direct “Roulette City”.
As an actor, I was always forced to be passive, as a sense of mystique is a huge part of an actor’s appeal. Overly proactive actors are easily taken as being desperate, and that’s a major turn off. The agents are the ones who should be actively pursuing jobs for the actors, but I was never one to like being passive. Thus, I decided to make my own films to become more pro-active at creating my own projects. Since then, I’ve grown to enjoy filmmaking as much as acting, and currently do both actively.
Please tell us about your movie ‘Roulette City,’ how successful was it? How hard was it to both direct and act in this movie?
Roulette City was essentially about what the Macau casinos meant to Macau residents and Mainland Chinese visitors. The film was presented as a love story between a Mainland Chinese man and a Macau girl and it was completely shot in Macau, where I lived for two years with the sole aim of making a feature film.
“Roulette City” was commercially released at major cinemas in Japan in August 2012, then in Singapore cinemas in November the same year, and Macau cinemas in January 2014. TV wise, it aired as a Chinese New Year movie on Macau Cable TV in 2013, and broadcast in Mainland China on CNTV channel. Then it also screened at film festivals in Singapore, Macau, Portugal and Japan, and at film conferences in Asia (for academic research purposes). Japan means so much more to me because “Roulette City” got its first commercial cinema release here.
I was coming off a main role in a Chinese TV series shortly before I shot “Roulette City”, and the actor whom I had cast for the lead male role “Tak” had to pull out the last minute for personal reasons. There wasn’t enough time to search for another actor and with the support of my producers, assistant directors and cinematographer; I decided to act in the role myself. I felt prepared as a director and was in my best form as an actor then, so we all believed I could wear both hats at the same time. It was a little unsettling in the first few days of production, but we soon got a hang of it and never looked back.
The occasional hardship was that I had to sometimes check (using replays) to see if the acting went well with the composition of the shots. But because the cinematographer Sam Voutas and myself had worked together many times prior, and knew each other very well, the shooting went a lot smoother than we’d anticipated. Needless to say, a lot of credit goes to Sam, for making the shoot a success. Thanks to that wonderful first experience, I’ve always acted (at least in a minor role) in all my subsequent films. As a joke, I always say it also means one less actor-schedule to deal with when it comes to doing re-recording of dialogue during post-production, as I’m always available for recording for my own films.
‘Mari’ will be your directorial debut in Japan, how difficult is it to have a production in a different country? How did you cope with casting?
I’m quite used to filming in foreign countries. In fact, I haven’t actually made films in my native Singapore, though I really wish to. So, I don’t particularly feel that it’s difficult to get productions going in foreign lands. Of course, you’ll always need a good rapport with skilled and experienced local collaborators, as well as a true affinity for the foreign country to be passionate enough about the story you want to tell there.
In terms of Tokyo, I have two close Japanese collaborators: actress Kieko Suzuki and cinematographer Santa Nakamura. The three of us have complementary skills, which makes us a great team, and they have showed me the joys of working with Japanese people. For one, Japanese people are (needless to say) never late and always dialed-in when it comes to work. It’s just a wonderful feeling to arrive on set and have the crew already there, ready to go. This keen sense of team-focus is something I’d never experienced in another country, and it keeps me motivated to write new scripts and create new projects all the time – because I know the team will always be there for me.
Casting for the leading role in “Mari” was easy. It was just going to be Kieko, who is also a producer for the film. Kieko is an established actress in Japan in her own right, and the rest of the cast was selected from actors introduced by Kieko and her manager. As a foreign director, I personally feel that performances (acting) by Japanese actors are sometimes a little too tame, mainly because in reality Japanese do not use too many body gestures or animated facial expressions when expressing themselves. But for the international audiences, I would usually try to encourage my Japanese actors to try and give a 10% “extra” in their performances.
Can you tell us more about the story? What inspired you to make a movie about single mothers in Japan?
“Mari” is a story about a single mother (Mari) struggling to raise her 3-year-old son (Kotaro). She fails repeatedly at interviews simply because she’s a single parent. But at one of those interviews, she gets to know an illegal foreign worker (Ming Han) who shows her kindness and secretly helps her out in dealing with her struggles.
The idea of making this film came about when Kieko and I were brainstorming ideas for a film to join a competition organized by an esteemed film festival. The theme of the competition is “poverty” and I thought it would really be interesting to set poverty against the backdrop of Japan, because people usually don’t associate Japan with being poor. Upon further research, we discovered two groups of people that struggle below the nation’s poverty line here in Japan: The Internet café dwellers, and single mothers. I was shocked to know that there are more than 1 million single mothers in Japan, and I personally know a Japanese lady who has told me stories of her silent struggles to raise her 3-year-old son. Since then, I really grew emotionally attached to the subject, and decided to make a film out of it.
‘The Last Room’ will be your next project in Japan. Can you tell us about this feature film?
“The Last Room” is a horror film. Horror is something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and I already have two drafts of the feature film script. I plan to get two more drafts out before showing it to investors. The film can be set in any place with a creepy vibe, like Japan or Macau, and honestly, where I’ll shoot it really depends on where the investment is coming from. I’m co-writing the script with Hollywood screenwriter Michael Morris, and will be shooting a few-minute-long pitch (a short version) of it on 15 September, in Japan. For this short, I’ll film it in a traditional Japanese restaurant doubling as a hotel, and the lines will be completely in Japanese. I’m strategizing for this film to be a co-production between Asia and America as I think Asian horror movies do well in the States, especially Japanese ones and have heard American producers call Japan the horror capital of the world.
Do you speak much Japanese? What is your opinion about life in Japan?
Unfortunately, my Japanese is pretty basic, but that doesn’t stop me from saying that Japan truly is a wonderful place to live. The quality of just about everything in Japan is sublime: from its food, services, and products to the people. Japan is extremely safe and beautiful too.
It’s true that Japan has most of the natural disasters we can name, but Mother Nature also gives Japan beauty unmatched by most countries in this world. On the same note, I never knew how to communicate with nature until I moved to Japan. Though I’ve lived in and traveled to many countries before, Japan is the first with four distinct seasons and a real threat of natural disasters (like earthquakes).
Observing Japan, I learned how people living in places with distinct seasons innately understand the concept of “change” – that nothing is permanent and everything changes with time, just like the seasons do. When seasons change, we change ourselves to handle and welcome a new season. There is a sense of optimism and appreciation for life in this understanding of change that I’ve acquired in Japan, which is accentuated by the country’s vulnerability to major natural disasters. Indeed, we should all treasure the present moment, as nothing in life is here to stay.
Life in Japan has also taught me that man is the smallest entity in this world we live in: that society is bigger than man, and nature is bigger than society. I mean, when I look back at Singapore, life is generally comfortable and nature doesn’t create problems for the country. Thus, nature does not factor in to the plans of a regular Singaporean’s daily life, making it seem as if society holds the biggest power there. When that happens, is that people tend to complain a lot because they believe their problems are created by other people (the government). Japan has taught me to look beyond what man can control, to interact with nature, and to respect it.
The only small downside of living in Japan that I can think of is how people are discouraged from expressing their opinions. So, sometimes I’m not certain what people mean by just listening to the words they say. It helps though, that many of my Japanese friends also speak English. I’m a very direct and opinionated person myself, and I believe that being able to express one’s opinions is a luxury in life. But, I understand that different places have different rules, and I have nothing but respect for the Japanese culture and the behaviors within.
Have you had any interesting experiences related to Japanese crafts or culture?
Off the top of my head, I remember my first experience on a Japanese film-set three months after I moved to Japan. I guess first experiences always leave a deeper impression. On American and Chinese film productions, there would always be a time just before any take when an assistant director would shout “Silence on set”, so that people would be quiet before the cameras roll and recording begins.
On the Japanese film set, they said “Hon Ban” when I thought it was time to call for “silence”, and it took me several days before I learned that “Hon Ban” actually meant “let’s shoot” in Japanese. So, where was the call for “silence”? There never was one! I guess because everyone on the film set (and in most other situations in Japan) were already very quiet (other than in the Izakaya, of course). More so, I believe it’s because Japanese people are always aware of their surroundings and crewmembers would always sense when cameras are going to start recording.
Another memorable experience was when my laptop broke down shortly after I moved to Japan. I called the service center up to ask for their address so I could bring my laptop in for repairs. But to my surprise, they said they’ll send a deliveryman to my place to pick my laptop up and the deliveryman came within an hour. He packed my laptop with amazing speed and precision and said “Very sorry to disturb you” before he left. Then, three days later, the same deliveryman came back with my repaired laptop but I wasn’t home and he left a note under the door. I called him after I got back and he came back again within the hour again, with my laptop securely packed in a sturdy box. The first thing he said when I opened the door was again “Very sorry to disturb you”. I mean, I should be the one saying sorry to have him come over so many times for my laptop. Speaking of unmatched standards of Japanese service… I know you asked for experiences related to Japanese culture, but I think the great postal services in Japan is one of its most outstanding modern cultural traits.
If you could learn to make a Japanese craft what would it be?
I’m a martial arts enthusiast and know a number of Chinese Kung Fu forms. So, if I could learn a Japanese craft (other than language), I would definitely choose a martial art. I’m particularly interested in Kendo, probably because I like swords, and am keen to learn the principles behind the Japanese “Way of the Sword”. Kendo also looks way cool when used in movies.
Finally, any last words for our readers?
My strengths as a foreign filmmaker would be that I’m usually less emotionally entangled with the details of situations that happen around me in a foreign country. Thus, I’m usually able to see the overall “shape” of these situations more clearly than the locals, while still being able to understand the details from immersing myself in the local culture by living in it. With that I hope to make films that reflect my observations in Japan, and I believe they would offer a different insight into life here than films by Japanese directors.
My feature film “Roulette City”, the short-version of “Mari” and one of my Macau shorts “Returnees” will screen at the New Directors Film Festival in Tokyo between 28 and 30 November 2014. I’m also a jury member for the film festival and have recommended a few films from Macau to be screened there. I hope to have your support on those screenings, and on the future projects that I would make in Japan.
Thank you Japan, for being so gracious in accepting me into your country to live as one of your own. Thank you too, to “Japanstore” for this wonderful interview.