It’s a story of ongoing self-discovery – Nelson Yeo | Sunday Observer
Southeast Asian triumph: ‘Dreaming & Dying’ takes double honour at 76 Locarno Film Festival

It’s a story of ongoing self-discovery – Nelson Yeo

20 August, 2023
Momo Film Co
Momo Film Co

Nelson Yeo’s debut feature “Dreaming & Dying” has garnered significant recognition, winning two awards at the recently concluded 76th Locarno Film Festival. The Singaporean film stands out as the first Southeast Asian production to secure the prestigious Golden Leopard for Concorso Cineasti del presente, an honour exclusively bestowed upon first or second-time feature films. Additionally, the film was honoured with the Swatch First Feature Award for Best First Feature, adding to the region’s achievements.

Among a selection of 15 films, four Asian entries were chosen for the Concorso Cineasti del presente award this year. These included “Whispers of Fire & Water” by Lubdhak Chatterjee (India), “West Border” by Yan Luo (China), “Rimdogittanga” by Dominic Sangam (a co-production of India/China/Switzerland/Netherlands/Qatar) and ‘Dreaming & Dying’.

As an accredited press member at the 76th Locarno Film Festival, the writer journeyed through the festival’s digital library, enabling the viewing of films and facilitating a Zoom interview with Nelson Yeo amidst the festival’s bustling ambiance. This article provides insights gleaned from a comprehensive interview session with Nelson Yeo, illuminating the creative process and inspirations behind the film.

Q: Are you aiming to reveal certain truths about the current socio-economic-political environment through the portrayal of these detached and impassive relationships in your film “Dreaming & Dying”?

Locarno76, Palmares, Nelson Yeo Director, Pardo d’oro Concorso Cineasti del presente to the best film and Swatch First Feature Award (Locarno Film Festival / Ti-Press)

A: In my film “Dreaming & Dying,” the characters’ suppression of feelings and emotions towards each other is greatly influenced by the way my parents’ generation used to navigate relationship challenges. Over the decades, they adhered to societal norms, which led to a significant amount of emotional repression. This theme resonates strongly in the film, highlighting the lasting effects of decades spent conforming to these norms.

Q: Addressing the theme of frustrated middle-class marriages, which might be considered an overused stereotype yet remains universally relevant, your film highlights the often neglected and mistreated emotions of women within the institution of family, particularly in our regional context. Hailing from a developed Asian nation, your movie underscores that this portrayal isn’t solely driven by commercial or developmental factors. Instead, it seems to delve into the cultural dimension. How do you characterize this perspective?

A: I don’t see the female character is as simple as it initially appears. I see the portrayal of the female character as quite intricate and multi-layered. Throughout the story, she undergoes a transformative journey of self-discovery. While on the surface, she may appear confined by societal norms, her character gradually evolves into someone who realises her intrinsic worth and identity. By the film’s conclusion, she gains a newfound perspective and embarks on a fresh chapter in her life. The journey doesn’t end there; it’s a story of ongoing self-discovery. In essence, the film encapsulates her process of breaking free from being perceived solely as an extension of someone else, thus capturing the essence of her personal growth and empowerment.

Q: Were the actors in the film non-actors, or did you work with trained actors?

A: It’s actually a combination. In the cast, we have a mix of backgrounds. Doreen, who plays the main female role, comes from a theatre background, primarily focusing on stage performances. Then there’s Peter, he’s a seasoned TV actor who has recently ventured more into feature films and shorts. As for Calvin, he’s been involved in acting for around a decade. However, it’s worth noting that his training and experience are somewhat less extensive compared to the other two actors. This blend of backgrounds adds an intriguing dynamic to the film’s chemistry. For instance, Calvin often brings improvised lines into his performance, sparking unique reactions and interactions from the other actors, which contributes to the film’s engaging and authentic atmosphere.

Q: Can you share the reasoning behind incorporating the folklore of the Merman and Mermaid into your film? Could you discuss this choice from its background and development stages?

A: The decision to weave the Merman and Mermaid folklore into the story has deep roots in my own background and upbringing. Growing up in a family that held strong beliefs in traditions and folklore, these tales always fascinated me from a young age. As I delved into the film’s development, it became clear that I wanted to explore these captivating narratives.

During the filming process, we had the opportunity to shoot in unique locations that had personal significance. One of these was an ancient theme park, existing for decades, that aimed to impart moral values and teachings, particularly from Confucian perspectives, to young individuals. This historical space added an extra layer of depth to the film’s backdrop.

During my research phase, I stumbled upon a diorama depicting the eight immortals, a renowned Chinese folklore theme. Among these characters were the fish and the frog, initially side characters in the tale. These two figures caught my attention and sparked my curiosity.

Gradually, they began to influence the character back stories, adding an unexpected and intriguing element to the film’s narrative.

Q: Could you provide further insight into how the themes of human addictions, pollution, nature, and rituals are depicted as societal factors in your film “Dreaming & Dying”?

A: Absolutely, these themes are indeed intertwined within the fabric of the film. While crafting “Dreaming & Dying,” I didn’t consciously set out to weave them together, but rather, they naturally emerged as integral aspects of the storytelling process. Our surroundings undeniably influence our creative endeavors, and Singapore’s unique context played a role in shaping these themes.

Personally, my connection to these themes runs deep. For instance, as I was writing the film, I was also navigating my own journey of quitting smoking. This personal experience found its way into the narrative, infusing the exploration of human addictions with a sense of authenticity. The recollection of my first cigarette acts as a pivotal thread that weaves throughout the story, guiding how each character interprets their own memories.

While societal factors like pollution and nature play roles in the film, they’re not only depicted as external forces but also as reflections of our internal struggles. The themes carry personal weight for me, making the film a deeply personal endeavor that draws from my own experiences and perspectives.

Q: Your film presents an alternative portrayal of Singapore, deviating from the usual perception of it as an Asian nation defined by urbanization and consumerism. Instead, it showcases a lush and vibrant environment. Is this representation intended to convey an artistic utopia in “Dreaming & Dying”?

A: While I wouldn’t classify it as a utopia, I do see it as an opportunity to spotlight a lesser-known facet of Singapore. Throughout my filmmaking journey, I’ve been driven to reveal aspects of the city that often go unnoticed. Many impactful films have this ability to shed light on the overlooked. In the case of “Dreaming & Dying,” the lush jungle setting in the second part of the film is intrinsically tied to the ritual of releasing the fish. This influenced the locations we chose.

I wasn’t actively aiming to avoid showcasing Singapore’s urban landscapes; rather, the story itself guided the selection of settings. The film’s development naturally led us to these environments. The choice to present a different aspect of Singapore was a by product of the story’s progression rather than a deliberate effort to exclude urban scenes.

Q: Could you share some insights into the filmmaking journey behind your movie? Specifically, what challenges do you commonly encounter in our society when making a film? Additionally, I’m interested in hearing about the collaborative process of co-producing with Indonesia for this project in “Dreaming & Dying.”

A: In a developed country like Singapore, navigating the challenges primarily centered around creative freedom. Many film productions here tend to be large-scale co-productions, which sometimes limits the artistic freedom of filmmakers. For “Dreaming & Dying,” we consciously chose an independent approach, which turned out to be quite liberating. The film was shot in two distinct parts, spaced about a year apart. It initially began as a commissioned short film, allowing me the creative autonomy to tell the story I envisioned. As the project progressed, we sensed a deeper dimension to the characters and their narratives. Our passion for the project and the strong rapport within the team encouraged us to take a more independent route, a path not commonly taken in Singaporean cinema in recent years.

Regarding co-production, it’s become increasingly relevant in the world of filmmaking today. Finding the right co-production partner is crucial, as it ensures a shared vision and resources. In our case, we sought collaboration with another Asian country, Indonesia, which was an ideal fit for our project’s scope and themes. Although I believe my producer could offer more detailed insights on this matter, I can say that the collaboration afforded us considerable freedom in terms of creative decisions.

While co-production played a significant role in this film, we were mindful of preserving our independent spirit. While it’s possible that we could have executed the film without co-production, having a co-producer on board certainly streamlined various aspects of the project and brought added value to the production process.

Q: Could you share your experience of presenting your film at the Locarno Film Festival?

A: My journey with Locarno began in 2018 when I participated in the Filmmakers Academy. Returning now to showcase my debut feature film holds immense significance. It’s a remarkably overwhelming experience to bring something so dear to me and share it with the audience at Locarno once more. The excitement is palpable as this marks the world premiere of my film. Presenting it on this international platform offers a unique opportunity to gauge the reactions and perceptions of audiences from around the world. I’m curious to witness how certain subtle nuances of the film might resonate more intimately with different viewers. Anticipation surrounds the audience response, and I’m genuinely eager to see how they connect with and interpret the film.


‘Dreaming & Dying’: A profound exploration of emotions and societal reflections


In the enigmatic world of “Dreaming & Dying,” directed by Nelson Yeo, a thought-provoking cinematic creation, the director’s vision seeks to uncover intricate truths about contemporary society. The portrayal of detached and impassive contemporary relationships serves as a canvas upon which the socio-economic-political environment is subtly painted.

The film’s concise narrative revolves around three middle-aged friends played by Peter Yu, Kelvin Ho and Doreen Toh, reuniting after a prolonged separation. Amidst the backdrop of their reunion, the trio embarks on a journey to finally unveil concealed emotions that have long remained unspoken. However, their intended vacation takes an unexpected twist as dormant currents from their shared past begin to resurface, ultimately shaping the trajectory of their interwoven lives.

Strained middle-class marriage

Momo Film Co

Dreaming & Dying,” takes audiences on a captivating journey that digs deep into complex themes while offering a fresh perspective on both familiar and unexplored aspects. Yeo deftly addresses the recurrent theme of strained middle-class marriage, skillfully probing profoundly into the intricate emotions experienced by women within the family institution. Despite the theme’s familiarity, Yeo manages to maintain its universal relevance by shedding light on often neglected facets on woman’s subjectivity.

This thematic underpinning resonates strongly throughout the film, and character’s emotional detachment serves as a critical narrative element, shaping the dynamics of the contemporary relationships.

Reimagines landscape

The movie reimagines Singapore’s aesthetics with a delightful twist. Instead of adhering to the typical urbanised image, Yeo presents a lush and vibrant natural landscape. This artistic choice challenges conventional perceptions, aiming to craft an artistic utopia within the framework of “Dreaming & Dying.” This visual shift subtly underscores the harmony between human-made environments and the natural world, inviting contemplation on the balance between progress and preservation.

The intertwining of themes within “Dreaming & Dying” reflects Yeo’s masterful storytelling approach. Through human addiction, pollution, nature, and rituals, Yeo portrays these factors not only as individual elements but as interconnected societal influences. Addiction becomes a lens through which broader societal struggles are mirrored, while pollution metaphorically represents the consequences of unchecked human actions. Nature and rituals, on the other hand, serve as threads weaving culture and the environment into a coherent narrative. Yeo’s multifaceted approach encapsulates the complexity of societal dynamics, prompting viewers to reflect on their collective impact on the world around them.

Merman and Mermaid

One of the film’s highlights is Yeo’s decision to incorporate the folklore of the Merman and Mermaid, particularly Confucian perspectives drawing from rich cultural symbolism. This choice adds layers of depth and meaning to the narrative, infusing it with a sense of tradition and mystique. The mythical beings act as a bridge between the fantastical and reality, prompting contemplation on the blurred boundaries between imagination and the tangible world.

This artistic integration showcases Yeo’s dedication to creating a thought-provoking experience that not only entertains but also encourages profound introspection into the intersections of culture, belief, and the essence of being human.

In “Dreaming & Dying,” Nelson Yeo presents a cinematic masterpiece that reaches beyond the surface, exploring the intricate emotions of individuals while shedding light on broader societal dynamics through contemporary human relationships. The skillful interweaving of themes, the film offers a rich viewing experience that lingers in the mind, urging audiences to rethink conventional narratives and consider the diverse layers that shape the world.