Photos: Zara Zhuang, Golden Village
As an award-winning director who’s made a name for himself with horror hit The Maid and supernatural crime thriller Rule #1, Kelvin Tong doesn’t kid around when it comes to staying on the good side of the ‘good brothers.’
He found himself filming his latest spooky flick, The Faith of Anna Waters, during the Lunar Seventh Month (or Hungry Ghost Festival), just as many of his works, including his two previous horror films, had been.
Even if it isn’t a scarefest Kelvin is working on during that month (case in point: It’s a Great, Great World), his film crew have to be careful not to offend anyone from the spirit world. The production managers head to every filming location before shoots to make offerings and say prayers, he explained.
And when it’s a horror flick, the director, who has Buddhist leanings, lights joss sticks on location as a sign of respect. “I’ll explain to any spirits that we're just here making a show and it's fake,” he said. “It's no laughing matter.”
Film still from The Faith of Anna Waters
Kelvin was speaking to local media ahead of the Singapore gala premiere of The Faith of Anna Waters, which tells the story of an American journalist who travels to Singapore to investigate the mysterious suicide of her sister, and delves into one of Kelvin’s favourite horror subgenres: exorcism films.
“At first when I thought about it, it seemed impossible,” he said. But after casually texting friends working in the Catholic Church, he was told that there have been cases of demonic possession in Singapore. “So there's no reason not to make the film,” he said.
And if you thought a horror movie director would be immune to being spooked, you’d be wrong. According to Kelvin, out of his three films about the paranormal, The Faith of Anna Waters shook him the most.
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Actor Colin Borgonon with director Kelvin Tong
The Maid and Rule #1 were more of Asian supernatural features, he said, and the Buddhist influence in Asian society meant the emphasis in those movies was on the idea of karma and retribution.
“I've never murdered anyone, so I didn’t feel affected,” he explained. “But for demonic possession, it’s entirely different — the demon can choose someone who's a good person, and in fact it prefers to.”
But despite the sensitive subject matter, nothing inexplicable happened on set. “I think film sets are quite safe if you take all the precautions,” Kelvin said. “And also when we're shooting a horror film there are so many people and lights.”
“I think (spirits) all go on holiday when we're filming, there are too many people, it’s too crowded!”
Actress Elizabeth Rice with director Kelvin Tong
The Faith of Anna Waters, which is seeing a limited release on the East and West coasts of the US, features Mad Men actress Elizabeth Rice and Gossip Girl actor Matthew Settle in the lead roles. The supporting cast include Aussies Colin Borgonon and Adina Herz and Singapore’s Adrian Pang and Tan Kheng Hua, among others.
The irony of casting Hollywood names in a Singaporean production isn’t lost on Kelvin, who concedes it’s “the reality of the situation.” But he did try to pack in as many of his local actor friends as he could.
“I told them, ‘I’m going to make you do this, it’s very calefare,’ and Kheng Hua said, ‘I’m a calefare,’” he recounted. “Actually they thought it was fun, and (SPOILER ALERT!) Kheng Hua spent the whole day pulling out her fake guts, she just focused on doing that.”
Though The Faith of Anna Waters is being promoted as Singapore’s first Hollywood supernatural feature, that label didn’t influence Kelvin in how he portrayed the country to an international audience. “It's a horror film,” he said. “If I had wanted to put Singapore in a good light, I think I would have shot a romantic comedy.”
The Faith of Anna Waters premieres in local cinemas on May 12. Rated NC16 (Horror).