How it Took Seven Years for Ajoomma, Korea-Singapore Co-Produced Film to Get from Script to Screen Busan Case Study

TITLE: Behind The Scenes For Singapore-Korea Co-Production “Ajoomma” And Its Journey Ahead Post-Busan

The past few weeks have gone by in a blur for Singapore-Korean co-produced comedy film “Ajoomma.” In a short span, it had a world premiere at the 27th Busan International Film Festival, earned four Golden Horse nominations including best actress, best new director, best original screenplay and best supporting actor. And Singapore has selected the film as itOscars contender. But it took seven years to get his far.

At a Busan workshop on Saturday, first-time director He Shuming, co-founder of Giraffe Pictures and the film’s executive producer Anthony Chen and co-producer Lee Joon-han discussed the how the film came to life. “Ajoomma: The Curious Case Study of a Singaporean-Korean Co-production” was presented by mylab at the Asian Contents & Film Market.

The script took long to develop after the story was first shared with Chen in 2015. Chen said, “I believe the script is the ‘Bible.’ It needs no fat if there’s no money and I’m a firm believer of that.” The duo brought Kris Ong, creative director at Singapore-based Momo Film, into the writing process and became instrumental in cracking the script. Chen also joked about assigning He a research trip with middle-aged women visiting Seoul from a touristic perspective to tighten the script further.

Chen, a celebrated Singaporean filmmaker for “Ilo Ilo” and “Wet Season,” also has a keen producer’s eye. The search for funding and an experienced English-speaking co-producer in Korea proved challenging. There was also no official treaty between Singapore and Korea and no incentive for Koreans to do co-productions. Lee Joonhan, connected by Chen’s mentee at the Asian Film Academy (AFA), eventually joined the crew. On what made him decide, he said, “The script reminded me of my mother. I saw its value because the Korean [and all Asian] audience could relate to it.”

Though there are production rebates of up to 30% for any film shooting in Korea, after Lee came onboard, “Ajoomma” received a Korea-ASEAN co-production grant from the Korean Film Council (KOFIC), likely under the ASEAN-ROK Film Partnership initiative which started from 2019. This is the first time KOFIC invested in a Southeast Asian work.

The Seoul Film Commission also granted the crew 25% rebates, a higher than normal figure as amounts granted are typically 20%, but they can differ for specific films, according to the producers. The only condition was to complete post production within 12 months of signing the contract.

The team also received S$300,000 as a ‘New Director Grant’ from the Singapore Film Commission.

The institutional monies were pivotal to the film’s production, but there was still a significant amount to raise. “The huge equity portion in the budget meant significant risk. There were no [comparables], which meant no one had seen a film like that. There was no way to predict sales.” He’s film wasn’t auteur enough to go the European financing route (common for most Southeast Asian films), but the project was also too small for major studios.

The script was well-received but faced numerous rejections. Risk-averse investors weren’t willing to bet on a first-time director and the pandemic worsened the investment climate. Chen pushed to retain He’s original vision.

On the verge of giving up, Chen convinced a Singapore financier who believed in the work and funded the film’s remaining cost. The feature is considered Singapore’s most expensive indie film and is reputed to cost twice the amount of Chen’s “Ilo Ilo.”

Working with Korean actors, He and Chen were full of praise for the cast. The fake Korean drama scene in “Ajoomma” with Yeo Jin Goo’s cameo was shot in 2 days and He said, “Yeo Jin Goo was so fast and quick, and they’re trained to do what they need to do. I get why Korean TV and film are the way they are now because of the quality and standard they’ve set.” Chen added, “They’re so good. Tears roll just like that [snaps fingers] in one take.”

On the other hand, Singapore hasn’t developed a ‘star system’ and it could be an area for the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) to work on. He said, “I don’t think we have the culture of a star system.” He referenced veteran Singaporean actress Hong Huifang working solo versus Korean actors who have managers with them on set, providing them support as they focus on their craft.

When it came down to shooting, harsh winter temperatures and COVID presented logistical challenges, but much time was also wasted due to language barriers. Lee said, “Language is a big thing [in Korea]. If you don’t speak Korean, you lose time when you shoot.”

Scripts were translated and illustrated on storyboards like a comic book for clear communication. The team also had to navigate the 48 hours per week labor policy for crew members. This is different to Singapore’s shooting schedule of 12 hours per day for 6 consecutive days. Post-production began while the crew was shooting and was split between Singapore and Korea.

After Busan, “Ajoomma” will continue its journey to the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival and the Golden Horse Awards. European festivals have also reached out to express interest. The team is hopeful to reach the U.S. and European countries because of the film’s Oscars’ contention.

Chen said, “For a [unprecedented] film like that, the [Singaporean home] market becomes important because everyone is looking to see if it does well in Singapore.” The box office performance is an imperative indicator for regional and international buyers. Chen said he’ll be very pleased if “Ajoomma” could surpass the $1.2M mark, the highest box office for an arthouse film in Singapore’s history set by “Ilo Ilo.” And with international sales agent, Rediance onboard, Chen would also like to see “Ajoomma” reach the Mainland Chinese audience if political relations between China and South Korea thaw.

Singapore’s leading cinema operator, Golden Village will release “Ajoomma” in theaters on Oct. 27, 2022. Plans for Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea are in the works.

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