From The Straits Times    |

Singaporean director Anthony Chen acting in the Tiger Beer commercial. Image: Tiger Beer

When you are well spoken, good-looking and hailed as a national hero of sorts, it is only natural that many companies would jump at the opportunity to sign you as the face of their commercial campaigns.

But Anthony Chen, the acclaimed director of the award-winning Ilo Ilo (2013), has agreed to only one commercial engagement so far.

In Tiger Beer’s latest campaign Uncage, set to launch worldwide today, he is featured in a minute-long commercial which tells the story of how he struggled in his career to become the celebrated film-maker he is today.

After turning down other commercial offers, “mostly for luxury brands”, he accepted this offer because he “agrees with the campaign’s vision”.

“I see real passion and real personality in this campaign. I’ve been approached before by other brands, but this is the one whose values I believe in. It’s not just about selling a product – it’s about selling a belief, the idea that you can be inspired to achieve anything,” Chen, 30, tells Life!.

He is one of four personalities featured in Tiger Beer’s new campaign. The other three – all with personalised ads of their own – are Hong Kong professional calligraphy tattoo artist Joey Pang, Thai movie stuntman Charlie Ruedpokanon and Vietnamese hip-hop dancer Vietmax.

For Chen, having to work in front of the camera rather than behind it was something he admits he was “not used to” at first.

“Let’s just say I prefer sitting in the director’s chair. But it wasn’t too difficult – it was a lot easier than I thought,” he says of the three-day shoot.

The experience may have even inspired him to want to do a bit of acting eventually.

“I might actually consider being in front of the screen if it’s for a director I really respect and admire,” he says.

One director he admires is Taiwan- born film-maker Lee Ang, whom he met in New York last month and received some advice from.

The two reconnected after their first meeting in Taipei at last November’s Golden Horse Awards, where Chen’s debut feature Ilo Ilo won four awards, including the top prize for Best Feature Film. Oscar-winning director Lee of Life Of Pi (2012) and Brokeback Mountain (2005) was chair of the Golden Horse jury.

Says Chen: “Lee Ang told me he believes I could never be a for-hire director and that I always have to have my thumbprint on every work I do, and I agree with him.

“It’s very hard for me to say yes to doing a project unless it’s one I can really connect with. So it’s important that whatever I do next will have the same integrity and sincerity which was shown when I made Ilo Ilo.”

There are huge expectations of his next project, given how well his debut feature, about a Singaporean family and their live-in maid during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, fared in the global film arena.

Other than the prestigious Golden Horse awards – considered the Oscars of Chinese-language cinema – the film was also the first Singaporean work to win the coveted Camera d’Or for Best First Feature Film at the Cannes Film Festival last year.

Ilo Ilo’s rousing success has sent many film producers from around the world his way; in the past six months, he has fielded more than 40 scripts, but he says only a handful stood out.

He declines to divulge details, but concedes that he is now developing two projects to direct in Britain, where he is based.

“One will be an adaptation of an English novel and the other is an original idea, but that’s all I can share about them for now.”

He is also writing a script for another film to be set in Singapore. “The idea for it came to me during one of my many long-haul flights. It’ll be a film set in Singapore and I may possibly work with Yeo Yann Yann again,” he says of the actress who won the Golden Horse Best Supporting Actress trophy for her role of the frustrated mother in Ilo Ilo.

Outside of work, the film-maker hopes to check something else off his list: Start a family.

“I have already turned 30 and would really like to have a child soon. I want to be a young, cool dad,” says Chen with a chuckle, who lives in London with his wife, PhD student Rachel Yan, 32.

Until that happens, he continues to plough the movie promotional trail for Ilo Ilo. Over the past year, he has travelled all around the world to promote the film in countries such as Kazakhstan, India and Sweden.

“I have done about 400 media interviews and 80 Q&A sessions so far, in which people ask the same questions over and over again. But every time I go to a new place, I’m still moved by the audience’s reaction to the film.

“People don’t know much about Singapore beyond the superficial stuff, so there’s something spiritual for me to see that they can learn a bit more about Singapore through the film. I’m constantly surprised that this small film continues to resonate with audiences overseas.”

This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on May 21, 2014. For similar stories, go to You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.