From The Straits Times    |

Hot Buns (2023)

Daring, sexy, weird and quirky. These are some words that can be used to describe filmmaker Calleen Koh’s works. With animated storytelling as her canvas of choice, she uses this traditionally light-hearted medium as a segue into discourse about ‘deep’ topics like social issues and taboo ones.

Calleen first made her mark with her college films, Sexy Sushi and To Kill the Birds & Bees, which each earned multiple accolades at the esteemed National Youth Film Awards (NYFA) in 2020 and 2021. The latter even received a coveted nomination at the British Academy Film Awards! All this acclaim paved the way for Calleen, cementing her spot as someone to know and watch.

Her latest film is no different — Hot Buns is an experimental, wacky film that satirises our obsession with feel-good narratives and moral outrage, set in a surreal world of sentient Butts and Hands. Butts are at the bottom of society, almost animal-like, while Hands are privileged with the ‘upper hand’. The film follows a viral violent incident and the emergence of a Butt empowerment movement seeking to challenge the status quo of their place in society.

With Calleen’s latest film taking centre stage, we chat with the filmmaker about how she’s opening up Singaporean minds and sparking dialogue with her provocative films.

How has it been as a female filmmaker — a young one at that — making a name for yourself in a male-dominated industry?

Credit: Calleen Koh

It’s honestly been tough. Being thrust into such an industry when you’re still figuring yourself out as a young woman, let alone a filmmaker, is a challenging position to be in as I am still learning a lot of things about myself, my craft, and how to navigate the industry. Being a young female filmmaker, I have also experienced dismissive and condescending attitudes from people in the industry. On one occasion, I was even told to quit filmmaking.

But along the way, through film festivals, *SCAPE events or film projects, I’ve met a lot of wonderful people who were genuine and supportive. Finding the right support system in this gruelling industry was really the best thing that happened to me.

Why do you use animation? Tell us about your creative process and how you approach storytelling in your films.

With my dark humour style of filmmaking, animation helps to make things a lot more palatable and playful for audiences compared to if done in live action. For example, my film To Kill the Birds & Bees portrayed two little children twerking, and people laughing at them. But if this was live action, the reactions would have been a lot more negative. This medium lets me tell bolder or more difficult stories that are otherwise hard to portray on screen in a way that is engaging and fun to watch. 

My creative process can be quite loose. It usually starts out with a ‘wouldn’t it be funny if’, a drawing or abstract ideas of story moments. Over the course of development, I make creative choices that I feel will strengthen the ideas and visuals thematically. This way, I can be creative and freely explore the story rather than be bogged down by the theme and get stuck in my own thoughts on how to portray it.

Why do you use animation in your storytelling? Tell us about your creative process and how you approach storytelling in your films.

I’m purely motivated by what I wish I could see more of in terms of film representation. Usually, it somehow ties in with a topic at hand that I have strong feelings about at the point of conception of a film. Works like Sexy Sushi and Hot Buns usually explore bold topics through sexual imagery, diving into the issue of exploitation in a capitalist society.

When I was a student, I realised that somehow there was a lack of animation films that portrayed adult themes or sexual imagery in Singapore schools, triggering my curiosity. At some point, I started thinking more critically about how I can use sexual imagery to explore more themes relating to societal exploitation or to explore the consumption of sex itself thematically.

That said, I don’t think I go out of my way wanting to change the world with my films, I mainly create films about what I think is important. 

Where do you draw inspiration for your films? Especially given the bold themes you explore and your unusual brand of animation storytelling!

I draw inspiration from my observations and own reflection on a certain topic that captures my interest. I will start to get a little obsessive about a topic and go down a rabbit hole of articles about it. This leads to debating with myself and others about these things, which gets me thinking about how this can be represented on screen.

In terms of stylistic inspiration, my core sources of inspiration are the Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared series, quirky Japanese advertisements and the peculiar works of Kirsten Lepore. My favourite from Lepore is the viral short film Hi Stranger where a creepy butt-naked reclining figure speaks gently to you.

How do you navigate the fine line between provocation and maintaining a meaningful message in your films?

Hot Buns (2023)

I think it’s all about understanding your intentions and your audience, and only use provocation when it makes sense to the film. I definitely won’t put in things that are highly provocative just for the sake of it, it’s definitely shown for a reason!

How do you navigate the fine line between provocation and maintaining a meaningful message in your films?

To be honest, I don’t think it starts out as an intentional choice to have a checklist of controversial issues I want to explore. In general, I have an interest in grey-area subjects or topics people think are controversial, which bleeds into my work. It usually starts out as just a pure interest in a subject and over the course of research and development, it evolves to be more and more intentional as I gain a deeper understanding of the topics. Often, the starting point for my films are completely different from what it ends up being as these first draft ideas are very abstract, or are simply based on a gut feeling.

I do feel the local industry needs this voice because many in Singapore often don’t say what they want to maintain the peace, unlike countries like America. We still pretty much keep to ourselves. Having more films with this voice allows people to have a safe space to draw from the world of the film to engage in discourse about the topic.

It becomes an opportunity for them to talk to their friends and family about these ‘taboo’ topics, and allow them to express their opinions freely as they are guarded by the fictional barriers of the film.

Tell us all about your latest film, Hot Buns.

Hot Buns (2023)

This film was done under the NYFA Film Facilitation Programme where I was mentored by Oscar-nominated animation director, Song Siqi, whose works I have long admired. She was a wonderful and very helpful mentor. Even though we had such different filmmaking styles, she never tried to impose hers on my work and just showed genuine support to nurture the voice I was still discovering.

It’s a parody of the experience of scrolling through social media to catch the latest internet drama, reflecting the speed at which situations escalate in real life once the internet is involved. Hot Buns questions the glorification and villainization of individuals in stories as a distraction from the bigger issues at hand.

In creating Hot Buns, I also wanted to explore the absurdity of our unyielding consumption of media and its power over us. This unconventional approach of using human body parts as characters provides a surreal and thought-provoking approach and allows the film to allude to several real-life issues without specifically commenting on one, as there are too many things that happen every day on the internet.

By doing so, Hot Buns invites viewers to draw their own inferences on what real-life issues the story covers, to reflect on the broader implications of our digital age, and encourages them to consider the impact of our actions on ourselves and those around us.

Given that Singapore is a rather conservative audience, what are some challenges you’ve faced?

The biggest challenge in creating my films is trying to properly curate the messaging or tone down the visuals of my film. As I’ve always used dark comedy satire in my works, it can feel like I’m walking on eggshells, whether I’m going too far with the jokes or if the jokes are well-balanced enough. Even with visuals, sometimes my exploration sketches are way more explicit than what ends up earring on screen, as I realised (and have actually been told) it might be too much.

Hot Buns (2023)

Thankfully, my strange filmmaking endeavours have been supported by my various networks. Never in a million years did I think I would be permitted, let alone encouraged, to make a film full of walking butts that talk. But, the NYFA Film Facilitation Programme and many others in Singapore’s scene have been wonderful. I think it’s great to have all these support networks in Singapore to cultivate our young filmmakers’ voices.

How important do you think it is for filmmakers to promote diverse perspectives, especially when it comes to depicting sex and relationships in cinema?

Very important. Cinema allows us to walk in someone else’s shoes or thought process within the safe boundaries of the screen. Promoting these diverse perspectives encourages a world of empathy, especially when the perspective is underrepresented or taboo.

Do you hope your work will contribute to a larger conversation about sexuality, gender and representation in the film industry?

I think being a female filmmaker already automatically ties me to these conversations, something that’s unavoidable in a male-dominated industry. That said, I do hope to continue making works that continuously push the boundaries of representation and storytelling with animation.