The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Tzang Merwyn Tong


By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé 

TzangLet’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

What a beautiful question to start. I write to put things on paper so it doesn’t just get trapped in my mind. I write to understand myself, to help me make sense of my hopes, my fears and my dreams for the world.

Tell us about your most recent film or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

That would be the Screenplay for Faeryville, an independent film which I also directed and produced. It’s common knowledge now that I took 8 years to complete the film, but a lot of people didn’t know that I took 14 rewrites for the Faeryville Screenplay.

I was looking at the world and wondering what had happened to us. Post 9-11, post-columbine, with bombings and shootings, extremism, charismatic influencers and self-styled martyrdom, idealism and ideology have suddenly become dangerous things. I realize how in this day and age, nothing seems to be right or wrong anymore, just how you choose to intellectualise it.

I wondered what it’s like growing up as a teenager, where it is no longer safe to fight for what you believe in, or take a stand on anything.

These are questions. Not answers.

I wrote and rewrote the Screenplay of Faeryville, draft after draft, to find answers for myself.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

I wouldn’t dare to describe my writing aesthetic. I’m still learning as a writer. I feel I still lack discipline. But I’m Punk Rock that way.
I care about the expression, sometimes more than the craft. There is also a Buddhist expression for this. Finger pointing to the moon. The writing, the film, the story, is the finger that is pointing to something. I don’t care about the finger. I care about the moon.

As a filmmaker, I’m lucky to have the medium of film to further express my thoughts. I consider myself articulate, but still, I have difficulty correctly expressing complex feelings with words. I use dialogue, so my characters can wrestle it out. I seek the help of music, sound design, colours, but right where it matters, at the core of it all, it’s still the words I put on paper that gets on to the screen.

Who are your favourite authors and screenwriters?

I love the films of Oliver Stone. I love how he tries to make the difficult film, to say the things he wants to say.

I still love the work of Nietzsche and Kafka. I listen to Neil Young, John Lennon and Roger Waters. And as a kid, I marvelled at the imagination of Jules Verne. I don’t care about the judgements people pass on the ‘authors’ I look up to. I care about stepping into the worlds they gave us, and I allow myself to be part of it.

What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.

Morally speaking, it has to be the screenplay of my second film, A Wicked Tale, a psycho-erotic re-imagination of the Little Red Riding Hood story. It was challenging because it was dark, and perverse, with themes of innocence lost, set against the backdrop of arcane visual symbolism. I was afraid of this place I was going to. Parts of it came from nightmares I had.

It was even harder talking to people about it. But I learned to embrace my fears.

I remember when I first pitched the film to my producer friend Selvam Dass in 2003, he just walked away. He disappeared and didn’t answer my calls, and didn’t want to speak to me at all for 4 days. I thought he was offended. Or he was disturbed. But he came back to me 4 days later and said, let’s make the film. Same thing with my music person, he said he felt dirty, reading my script.

Interestingly when my actress and make-up artist (both girls) read the script, they squealed in delight and called me back quickly. No hint of offense at all. I guess girls are more tolerant of horrific sexual expression.

A Wicked Tale is a raw experimental film, but it became an important work of mine.

What’s your idea of bliss?

I like this question.

My idea of bliss is honest, unadulterated, unbridled expression of self.

It can come in the form of poetry. Or film. Or literature. Or rock n’ roll. From me, or from others.

Expression itself delights me.

What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?

When I see people being denied the right to be themselves. When I’m being told to shut up. When people are being put down.

What books would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks? 

Right now. I don’t know. I’ve been working on Faeryville for so long, I feel I’ve so much to catch up on. I miss discovering. I like to be lost. I want to step into a bookshop or a library or go to a friend’s house and look through their bookshelves. And listen to see which book calls out for me to pick.

Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?

My notebooks. I’m serious. I’ve tons and tons and tons of notebooks, filled with fragmented thoughts, stories and drawings, interpretations of books I’ve read, movies I’ve watched, and conversations with myself. These works are so close to me, that I will probably never publish them.

Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.

I dream so I become.

Biography:

Tzang Merwyn Tong is an underground script writer/film director of award-winning films, e’Tzaintes (Opening Night Film at Berlin Asia Pacific Film Festival 2003), A Wicked Tale (Closing Night Film at Montreal Fantasia 2005) and V1K1 – A Techno Fairytale (Gold Remi Award Houston WorldFest 2011). His works have been featured in international publications like Res, Screen International, Cinependent, Montreal Mirror, and Rue Morgue, branding him as a new voice in alternative cinema.

He just completed his first feature film, a dystopian teen movie, titled, FAERYVILLE. Faeryville made its World Premiere recently in Los Angeles, and has just had a limited theatrical release in Singapore.