Singapore filmmaker Ray Pang blazing a trail against all odds

How do Singaporeans define success?

Many define it as having a nice house and a lot of money, but 27-year-old filmmaker Ray Pang has never set that as a standard for himself.

“I think being able to do what you are passionate about and having friends and family to support your dreams is success,” Pang, a finalist for Singapore 9 and whose growing body of films has started to draw attention in Singapore and overseas, told Yahoo! Singapore in an interview on Friday.

Despite financial challenges, Pang has persisted in pursuing his vision in filmmaking.

After he earned his bachelor’s degree in film and television in Australia and returned to Singapore last year, he was unemployed for almost a year. He did not think the jobs available would suit him given what he wanted to do.

“The direction towards my goal as a director would be diverted if I were to pick those jobs offered,” he explained.

Pang even moved to Taiwan to see if there were directorial opportunities there. Small production houses abounded and Pang received many offers, but due to manpower laws there he had to pack up and head back to Singapore two months later.

Seeing their son struggling to get a job in the film industry, his car mechanic father and homemaker mother gently nudged him to consider working in his dad’s workshop, but he has resisted.

It is not as if he hasn’t been doing good work as a filmmaker. He has produced eight films, five of which have been official selections for international film festivals and two of which have received Best Film accolades. His short film “The Team”, which he wrote, produced, edited and directed, won in the editing and best film categories in ciNE65, a Singapore film competition.

Love of pictures

His dad inculcated in him a love for art and drawing early on. As a kid, Pang used to draw comic books and tried to sell them for $4.50 a booklet. He later first enrolled in Temasek Polytechnic’s Interactive Media Design course wanting to do animation, but he later switched to filmmaking as he found it to be a better platform for storytelling.

As a student, he drew inspiration from Singaporean filmmaker Royston Tan. “Seeing that a fellow Singaporean made the cut and wowed the world with his films made me think that I can do it too. And it’s not like it’s Steven Spielberg. It’s Royston, someone whose success is very relatable,” Pang said.

He aspires to make films that makes his audience think. His films are all centered around human stories and real events that he has experienced.

His other short film “Closer To Me” was inspired by a friend who was diagnosed with last stage cancer. The film was shortlisted for the People’s Choice Award and Jury's Award at the Louis Vuitton Journeys Award and is the only Singaporean filmmaker who has made it to the list of ten.

“Filmmaking is a catharsis for me. I think of death a lot and it makes me appreciate life,” he added.

Pang can throw himself so wholeheartedly into a project that this raises concern among his family.

When working on “ONE”, a short film about a triad’s skirmishes over power and money, he suffered from insomnia and depression from thinking too much about the story. Likening it to a disease that took over him, he thought about the story constantly to the point that he was dreaming about it even during breaks.

“It gets into you, in your life. Everything you think about is how to solve problems and make the film better,” Pang pointed out.

“My wife has asked me to take care of myself and rest more because she wants to grow old with me. But I enjoy doing this, or else I wouldn’t stay up that late to think about my stories. I’m enjoying every bit of it,” said the filmmaker, who only gets two to three hours of sleep a day because of the way he works.

It’s a tough industry here

Setbacks, though, have sometimes discouraged him. He has asked himself such questions as: Why are you still doing this when you works are not appreciated or recognised? Why can’t I make this my career?

“I’m still struggling with these questions and it’s hard to find an answer,” he said.

When working on “The Team”, which is about kids in Singapore who love football regardless of race or background, he almost scrapped the project due to a lack of sponsors.

One week before the shoot, his team still could not get any backers so he decided to deplete his savings account to finance the project. He has not regretted doing that because the film turned out to be the most enjoyable filmmaking experience he’s had.

He also enjoyed the support of friends and family, who invested their time and effort to help him out. Some friends from the industry chipped in to provide services for free while some got their kids to act in the film, lowering the cost.

In the end, he spent about $2,000 on the film when it could have easily come up to about $20,000.

“Many people ask me how much does making the film cost, but it’s a very sensitive question. I can’t answer your question but I can tell you that if I were to commit to it wholly in terms of two months of pre-production and production, and paying every crew, it can cost up to 20k,” he said.

“For something like this to take place, it really is about the team work. Passion is something that is very contagious. It can spread to people and affect them,” he added.

The lack of investors and sponsors frustrates Pang, just like it does other artists out there. But he shrugs his shoulders and says, ‘”What can I do about this?”

Pang has been offered opportunities out of Singapore to grow his talents and work on foreign productions. A well-known creative director in China asked Pang if he was interested in moving out to do more.

However, Pang has chosen to stay. Aside from the fact that his family and friends are here, he hopes to make it in Singapore first. He believes that it will be much more difficult to make it big locally, so finding success in the city-state would mark a greater achievement than success overseas.

“People always say if you want to make it big, leave Singapore. Come back to Singapore after you’ve made it in other countries,” he said. “But if you make it in Singapore, you will be the one of who has made it in Singapore despite of the challenges.

On being nominated in S9

When Singapore 9 judge Adrian Pang chose Ray Pang as the finalist for the Entertainment category, he said, “It is very important that we champion these solo filmmakers who are trying to put Singapore filmmaking on the global map”.

Ray thanks the judges for picking him and said this sends a message to other aspiring young filmmakers out there to have the courage to develop their passion.

“When they experience setbacks, like when they make a bad film, they will think they’re not talented and not worthy,” he said.

“[They have to] stay true to their dreams, persevere, go for it and don’t look back if you want to be a filmmaker,” he added.