When Ajoomma did not make the shortlist of contenders for the Best International Feature Film category for the upcoming Academy Awards in March, director He Shuming was sad but not surprised. While he was hopeful, He recognises the odds were stacked against the film. One of the factors is the subject matter of the film, he adds. Many of the contenders submitted for the category dealt with heavy and serious issues, while Ajoomma is a more introspective film with moments of levity.
For the uninitiated, Ajoomma tells the story of a K-drama obsessed Singaporean ‘auntie’ (or ‘ajoomma’ in Korean), played by Hong Huifang, who travels to Seoul as a tourist and is caught up in an adventure after she is accidentally left behind at a rest stop. “When you look at our film and the rest on the list, Ajoomma is thematically light-hearted—not that there is any comparison to be made, of course,” He tells BAZAAR Man via a Zoom call from Los Angeles. “Plus, in terms of campaigning for a film in Los Angeles prior to getting shortlisted, there is a lot of work that needs to be done that requires a very high marketing budget.”
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So, when the film was selected as Singapore’s entry in October last year, the 37-year-old filmmaker went in with no expectations. “I’ve watched many of the films on the list and, to be very honest, the films that eventually made the shortlist were also my picks. So, I really was not disappointed,” he shares candidly. But he is grateful for the nomination, as along with the various screenings and industry events in the United States, it had opened up opportunities to network with agents and producers, some of whom have expressed interest in working with him after watching the film. Many were also interested in screening Ajoomma to audiences in North America.
When we spoke to the filmmaker, he had just returned to Los Angeles from Palm Springs where Ajoomma had participated in the Palm Springs International Film Festival. “I think there is now this desire for content that is beyond your Avatar or Marvel movies. Many people are now watching, and are interested, in world cinema. That is very heartening to see,” He muses. It is a welcome change from just a couple of years ago when He faced rejections when fund-raising for Ajoomma. Back then, the LASALLE College of the Arts alumna recalls how investors were not willing to place their bets on the first-time director. Instead, they had wanted the film’s producer, celebrated Singapore auteur Anthony Chen, to take the lead. “I remember them saying that while they know Anthony, they have never heard of ‘this He Shuming’.”
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Now, thanks to the Oscar buzz and the string of accolades garnered by the film, He is no longer an unknown. He’s since walked down many red carpets and appeared in magazine editorials, dressed in designer threads from Hermès, Fendi and Dolce&Gabbana. “It is nice to be recognised but I am still Shuming from Hougang,” he says. He, who has a Masters of Fine Arts from the American Film Institute, acknowledges that Ajoomma is a career-defining milestone, and it has made him “excited about working on other projects that have been put on the backburner in the last seven years of developing and producing Ajoomma”. “I want to continue telling Singapore stories, and because of the experience collaborating with Korea, I now have the opportunity to tell stories from anywhere in the world. They don’t necessarily have to be based in Singapore,” he says. Currently, he is looking into working on a few different projects, such as developing film adaptations of novels. Most recently, he has also received scripts from agents for him to consider directing—something he is interested in as well. “I think it is great because I am very open to working on someone else’s script,” he says.
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He finds himself responding to stories about women or female characters. Many of his short films and the stories he has worked on have always been centred on a woman who is a mother. Ajoomma too, is a homage to his own mother, who like the titular auntie of the film, is a big fan of Korean dramas. In a way, it is his reflection on on their relationship, and what it would mean for her to set aside her identity as a mother and travel abroad by herself. He cites Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, who is known for his female-centric films, as his filmmaking inspiration. He also admires American filmmaker Mike White, who created, wrote and directed the award-winning HBO comedy satire anthology The White Lotus. “These are creators who tell stories that are entertaining but are also a reflection of the society that we live in. And that is something that I find myself leaning towards as well,” he says.
This year will also be a busy year for him. Apart from travelling for the international screenings of Ajoomma—the film is opening in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Hong Kong this month, then to Italy for its European premiere, before heading to Sydney in June—He is already working on developing his next project. As it is still in the early days, He remains tight-lipped on the details but shares that it is a television series, and is a joint collaboration with an American production company. “It is exciting for me to start working on this project and we are currently in the early stages of development. It is a story that I pitched. And, no, it won’t take me seven years to complete this one,” He says, before breaking into a slight laugh. “Hopefully.”
Photographed by Wee Khim
Creative direction by Windy Aulia
Styled by Gracia Phang
Hair and Makeup: Edward Chong/Evolve Salon using Oribe
Producers: Navin Pillay and Cindy Ow
Stylist’s assistant: Isabella Low