In Competition for the White Mulberry Award for First Time Director
Singapore/South Korea, 2022, 90’, Mandarin, Korean, English, Hokkien
Directed by: He Shuming
Screenplay: He Shuming, Kris Ong
Photography (color): Hwang Gyeonghyeon
Editing: Jasmine Ng, Armiliah Aripin
Art Direction: Yoo Young Jong, Jocelyn Tay
Casting: Koo Chia Meng, Ha Dalseong
Costume Design: Meredith Lee, Yoon Jinsun
Supervising Sound Editor: Lim Ting Li
Music: Ting Si Hao
Producers: Anthony Chen, Huang Wenhong, Lee Joonhan
Production Companies: Giraffe Pictures, Rediance
Cast: Hong Hui Fang (Auntie Lim Bee Hua), Kang Hyung-suk (Kwon-Woo), Jung Dong-hwan (Jung Su), Yeo Jin-goo (Jae Sung), Shane Pow (Sam), Kim Jae Eun (A-Young), Yu Mao Li (Mrs Chang), Zhang Rui (Mengjia), Na Howon (Mr Cho)
Date of First Release in Territory: October 27th, 2022
After more than 20 years, it is clear that Singapore cinema still has plenty of opportunities to find itself. While there had been sporadic attempts at the arthouse circuit, the commercial sphere has been less successful even though more genre specific films are made each year. Setting aside the comedy movies that Jack Neo makes, not much else survive more than three weeks in the local theatres, let alone securing distribution overseas. The release of Ajoomma offers a hope in that regard. He Shuming has been making finely calibrated short films for many years before his debut feature. And the reception has been warm, to say the least.
Veteran television actress, Hong Hui Fang, plays the titular “ajoomma”, or in Singapore’s colloquial English, “auntie.” The film opens with a series of activities frequently associated with Singaporean aunties, mass aerobics in public parks, haggling over prices in markets, and a devotion to Korean made television dramas. To be fair, the popularity of Korean dramas do transcend age groups in Singapore. It is not surprising to find younger women transfix on their smart devices on trains and public buses amidst the rush hour here.
Auntie Lim Bee Hwa is a widower, living alone in a cramp apartment flat. Her only companionship is the occasional phone call with her son, Sam (Shane Pow), and the ever presence of Korean drama serials on television. As her relationship with Sam grows distant and colder, the highly charged emotions served up by the drama serials becomes more alluring to her. Mother and son are scheduled to visit South Korea for a holiday. When plans are waylaid by Sam’s pending new employment in the United States for which he has to be present in person for an interview, auntie Lim decides to go ahead anyway. She meets Korean tour guide, Kwon-woo (Kang Hyung-suk), at the airport and after a series of miscommunication, a grand adventure ensues for her when she arrives in South Korea. Kwon-woo, a young man in his twenties, is in the midst of separation with his wife and daughter. A man at the end of his rope, he distractedly left auntie Lim behind after a futile attempt at making connection with his estranged family. With the help of an elderly security guard on duty, Jung Su (Jung Dong-hwan), auntie Lim found shelter for the night and a burgeoning friendship. In the quest to return to the tour group, it is revealed that Kwon-woo is on the run from loan sharks. In a highly entertaining fashion, auntie Lim rescues Kwon-woo from his predicament and even gives him much needed advice about living a honourable life. After what she has been through, Auntie Lim too has come to terms with her own life and womanhood. Her realisation culminates in a scene of magical realism when she literally enters into the fictional world of her beloved Korean drama series, and in fluent Korean, she makes peace with her son to swelling sentimental K-pop ballad music. Popular actor, Yeo Jin-goo, cameo-ed in this role, to great aplomb. Auntie Lim returns to Singapore an emancipated woman.
A simple warm-hearted fish-out-of-water drama about acceptance, this film might be, but director He Shuming and actress Hong Hui Fang worked to create a relatable character on which the whole enterprise rests. A quarter way through the film, exasperated by the lack of real communication between her and Jung Su, neither of whom speaks much English, Auntie Lim says “Thank you”. Perhaps one has to spend a lifetime in Singapore to truly discern it, but the timbre, pitch and intonation performed by Hong Hui Fang in the utterance of these two words are entirely without affectation and in perfect accordance with that of an everywoman one sees in everyday occurrence. In that moment, Hong Hui Fang becomes the “auntie”/“ajoomma” character. An honesty blossoms onto the screen. An honesty much too rare in the annals of Singapore cinema.
He Shuming is a screenwriter and director from Singapore. He graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Film from The Puttnam School of Film, LASALLE College of the Arts. He moved to Los Angeles in 2012, where he received his MFA in Directing at the American Film Institute Conservatory. He was conferred the Young Artist Award in 2019 by the National Arts Council, Singapore’s highest artistic accolade. His debut feature film, Ajoomma, premiered at the 27th Busan International Film Festival and garnered 4 nominations at the 59th Golden Horse Awards. The film was also Singapore’s entry for Best International Feature Film at the 95th Academy Awards.
2022 – Ajoomma