HBO Asia's Invisible Stories: Director Ler Jiyuan on the importance of being authentic and finding inspiration in Yishun
True to life
On the back of some scathing criticism against the highfalutin vibes of Netflix Original's reality TV show Singapore Social, HBO Asia's newest original serves up exactly what Singaporeans were calling for: an authentic, relatable, and well-rounded portrayal of life in the city-state instead of countless shots of the Marina Bay Sands skyline.
That means, in place of indulgent drinking sessions at fancy bars and petty girl-on-girl fighting, Invisible Stories will showcase the heart-breaking struggles of six ordinary individuals who are trying to make ends meet while living in the same fictional heartland neighbourhood. From a single mother who works as a kopitiam auntie to care for her teen son with autism to a taxi driver who moonlights as a spiritual medium after losing his wife to cancer, these six half-hour episodes will not only elicit tears, laughter, and smiles, but also more importantly, raise awareness about the marginalised within Singapore's middle-class communities.
These fascinating character deep-dives are bolstered further with stellar performances by a multi-cultural regional cast that hails from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand, and Singapore including Golden Horse Award winner Yeo Yann Yann (Wet Season) and veteran actor Wang Yu Qing.
I caught up with the show's creator Ler Jiyuan to find out more about his motivations and inspirations.
What was the motivation for you to tell these stories?
It's pretty much the universe that I came from. Growing up, I lived in a three-bedroom flat and my father was a taxi driver. It's the people who I met and the stories that I heard. I live in Yishun right now, and down the corridor lives a HDB medium, which happens to be the lead character in the second episode. When I walk around my neighbourhood, I see domestic helpers taking care of our elderly and Bangladeshi workers working at the construction sites. These stories form the tapestry of our HDB estates. I often wondered that stories about them haven't been told enough.
There are hints that the characters and episodes are interlinked somehow. Is that true?
The series is set in a fictional town centre called Sungei Merak. The concept was to create a big town, so all these different stories can co-exist. I was particularly looking for old town aesthetics. The town centre, which we shot in Chong Pang, is where everybody meets. The central incident in the first episode connects all the characters. As the series progresses, we are going to show this incident from different points of view.
You mentioned that you live in Yishun. How much of your experience of living in Yishun has played into coming up with these characters?
I grew up in Ang Mo Kio and then I moved to Yishun after I got married. A lot of my ideas come when I'm walking my dog around the neighbourhood. I have lived in HDBs my whole life.
With the recent release of Netflix's Singapore Social, why do you think Singaporean filmmakers have shied away from true-to-life portrayals of life in Singapore?
Actually, filmmakers have been talking about this. This series is not a reaction to Crazy Rich Asians or Singapore Social. I actually enjoyed Crazy Rich Asians. This series is just a reflection of my own upbringing and experience. It's important to show international audiences that we are actually a melting pot of different personalities and cultures, each with their own story to tell other than the general opinion of Singapore being wealthy and English-speaking. It is important to show this dimension of Singapore as we continue to explore our cultural identity on the world stage.
It seems like the series had a focus on being authentic. How did you ensure that these stories were authentic?
Because a lot of the stories are based on social issues and real people, we did a lot of research to understand the subject matter. We consulted an expert for every episode. For the first episode, we had Pauline who educated us on the behaviours of individuals with special needs. We ran extensive workshops as well to make sure our actors are playing their roles in the right way. We realised that we must do this as it is what our series is about. We also had a researcher, who did a lot of interviews with families. I also insisted on rehearsals. We needed them because our main selling points were good characters and good actors. We needed to get the acting right. That was our focus.
Would it be possible to elaborate on the other episodes?
The third episode is based on a tale of friendship between three Thai sex workers who are operating illegally out of a HDB flat. There are a lot of news stories that are trending right now on this subject, but I'm not interested in criminalising any of these characters.
The fouth episode is led by a Eurasian. I can't say too much about it, because there's a twist to it. What I can say is that it's about a guy who's frustrated with his life. He lives within the system, has studied at the best schools, has made all the right decisions, got married, has one kid, and is moving to a condominium soon, but he is living a life that he never wanted. One day, he decides to change.
The fifth episode is a love story between a Bangladeshi worker and an Indonesian domestic helper. This is a common thing that we see, but I wanted to tell it from their points of view. We find that society at large frowns upon relationships like this, but they are normal, everyday people like us who fall in love, have passions, and dreams.
The sixth and final episode is about an influencer who wants to change her life. She comes from a broken family. Since she can't change her immediate circumstances, she turns to social media, where she creates a persona with a more beautiful life.
The music is also a key part of the series. Could you elaborate on that?
I used the music of Singaporean singer-songwriter Leslie Low. His music speaks of what's it like to be Singaporean and live in Singapore. I decided to end every episode with his music, and sometimes, it features within the episode as well. He also makes three appearances as a busker throughout the series. I'm glad that Leslie's work is part of the show; he really completes what I want to say with this series.
The first two episodes are pretty heart-breaking. Will we see that tone changing in the upcoming episodes?
Yes, there are some happier episodes. The third episode is quite happy. This is my fault; I'm drawn to depressing stuff. I generally tell very serious stories, but my endings are not necessarily very sad. I wish to give hope.
HBO Asia's Invisible Stories premieres 5 January at 10pm on HBO GO* and HBO.
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