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Impact 0348: Young award-winning filmmaker uses dark comedy and satire in films

Calleen Koh · 17 February 2022
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Calleen Koh, 23, is the director of award-winning animated short films, Sexy Sushi (2020) and To Kill the Birds & the Bees (2021). The latter film swept up three awards at the National Youth Film Awards in 2021 for Best Art Direction, Best Screenplay and Best Original Music.

She finds pleasure in creating dark comedies in response to difficult topics she feels strongly about, as she believes that laughter is one of the best ways to engage an audience when tackling themes that are difficult to talk about. Today, she brings us on a journey of what she does!

Tell us more about what you do!

I do many creative things for fun and professionally: I did fine arts during my time in School of the Arts, Singapore (SOTA), and dabbled in fashion shoots here and there.

But most recently, I’m the director of two animated short films that were created during my time in LASALLE as an animation student! The two films are Sexy Sushi and To Kill the Birds & the Bees. Both are musical dark comedies about things I found intriguing and important at the time.

Sexy Sushi follows the hypersexualisation of anthropomorphic sushis that look human, and the eventual existential crisis they face about their empty life in the limelight. It was a fun way to explore existential themes within consumerism through the satire of sexually charged Japanese advertisements.

On the other hand, To Kill the Birds & the Bees explored a cross-generational conflict in attitudes about sex in Singapore through three whacky stories of various Singaporeans – a pair of young twins home alone, a secondary school prefect and a conservative housewife.

Currently, I’m in the midst of developing a new short film that is in line with my previous work, its working title is Hot Buns. But this is my “nighttime” job. In the daytime, I’m a designer and animator at a local independent animation studio, Finding Pictures.

Your film To Kill the Birds & the Bees has made waves locally, even being screened in theatres at SGIFF. What motivated you to create this film?

Growing up in Singapore, I always had this sense that there was a dire lack of honest conversations surrounding riskier topics in our mainstream media, with sex being one of the main ones. I remember my perception of how people made babies was so skewed as a kid watching local dramas – I thought that all it took to get pregnant was to lie in bed fully-clothed with the opposite sex!

There were also many other contributing sources of inspiration such as inadequate sex education, the growing list of sexual harassment cases in our top universities, and also The Straits Times comments section whenever something remotely scandalous had happened. When I pieced everything together, I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry about how bad we are at expressing sexuality in a healthy manner.

In my final year studying animation at LASALLE, I had the opportunity to direct my final-year project and I thought tackling the state of sexual discourse in our country would be so fitting as an animated social satire! And thankfully, my wonderful teammates also shared the same sentiments on this issue, and thus, the film was born!

What were some challenges you faced when creating your films?

I think it was always trying to properly curate the message in my films. As I use dark comedy and satire in my works a lot, it can feel like I’m walking on eggshells, whether I’m going too far with the jokes or if the jokes are well-balanced enough. I always feel that it’s important to reflect on how the content I put in will affect the different kinds of audience that might come across my film.

One way I overcame this was to keep showing different people my work-in-progress! Letting fresh eyes look at my work was a good way to tell if I was on the right track or whether some of my content was pushing it too far. If my test audience didn’t get what I was trying to show, then I would know what to tweak!

What is one piece of advice you would like to share to fellow youths who aspire to pursue filmmaking or animation?

Grow thick skin! It is not an easy industry to navigate – a lot of it is having the initiative to put yourself out there, to get to know collaborators, and also being able to handle criticism when they come your way. 

What are your hopes or plans for the future?

I generally don’t plan my life in great strides anymore after COVID-19 keeps playing with my feelings, and the world is also changing so fast everyday. I may wish to make a movie now, but who knows if by the time I get there, there may be something cooler than movies already. Maybe by then, we will all be inside the Metaverse or something, who knows!

Instead, I’ve been making small targets for myself based on projects that come my way while also keeping an open mind for what I can do in future! For now, I just hope my upcoming film can be another film I will be proud of and will be one that people will enjoy!

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