The majority of submissions for this year’s International Feature Oscar category deal with serious issues, from major to minor, and while He Shuming’s feature debut Ajoomma (the title translates as Auntie) isn’t exactly the heaviest of them all, it does make a point of focusing on a character type that is vastly underrepresented in cinema across the globe: the older female.
Speaking at Deadline’s Contenders Film: International award-season event, the director explained, “It’s a film about a middle-aged Singaporean woman who is completely obsessed with Korean drama, and so she travels to Seoul for the first time—and gets left behind by the tour guide. She then has to find her way back, and in this whole journey she rediscovers herself and finds a new lease of life.”
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Although not autobiographical, Giraffe Pictures’ Ajoomma, from Singapore, is certainly a personal project for He. “I think a lot of it was really inspired by my own relationship with my mom,” said the AFI graduate. “When I was living abroad, in L.A., and she was living in Singapore, I reflected on our relationship as mother and son as she embarked on a new journey as a retired middle-aged woman [while I was having] a life of my own. But I also wanted to make a first feature that my mom would like and would enjoy.”
Helping He get his vision to the screen was his producer Anthony Chen, the Camera d’Or-winning director of Ilo Ilo in Cannes 2013. Said Chen, “I’ve known Shuming for a long, long time—15 years, in fact—even before I was a feature filmmaker, because he was an assistant on one of my shorts. When he graduated from film school he was telling me about this story, and I was very moved by it. It’s very, very representative of a lot of women and a lot of mothers—not just in Singapore but across Asia and around the world. Women who spend a whole lifetime caring for their husbands and their kids, taking care of the family. What happens when they’re left with an empty nest? What is their identity now? I thought that that is potentially very, very moving.”
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