“We just won the jury award at Fantasia!”
That’s the email we woke up to from filmmaker Will Suen, whose high-octane short film Sweet Juices enjoyed a world premiere at the prestigious genre film festival.
Co-Directed by Sejon Im (who also edited) and Will Suen (who also wrote and has an amusing cameo in the film), Sweet Juices is an exciting new Australian short film that is pertinent on numerous levels.
- It marks the arrival of not one, but two visionary filmmakers from diverse backgrounds;
- It looks, sounds and acts unlike any other Australian short film;
- Deliberate or not, it will speak to today’s inflation-hit urban dwellers.
Sweet Juices focuses on Shirong (Shirong Wu), neck-deep in debt, who must deliver her beloved dumplings to save herself. There’s also her barely clad partner in crime Tony (Anthony Roy Barton), who wants to show Shirong something, but she’s too wound up to notice.
Plot is the last thing that you’ll notice in the whirlwind of sight, sound, sweat and fury that is Sweet Juices.
We emailed Will and Sejon to find out how they did it!
How did you meet and decide to collaborate?
Will: Sejon and I met on Facebook Marketplace! I was buying some lens filters from him; we met at a pub and talked for hours about our filmmaking journey and family backgrounds. We had a lot in common. We grew up in the same area and studied the same degrees at The College of Fine Arts UNSW. We both have a strong background in cinematography and worked in ads. In short, we vibed hard.
In 2019, a film of mine was invited to screen at Aesthetica International Film Festival in the UK. It was there that I met so many young directing duos and was super inspired by the work they produced and the camaraderie that they had. When I wrote the screenplay for Sweet Juices, I knew that I wanted to co-direct with someone. At the time, it was a big risk to try out co-directing, but I knew that the best chance of success had to be Sej.
Sej: When I first met Will, I discovered that we looked at the world in a very similar way. I remember thinking it was a damn shame that the chances of us teaming up creatively were slim since we’re both directors. Sydney isn’t exactly known for its duo-director stories — it’s usually a solo-director game. So, you can imagine my surprise when one day, Will floated the idea of co-directing a short film. I pondered it overnight and realised it would be an amazing experience regardless of the outcome. I couldn’t hold my excitement the next day and told Will to count me in.
Was there much experimentation/rehearsal/prep around capturing the particular look of the film?
Sej: For the scenes where we had most control and access, we scrutinised how to pull off the right look to the nth degree, whether it was the frantic blocking, the dingey Bunnings tube lights, down to scattering rotten squid around the kitchen to bring that disgust to life. However, ultimately, we needed more resources for this film, so there were also some scenes where we had to rock up, improvise and roll with the punches.
Will: Because Sej and I had such strong cinematography backgrounds, we were very ambitious with the look of the film and the types of shots we wanted. The sheer amount of special effects also meant we could not afford to leave it up to chance.
We filmed the entire film on an iPhone, to begin with, and edited that together to make sure we got the pacing, the angles and the continuity correct. We spent a long time scouting and days at each location arguing fiercely about how the scene should be covered.
Sej: It helped that Will and I have similar philosophies regarding visual language. What was most important to us was matching the visual energy with the emotive beats within each scene. Everything else was secondary. It helped that we stood firmly by this mantra as it resulted in a visual consistency that brought the world within the film together, even if we shot on four different cameras and 15 different lenses.
Will: Without a shadow of a doubt, the sheer amount of prep we did and our uncompromising attitude to how we wanted this film to look and feel, was instrumental to how the film turned out.
The film’s look isn’t one that we would normally associate with Australian cinema. Is that a conscious thing; is that the view of the world that you live in, is it influenced by cinema/your reality?
Sej: Although there are trends in the cinematic Australian look, we didn’t want to feel limited by it and also wanted to just go a bit apeshit with it. I resonate closely with the look and feel we’ve created, as life sometimes feels so overwhelmingly chaotic and out of control that all you can do is laugh. I’m naturally drawn to films that delve into the absurd situations that arise from the human struggle, the point of contact where comedy and tragedy shake hands. What we wanted to do with our film was capture life’s essence like a toothless grin.
Will: I didn’t set out to make an Australian film; I wanted to make a Sydney film that reflected my upbringing in Western Sydney and the people who made me laugh and cry.
Having said that, though, I’m very influenced by Asian cinema. In particular, filthy ‘90s Hong Kong comedy films greatly influenced me growing up. In hindsight, I think there are interesting parallels between classic Australian larrikin humour and working-class Hong Kong humour. The characters in this film are an awkward blend of both.
Are you able to disclose the budget? How does one make something low budget look a million bucks?
Will: You flatter us very much with this question!
I stopped counting how much money we’ve sunk into this film for my mental health, but my best guestimation is between $15,000AUD AND $20,000AUD.
Sej, Benjamin Powell, our cinematographer and myself have been grinding in music videos, short films and commercials for almost a decade. We have endless tortured experiences working round the clock with little to no resources.
Sej: Making the film look good was the easiest part of the filmmaking process. At one point in the film, Will held a light and recorded sound whilst I was pulling focus, all the while directing the actors to ensure they delivered amazing performances. To us, it was easy because we’ve done much more ridiculous stuff in the past to get the shot.
Where was the film made/shot?
Sej: The primary location for the film was the sharehouse in Redfern that Will was living in at the time. The script was written in that house for Will’s housemates. The office space for Debt Collection NSW was filmed in the co-producers’ office at Joynton Ave Creative Space in Zetland. The Premier’s office was filmed in The Castlereagh Hotel. The bike montage was shot in and around the CBD.
Will: Like I said, a uniquely Sydney film.
What was the trigger to making the film?
Will: My inspiration for the script was during the Covid lockdowns and eating delicious food from small business vendors. The passion and desperation in their eyes to fight for the survival of their restaurant was infectious. This was the energy I wanted to capture in the film.
How exciting is it for you as filmmakers to see Korean cinema take off around the world, and something like Everything Everywhere All at Once win Best Picture at the Oscars, and embraced at the box office?
Will: I laughed for a week when I watched Shaolin Soccer as a kid. Jun Ji-Hyun was my first on-screen crush when I watched My Sassy Girl. My entire school, Ryde Secondary College, watched Oldboy when it came out. After Parasite won best picture at the Oscars, we threw a party to celebrate. I binged all of Beef in one day.
When EEAAO won best picture, I shrugged; of course, a film heavily influenced by Asian cinema would be the most celebrated film of 2022! For lots of people around me, Asian cinema was always the avant-garde.
Sej: It’s insane. There have been so many recent wins for Asian film and TV, which was a long time coming for them to be wholly accepted as worldwide household names. What excites me just as much are the 2nd-Gen stories that have blown up, like EEAAO or Beef. They’ve nailed the trauma of ‘ethnic’ families and exploited it into perfect drama. It excites both of us as we feel our stories have an accepting audience now more than ever.
Sweet Juices screens at the Melbourne International Film Festival