At first glance, Not My Mother’s Baking, seems like your typical romance flick of star-crossed lovers set in modern day Singapore.
That is until you start unpeeling the layers to this film by Studio59 Concepts, their second full-length feature and their first film to be showcased at the 31st Singapore International Film Festival.
“It’s a halal/haram film,” Remi M Sali, director of Not My Mother’s Baking told TheHomeGround.Asia during an interview.
“What constitutes halal, and what constitutes haram has always been discussed and debated, and I would dare say taken for granted, but otherwise it’s always been swept under the carpet. That’s something we do not want to hide in our movie,” he explained.
Not My Mother’s Baking explores the story of Sarah, a chef who has always lived in the shadow of her mother who is a celebrity chef herself (they are played by actual mother-daughter celebrity chefs Siti Mastura and Sarah Ariffin).
While trying to make a name for herself in the baking industry, Sarah meets two romantic interests. There is Imran, the perfect Malay-Muslim guy that any parent would approve of, and then there is Edwin, who is Chinese and whose family – get this – runs a roast pork stall at a hawker centre.
Bringing race and religion to an international audience
It is a film that explores the nuances of cross-cultural relationships, while addressing sensitivities pertaining to race and religion in Singapore – common themes for us, maybe, but a foreign subject for an international audience.
“We made the film specifically for an international audience,” said Ho Pak Kin, the film’s executive producer. “We want [our international viewers] to get a slice of who we are as Singaporeans, such as why roast pork is haram. We want to highlight that there’s still a lot of sensitivity lah, in terms of the relationship between all of us Singaporeans between the different races.”
Challenges in sensitivities
A film with such religious, racial, and cultural sensitivities was challenging to shoot, to say the least.
One of the very first challenges they faced was having to push filming forward by three weeks because in real life father and son duo Zack and Benjamin Zainal arrived in Singapore early. The cast had no time to run through rehearsals and were told to just go for it when the cameras started rolling.
This produced a dynamic script with a lot of adlibbing, as the cast had to react and respond to each other’s character.
“Right from the start, we said we would give [the cast] the freedom to express themselves through their character,” said Remi.
“And then it became very naughty!”
Not for children under 16
Pak Kin chimed in that the dialogue “got a lot naughtier than [they] anticipated”, but that they left a lot of it in the movie. In fact, the two of them had encouraged the cast to push boundaries as far as they could, which he believes is what garnered the film an NC-16 rating.
“There were many times the cast and crew were concerned over whether what they said would pass the censors, [but we said] sure, go for it,” he said. “But it was passed cleaned by the censorship board.”
The advisory rating came later than expected, however, which did lead Remi and Pak Kin to speculate that some of the film’s content took more time for the censorship board to discuss. “With our first film, Konpaku, it took about three weeks, but for this one, it took about three months,” said Remi.
“Of course, it was during the circuit breaker period, but [the censorship board] did ask if they could have more time to review it,” added Pak Kin.
First times across the board
But it could also have been the sensitive nature of the film, brought on by a number of ‘firsts’ in Singapore cinema, which could have caused the delay in rating as well.
For example, this is the first time a Malay lead speaks English for most of a Singapore movie. While it may not seem like much, Remi explained that within the Malay community, the Malay language is a thing of pride and when Malay actors and presenters lapse into English on Malay content on TV, there would be complaints from the public.
The film is also the first in the world to showcase the Islamic conversion of a man led by a woman religious leader. “Singapore is the first country in the world to have women religious leaders convert men into Islam, and we are proud to be the first to showcase that on film ever,” shared Pak Kin.
The Islamic conversion scene was one of consideration for the production team, who ended up shooting two versions – one with a woman religious leader, and another with a traditional male religious leader conducting the conversion.
“The Muslim Converts Association of Singapore was very concerned that if this goes out, there will be backlash [from the international Muslim community], even though they are already doing it,” said Pak Kin. They were the ones who suggested for the crew to film both versions before they made a decision.
“But we hustled, and we pushed to get the green light to showcase the conversion,” said Remi.
Their push to preserve the rawness of a cross-cultural relationship has been met with some controversy, however. Remi regaled of a time they had wanted to show their film to a charity organisation in Singapore. “They asked us if we could take out this scene, and take out that scene,” he said.
“We said no, we would like to keep it intact, even though we did discuss among ourselves whether or not the Islamic conversion scene may be sensitive for an overseas audience. We left it in because it is the sanctity of the movie – that is what we want to preserve.”
World premieres at two film festivals
Their persistence in keeping the film in its whole as they had imagined has definitely paid off. The film has been chosen to be showcased at the Five Flavors Asian Film Festival (FFAFF) in Poland, and at the 31st Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF).
Since both festivals are happening during the same week (26 November to 6 December), Not My Mother’s Baking would be having their world premiere on its home ground at SGIFF, and its international premiere at FFAFF.
So far, there are no plans for a public release of Not My Mother’s Baking in Singapore or the rest of the world, but Remi and Pak Kin are hopeful local cinemas will take a chance on their independent film to be showcased in cinemas.
What’s next for Remi and Pak Kin?
In the meantime, the pair are already working on their next big feature, which will again cover race and religion. “Race, language and religion has always been the theme for our works,” explained Remi.
The story to be told here explores a dikir barat competition, in which a group of Chinese church choir boys decide to take part in. Dikir barat is a traditional Malay musical form, often performed at Malay weddings.
“What does it mean to have culture?” questioned Remi. “Is culture just for a particular race, or can it be celebrated outside [race]? What does it mean to practice religion as a part of culture?”
Like the other films they have produced, there is no doubt Remi and Pak Kin’s next feature will spark discussion on the issues the generations ahead of us have kept quiet about for so long.
“I think it’s about time,” said Pak Kin. “We Singaporeans are ready to have these conversations.”