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83 min. English, Mandarin.

Ambitious young actress Vicki lands the starring role in a promising theatre production in Singapore. What seems like the opportunity of a lifetime, however, turns out to be the beginning of a story of creeping abuse at the hands of director Daniel, for whom sadistic violence and artistic practice are inseparable. But power dynamics can change ...
In Demons, Daniel Hui plumbs the depths of his protagonists’ emotional states in profound, intricate fashion in both rehearsal scenes and in their private lives, bringing to light bitter truths about power structures and dependencies in the world of art and culture, which can be based on psychic pressure and manipulation. At the same time, the film serves as a societal seismograph, affording the viewer pitiless glimpses into the darkest corners of interpersonal relationships. Aided by a sophisticated sound design, Hui folds a complex mixture of horror and satirical elements into this story of mysterious ghosts. These various spectres appear in the plot like eruptive manifestations of the human psyche – and spin increasingly out of control. Sometimes it’s better to leave the genie in the bottle. (Ansgar Vogt)

Daniel Hui was born in Singapore in 1986. From 2009 to 2011, he studied film at the California Institute of the Arts, and after his studies he started working as a filmmaker and writer. Daniel Hui is one of the founding members of 13 Little Pictures, an independent film collective. Demons is his third feature-length film.

You can never go home again

Trauma creates a rupture. You split into two: the person you were before experiencing the trauma, and the person after. From here on out, you can never go home again. Your home has become a nest of vipers. Your own self turns against you. It taunts you, shames you, humiliates you. And when you least expect it, it attacks you. You have become the absolute other to yourself. You will never feel safe again, and all you have for company is silence – the silence of regret, the silence of complicity, the utter failure of words. And so you make a film. Everyone has demons. This is a story about mine. (Daniel Hui)

Conversation with Daniel Hui: “Trauma is the nothing of nothingness”

Dan Koh: Your previous films, SNAKESKIN (2014) and ECLIPSES (2011), are hybrid documentaries exploring the everyday use and abuse of history. DEMONS, which you wrote, directed and edited, is your first fiction film. Why did you turn to fiction and what motivated you to shoot a horror film?

Daniel Hui: Horror is a very physical genre, and it forces you to experience concepts in a very bodily way. Since the experiences I sought to portray are very much of a physical nature, it felt natural to make DEMONS as a horror movie.
I do not see DEMONS as a break in my filmography. Rather, I see it as a continuation of the two feature-length films I made before. All my films exist on a spectrum of fiction and non-fiction; they all have elements of both, and so does DEMONS. My method has not changed between all three feature-length films. In a way, because DEMONS deals with such a personal subject to me and many of my key collaborators, this is perhaps the film that is closest to our reality. 

In DEMONS, your exploration of trauma, abuse, and power feels like it is turned inwards, into a sort of self-interrogation of the personal and political. And yet, for a film that confronts such issues, DEMONS never directly represents acts of violence. Why is that?

The most important thing for me was giving cinematic expression to the feeling of madness. I come from Singapore, one of the few authoritarian states in the world. Even though Singaporean citizens are denied civil rights, the state generally receives more praise than criticism. When I talk to others about Singapore, I sometimes feel like a mad person. Those who do not believe in Singapore’s myth of elitist economic success are treated like madmen. In DEMONS, I was less interested in representing the clinical condition of madness than the physical process of becoming, or being, mad. To do this, I had to face my personal demons and the traumatic experiences from my past.
In many ways, I feel that trauma marks the dividing line between experience and perception. It opens a chasm not just between you and others who have not experienced trauma, but also within yourself. Most of all, however, trauma is unrepresentable. It is not just nothing; it is the nothing of nothingness – the absolute failure of words, images and sound. You can only sense that there is something amiss in your daily reality, something that is not right. When you realise what that is, it is already too late – your breath shortens, you stop thinking, and your mind just blanks out in blind panic. This distress haunted me daily for many years, and I finally wanted to make a film that would attempt to exorcise it.

What is the significance of the character of the theatre director, Daniel, sharing your first name?

As a film director, I am often painfully aware of my position of power. Manipulating someone’s gestures, words and sometimes even thoughts can be a cruel act. It is a violent process that makes me profoundly uncomfortable. I have tried to dissolve this power in many ways, but the demons ultimately still come back to the author – to the author as dictator. I think all artists, especially filmmakers, have to grapple with this problem of power. Many people choose to ignore it or take it as a given. But I want to confront it, and initiate a conversation about it.
I gave the theatre director my name because it is my worst nightmare to inadvertently cause trauma, to unconsciously hurt a person deeply.
Of course, these problematic power relationships are not exclusive to the film or art world. On the contrary, they are everywhere. But in art, power is heightened to an extraordinary degree, so it is no wonder that the #MeToo movement started in cinema. It is assumed that the author has full control over his/her material, and in turn he/she often assumes the right to exercise full power over his/her collaborators. I wanted to make a film in which the material regains control over the author, eating the author up in the process. This is perhaps the eventual, inevitable reality behind any work of art, which will survive far longer than its author and his/her opinions.

Cannibalism emerges late in your film in ways that are horrific yet strangely intimate. Can you share what drew you to this topic?

I first got the idea to include cannibalism in DEMONS while I was doing research on madness. I had read Lu Xun’s short story, ‘A Madman’s Diary’ (1918), in which a young man who is going mad begins to see the words ‘eat people’ in every classical Chinese text. He starts to believe that the Confucian texts upon which much of our culture and tradition are built were actually covert messages urging people to practise cannibalism.
I got further interested in the subject when I encountered an account of cannibalism in the Tupinambá peoples of pre-colonial Brazil. This indigenous tribe practised a very elaborate ritual in which they killed and consumed their enemies. In anthropologist and theoretician Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s account, prisoners of war were treated well during their sometimes lengthy captivity, before their execution. And when they were finally killed, they would be eaten by all those in attendance – except for the person who killed them. This person would begin a period of mourning and a process of identification with the victim.

You have said that with this film you want to ‘fuck with binaries’. Which twin categories were you keen to dismantle and why? Abuser/victim or LGBT/straight? And in its frequently funny, outrageous, and even bloody affinity to camp, do you see DEMONS as belonging to queer cinema?

I think our modern – predominantly Western – way of life has gotten us used to thinking in terms of binaries. We take them for granted, we see them as being laws of nature. In my work, I try to question that as much as possible. The character of Vicki, the aspiring theatre actress, is a victim, but she does not accept her disempowerment. Daniel, the theatre director, sexually abuses her, but he is also a gay man. Vicki is the sister of Viknesh even though they have a different skin colour. I do not want people to get used to thinking in terms of fixed categories. If we attempt to order and live our lives according to these categories, we will never be able to develop new ways of thinking. Our humanity is so much more complicated than the violent acts of categorisation – and I believe every categorisation to be an act of violence. It is important for me to refuse being reduced to a mere statistic. (…) In that sense, I think DEMONS is a queer film through and through, with which I am situating myself within the queer, radical tradition.

You cast the first-time actress Yang Yanxuan as Vicki, the aspiring theatre actress, whereas the male protagonist, the theatre director Daniel, is played by Glen Goei, one of Singapore’s leading film and theatre directors. What was your thinking behind these casting decisions?

Vicki is a close friend of mine. It is thanks to her that DEMONS became more than a strictly autobiographical film. Through our conversations, this film slowly took on a life of its own. It is as much her film as it is mine. The subject matter was deeply important to both of us. In a way, DEMONS was a collective exorcism for everyone involved.
Glen was a newcomer to our circle of friends, but we immediately hit it off. He was aware, of course, to be playing an influential theatre director, a part that he also has in real life. But Glen is actually the complete opposite of a violent and abusive person. He is generous, open and incredibly friendly.

Why did you shoot DEMONS on 16mm?

I have shot all my films on 16mm, and I knew DEMONS would not be an exception. I love the specific look of 16mm on the screen, and I love the very physical process of loading and unloading the film magazine. There is also a feeling of adventure when we do not know what we have shot until many months later, when the negatives have been developed and digitally transferred.
While working on DEMONS, however, I realised that in the last few years it has become exponentially more difficult to shoot on film. The last film labs in Southeast Asia have closed down and we had to send all our negatives to a lab in Washington. That proved to be a logistical nightmare. I plan to continue shooting on film, but I hope there will be more support for filmmakers like me and our practice.

As writer-editor-director – or I could also say author-mother-dictator – what are your own hopes for DEMONS?

Since DEMONS has so many doubles in it, I will offer another analogy of doubles: in a way, this film has become my personal double, which has now gained a life of its own and is running around out there, entering into relationships with people, hurting people, healing people, and having its own life force. As the original – or am I really? – I have no control over my double. And like Vicki’s double in the film, maybe this double of mine can also teach me something new about my life and my art. Except that, like Vicki, I can only learn by becoming active and by making the big leap out into the unknown world.

(Interview: Dan Koh)

Production Tan Bee Thiam, Daniel Hui, Naoko Ishise. Production companies 13 Little Pictures (Singapore, Singapore), JackFruit International (Singapore, Singapore). Written and directed by Daniel Hui. Cinematography Looi Wan Ping. Editing Daniel Hui. Music Wuttipong Leetrakul, Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr. Sound design Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr. Sound Alex Herboche. Costumes Dinu Bodiciu. Make-up Jeffrey Linus Lee. With Yang Yanxuan Vicki (Vicki), Glen Goei (Daniel), Viknesh Kobinathan (Viknesh), Eshley Gao (Ashley), Tan Bee Thiam (Assistant Director), Daniel Hui (John), Violet Goh (Strange Woman).

World sales Reel Suspects
Premiere October, 06, 2018, Busan Film Festival


2011: Eclipses (105 min.). 2014: Snakeskin (105 min.). 2018: Demons.

Photo: © 13 Little Pictures

Funded by:

  • Logo Minister of State for Culture and the Media
  • Logo des Programms NeuStart Kultur