For Singaporean director Anthony Chen, filmmaking is a ruthlessly philosophical practice — a medium through which he interrogates the state of cinema, excavates the meaning of life and finds an outlet for his persistent existential crises. He won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013 for Ilo Ilo at just 29 years old, and returned to the festival’s Un Certain Regard section this year with The Breaking Ice. The film stars experienced Chinese trio Zhou Dongyu, Liu Haoran and Qu Chuxiao.
“This film came out of my own existential crisis during the pandemic, seeing cinemas close and then feeling worried about the fate of the world, the state of cinema and even the state of my work, post-pandemic,” said Chen, from the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film is receiving its North American premiere. “Everything is so loud and boisterous and I’m a very restrained and quiet filmmaker. I was questioning my own existence and my identity as a filmmaker.”
Behind the process of making ‘The Breaking Ice’
Chen is coming off one of his most productive years. Besides the Cannes world premiere of The Breaking Ice, his other film, Drift, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The film is Chen’s first English-language work, with Peter Spears (Nomadland) and Émilie Georges (Call Me by Your Name) among its producers.
“There was so much frustration and pent-up energy from just sitting at home for so long that I needed a release. Between my first two films, it took six years, while last year, in just six months, I shot two films,” Chen said. “I shot this film, wrapped on the January 8 last year and by January 17, I was scouting in Europe and Greece for my first English-language film.”
Set in Yanji, a border city in northeastern China, The Breaking Ice follows three friends as they meander their way through romance, spiritual restlessness and the blindingly white, snowy landscape. The film boasts an impressive crew, with the likes of production designer Du Luxi, who worked on Lou Ye’s Spring Fever and Blind Massage, as well as costume designer Li Hua, who has been part of Jia Zhangke’s Ash is the Purest White and Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake.
“I’ve always been sent scripts from China and my films have done well there. There’s a following for my work because they’re in the Chinese language,” Chen shared. “I’ve been invited to make films in China but I’ve never said yes over the past 10 years because I wanted to do it on my own terms.”
Chen’s decision to shoot The Breaking Ice in northeastern China emerged from a desire to go far out of his comfort zone — partly due to the existential crisis he experienced during the pandemic, as well as a comment made by a journalist in 2021 about how his films are extremely “mature and precise.” These two factors prompted reflection in Chen, where he questioned if his precise and detail-oriented filmmaking process was the right way to make a film. With The Breaking Ice, Chen decided to rebel against this inclination, instead opting for a more free-spirited and spontaneous process.
A sharp departure from his usual timelines, Chen finished the screenplay only 10 days before production started. “I’ve never felt so insecure in my life before because I’ve never made a film like that. Usually I would have the script done six months or a year in advance and we are prepping and everything,” Chen said. “It’s the Singaporean in me, where we like to schedule, plan and have a blueprint for everything.”
During the 38-day production, temperatures dipped as low as minus four degrees Fahrenheit — a far cry from the tropical climate of his home country of Singapore. “The snow was really thick, sometimes just below our waists. At some points, I wasn’t even walking and I learned to crawl, military-style, which was faster.” Chen said.
However, there was one advantage that Chen realized while filming The Breaking Ice. “Every time we were shooting outdoors, we were able to wrap and finish the scenes faster because it was so cold,” Chen added. “By the time we do take three or four, the actors’ ears and faces were so frozen that they couldn’t act anymore. When you’re outdoors, nobody forgets their lines and everyone is hitting their marks much quicker.”
Anthony Chen on the state of cinema
Chen is not a filmmaker that is easily satisfied. “Growing as a filmmaker, I hope not to just be repeating myself all my life and be applauded for repeating myself,” Chen shared. “Whenever I feel too comfortable, that’s when I feel that something isn’t right.”
Observing the explosion of short-form content like TikTok and the shrinking of box offices all over the world, Chen is especially worried about the state of cinema and what it means to be a filmmaker in this age. “I have a huge existential crisis about my cinema and where I sit in the whole spectrum of things right now,” Chen said. “The Breaking Ice is not a plot-heavy film. How many audiences in this day and age have the patience to watch cinema that way?
“I’m going to make more films while people are still funding me to make films,” Chen added. “I feel like my response to all my crises is always to make a film so maybe I need to make another film to answer these questions that I’m called constantly pondering.”
Strand Releasing is handling North American distribution of The Breaking Ice, with a theatrical release targeted for late 2023 or early 2024.