In Korean, the word “ajoomma” is used to refer to a middle-aged married woman and can loosely be translated as “madam” or “Auntie.” It also serves as the title of director He Shuming’s feature debut and, to those who are familiar with the term, provides an instant introduction to the film’s protagonist, Mrs. Lim (Hong Huifang). Ajoomma’s ajoomma is a Korean drama obsessed middle-aged mother who, after her son backs out of a long-awaited trip to South Korea, decides to go alone and ends up on an adventure that rivals the plots of the K-dramas she loves.
Ajoomma presents a lighthearted dramedy about new beginnings, second chances, and finding adventure and identity later in life. The first official co-production between Singapore and South Korea, the film spans two countries and three languages as its characters face various challenges and form new cross-cultural friendships.
FRONTRUNNER chatted with Shuming about empty nesters finding purpose later in life, language barriers, balancing humor and drama in a story, and Shuming’s experience making his first feature-length film.
What was your inspiration behind this story?
A lot of it is inspired by my mom’s obsession with Korean drama. I remember ten years ago, she was Skyping and I realized she was recapping Korean dramas. That kind of obsession was really interesting to me, where Korean drama was a form of escape for her. But more than anything, I think it was our relationship. This mother and son. She is at the age where I think she feels like she wants to lead her life. Or I think about it kind of projected on her. Like, do you want to have your own life of traveling or doing your own things and not have to worry about your kids? And at the same time, it was also me wanting to pursue my own things and not having to think about [my parents] or not having to worry about them. So I think there is that guilt–I don’t know if it’s an Asian thing–but it’s the guilt of hoping our parents would have their own agency while we lead our own lives and that they can be fulfilled in some ways. So I think it really came from that.
Did you ever ask her if she had any input about her own experiences?
I think a lot of the specificity of this woman was from my observation. I think there was stuff, because she would only travel [on group tours] when she goes on holidays. She doesn’t like traveling with us–with the kids–because she feels [that] for me and my sister when we think about traveling, we were like, it’s a holiday. We’ll wake up at whatever time that we want to. But for her, it’s, No, we’re on a holiday. I have to get up at six and I have to maximize the time. That’s not just inspired by her, but I think it’s a lot of Singaporean women of that age, a lot of aunties that are kind of like that. When the film came out, my mom’s friends from her exercise group would text her, would leave her voice messages on WhatsApp and be like, oh, the film. I felt like it was me, you know. Like it felt very what I’m feeling. They would tell her that and she would share it with me. So I think this character is a combination of a lot of women like my mom. A lot of it’s a very quintessential Singaporean auntie of a certain class of a certain generation. But I think a lot of women recognize themselves in that, I guess as a mother figure, someone who’s been very giving, has given her whole life to her family, and sacrificed everything and now has to realize that Oh, my God–I’m on my own. And figuring out their identity for the first time.
What would you say were some specific aspects of this identity that you wanted to show in the film? Whether it’s actions or like things in her home–were there any things that you can pinpoint?
The domestic stuff obviously is one. I think for a lot of women the home is a big part of their lives, whether it’s the cleaning or the cooking for their family, the sacrifice, or living for someone else. The drama is one of it also. Just watching Korean drama, [is] obviously something that I think anyone can identify with. There are certain things that are very Singaporean auntie or Southeast Asian where I think it’s just little traits that that I’ve had women or I’ve had people come up like, oh my God, I recognize that, like when [Auntie] was in the bus and she was smelling a medicated oil because she’s getting motion sickness. It’s a very Singaporean thing. It’s a very Asian thing. It’s an oil called Axe oil. It’s supposed to wake you up. I remember when I screened it in Southeast Asia or Asia, audiences were like, oh my God, yeah, we do that too. It’s a very Asian thing. I think a lot of little aspects of her behavior or the way she is always constantly thinking about [her son] too. Even on a holiday, she meets this tour guide who is younger than her, almost like a son. She feels that she can’t shake that identity of a mother away, you know, like she’s always still in some ways, like I have to be a mom to this kid because maybe he reminds her of her own son. So things like that.
In this film there are multiple languages used throughout: Mandarin, Korean and English. And I was wondering if you could just talk a bit about how you approached using language and language barriers in this film.
So I speak Mandarin and English and Singlish (Singlish is Singaporean English). I wrote the script in English first and then the Mandarin lines I translated–and we still had to send it in for translation. I don’t speak Korean so it went through several rounds of translation just so that we got it right. But because I don’t speak Korean, it was very important to me to be able to get it right. So I had a translator with me. I think she helped me really understand and communicate with my Korean actors and my crew about certain things. And the Korean crew were also very much about making sure that I tell the story right, even though there’s cultural aspects that for me were cultural blind spots. It’s a very open environment which we have set up where I think they will express their thoughts, whether it’s dialogue or little specific details about certain things that they want to make sure that were very Korean and very authentic to the experience. They really helped me achieve that. For me, the language part of it was, I wanted to express that universal understanding, despite people not speaking the same languages, especially between the uncle and the auntie. I have placed a lot of trust in my Korean team to let me know whether the actors have done it right or if they said it right. And after a while, I think I can understand a little bit from hearing and I’m not ashamed to ask, did they miss a line? Because I feel like something’s missing. But I think the actors and the crew do feel like it’s their duty to let me know every single thing that goes wrong or right because sometimes I can’t process it because I don’t speak the language. And it was going into the spirit of wanting to tell the story. They understand what the story was, and they honor that. I think they see that.
I noticed that this film is billed as a comedy and is very heartwarming and sweet. But there are some more serious dramatic moments and themes throughout the film as well, such as about debt, being alone in a country where you can’t speak the language, and parenthood. So I was curious about how you balanced these two aspects, the serious themes and the comedy, both in the script as well as in the directing.
I think a lot of the approach for me was the emotional core of what the characters are going through and making that pretty clear. At least for me, the comedy in the film is in the reality of it. It’s also reminding myself and the crew that, let’s not take ourselves too seriously, because the lightness of the film comes from the fact that there are fun aspects of the film. When we were filming, it was towards the end of the pandemic. We’re all coming out [of isolation], like my friends who have not been working for a while in the film industry. Then we’re back on set for my film and it’s like, let’s enjoy the moment of being on set. I wanted to bring the energy on set where the crew and the cast feel a certain unifying emotion that you get when you make a film. But I think when it comes to the script, it was very much about: Okay. This is the emotional truth of the character. This is what they’re going through. But, it can be funny. So, for example, when the [auntie is] going to say goodbye to the uncle in the car. Then she says this line that we hear from the beginning of the film and it’s always one of those moments where it’s like a nice, almost romantic, almost sad moment between two people that have gone through quite a bit in a day. It’s emotional. But I also want you to laugh because it’s absurd. It’s absurd in a way where you would want an audience to laugh at that moment because it’s subverting this idea of what a farewell is. But I also want the audience to laugh right after and to not just laugh, but like to feel emotional after that, which happens in a matter of seconds. I feel like it’s a very calculated move on my part. It’s being very precise about getting those emotions right that you can be moved at the same time when you feel like you want to laugh.
On the subject of the auntie and the uncle, I thought the friendship that formed between them was really heartwarming. One of my favorite scenes was when they were having tea at his house and they were learning about each other through their limited English. It was interesting how there was this friendship that formed when there was quite a language barrier between them. What was your intention when you created this unique friendship?
I wanted this friendship to slowly develop, where these are two people who are kind of leading their parallel lives, and they’re strangers. [The uncle] almost took a pause about helping her in the beginning when they first met, but then decided, you know what? It doesn’t take anything. I’ll just help you. As they get to know each other, they realize that they’re almost like different versions of each other and they’re strangers. They have kids who’ve grown up. And for her, I think she realized that this is someone who is almost a similar age, has kids who are [grown up], and is in some ways more advanced because his kids are not there. So she feels like there’s probably something I can gain from this friendship of meeting someone that is going through something or has gone through something that I feel like I will go through. And seeing this guy has his own independence and living for himself, I think for her was very reassuring. I base it on the strangers you meet sometimes, whether you’re on a holiday or whether you’re just living in a new city. You meet someone on the streets and there’s a kind of connection that you have that allows you to see part of yourself. I really base it on that kind of strange connection between strangers that makes the developing friendship a lot more endearing. And I really didn’t want it to be romantic. I’ve been in festivals, I’ve been in screenings where I have audiences who would go, I want them to be together. But I think there is a certain beauty about two folks who are of a certain age who become friends because of circumstances. It doesn’t always need to be romantic. I think she’s grateful. They’re grateful for each other for this strange moment that happened one night.
This film is about many things. There’s lots of different themes in it, like new beginnings, cross-cultural friendships, second chances. Was there any particular theme that appealed to you that you really wanted to make sure shone through in this story?
There are themes of maternal love that I wanted to reflect on the film. Identity is also one thing for [the auntie] to understand or discover a different identity that she never thought she would have this late in life. Friendship that develops between strangers I kind of wanted to do. There was a little bit of the wanderlust theme that I kind of wanted to explore. I think the idea of travel sometimes inspires a lot of things and inspires a lot of new thoughts. Initially my ending was not super inspired because I feel like sometimes we romanticize wanderlust and are like, oh, you travel and you get inspired. And it’s true. But sometimes you don’t, and you come back and things are back to reality and you don’t feel like you gained anything and you spent too much money. So I wanted it to be: nothing’s really changed. But this was much earlier in the development of the script. When I went into production I wanted the audience to feel at the end of the film not just lightness, but you feel for the woman, you feel happy for her, and almost because she gained a certain sense of independence. One of the big parts of it is her searching for identity. And there are I think some characters in the film that have really found their own identity.
How has the process of writing, developing, getting finances and all of that different from in the past with your short films?
It’s a different beast altogether when it comes to features. I’m a film school born and bred filmmaker. I did my undergrad in Singapore, I worked for a while, and then I moved to LA and did my master’s in directing at [the AFI Conservatory]. So I’ve always been in an environment of making short films and making films, but going to AFI was slowly moving into the world of making a feature. [The process of making a feature film] also introduces, at least for me, the aspect of getting a financier, an investor and all of those things that you don’t necessarily get with a short film. We spent years developing [Ajoomma] and we wanted it to have a script that is good enough to be seen by people who want to finance it. It was tough because it’s the first feature by a director who has never made a feature before. So there was trying to convince people, yeah, he will get it done and he will not let you down. We went through a lot of ups and downs.
It was quite a ride for me, making this, even going on film labs and developing it in a very contained environment. Looking back, it was such an experience. And then Covid happened. I think it really changed [my] perspective about filmmaking for me. The film has always been, we’re going to shoot it in winter. So there were years, I think at least three years of: we’re going to shoot it this winter. Let’s get the script ready and get the financing in place. Okay. Something’s not ready. We’re not ready for it. So we have to wait another year. And then at some point: we’re very close. I think the script is pretty good. This is a good draft and let’s try to get it financed and move forward. I cast my actors and everything. And then when Covid happened, it was very clear that we’re not going to shoot. It was almost back to the drawing board. I wrote a new draft and was like, maybe the script is not good enough. And then at that point I had a co-writer come in, Kris [Ong], and she really helped shape things and gave the script [a female point of view]. And she really came in with very good insights. I think it helped the script a lot, moving it into the right direction. And so towards the end [of the pandemic] we were like, okay, borders are slowly opening up and so let’s make sure that the minute Korea opens its borders, we’re ready to go in. And the other thing about it being a Singaporean-Korean co-production is also working with a different group of people you’ve never worked with before. I learned so much from the Korean film community. We’ve had so much admiration for the film industry in Korea. And you understand why they are doing so well because the way they approach filmmaking, the way they approach storytelling and craft, there’s so much depth, the way they think about filmmaking is so rich. So for me to go through my first film in that way was…there’s no price tag on that. I’m shooting in a language I don’t speak, with a team, a crew that don’t speak English, I have a car chasing scene. A lot of these things are stacked up against me. So it was a lot of challenges that I’ve placed on myself, but I didn’t think of it that way. I think every film has these steps of challenges that you have to go through almost like a rite of passage. The film fortunately has had a certain success in Asia and Singapore. It was Singapore’s pick for the Oscars earlier this year. So then I got to travel. I got to go back to LA and see that part of promoting it and showing it to Academy voters. So that was fun. I knew we were not going to go very far with it, but it was an experience for me. It’s been a really fantastic first experience of making a feature film.
After this fantastic first experience, are you planning on delving into more films or taking a break for a while? What’s next for you?
We can’t stop. We’ve been traveling for the last six months of the film. I am developing other projects both in LA and in Asia that I’m hoping at some point something will happen, I guess, I hope. But part of making Ajoomma is also so that I can make the next film and hope the next film will allow me to make the next one. And I’ve been very lucky to be in a position where I think my perspective allows me to make stories or tell stories from different parts of the world and want to continue doing that.