Lights, Camera and Film Festivals!

Assistant Professor Lee Sang Joon is on a mission to share his passion for Asian cinema with his students. First stop: the Busan International Film Festival.

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When Assistant Professor Lee Sang Joon was studying in Dankook University in South Korea, the theatre and films major spent most of his time watching movies.

“I watched movies, read books on film and history of cinema. I wrote down every movie I watched and my reviews of it,”  said the 43-year-old South Korean, who went on to earn his Masters in Film Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles and Ph.D in Cinema Studies at New York University. “Each year I watched about 400 films.”


After teaching stints at the University of Michigan and Dankook University, Asst Prof. Lee joined the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information in 2015. 

In his current role, Asst Prof. Lee says he has big dreams to transform the school into a hotbed of film activity. “I think that’s my mission — I want to help my students know more about asian cinema, I want them to communicate with other film and media students in Asia,” he added.

In August, he spearheaded the Chinese Film Market and Asian Cinema Conference, a three-day symposium in partnership with King’s College London, where some of the world’s leading film and media scholars and top industry professionals were invited to discuss trends in the Asian cinema scene and the role of China’s booming film market. 

Last month, Asst Prof. Lee led a group of 12 students to attend Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), as part of an overseas film module in WKWSCI.

“I think that’s my mission — I want to help my students know more about Asian cinema, I want to make them communicate with other film and media students in Asia.”

Assistant Professor
Lee Sang Joon

Over nine days of experiential learning, students learned about the international film scene and witnessed the dealmaking and networking that goes into a film’s production and promotion.   

“Film festivals have multiple functions,” he said. “They make up a major market which contributes to the local economy, they serve educational purposes; film artists, critics and scholars go to film festivals to see the latest trends in cinemas.”

BIFF is a stepping stone in Asst Prof. Lee’s long-term plan to keep WKWSCI students engaged with films and Asian cinema. He hopes to show students how instrumental film festivals can be in boosting the host country’s economy and tourism.

Asst Prof. Lee cited how the annual BIFF has transformed Busan into a bustling film hub in South Korea, with the Korean Film Council relocating to Busan in 2013 and the Korean Academy of Film Arts set to follow suit in 2018.

“One single film festival has changed the whole image of the city,” he said, adding that before BIFF, Busan was just a harbour city known for its manufacturing industry.

He chose BIFF this year as the event dates coincided with the course schedule, though he revealed that there are plans to expand the destination list to other countries such as Spain, Canada and Japan, where film festivals happen in September and October.

An expert in the field of Asian film studies and cinema, Asst Prof. Lee noted that the South Korean film industry has grown remarkably over the past decade or so. 

In 2017, domestic films accounted for 42.8 per cent of South Korea’s box office, up from 13% in 1993. 

He attributed the revitalisation of the local film scene to the release of the South Korean action blockbuster Shiri in 1999.  

“Suddenly film companies jumped into the (South Korean) film industry, more young people opened their eyes (to Korean cinema) and everything changed,” he said.

Asst Prof. Lee believes that his film students in WKWSCI also have the potential to catalyse the change for Singapore’s film industry.

“For some of you guys, the FYP film can be your first and last film, so it can be controversial, challenging, a little more brave.”

Assistant Professor
Lee Sang Joon

“Not many people watch Singapore cinema or local dramas, right? If you want to pursue a filmmaking and media career, this is the market you have to work with,” Asst Prof. Lee said.

He explains that with the rich history and culture of Singapore, local films can be propelled onto the international stage via the power of storytelling.

“From the jury’s perspective, they want to see Singapore stories,” he added. “You can be a historian as a filmmaker.”

Asst Prof. Lee encourages students to keep pushing boundaries and experimenting with various themes in their Final Year Project films.

“For some [students], the FYP film can be [their] first and last film, so it can be controversial, challenging, a little more brave,” he said.