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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 03.18.22] Australia scifi drama mystery

Ivan Sen came in 2016 when I watched his outback police detective drama Goldstone. Sen's work, be it TV or film, has a striking quality of featuring small stories nestled among larger backdrops and storylines.

Sen's latest project Expired is quite a bit different than anything he's done before. Gone is the Australian Outback, and in its place is the crowded, neon-laden Hong Kong of the near future. It's both a familiar and foreign place where robots look and feel human, life expectancy has increased significantly, and where technology is both advanced and lo-fi. It's in this world that we meet Jack (Ryan Kwanten), a man searching for answers; April (Jillian Nguyen), an entertainer finds hope and love with Jack; and Dr. Bergman (Hugo Weaving), a scientist who is desperately trying to forget his past.

While on the surface Expired is a slow-burn mystery about a man trying to find answers, Sen is much more concerned with building an authentic world and telling an emotionally resonant story. He succeeds. One can almost picture themselves walking out onto the crowded streets of the city, finding comfort from one of those synthetic humans, searching for answers in darkened alleys. Sen captures modern Hong Kong with the eye of someone who is both familiar with the city but is also foreign to it, marvelling at the bustle of streets, the beautiful neon that lights the nights, and the rising spires that pierce the sky. It's here, in this world that feels both familiar and different, that Sen unfurls this story of self-discovery and salvation.

This is the best kind of sci-fi movie, the type that builds an intriguing world and then pushes it to the background to focus on one small story within it.

We recently had a chance to speak with Sen about the importance of place in storytelling, shooting on location in Hong Kong, and playing multiple roles in the filmmaking process.

Expired will be available in select theaters, on digital, and on demand March 18th.

Quiet Earth: Where did the concept from this story come from?

Ivan Sen: All of my films come from the power of place, actual places. Hong Kong inspired the story. After meeting people there and getting to know people in Hong Kong and even in China, mainly in China, the story kind of just grew from manifesting these real-life people together and into these characters. It evolved naturally in that way. I've always written my films based on what's around me. I just did the same thing here, but the difference is that it was in China and not the Outback of Australia.

One of the things that I thought was really interesting is the film has three central characters, but the location is also very much a character onto itself. You shot both in Hong Kong and in Macau as well as in Australia. Can you talk a little bit about being able to shoot on location and creating a sense of, um, place?

Me being indigenous Australian, where everything is about place, the place and nature and how that connects you with a place and the people within the network around you. That has always been something in my core.

When I went to Hong Kong and I just took this same kind of perspective where Hong Kong was this place. It's always been there, whether there are buildings or not, there has always been people there over thousands of years. And so it is a place on planet earth and it has a power and the power is something that can inform who we are and the stories of our lives. This is central to this film and it's central to everything I do.

For me, it's important for the audience to feel the place as, as the characters feel the place, and for it to actually be all-encompassing. It is everything around you. And then you navigate through that space by making decisions and those decisions are what define you as a character. And then that defines what your story is.

Hong Kong was always the backbone of that, going back 10 years when I first went there and started taking photos. This is where it's come from, just many trips to Hong Kong and feeling the place, feeling people and feeling, the ambience, the light, the air, the smells. Everything over many years.

Was it difficult to shoot in Hong Kong? What did that process look like for you?

We used someone. The local term is a "fixer." It's a local company that makes it possible for you to shoot in a certain country. We used someone who is a Hong Kong icon. They've been around forever and they made it possible. They got all the permissions for us. We took in some of our Australian crew as well as our actors but we did largely use a small Hong Kong crew.

I was just blown away by the efficiency of the Hong Kong film crew. They're just incredible. I've seen nothing like it and the way they work with their people on the street because in Hong Kong you were allowed to film people on the street and put them in your film. Whereas in the States or here [Australia], you have to create this artificial world bringing in all these actors. Not only is it expensive, but it also becomes artificial. Once you get permission, Hong Kong's just a dream to shoot in. You don't expect to close roads, which I didn't and I didn't want to. You can get magic because the magic happens in front of the camera.

I wanted to talk a little bit about the rest of your cast. There's such a heavyweight of storytelling with each one of them. You've worked with Ryan Kwanten and Hugo Weaving before so I wanted to find out from you what it was like going back to them with this very intimate story. But Jillian Nguyen is new and I wanted to know how you found her.

I had worked with Hugo and Ryan previously on a film called Mystery Road a few years ago. It was kind of brief, the roles weren't very big. I really wanted to do something bigger with those two actors and I mentioned the story to Ryan way back in 2013 actually he was very interested from that point and he was in then. I told him what it was about and he just wanted to do it. Many years later I sent him the script and he had the same enthusiasm.

With Hugo, I wrote to the character of Dr. Bergman specifically for Hugo to play and it was a big relief when he actually said yes and he really connected with the philosophy of the film and his character. So I got the two big ones and those were the ones I was chasing.

For the role of April, it was very difficult because April is a girl who comes from outside of Hong Kong and she travels to this futuristic Hong Kong from a smaller country. The role needed someone who had a background from a different country and could speak a different language apart from English and who could also sing and dance. It was a much more difficult and demanding role to play April.

I came across Jillian in Australia just by accident. I was just looking through pages of actors and I saw her face and I just felt that her presence had something. And then I got her to do a tape where she spoke Vietnamese and she sang in Vietnamese and she just had this incredible presence. The other thing is that she read the script and she said she was in tears because she just felt such a connection to the character of April. Jillian was born in a refugee camp in Malaysia her parents had escaped Vietnam and she spent the first few years of her life in the camp before coming to Australia. The migrant experience is something that she knows and was very keen to actually explore that on-screen through April.

You mention language and there's a flow to the film, the way you move from one language to another with natural ease. Was that always in the script or was it out of necessity? How important is it to have that fluidity of language?

Everything comes from the power of place and Hong Kong is a very multicultural place. It's a hybrid city with East and West meeting but it's also a meeting place of many cultures. There's even one building in Hong Kong, which is full of cheap hotel rooms. That place is an incredible metaphor for where we might be heading in the future. It's full of people from Africa, India, Pakistan, the Middle East, there's even Americans and Australians. There are all kinds of people and they're all together in this one building and that's kind of a symbol of Hong Kong. I really wanted to maintain that multicultural depth that Hong Kong has. I wanted to maintain that within the story of the film.

This speaks to the future that you create with Expired, a mixed, multicultural vision of what the future could look like.

Yeah. As far as the multicultural aspect, it's already there. As you walk around Hong Kong you'll hear all kinds of languages being spoken and it's only getting more complex these days. I love Hong Kong. For me it's the most beautiful city on the planet but it's also one of the most competitive cities in the world where competition forces you to start to question whether you need certain human emotions to exist and to move ahead. That's largely what the film is about. It's about this struggle to hold onto, or actually to reconnect with human emotions like love and trust.

You're multi-hyphenate. You don't just write and direct, you often also edit and score your films. I assume that this isn't necessarily out of necessity at this point in your career?

Well, for me, it is out of necessity. Creative necessity.

Someone was asking me why didn't I use some visual effects house to do the CGI stuff. It's because they go home at night! They actually have a life.

Does that also provide you with a little bit more freedom to tell the story and have more control story that you want to tell and how it's told?

Of course, and especially for a film like this. A sci-fi beauty about sci-fi where you get to play in a world, paint your vision of the future, of where we might be headed. It's just one kind of possibility. When you control so many of the elements that make up the physical film, it allows that process to have happened very organically, where you are not waiting for people to be available and people to do things for you.

These days people are always trying to multitask themselves, they're always trying to do several things at once, just to get ahead, so nobody's going to give my film the time and the weight that I will give to it. That's basically what it comes down to. That's just human nature. You know, people have life, they go home on weekends and have they play with their kids.

What are you working on next?

I'm shooting my next film in a few months actually. It's a police drama set in the desert again, but it's more of a drama and very intimate story about a police officer who arrived in a small town to do a case review about an indigenous girl who went missing 20 years earlier. It's about this policeman and his relationship with the family of the missing girl and the connections that they make.

Expired will be available in select theaters, on digital, and on demand March 18th.

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