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U of T producers set to make their Cannes debut with two films

Weijie Lai and Elizabeth Wijaya are co-founders of the development and production company E&W Films and teach in U of T Mississauga's department of visual studies
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Weijie Lai, left, and Elizabeth Wijaya, right, have two films premiering at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)

The Ƶ’s Elizabeth Wijaya and Weijie Lai are headed to the French Riviera to see not one, but two films debut at Cannes.   

The two scholars – Wijaya is an assistant professor in U of T Mississauga’s department of visual studies, Lai is a Cinema Studies instructor – co-founded the company, E&W Films, that led the production of Mongrel, which is set to premiere as part of the Director’s Fortnight, an independent section that runs in parallel to theCannes Film Festival and is organized by the French Directors’ Guild. 

The film, which marks the feature debut of co-directors Chiang Wei Liang and You Qiao Yin, tells the story of Oom, an undocumented migrant who works as a caregiver in the mountains of rural Taiwan.

Meanwhile, director Trương Minh Quý’s Việt and Nam will compete in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard category, which is dedicated to non-traditional stories and styles. The film, also produced by E&W, follows two lovers, one from the north and the other from the south, on a mission that explores the dreams and trauma of the southeast Asian country’s children. 

“I would say both films this year are heavy, but they have very distinct artistic visions,” Wijaya says. “With everything we work on under E&W Films, we look out for that sense of directorial vision or artistic voice.” 

Main character Oom is seen at a hospital dirty and bruised
A still from the movie Mongrel (Image courtesy E&W Films)

Wijaya and Lai met in an undergraduate philosophy and film course at the National University of Singapore. They launched E&W Films for practical reasons: they needed somewhere to hold funds while raising money to make Lai’s thesis film project. Later, E&W Films produced a short project for an undergraduate schoolmate: director Kirsten Tan. Next, the pair moved on to produce Tan’s debut feature Pop Aye, which won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Fast forward to today and E&W Films now has more than a dozen productions under its belt.  

Wijaya generally defines her roles as development, strategy and co-ordination while Lai is more hands-on, helping facilitate everything from ideation and scripting to fundraising, production, sales and distribution. 

Main characters Nam and Việt touch hands standing on the shore of a beach
A still from the film Việt and Nam (image courtesy Epicmedia Productions Inc.)

The couple’s dedication to film media, as well as their teaching and scholarship, has enriched U of T Mississauga’s department of visual studies, where they’ve built the UTM Asian Short Film Collection (accessible to anyone with a U of T library account) and organized the UTM DVS filmmaker-in-residence program, which has welcomed international talents such as Davy Chou, Pimpaka Towira and Anocha Suwichakornpong to campus for workshops, lectures and screenings.  

Two projects currently in development by E&W Films have also received U of T Mississauga funding: an eco-horror project directed by Gogularaajan Rajendran was awarded the Black, Indigenous, and/or Racialized Scholar Research Grant, and The Sea is Calm Tonight by filmmaker Lê Bảo was given seed support by the Research and Scholarly Activity Fund. 

The opportunity presented by the Cannes’ platform is enormous, the producers say.

“It's the biggest international market in terms of the number of attendees,” Lai says. “The most number of critics internationally are there. The most number of distributors are there and sales agents and things like that … So if you're there, in theory, more people will watch your film.” 

While E&W Films has had a presence at the festival for years, this is the first time its work is set to be screened at Cannes.  

“I think I’m excited just to see the first reactions,” Wijaya says.  

Lai, too, says he’s looking forward to the experience.

“By the time we get to the world première, you've seen the film so many times that you’re actually bored stiff,” he says. “But for some reason, when you're sitting there with a fresh audience during the world première … the feeling is always different. You feel the energy of the audience, and fingers crossed the energy is good.”

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