No matter how many awards he wins, festivals he attends, or film sets he works on, Jon Keng remains humble. For him, it isn’t about the recognition or the praise, for him, it is just about doing what he loves. He knows how fortunate he is. Keng is from Singapore, where people rarely get to pursue their true passions in life as they get forced to conform with societal norms. Despite all that he has accomplished, he just feels to be able to make a living out of being a cinematographer.
Keng started out wanting to be a photographer, but as he grew so did his dreams, and he turned to cinematography. His understanding of how to beautifully frame a still image greatly contributed to his talents as a cinematographer when he began, and now he has worked around the world on a variety of award-winning films and television shows. He previously worked on award-winning LGBT themed films Cocoon and The Stairs. He recently shot the TV pilot Pineapple, which was selected for Sundance Film Festival 2017. His film Fata Morgana won a prestigious Golden Rooster Awards last year, China’s equivalent of the Academy Awards. There is no shortage of achievements for this cinematographer.
“I enjoy my work a lot. Every film presents a different work environment, so I never get bored of what I do,” said Keng.
Working on the 2013 film Tadpoles, Keng began experiencing his enormous success. The film screened at over nine festivals, including the Vladivostok in Russia, Jogja-NETPAC in South East Asia, and the Singapore Short Cuts. He was also the first Singaporean to win the Jury Prize at Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland for his work on the film, the world’s longest running film festival, which is widely considered to be one of the top film festivals.
“Tadpoles was, by far, the toughest film set I had ever worked on,” said Keng. “Being forced to tackle extreme challenges with a team of people is my favorite aspect of filmmaking. I feel that it really bonds the crew and gives us so many great memories to look back on.”
Keng was involved with the film right from the beginning of the screenwriting process, and was able to give his feedback to each new draft as it came along. He worked alongside his childhood friend Ivan Tan, the writer and director of the film. The two of them always had a shared interest in filmmaking, and became a compatible team.
“Jon is a great pillar of support on set. Even when things get stressful, he is always on point and calm with his decision making. This is very reassuring to the crew,” said Tan. “Jon never tries to impose a particular style onto a film. Instead, he digs deep into the core of the story and together, we find a unique look for every film we work on.”
Tadpoles follows two families who are forced to stay indoors and confront their fractured relationships as an unusual monsoon threatens to flood the eastern part of Singapore. There had been a series of floods in Singapore prior to the film, which became the inspiration.
“It feels great to be able to share this uniquely Singaporean story with the rest of the world,” said Keng.
After the triumph of Tadpoles, it became clear to not only Singapore, but the rest of the world, that Keng has extraordinary talent as a cinematographer. In 2015, he worked on the film Home, which became the first Chinese film to win at Best International Film at Raindance International Film Festival.
“Home is a unique project because it started right from the ground up. We threw around some themes that we wanted to explore, being migrant stories in China, but we never really had a specific story in mind,” said Keng. “One day when we were on location scouts, we came across an abandoned hotel resort with a gigantic water lily pond. We spoke to the old caretaker of the resort, a migrant worker that had been left behind by the construction company many years ago after the construction had fallen through. inspired by this unique location and character, we decided to write an entire story around it.”
Home tells the story of Lao Tian, an elderly migrant caretaker of an abandoned construction site. On his last day of work, he encounters a five-year-old city girl who has run away from home. Bie Pu explores the concept of homelessness across the social classes of modern day Beijing.
“Shooting on real locations with real people cast in many of the acting roles was a great pleasure for me. It showed me that there is a multitude of stories out there in the real world left to be explored,” said Keng. “I enjoy this organic style of working, to find a location first before writing the script. This brings a level of realism to the film, something that cannot be achieved with set builds. Once the location was found, the script was completed in less than a week and we were shooting within two weeks once the actors were cast.”
The film had its premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2015, an Oscar qualifying festival and one of the premier festivals in Los Angeles. It then went on to not only be screened at 13 international festivals, but win the HBO Films Competition Award at the Savannah Film Festival, and the Director’s Choice Award at the Miami Film Festival.
“Working with Jon Keng is the epitome of a professional working experience. Jon’s expertise in cinematography is only matched by his great demeanor and ability to remain calm under high pressure situations. Jon has made a name for himself as being the reliable artist and technician you want on set,” said the producer of Home, Edmond Yang. “J on is good at what he does because he approaches every job and every collaboration from a place of respect. His interactions with coworkers are based on a foundation of trust and professionalism surpassing any of his peers. He is able to keep focus on the overarching needs of a production while never forgetting the micro details which make up each successes. Jon illustrates why creativity fused with technical precision make an artist, but more importantly he reminds us why interpersonal communication is key to our discipline. This is why people want him on every set we have – because he is as talented as he is humble and that’s a combination we want to surround ourselves with in order to achieve our best on film sets.”
It seems that Keng does not work on a project that does not have outstanding results. His meticulous eye and passion for what he does justifies why he is such a celebrated cinematographer. With skills like his, there is no doubt his name will continue to appear on both the big and small screen.