Cinematographer Jon Keng is truly a storyteller for new film “Cocoon”

Jon Keng, Juliana Tan

For Jon Keng, working as a cinematographer is living his dream. Working on a film set is magical, people and places to transform, and making every work day different. Rather than being in front of the camera, he works it, capturing every image in the most captivating way possible, acting as the true storyteller.

Keng has excelled at telling stories. He has had a tremendous amount of success throughout his cinematography career. He has worked on many award-winning films, including The Stairs, Home, Tadpoles, and Fata Morgana. His work has gone to an extensive list of prestigious international film festivals, and has impressed audiences worldwide. One of his most recent films, titled Cocoon, not only has gone on to in awards, but also tells an important story, which was loosely based on the director’s childhood experiences and interactions, growing up in Wuhan, China in the nineties.

“I really liked the script of Cocoon. The LGBT themes were told through the perspective of a little girl, which I felt was very unique especially for an Asian film. I also felt that Mei, the director, had a very clear vision of what she wanted, which aligned with the type of cinema I enjoyed: restrained but poetic. Also, the opportunity to shoot in a period piece part of China that I had never been to before was too good to pass,” said Keng.

The film takes place in China in 1997. It tells the story of an unhappy marriage, a love affair, and a child who holds all the secrets. The film is written and directed by Mei Liying, who knew that Keng was the cinematographer she needed to properly tell her story.

“It was so easy working with Jon. We were always on the same wavelength in terms of our visual ideas for the film and I could totally trust him on set to make decisions without running them by me first,” said Liying. “Jon has an easy-going approach towards collaboration. He takes feedback well and is always sensitive to the director’s wants and needs. He is never set on his ideas, and instead seeks out to listen to others in the team first.”

Although the film is still early in its festival run, it has already been incredibly well-received, especially for a Chinese LGBT film, something that according to Keng, is not common in international festivals. The film premiered at Wuhan Film Festival 2016 where it took home the Grand Prize for Best Short Film.

“Jon is very mindful about the logistical side of film production. He never insists on certain demands, such as equipment or locations, but instead works and adapts to what is available to us on set. It is rare to find a director of photography with a good understanding of story. We could always trust Jon to make decisions based on the narrative of the film, instead of just shooting what looks good. We even consulted with him regularly for story notes during pre-production and his feedback was invaluable to the script,” said the producer Zhang Xu.

While filming, Keng tried to be as minimally invasive as possible with the actors, recognizing the importance of the many sensitive and emotional scenes. He also tried to use camera movement very sparsely, only in very specific beats of the film, where he wanted to emphasize the shot and its energy, and ultimately contributing to the overall feel of the film.

“We did very minimal coverage in the scenes, letting the actors play out the scene in longer takes, sometimes in a single shot. I enjoy this style of working as it allows the actors to breathe and feel out their spaces better, without having to break their concentration with cuts. I also tried to light for the entire space in each scene, so it allowed to actors to move around the frame without having to worry about hitting specific marks,” Keng described.

Originally from Singapore, Keng was eager for the chance to shoot in China. Despite having worked in the country previously, working on Cocoon with a local crew allowed him to improve his Mandarin. Despite this being an initial challenge, he eventually got used to all the lingoes and towards the end it was very enjoyable.

“It was a great experience working in Wuhan. There is a certain energy about filmmaking in China, everybody is very eager to work hard and there is a great can-do attitude whenever challenges arise,” he concluded.