Losing mum at 13 to cancer: How Yvonne Lim turned personal tragedy into award-winning short film
To watch a loved one wither away from terminal illness is terrifying and traumatic, what more to experience that as a teenager.
Local actress Yvonne Lim, 47, was only 13 when she witnessed her mother going from being an active person to one who was bedridden and frail. The latter was diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer and, within a month, succumbed to the illness. She was only 36.
The sense of fear, helplessness and grief was so ingrained in Lim’s mind that even after 34 years, she can vividly recall her emotional turmoil, down to how, when and where she was told of her mother’s death.
Lim’s personal tragedy is told in her autobiographical directorial debut Hope, a 13-minute Chinese-language short film about a teenager who has to navigate the painful final journey with her terminally ill mother.
Losing her mother at a young age was one of her biggest regrets, Lim tells The Straits Times at the preview of Hope at EagleWings Cinematics on Nov 21.
“To not have her with me as I grew up, not seeing me get married or play with her grandchildren... is a big regret,” she says, as she holds back tears.
Lim has been living in Taipei since she married Taiwanese businessman Alex Tien in 2014. They share two children – Alex Junior, eight, and Alexa, six. She shuttles back and forth whenever she has work in Singapore.
Hope, starring local actress Adele Wong and child actress Natalie Mae Tan E-En, is a tribute to her mother, with Lim adding many personal touches.
For instance, Wong portrays a woman who is well put together. “My mum loved to look good and she was very pretty,” says Lim with a smile.
In the film, Wong’s character would watch Cantonese television dramas, as Lim’s mother was a fan of Hong Kong TVB series. Natalie’s character going to the hawker centre to buy carrot cake as an afternoon snack for her mother was also something Lim often did after school.
The climactic scene where the girl was called to her principal’s office and told of her mother’s death was “exactly how it happened on the fateful day”, says Lim.
“Hope is a personal project that is dear to my heart,” she says, and to have her short film receiving industry recognition was a bonus.
Hope has garnered accolades, such as the Best First Time Filmmaker Short Film award at the Cannes World Film Festival 2023 in April, where it was also shortlisted as a Best Indie Short nominee.
In May, Hope received the Grand Jury prize at the SEE Asian Film Festival 2023. In July, it made the official selection list of the LA Shorts International Film Festival 2023.
“I never thought I would direct a film, let alone take part in international film festivals. I’m an actress,” says the Mediacorp artiste, who won Best Supporting Actress for Portrait Of Home (2005) and Best Actress for Metamorphosis (2007) at the Star Awards.
The idea of directing a film was mooted by Tien. “He was chatting with his Singaporean friends via Zoom and somehow the topic of cancer came up, and Alex shared my story with them,” she says.
She was apprehensive as directing was “a foreign territory”, but she knew she had a great tale to tell.
With the support of Mirxes, a Singapore-based cancer diagnostics company, Lim roped in good friends such as local veteran film-maker Ong Kuo Sin – who directed the Golden Horse-nominated film Number 1 (2020) – to write the script. She also approached home-grown production company Wawa Pictures’ founder Molby Low to be the executive producer.
Hope can be viewed on Lim’s Facebook page (str.sg/ixeB) and Mirxes’ YouTube channel.
Lim worked on Hope whenever she was in Singapore to film TV series, and was involved in the entire process, from scripting and casting to location scouting and post-production.
“The entire production took about a year, and it was when Singapore was preparing to exit the pandemic. We had to navigate a lot of restrictions,” she says.
The film was shot over three days and the final shoot was the most emotionally taxing as it was the scene where Natalie’s character had to come to terms with the death.
The crew, says Lim, was kind and patient, and it gave her space and time to collect herself as she was crying uncontrollably.
She is proud that her story has resonated with audiences. She says: “I thought it would be perfect if my story could encourage people to go for early detection cancer screenings. Perhaps they will learn that cancer is not a scary illness if it is discovered and treated early. Healthcare costs may also be reduced.”
Lim and her husband are firm advocates of regular health screenings, as Tien also lost his mother to cancer when he was 28 and the latter was 50.
As a mother of two young children, Lim says early detection tests are even more important.
Her kids have had nightmares about losing her, she says. “They woke up crying non-stop, and kept saying, ‘Mummy, please don’t die’.
“It will be devastating if they have to experience what I went through. I can’t bear the thought that they will have to suffer that.”