Kelly Chen was born 22nd September 1977 and passed away 30 September 2017.
He was only 40 years old but the breadth and scope of his life was extraordinary and fulfilling and the impact to others far reaching. I was not a close friend and the facts of even the most important milestones of his life remain foggy to me.
Yet I am moved to write about him and try to honour his legacy as I see it. His parting message was “Follow your dreams with no regrets.”
Many years ago I worked on a feature film called Vigilante made on the Gold Coast for 3 weeks at the end of 2007 as a production runner. A great deal of the crew were film students from the nearby Bond University, one of them was named Kelly Chen. You won’t find either of us on the film’s IMDB page, a fact I find surprising given Kelly’s career. As best as I can recall he was the Camera Assistant on the movie.
We talked a little bit, one night up at Bruce Bishop car park I sat and talked to him about a few ideas I had running around in my head for films. We talked a little about careers and pursuing dreams. It was a beautiful night and I wondered if this was the beginning of something. Young men at the beginning, meeting and encouraging each other on early projects. Something to be recounted years later in Vanity Fair after they had made it. I knew of course better than that but we all have fantasies and I enjoyed the moment with Kelly for what it was.
Two creatives talking about projects they hope to make. Kelly was encouraging and I always kept it in the back of my mind that one day I would send him a script. That was nearly 10 years ago and I will always regret taking for granted that opportunity and not acting on it. At the end of shooting there was a party and interestingly Kelly and I had copies of photos we had taken during the shoot for all cast and crew. Kelly’s photos were superior in quantity and quality.
The following year Kelly got in contact with me around March to help as a Runner on a music video he was shooting over the weekend at The Wave Hotel, Gold Coast. I came down and helped out where I could. It was an easy enough gig. Kelly clearly a talent fitted the role of director like a glove. Sometimes he would repeatedly quickly nod during consultation, the mind ticking over and aware of time constantly slipping away but I never saw him stressed. The man had incredible focus and drive but he was always in control.
Then later in the year he asked me again to help on the film he was directing as his graduating short. I took a week off work to work for him unpaid. The film Beyond Blood had incredible ambition, they were shooting on 35mm, a first for a graduating short from Bond. There were stacks of fight scenes and an Asian stunt team who had worked on Vigilante were employed on this film. The story about a small time criminal and his two adopted brothers was close to Kelly’s heart. He knew the man the story was based off and there were rich themes in it. On the surface though it was an incredibly beautifully shot piece. I helped out as a gopher again and Kelly always showed the utmost respect to me as director despite me being the lowest and most expendable member of the crew. Anybody who has worked on a film set will tell you there are assholes out there who abuse their power, there’s also clashes due to the close working environment and egos. Kelly was always in charge, firm and direct but he had a way of keeping a set harmonious. One night late in the week we were at a bar shooting a long dolly shot on tracks moving towards the actors. Kelly got me to get down and push the track. We did a couple of takes, I was advised to keep it steadier and how to do so. We did a couple more, then he got me off and somebody else pushed instead. His voice was steady as a rock and quiet, he gave me an opportunity, found I couldn’t master the task in time, re-calibrated whom to use and did it all without drawing too much attention to my failure and letting me escape with as much of my dignity intact as possible. Taking that kind of care at the end of a long shoot and in the middle of the night with such an important shot needing to be in the can is very impressive but that was Kelly. Something I’m realising more and more since his passing. I was credited on the film as Best Boy.
Not long after that he asked me to come down to another student’s short being shot one night in St John’s Cathedral. I was to be an extra, I got decked out in costume and given a handgun. Kelly was a crew member and very supportive despite my nerves.
Not long after I went down to Bond and saw both the film I cameoed in and Beyond Blood. Beyond Blood was a startling debut from Kelly, there are Hollywood feature films that don’t look that good. Early the following year Kelly arranged to drop off a DVD of Beyond Blood to me in the middle of the night while I was on a date in Brisbane far from his home the Gold Coast. I never got a copy of the other film.
That was it for the most part, I worked on another short in 2009 and realised how lucky I had been on those sets with Kelly. I had a new part time job that took up a lot of my time in addition to full time work and I pursued that. Always at the back of my mind though was the idea I should send a script to Kelly one day. After Beyond Blood, I don’t think it is any coincidence I grabbed my video camera and shot a short myself over a month with friends. I really need to edit that.
The years went by and I saw through Facebook Kelly had some health issues, I believe he had a lung condition and at a certain point he got a transplant. That is purely speculation and foggy memory on my part. On Facebook he stayed in touch, I saw he was teaching at Bond University and I believe he worked on international advertisements shot here in Brisbane. He lost weight and cut his hair posting gym pics. He travelled to Europe and worked on a project that saw him in the South Pacific a while back. He seized the day.
I took my first holiday with my wife in six years two weeks ago and awoke to news that he had passed on Facebook. I was fortunate enough to attend the funeral and pay my respects to his family. It all felt odd because he had been out of my life a long time and if not for social media I would never have known. The same week another friend passed away in Adelaide and again without Facebook I would not have known. He was 47 and a good man too. It feels funny to write this but I wanted to say something about Kelly to pass onto his family.
At the funeral they mentioned that Kelly loved to teach and to guide and it made me realise something about our relationship despite being peers. When I was younger I had been to the UK and it ignited in me a lust for travel. I figured I’d got to New York City, Cambodia, Canada, Japan, South Korea,Europe, etc. I told this to Kelly on the set of Vigilante and he was adamant that I go to Japan. He advised it was important to go to a place where the culture was different to the one you grew up in. One night shooting Beyond Blood we grabbed dinner at local Korean BBQ place in Surfers Paradise. He encouraged me to pick dishes outside what I would usually get and told me this was real Korean BBQ. A cynic might have thought getting me to work on the shorts was only done because he didn’t have to pay me. I believe now he was trying to encourage me to pursue a career in the arts because he could see my passion for it. My confidence and experiences in that world certainly grew because of Kelly.
One night I climbed a fence near some train tracks to hold a light on Beyond Blood. Some trains whizzed by then on a bridge high above a torch shone down on me. In retrospect me choosing not to move at that point was highly stupid. Anyway a few minutes later a ute pulls up and three men get out and approach the film crew shooting on the other side of the fence. I don’t move a muscle. They walk up to Kelly and say “A train driver has called and told us he saw a man is near the tracks around this area? Have you seen anything”. Now these men mostly middle aged must have had a poor eye sight with all the lights around the set because I was standing less than 10 feet away from Kelly who glanced over at me with a face I will never forget and then shook his head. The men proceeded to walk to the gate and open it up. As soon as they were through they saw me and I readied for an attack. I was 28 at the time, he gestured for me to come over and I walked over calmly but very nervous inside. “Hello Sir, is everything all right?” I offered. I was in the wrong I wanted to let them know I was respectful and not a threat and would cooperate. The producer Timothy Lee walked over even younger than me in support. To let me know he had my back, I was ready to accept any punishment and clear the guys of any wrongdoing but it all ended there. They asked me to pack up the light and to not cross the fence again. The producer and I promised I wouldn’t and we went back to shooting.
I’m very grateful for the way that was handled that night but I kind knew on some level Kelly and the producer had my back and I had theirs’. There’s a photo of me taken before the incident that Karen liked and put in a frame.
Most of my 20s I spent overweight including on the set of Vigilante, a year later on Beyond Blood I had lost 10kgs and looked and felt great. I didn’t see Kelly from early 2009 to mid 2015. I was walking out of work one day in the City for lunch and there was Kelly directing something with a crew. My life was an all time low and I was obese. I felt embarrassed to be seen by him, Kelly turned right in the midst of shooting and called out to me. We walked over to each other, me with my work colleague. Kelly smiled, my God he beamed, shook my hand asked me how I was and said I looked good. We chatted for a handful of seconds and then he said he needed to get back to it but we should catch up. It sounds kind of Hollywood schmooze like but I assure it was genuine and completely unnecessary for him to do. I walked away feeling like a million bucks. I believe his actions in that moment speak volumes about who he was and what we lost. The kindness and generosity of the man was right there and the measure of him was limitless. Good bye Kelly Chen and thank you for everything. You are and always shall be sorely missed.