Horror is an expansive genre that is often misunderstood. Fear is instilled by forces that are both otherworldly and unknowingly familiar. Joy Tan is highly perceptive of the components which manifest such moments and has used her skill to “set the table” for many of these as a production designer. Powerful emotions are conveyed not only by the performances of the actors and the elements such as lighting, music, and others; they are rooted in components that are subtle and yet powerful. Ms. Tan is recognized throughout the industry and among her fellow filmmakers as a professional who possesses the instincts and the honed talent for establishing components which elevate the very art of storytelling; as evidenced in such films as Backlog and The Spirit Became Flesh. Though vastly different in subject matter, both of these productions convey a disturbing tone of the very real danger that certainly makes you wonder how stable reality actually is. 

October is the ideal time to release a horror film in America. The Spirit Became Flesh took advantage of this season to present a film depicting the uncertain nature of how the metaphysical world is interpreted by our own mortal setting. The story shows the return of one man to his rural roots where the community has taken to the worship of an otherworldly being who has made the forest his dwelling. From the houses and their furnishings to the clothing and vehicles, this film capitalizes upon the “otherness” perspective of city and country dwellers. Joy’s PD skills shine in setting like the secret sanctuary where the town’s citizens conduct animal sacrifices on a particularly disconcerting tree stump. Tan points however to another facet which delighted her even more. She notes, “Among all the intriguing elements of this film, the dinner scene holds a special place in my heart; it marked the first time I had the freedom to bring out the most barbaric and savage food one could imagine. Overall, creating a mystical, horrifying, and unexplainable piece is the most enjoyable challenge a production designer can encounter.” The Spirit Became Flesh was an official selection of highly regarded festivals within the horror genre, such as Screamfest LA and Telluride Horror Show 2023.

Joy’s work on the film Backlog granted access to an even more frightening scenario, that of sexual assault and rape in modern day. A self-described feminist film, Backlog sought to illuminate the deficiency in rape kit backlogs and how they can impair justice in the prosecution of criminals. The film takes the audience into a disturbing first-hand occurrence of rape and the life altering results. Backlog premiered at the Oscar-qualifying 47th Cleveland International Film Festival, where it was highly praised for its emotional impact. As the film’s production designer, Joy manifested the environment of 2006, the year in which the story is set. From costumes and props to the technology like flip phones and the interface of platforms like Facebook and others at the time, every minute detail was painstakingly crafted to manifest this era. As might be expected, the reaction to a film which aspires to incite social change was visceral. Joy feels invigorated when her work allows audiences to reach an emotional awareness. She confesses, “Production design has always seemed to be a natural fit for me. Maybe it was growing up in Zhuzhou (Hunan, China), a city known for manufacturing trains, that likely instilled in me a sense of industry and craftsmanship. I think this influenced my appreciation for the meticulous artistry and attention to detail involved in film production, particularly in areas such as set and production design. There was a cinema that was just a five-minute walk from my childhood home. I used to go there all the time and be fascinated by the immersion I’d find in the sets of films like the Harry Potter series. I think it was at this early age that I understood the power of film to move someone emotionally. This planted the seeds of what I would want to do with my creative energy and I’m so pleased to have found a community of professionals who feels the same as I do.”

Writer: Basil Thomson

By Punit