Celluloid Singapore

By Ben Slater

gege-yanyan-mak.jpgGege, directed by YanYan Mak, 2001

Dispatches from the lion city on the island state’s thriving film festival and emergent production sector

Suspended from Malaysia’s southern tip, Singapore, like the UK, is an island-nation profoundly influenced by the larger countries in the neighbourhood, yet also separated from them in crucial ways. The subtitle of the country’s official history says it all – ‘from Third World to First’ – Singapore is infused with pride in its single-party post-colonial independence, in how it has galvanised a pleasantly unruly sprawl of buildings and Chinese, Malay and Indian cultures into a subdued, work-oriented, architecturally gleaming utopia. Unlike Britain it has opted for a continual process of erasure rather than preserving its past. Shabby parts of town wait in line for inevitable ‘upgrading’. The rich cultural histories of the Singaporean melting pot are reduced to pieces of clip-art on a tourist brochure, or worse a bleak simulation of the ‘old days’, like the reconstructed Malay Village, which creaks emptily near the city’s main red light district.

Singapore has replaced one set of colonial masters with another, more insidious kind – American culture loudly dominates the airwaves, hoardings, magazine racks, TV screens and cinemas. Locally-produced culture is seen as a luxury that the country is only just beginning to afford. Arts funding has been pumped into a burgeoning theatre scene but film has remained relatively impoverished. Considering the proximity of a vast and hungry Asian market, it seems strange that there hasn’t been more investment in cinema from such a financially savvy administration. This lack of filmmaking often gets blamed on the absence of a coherent Singaporean identity after all the years of transformation (how can you export something so indistinct?), but perhaps the problem lies really in the medium’s power as perceived by the ruling party. After all, theatre can happily thrive, breaking taboos for its educated, niche audience, but film can spread around the island’s massively popular, state-of-the-art ’plexes like a virus – it might seriously influence mass opinion. This may be why the government has chosen to tread very lightly and carefully with cinema.

three-brothers-serik-apyrmov-1.jpgThree Brothers dir. by Serik Aprymov, 2000 

Unlike in the UK, where we are so comprehensively jaded by representations of ourselves that we can mentally download at will an encyclopaedic knowledge of the clichés, images and myths of our disparate classes and cultures, Singaporeans are just starting down that road. For this reason, watching their film industry sputter into life is fascinating. For the moment the people of the Lion City can still derive a raw and genuine excitement from seeing something of their selves up there on the screen, in the dark.

Because exhibition has been carved up by the major studios, Singapore’s International Film Festival has become an extreme necessity. Mirroring the response to a general absence of seasons in the region, it is as keenly anticipated as a radical break in the weather, the onset of a cool autumn after a sticky summer of Hollywood multiplex fodder and mostly lousy Hong Kong star-vehicles.

Over the last few years the demands of its intensely competitive market have closed the few specialist ‘Art’ screens and the hype of the latest FX bonanza sends the media into a frenzy. It’s a long-standing frustration for the film festival how little coverage they receive. The lavish attention garnered by Kelly Hu, star of just-released The Scorpion King, far out-stripped the inches written about the entire festival. Even in the supposedly serious broadsheet The Straits Times, Asian babes beat regional auteurs every time.

Despite this, the ‘Filmfest’ is something of a phenomenon in Singapore. So great is the desire to view alternatives to the usual pap that it is rumoured many cinephiles take precious leave from work in order to maximize their intake. The appetite for new cinema is voracious, especially amongst the highly sought-after late-youth demographic who, much to one’s astonishment packed out a screening of the seriously quiet and melancholy Kazakhstani drama Three Brothers.

millenium-actress-satoshi-kon-1.jpgMillennium actress dir. by Satoshi Kon, 2001

The upside of this is that the gathering has become a genuinely vibrant and exciting place to watch films. Rather than slide into complacency, chief programmer Philip Cheah and his team have been tirelessly and imaginatively pushing the festival further and deeper, shaping its identity by starting the world’s first specifically Asian (‘Silver Screen’) film awards in 1991 and consistently laying down fresh challenges to the audience. This year these took the form of strands themed around globalisation (international documentaries), digital film (an eclectic selection including Japan’s Lovecinema series), animation (Svankmajer, Quays, Japanese anime) and a generous roster of often very difficult Asian feature films.

Largely bank-rolled by corporate sponsors, the film festival is the country’s only major arts event independent of the government. Of course that doesn’t take into account the latter’s notable power to censor.

After scrutiny of the entire programme this year a certificate was refused to only one film, Miike Takeshi’s incest assault Visitor Q (thus banning it), while the far more explicit The Pornographer (which ironically was ‘trimmed’ in the UK the same week) passed unscathed: the inference here being that ‘immorality’, i.e. explicit sex, is fine as long as it’s of Western origin (with a whole host of attendant assumptions in tow). There have been triumphs however: in 1997 the festival screened Peter Bogdanovich’s lost (and in Singapore totally unseen) 1979 masterpiece Saint Jack, which pitches Ben Gazzara into the Lion City at its sleaziest.

The national film industry also operates under tight strictures on content, but for a long time it was virtually non-existent. After the Malay studios closed down and kung fu/horror co-productions (the Cleopatra Wong series) dried up in the early 70s, astonishingly, no feature films were made for around twenty years. It’s obviously no coincidence that this ‘dark’ period occurred when the country was busy transforming itself into the futuristic city-state it is now.

millenium-actress-satoshi-kon-2.jpgMillennium actress dir. by Satoshi Kon, 2001

Since then a Film Commission has been established, but the festival’s role in encouraging and stimulating the revival since the mid-1990’s (when Cheah began to programme Singaporean shorts) cannot be underestimated. In just a few years of feature film production, confidence in the idea of the ‘local’ movie, has been restored, wavered and partly revived again. Meanwhile, two contrasting ‘independent’ auteurist voices have emerged – the ‘director’ Eric Khoo, and the ‘comedian’ Jack Neo.

Khoo, an undoubted discovery of the festival, directed two controversial features which were the first Singaporean titles to travel to festivals in the West. His second film 12 Storeys (1997) a bleak depiction of alienated ‘heartlanders’, contains a sense of ghostly lyricism hugely influenced by Kieslowski. Khoo dared show that the dream of a perfect state was imbued with loneliness, frustration and despair. In contrast, Jack Neo, a hugely popular TV comic (who also acted in 12 Storeys), wrote and starred in the first big ‘local’ hit Money No Enough (1997), a crude and raucous comedy, which was nevertheless a vicious and unforgiving satire on fiscally-obsessed island life.

Inevitably its success has generated a trickle of inferior films, which have either tried cynically to reproduce Neo’s original farce, or vainly attempted to aim beyond the border towards Western audiences. Both attempts have largely dismayed critics and audiences at home. There are exceptions, such as stylish teen-biker flick Eating Air (2000), but these seem to be one-offs. Without substantial ‘local’ returns, directors rarely get another break.

Jack Neo’s latest ###15### (out at the same time as the festival and a sizeable hit) may have broken the pattern. Directed, written by and starring Neo, it’s a slick, ambitious comedy-drama centred around three underachieving kids and their fallible parents. With it, Neo has crafted a major zeitgeist piece by pushing the hot topic of education under the lens. Sharp political parody and critique are sweetened with oodles of TV drama sentimentality, but it is still a significant achievement and only someone as renowned and culturally powerful as Neo could pull it off in Singapore.

Eric Khoo has yet to follow-up 12 Storeys (he is largely a producer now), so it remains to be seen whether more radical, unpredictable and less obedient visions can break through (although Royston Tan looks very promising – see interview). Let’s just hope that the ethos of the event, with its unflinching commitment to creative independence and diverse images of aspiration and nationhood, can eventually spread into the larger film culture of Singapore all year round.

Festival Highlights

The Philippines were particularly well represented this year, a billing emphasised by the five hour Batang West Side, securing the prize for Best Film. It narrowly won out against Seafood. A Hong Kong/Chinese indie co-production, Seafood’s main protagonist is a prostitute who drifts into a wintry Chinese coastal resort seemingly intent on suicide and falls in with a repellent, deranged policeman. Benefiting from a grainy DV to film transfer, Seafood is a blur of washed-out and washed-up futility and although powerful, a very hard film to like.

More favourable was the pared-down clarity of Korean Park Ki-Yong’s monochrome Camel(s). Superior to his flashy Chris Doyle-lensed debut Motel Cactus, it was shot on DV over twelve days after an extended rehearsal and improvisation period. As such, it is a tour-de-force of quiet pain from the two leads Park Myungshin and Lee Daeyon, who play respectively a middle-aged salary man and the slightly younger woman he picks up for a weekend of social and sexual contact. A portrayal of deep loneliness, which has the economy and devastating impact of a Raymond Carver story, it memorably concludes with a long, wordless car journey.

Another extended, dialogue-free journey opens Yan Yan Mak’s mesmerising first feature Gege (Brother), a Hong Kong production shot in China. A young man travels by train to a remote Northern province to find his older brother who disappeared there years before. As he gets to know the people in the tiny rural community the past is gently unravelled. With shades of reunification allegory in its city/country, ancient and modern dialectic, Gege is a visually rapturous lament for landscape and human connections.

Nostalgia runs deeply through Japanese anime auteur Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress, a stark contrast to the dark mind-games of his earlier Perfect Blue (1997). Framed as an interview between a retired, reclusive starlet and a zealous documentalist, it slips into an imaginative world where her childhood quest for the lost love of her life becomes inextricable from the parts she played during her incandescent rise at a Tokyo film studio. Entertaining, daring and genuinely moving, it is the first foreign-language film to be snapped up by Dreamworks.

Closer to home, young, independent Malaysian director James Lee was showcased. He spoke on a Digital Cinema panel and delivered an enjoyably exuberant, bullshit-free exposition on the freedoms and limits of no-budget filmmaking.

His two completed DV features demonstrate great ambition, but typical of guerrilla filmmakers the world over, script and acting are variable. Snipers, a three-part political thriller and exploration of masculinity, suffers from an uncertain tone and a weak second narrative.

More successful is Ah Beng Returns, a self-consciously theatrical piece in which be-suited gangsters spout monologues on love, power and corruption, amidst occasional carnage, comedy and dancing. Lee’s inclusion in the festival is again testament to its commitment to risk-taking and the nurturing of younger talents.

15: An Interview with Royston Tan

It was probably unfair to put Royston Tan’s new film 15 at the start of the Singapore Shorts Competition programme. Such a seductively intense rush of images demands to be seen again immediately. The other films had a hard time following it. At its core lies a portrait of two fifteen year-old boys – academic rejects, thieves and pill-poppers, but still, essentially, kids. Tan portrays them as they see themselves – locked in a speed-cut zone of ceaseless techno and advertising imagery: tracking shots through a nervous system; tattooed and naked in a desert; darkly comic threats to rival gangs sung blankly into camera; fight incidents rendered as videogame; a birthday cake in the face exploding like a wound; charged dialogues in the crevices of void decks. Deep in their locked-off world, which exists as the taboo bad-trip flipside to Singapore’s consumer-driven society, Tan opens up a well of extraordinary tenderness, friendship and vulnerability. As the final titles appear you realise that this is a documentary and you want to ask the filmmaker questions. With a clutch of well-travelled shorts (such as Tampere Festival hit Hock Hiep Leong) in the bag, he is currently extending 15 into a feature and was pleased to answer.

15-royston-tan-1.jpg15, dir. by Royston Tan, 2002

Ben Slater: How did the project begin?

Royston Tan: I was invited to talk in a secondary school and that’s where I got to know one of these kids and we got along really well. I spent two months with him, we just kept talking and he introduced me to his new circle of friends. I realised there were so many things that were misunderstood about them. They are labelled as delinquents, but they are kids with a lot of heart and soul, it’s just that they feel this sense of rejection. So I thought it was time to present it on film, to show it to people, especially to Singaporeans.

BS: It looks so choreographed and planned. Was there much preparation before you started?

RT: The preparation was to train them in what not to do on camera. The rest of the things we just mostly left to them. All the scenarios that you see are real depictions of what they have actually gone through. So they are just telling their own stories.

BS: You only really hint at their criminal activities. Was that a censorship issue?

RT: Usually when I make films I don’t really care about the government, I just do it. The more you don’t want me to do it, the more I will do it to show it to you. The only thing that is stopping me is the constant reminder that I’m accountable for these people now, because I have put them on screen.

15-royston-tan-2.jpg15, dir. by Royston Tan, 2002

BS: You use very stylised pop-promo imagery to show their lives…

RT: The whole look and arrangement is almost like a metaphor for their life. Nothing is in sequence, everything is all about packaging and cosmetics. This is the current generation – it’s about appearance, what is colourful, what is striking. The film is screaming at you all the time, trying to grab your attention.

BS: The performances are incredibly natural and brave, the way the boys allow themselves to be filmed in such an intimate way in certain scenes.

RT: That wasn’t choreographed. We made sure they felt so comfortable with the camera that they didn’t feel inhibited any more.

BS: How did they feel about those images?

RT: They were totally fine. The thing was to get them to trust me. After being together for three months they said, “We’ll do everything for you, as long as you allow us at least one fighting scene”. That was very important. And even at the Silver Screen awards, they were so sweet. When they announced the first two prizes and it wasn’t me who won, they looked up and said, “Do you want us to beat up the winners…?”

BS: But you received the best award (for Special Achievement, which carries the cash prize).

15-royston-tan-3.jpg15, dir. by Royston Tan, 2002

RT: Yes! It is amazing. I think there were many, many people who didn’t want this film to be done. Every year I get a film grant (from the Film Commission) but this year I didn’t get one. They told me that they didn’t understand my script. So, I used up all my savings. I told myself – a few thousand dollars to buy a dream is very cheap. The main reason why I wanted to do this film is for them. When I first saw them I told myself that they must see the other side of life, not just the environment that they are in, fighting people and snatching territories and things like that. They have got exposed to short filmmaking, so they are attending screenings with me now. They are slowly moving away from the lifestyle that they are in.

BS: At the end of the film we learn that one of them has disappeared.

RT: After we finished the film we went to meet him and he didn’t turn up. The last thing we heard was that he went off to Malaysia to hide or something like that. Maybe he went to jail. He’s just lost. There’s not a single trace.

Ben Slater is a film programmer and writer currently working with Singapore-based performance group Spell#7 as artist-in-residence.