Look back in Irony: Singapore cinema in 2017

Look Back in Irony: Singapore Cinema in 2017

by Philip Cheah (reproduced from www.fareastfilm.com)



In a year ripe with irony, state and state-related funding became the primary sources for Singapore independent filmmaking. One can only wonder aloud at the current meaning of the word ‘independence.’

Take Project Lapis Sagu, a filmmaking contest organised by the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI), to promote relations between Singaporeans and foreigners, along with issues of social integration. Lapis Sagu being a local multi-layered dessert cake symbolises integration and tolerance. The contest attracted over 1,200 entries. Four short films were made after the entries were shortlisted.

But state funding came at a cost. While four films were made, only three were approved for release, as the ministry dropped Eric Khoo’s zombie-themed short. The ministry had tested the film with focus groups and decided that the film – that portrayed foreigners as zombies to depict ‘fear of the other’ – might cause offence.

It’s ironic then that the official promotion of the project announced that: “Singapore is a melting pot of cultures. Rich in flavour and unique in character, we’re bound together like intricately crafted layers of Lapis Sagu. Project Lapis Sagu is a creative springboard for open (my emphasis) conversations on cultural diversity and social integration in Singapore.”

Titled Together Apart, the remaining three films in the collection are B.M.T. (Beijing. Mumbai. Tampines) directed by Kelvin Tong, Sanjay by K. Rajagopal and The Manifest by Sanif Olek.

Sanjay portrays the struggles of a young couple who have just migrated to Singapore from India. The Manifest, a sci-fi piece, explores tensions between a Singaporean space engineer and a naturalised citizen, who are together on a key mission. B.M.T. (Beijing, Mumbai, Tampines) reveals the National Service experience shared by Singaporeans and naturalised citizens – who remember similar poignant conversations with their mothers.

The three films can be seen online at the website www.lapis-sagu.sg.

Touted as a project where funding is raised without the help from the usual government-linked sources, the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, which is backed by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (! my exclamation), launched a 15 short-film programme, helmed by well-known feature filmmakers such as Eric Khoo (Mee Pok Man, 1995), Kelvin Tong (Eating Air, 1999), K. Rajagopal (A Yellow Bird, 2016), Boo Junfeng (Apprentice, 2016) and Kirsten Tan (Pop Aye, 2017).

Other up-and-coming filmmakers include Sean Ng, 28, and Chong Yu Lun, 25, who are still filmmakers who make short films. Each short highlights a true story from the 1970s to the 1990s, to promote and inspire giving and volunteering. Jeffrey Tan, 40, a director with the organisation behind the film project, said: “There are so many negative videos out there right now. Almost a million Singaporeans have seen the video about the Toa Payoh couple. What we are doing here is to show that kindness comes from simple acts.” The 15 short films will be released online in June till the end of this year.

This doesn’t even include 667, the first dialect film anthology, executive-produced by Royston Tan, as part of the inaugural SCCC Cultural Extravaganza by the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre. The directors were Kirsten Tan, He Shuming, Liao Jiekai, Eva Tang and Jun Chong, who each featured the dialects of Teochew, Hainanese, Hokkien, Cantonese, and Hakka in their respective short films with the aim of reflecting Singapore’s Chinese cultural roots “to seek to understand, appreciate, preserve and pass on our heritage.” (…I’m speechless…)

Earlier in 2017 when Kirsten Tan’s Pop Aye won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Screenwriting at Sundance Film Festival, it wasn’t so surprising when she was nominated as one of the contenders for the Straits Times Singaporean of the Year 2017 award. There is nothing better than Singaporeans who put Singapore on the world’s map. Tan herself had spent two years backpacking across Thailand and describes her film as being about “two misfits – a man past his prime and his displaced street elephant – searching for meaning and belonging in time and space.”

Now that Sandi Tan has won the best director award for World Cinema Documentary, for her film Shirkers, at Sundance this year, one wonders whether she too would find meaning and belonging in Singapore’s time and space.

As she has said: “In the early 1990s, when I was a teenage VHS bootlegger-extraordinaire in Singapore, I talked my fellow film geek friends into making a surreal indie road movie which I wrote and in which I played the lead – a 16-year-old killer named S. This movie was called Shirkers. We shot it in 16mm and the director was my mentor, a 40-year-old film teacher named Georges Cardona who told us he was American. After the film was shot, he vanished with all 70 cans of the footage – 700 minutes worth – leaving our dreams in tatters. My friendships took a big hit. Twenty years later, the footage was miraculously recovered, sending me – now a novelist in Los Angeles – on a personal odyssey across two continents in search of Georges’ vanishing footprints. In so doing, I rediscovered my own.”

“I’m not sure where it will sit in my mind and the history of Singaporean cinema,” she observed, “Shirkers is not a Singaporean film because I am here in the US and so much of this story happened after I left Singapore. It just begins there.” It is worthy to note that had Shirkers been released at the time of its production, it would have pre-dated Eric Khoo’s first feature, Mee Pok Man (1995). One wonders here about the shift in modern Singapore film history.

While there were 20 features released in 2015, and about 15 in 2016, the figure last year was 11. Comedy director-actor, Jack Neo took a break from directing for the Lunar New Year market and instead produced Ivan (the Ah Boys to Men 3 scriptwriter) Ho’s Take 2, a comedy about ex-prisoners. Neo instead took the Christmas market head on with another comedy sequel, Ah Boys to Men 4. The film followed the tale of friends from their military service unit. Budgeted at US$2.7 million, the film grossed US$4 million.

Meanwhile, Neo’s comedy partner, Mark Lee, acted in Kelvin Sng’s The Fortune Handbook, targeted specifically at the Lunar New Year market.

Documentarist Tan Pin Pin (Singapore GaGa, 2005, Invisible City, 2007 and To Singapore, with Love, 2013) returned with another meditation on memory and Singapore, this time through the device of time capsules. The film boasts one gorgeously expansive memorable shot of canoeists on a reservoir framed against a fading sky.

Lost in the flood were movies such as Mike Koh’s Putonghua suspense-drama, The Tenants, Boris Boo’s coming-of-age comedy, Lucky Boy, and the much-hyped biopic of Singapore pop star, Dick Lee, who co-directed Wonder Boy with Daniel Yam. This was Lee’s directing debut and received much media hoopla.

Perhaps of a more curious interest was Abbas Akbar’s Chennai 2 Singapore, the first Tamil-Singapore co-production. Six years in the making, the process mirrored the film’s plot of an aspiring Tamil filmmaker coming to Singapore to raise funds for his dream film. For sheer marketing flair, the film’s soundtrack was launched one year before the film. Music composer Mohamaad Ghibran and director Akbar undertook a cross-country trip from Chennai to Singapore, and each song from the film was released at each border crossing from Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand to Malaysia. Significantly, the soundtrack took the number one spot on iTunes All India Music Store that year.

But one of the year’s controversial releases was Sam Loh’s Siew Lup (which literally means Roast Meat in Cantonese dialect), part two of his erotic femme fatale trilogy that featured many topless nude scenes. Like Eric Khoo’s equally sexual In the Room, it didn’t make a dent in the box office.

Loh did however opine that the restrictions placed on R21 films (Restricted to those above 21 years old) such as Siew Lu were a major hindrance to marketing. Banners could not be displayed in cinema lobbies and screenings were not allowed in public housing estates, and this hampered the film’s chances to find an audience.

“The point is that we are trying to make a different kind of Singapore film,” Loh said, “the kind that you see coming from South Korea or Japan.”

Still, there were at least three other films that almost didn’t find a place in the Singapore arena. There was Kan Lume and Djenar Maesa Ayu’s Hush, a Singapore-Indonesia co-production that starred Indonesian singer Cinta Ramlan talking about her free lifestyle. In many ways, this was the more erotic film when compared against Siew Lup or In the Room. Shot in a quasi-documentary style, Cinta Ramlan talks about her many erotic encounters, proving once and for all that sex is really in the head.

Like Hush, which began its run at a premiere at the Jogja NETPAC Asian Film Festival (Indonesia) in 2016, Marrie Lee’s Certified Dead also started with its premiere at the Hanoi International Film Festival (Vietnam) in 2016, before a one-off Singapore screening last September. Lee’s film, while marred by uneven performances in the first half hour, had a truly interesting genre plot – that of a man, who is dead but whose body is not decaying rapidly, and still lives in a conscious un-zombied way. Of interest is that Marrie Lee was the actress of the classic cult film, They Call Her Cleopatra Wong (1978).

Finally, Wong Kwang Han’s Flights Through Darkness that never saw the light of day in Singapore. Like Hush, it also began its run at the Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival and then continued last year at the ASEAN International Film Festival in Sarawak, Malaysia.

An ultra-low budget film, in which the director is also the lead actor, Flights Through Darkness has only one other cast member, actress Jaclyn Mah. As its press kit synopsis stated: “Set in a hotel room, a man and a woman meet, have sex and tear each other apart. The film occurs episodically throughout their short relationship taking them from rendezvous to rendezvous. Seemingly claustrophobic, it is a representation of what it is like to live in the country. The hotel room is a metaphor for Singapore. It is comfortable, small, convenient, but not really a home. The two characters confront the price that has been paid for this unrelenting economic development that places results, money, affluence and reputation above everything else. They confront themselves and in so doing confront the country’s existence.”

It also confronts the high price and notion of being ‘independent’ in Singapore.

Philip Cheah