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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Reel Life in Singapore

It's Renaissance Time for the Island's Film Industry

THE FIRST SIGN CAME IN 1991 WITH THE RELEASE OF MEDIUM RARE, a film loosely based on the bizarre but true-life story of a deranged occultist hanged in 1988 for murder. Next came Bugis Street: The Movie. The portrayal of Singapore's infamous red-light district circa 1970 opened to packed houses in May. And set to hit the screens this month is Eric Khoo's Mee Pok Man, a tragic love story in which a loner falls for a prostitute.

That's three Singapore-made features in four years -- a veritable filmic explosion for an industry that previously hadn't produced a single movie for some two decades. The sector had been vibrant until the early 1970s, although it mostly churned out Malay movies that were of little interest to Singapore's largely ethnic Chinese population. But after movie company Cathay-Keris, the last local bastion of Malay films, closed its Singapore operations in 1973, the industry went into hibernation. Reason: no Singaporean wanted to compete with the lively and popular Chinese-language film industries in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

All that has changed, including the new movies' themes, which are nothing short of shocking by Singapore's sober standards. The three latest productions are bleak tales of social misfits and loners subsisting in Singapore's seedy underbelly. "They are all based on real Singaporeans," says Errol Pang, 53, a beauty-pageant organizer who produced Medium Rare. The film features U.S. actor Dore Kraus as the lunatic killer and British actress Jamie Marshall as a foreign correspondent.

Bugis Street, which premiered at the Singapore International Film Festival last April, packs even more shock value. Vietnamese actress Hiep Thi Le plays an innocent 16-year-old Malaysian receptionist at the sleazy fictional Sin Sin Hotel. The film includes numerous graphic heterosexual and transsexual sex scenes. Directed by Hong Kong's Yang "Yonfan" Man Shih, Bugis Street more than lives up to its adults-only rating -- and some 10,000 Singaporeans have been jamming the theaters daily to get a peek.

The film has its critics too. "There was far too much male nudity," says Jacintha Stephens, a senior producer with the Television Corporation of Singapore, formerly the Singapore Broadcasting Corp. Others, like Maria, a real-life transsexual who acted in Bugis Street, say the film is unrealistic. In one scene, her character dreams of being gang-raped -- and the wish comes true. "That's not reality," says Maria, who declines to give her full name.

Maggie, another real-life transsexual who acted in Bugis Street, says the film fails to highlight their community's problems. Most transsexuals, she says, go through painful sex-change operations, have difficulty finding men who love them, and sometimes commit suicide. Life is not as easy as Bugis Street makes it out to be, she says. Singapore Film Society president Kenneth Tan feels the film's characters are not clearly defined. Says he: "We see a young girl's sexual awakening mirrored in the extreme and often caricatured environment around her."

Where Bugis Street is blunt and bizarre, Mee Pok Man is subtle and hyper-realistic. In April it won the Special Mention Prize at the Singapore International Film Festival and was hailed by the International Federation of Film Critics as a "bold first feature that succeeds in vividly portraying a slice of Singaporean life." Mee Pok Man is noteworthy for another reason as well: it has a completely indigenous cast and crew. The lead actors give excellent debut performances -- Joe Ng as a slow-witted noodle seller and Michelle Goh as a world-weary prostitute.

Tim White, a film-studies lecturer, compares Mee Pok Man to a neo-realistic Chinese opera: "Long and slow-moving but with a lot of energy and images of Singapore, which are not particularly flattering." He rates the acting in the film as "very good -- it reaches out and grabs you." In White's view, Singaporean Khoo, 30, the force behind Mee Pok Man, is a talented filmmaker who is more concerned with "what he wanted to say [rather than] what people will buy."

It takes a daring film enthusiast to do that in Singapore, where aspiring producers never tire of listing the disadvantages they face in making films. "Singapore is a small market, unlike the Philippines and Indonesia," says Pang. The island nation has a population of 3.1 million, and the aggregate cinema-going audience has been shrinking: from about 21 million visits to the theater in 1991 to 18 million in 1994. The film industry is also short on infrastructure and experienced production people. Laments entrepreneur Katy Yew, the thirty-something Singaporean producer of Bugis Street: "We had to send the film to Hong Kong for post-production." Pang sent Medium Rare to Adelaide, Australia.

Censorship could be another problem. "It's difficult for Singapore's film industry to be like Hong Kong," Brig.-Gen. George Yeo, Singapore's minister for information and the arts, told Asiaweek. "We are strict on censorship here." Yeo recalls that Hong Kong broadcasting magnate Run Run Shaw once called Singapore "too clean." But that may not be the case for long. Ernest Seah, who plays a transsexual in Bugis Street, says he was "pleasantly surprised" that the film was passed by the state censors despite scenes with full-frontal male nudity.

Then there are financial problems. Although Singapore's Economic Development Board funds movies and offers tax incentives to directors and production staff, filmmakers still have to struggle to finance their projects. Pang spent $1.2 million from his own pocket to make Medium Rare, and didn't break even. Khoo worked on a tight budget of a little over $70,000, which meant he had to shoot the film in 16 days and restrict the takes per scene to three.

What pulls Singaporeans into filmmaking? For Pang, it was a sense of "personal challenge." Yew says she had "some knowledge about movie-making and thought the time was right." Khoo, who studied film in Australia, was driven by pure ambition. He says his award-winning videos and short films were merely "homework" for making Mee Pok Man. His next challenge: "I want to put Singapore on the map where films are concerned." That goal should fit in perfectly with the island state's larger target of making itself the region's capital of the arts.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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