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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

THE ENVELOPES, PLEASE

Singapore's film festival will test the island's fledgling movie industry

By Santha Oorjitham Singapore
Asiaweek Pictures


THE OUTPUT WAS HARDLY prolific. From 1975 to 1990, the total number of Singaporean feature-length movies was zero. In the following five years there were three. So it's with some justification that local film lovers are celebrating the release of three homemade productions this month. God or Dog, 12 Storeys and The Road Less Travelled will all be competing at the 10th Singapore International Film Festival (April 4-19). Is it time to start calling Singapore the Hollywood on the Strait?

Well, hang on. The nascent film industry is small time and small budget. For instance, a 1995 success, Eric Khoo's Mee Pok Man, cost $70,000 -- which is probably less than what producers spent on make up and hair styling for Madonna in her role in the recent musical Evita. Still, movie fans are keen on films that take up local themes and issues, and there are plenty of young Singaporeans trying to please them. Aside from the three Singapore features in the festival, "there are 51 short film entries this year, the highest ever," says Khoo. "People out there want to make movies!"

Why the growing interest in filmmaking? Certainly, the island's growing fascination with the art has helped. Singapore has the world's highest per capita cinema attendance and the number of screens has jumped from 41 in the mid-1980s to 140 today. Singaporeans are also getting to see many of the best films from around the world, thanks in part to relatively liberal film-classification rules introduced in 1991. The system "gave the industry a kick-start, allowing a wider range of subject matter," says film critic Kenneth Tan, president of the Singapore Film Society.

The annual film festival has also spurred on the local industry, says David Glass, general manager of cinema operator and film distributor Golden Village Entertainment. "It has done a tremendous job in showcasing local and regional productions." Khoo says the festival offers a platform on which to show Singapore works to the world. "All the critics are here," he says, "as are the programmers from [the film fests in] Cannes and Rotterdam."

Whether local filmmakers will be able to satisfy increasingly sophisticated local tastes is another matter. Tan says Singaporeans "are hungry for local subjects -- but want an international standard of treatment." Will the would-be Kurosawas and Spielbergs succeed? The next step for the industry will be largely judged on these three films:

GOD OR DOG: Like the 1991 Singapore film Medium Rare, this effort by director/actor Hugo Ng, is loosely based on the perverse and murderous life of occultist Adrian Lim, who was hanged in 1988. "Given the potential to use the material in a sensational way, it was very well handled," says film critic Tan. "It was not gratuitous and the treatment was quite mature."

Born in Singapore and raised in Hong Kong, the 37-year-old Ng worked in both places as a TV actor for almost a decade. In 1993, he began appearing in and directing his own films in Hong Kong before returning to the island republic to work on God or Dog. "The industry in Singapore is very young," he says, "but we have to start somewhere."

12 STOREYS: Director/co-writer Khoo chronicles a day in the life of a 12-story public-housing block by zeroing in on three flats: In one, a China-born bride (Quan Yifeng) refuses her husband (Jack Neo) his connubial "rights"; in another, a domineering brother (Koh Boon Pin) is obsessed with his rebellious younger sister Trixi (Lum May Yee); in a third home, an overweight woman (Lucilla Teoh) contemplates suicide. Film-studies lecturer Timothy White found the effort "not as engaging as Mee Pok Man, although it was more professional -- especially the editing. The story is more complex and nuanced."

Khoo, 32, who studied cinematography in Sydney, says his main influences include Bruce Lee films and Martin Scorsese's macabre Taxi Driver. He worked on the 12 Storeys screenplay for nine months with businessman James Toh -- then let his actors improvise most of their lines during the two-week shoot. The film is mainly in English and Mandarin, with smatterings of Hokkien, Cantonese, Malay and even Tagalog. "Doing a film in one language here is tricky," Khoo says, "because we speak a mixture [of languages]. For realism, it's important to use that mixture."

THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED: This Mandarin movie, directed by 25-year-old Lim Suat Yen, centers on a group of young people pursuing their artistic dreams. The two principal characters (played by Robin Goh and Chua Li Lian) come from dysfunctional families, and both want to break away to pursue their own goals. The film is "very typical of Hong Kong romances and not all that different from Malaysian melodramas: Rich guy and poor girl," says White, "although the ending goes against the Hollywood and Asian conventions for melodrama."

Lim studied film in the U.S. before returning to Singapore in June. "The industry is still very small," Lim says. She would like to see some of the filmmakers in Hong Kong relocate to Singapore instead of the current trend of moving to the U.S. "The expertise would be good for us," Lim says, as if speaking for the whole industry. "We're still learning."


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