Hong Kong
  Patrick Leung

Temperatures rising: Singapore film in 2001

by Yvonne Ng Uhde and Jan Uhde 

Singapore film production found itself in the doldrums for much of 2001. The memories of 1998 and 1999 — the anni mirabili which brought hope for the future of indigenous filmmaking — still lingered in the mind. But the films which saw the light of day fell short of expectations, both artistically and in terms of ticket sales.

Singapore’s domestic productions did manage to cover a decent range of genres in 2001. But none were very interesting, and many seemed to be ineffective imitations of more popular films. Return To Pontianak, for example, was a digital horror film directed by Djinn on a shoestring budget of S$180,000 (US$98,000). Set in a Malaysian jungle, the film attempted to be a local version of The Blair Witch Project. But it contained more atmosphere than shocks. A Pontianak is a female vampire in South-East Asian folklore, and movies featuring them were immensely popular in the1950s.

Raintree Pictures, the film-production arm of MediaCorp Studios — the island’s largest terrestrial broadcaster — produced the Chinese-language The Tree, directed by Daisy Chan. The weepy melodrama, which tried to combine Thai horror Nang Nak with the The Sixth Sense, managed a thoughtful exploration of a mother-and-son relationship. But it isn’t scary – in fact, it drowns in its own tears. The S$1.1 million (US$600,000) production saw returns of only S$710,000 (US$388,000).

Raintree also co-produced the soccer comedy One Leg Kicking with Eric Khoo’s Zhao Wei Films and Geoff Malone’s Cyberflics, for under S$1million. Released at the end of the year, it was jointly directed by Eric Khoo and Wei Koh. Likely inspired by the 2000 Thai comedy The Iron Ladies, about a volleyball team made up of gays and transvestites, One Leg Kicking managed to draw a few laughs from the underachieving team’s antics on the soccer field. Otherwise the cardboard characters, overacting, and the lack of any real humour left it limping rather than than kicking.

The most poorly conceived Singapore feature of the year was Gallen Mei’s A Sharp Pencil. This Bonnie-and-Clyde story about a bored, rich young man who commits robberies with his equally bored girlfriend, was the first Singapore movie to achieve an NC-16 rating (no children below 16 years). The film’s release was delayed by the censors, who decided a scene in which a police officer uses obscenities had to be erased. The cut invited ridicule, but so did the the dragging, silly plot. Despite the couple’s onscreen chemistry, an electronic soundtrack, and the director’s good intentions, A Sharp Pencil is anything but sharp. Budgeted at S$189,000 (US$103,000), the film took just S$2,365 (US$1293) at the box office.

Interestingly, the best-known film in 2001 by a Singaporean director was an American production. Miss Wonton, the first feature by director Meng Ong, was about a young Chinese immigrant chasing the American dream in New York City. The film was made and wholly funded in the United States. It stars Amy Ting, who grew up in Singapore and her mother, Singapore singer Sakura Teng, known as the Asian Go-Go Queen of the 1970s. Miss Wonton opened at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival and competed at numerous international festivals. It was awarded the FIPRESCI prize at the Locarno International Film Festival 2001.

The unprecedented success of Jack Neo’s satirical comedy I Not Stupid caught Singapore’s film community — and the whole country — by surprise. The feature, produced on a modest budget of S$900,000 (US$492,000) by Raintree Pictures, was released during the Chinese New Year (mid-February) of 2002. It became an instant hit, propelling itself overnight to the top of the local box-office charts, and leaving behind Hollywood blockbusters. Four weeks after its release, I Not Stupid had already made S$2.6 million (US$1.4m). Moreover, it was an almost unanimous critical success.

The actor-director Jack Neo, who also scripted the film, started his TV career in 1980, and has since become a household name. He ventured into film in1998 when he wrote and acted in the crazy comedy Money No Enough, the greatest box-office success for a local film to date. In 1999, he followed up with a companion piece, That One No Enough, which failed to match the popularity of its predecessor. Earlier that year, Neo had appeared on the big screen as a character he had made famous on TV, dressed as an old lady. Liang Po Po (“Granny Liang”) became the third highest-grossing movie of the year. His new comedy I Not Stupid, however, emerged relatively noiselessly and, like Money No Enough, the amplitude of its success was quite unexpected.

The extraordinary response of Singaporeans to I Not Stupid suggests that the film must have touched on a subject which resonates deeply with the audience. Beneath the surface of an artless Singlish title and a “story about school-kids” are some serious questions. An IMDb commentator observes: “This movie pokes fun at the Singapore government in a subtle manner. However, the satirical moments are clear to the Singaporean audience, who are in the situation themselves ... It is amazing how this movie passed the board of censors in Singapore without cuts (Wei, IMDb). Karl Ho in the Straits Times adds: “The film also addresses other relevant concerns: the younger generation’s degenerating respect for the Chinese language, the lionisation of foreign talent by Singaporeans, and even child suicide.”

The nature of Singapore’s grade-oriented, pressure-cooker school system, the need for reform, and the question of conformity versus creativity in contemporary society, have only been acknowledged and openly discussed in recent years by the government. Neo’s timely film combines humour with a sharp critical stance to question government policies and a submissive population obsessed with school marks and material success. It appears that after having been inundated with irrelevant films from abroad and home for years, Singaporeans now want to see intelligent and honest reflections of their lives.

Singaporeans will have a chance to laugh at themselves again in Colin Goh’s 90-minute The Movie. This will be the only local feature to be shown at the Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF) this year. The 31-year-old freelance cartoonist, who used to practice law, found the inspiration for his movie in his own popular satirical website launched two years ago. The feature is composed of four tongue-in-cheek stories based on everyday situations. A significant detail about the movie is its multi-ethnic character. In the past, local productions were Malay-oriented, while the post-revival films of the 1990s have mainly reflected the city’s Chinese majority. Shot on a budget of S$160,000 (US$87,000), Goh’s movie is another example of the growing trend in digital filmmaking.

Indeed, digital video is the hope of many an independent or novice filmmaker in Singapore. The pioneering (but unreleased) Stamford Hall, made by group of students at the National University of Singapore (NUS) was followed by Stories About Love, a feature comprising three segments, each written and directed by a different filmmaker. It was produced by Eric Khoo. A third digital feature, the already mentioned Return to Pontianak, was fairly successful in Singapore, and has been shown at a number of international film festivals. The NUS students returned in 2001 with a digital feature Hype, a romantic comedy written and directed by Vincent Wong, and set in the advertising industry. It was given a limited release in Singapore.

I Not Stupid emerged in the midst of significant social change in Singapore. In addition to the severe economic recession of 2001, the country is also facing new political, social and cultural challenges. Furthermore, after more than three decades of promoting technology and the hard sciences as the road to society’s salvation, the government is becoming aware of the limits of the techno-economical model. The arts are being re-discovered by the authorities, who are now aiming to develop the city-state as a regional centre for cultural events. To this end, a S$600 million (US$328). arts complex is about to open in the city centre. It is also encouraging that discussions in the media about the benefits of initiative, creativity, a less rigid education system, and relaxed social structures are becoming more frequent as the country prepares to move into what is officially known as “a knowledge-based, entrepreneurial economy.”

Short film production is alive and well in Singapore. Some of the most interesting Singaporean films are shorts. This was demonstrated last December by the launch of the country’s first annual short film festival. In five days, the festival screened about 45 local and international shorts, including the UK-Singapore production Chink in the Armour by Donovan Chan and the humorous but compassionate Headache by Singapore’s Alaric Tay. Meanwhile, Roystan Tan won the Silver Award at the 2001 Malaysian Video Awards (ASEAN Best Director category), with Sons. This was an unexpected surprise. Also in 2001, the short Gourmet Baby, made by former journalist Sandi Tan, premiered at the 39th New York Film Festival. The film addressed another very Singaporean obsession (other than making money): food. It will be shown at this year’s SIFF.

About one-quarter of the 400 films at the SIFF this year will be animated. Through its Economic Development Board, Singapore is also investing in an animated co-production with India’s Pentamedia Graphics Ltd in Chennai (Madras). A 90-minute feature about the life of Buddha will use traditional two-dimensional hand-drawn characters on a computer-generated, three-dimensional background; it is expected to be released at the end of 2002.

The unequivocal success of Jack Neo’s I Not Stupid, and the diversity provided by digital, short form, and animated films, could stimulate local film production. Increased investment from private sources, plus more generous and determined government support, will hopefully revitalise Singapore’s filmmakers. It should also make them more committed to the medium. All this, along with the onset of economic recovery in Singapore and elsewhere, leads to a cautious optimism: that the films of 2002 will be of a finer vintage than those of 2001.

For further information, write to: C.E.C. -