STILL ROOM TO GROW, BUT VOLATILE
The Singapore Film Industry
by Toh Hai Leong
"Some people say the (film) market is very volatile. I don't think so ... there's a lot of room for growth." -So summed up up-and-coming director, Daisy Chan succinctly on the state of the near decade-long "revived" local film industry.
There are highs and lows - 1998's monster hit, Money No Enough and the biggest flop, the impotent underachiever, Tiger's Whip (1998), critically acclaimed 1995's Mee Pok Man and 1997's 12-Storeys (directed by Eric Khoo, who netted neat commercial profits).
1999 saw Money's main actor/scriptwriter Jack Neo reprising his cross-dresser TV's granny, Liang Po Po's role to the big screen. CEO Daniel Yun of Raintree Pictures produced this hyper publicity-hyped Liang Po Po - The Movie (with collaboration by Eric Khoo) and went on to make it as 1999's third highest grosser.
By the next millennium and within 1995 to 1999, two names stood out and ruled the film industry community, Eric and Yun. Eric is synonymous with the artistic, if not the seamier side of Singapore's alienated heartlanders living out empty lives in claustrophobic government's public housing flats. Yun, apparently convincing and articulate, is forever mouthing and sprouting with the loud incessant refrain of producing "borderless Singapore films" - he even credited his first production as his film - A Daniel Yun Film, directed by Ms Teng Bee-Lian!
In the golden 1950s and 1960s, two names prolific legendary P. (Puteh or White) Ramlee (1929-1973) and underrated Hussein Haniff (1934-1966), both directors, were dominating the buoyant Malay film industry then. When they exited the early 1970s, they left a legacy of Malay comedies and dramas without a representation of the Chinese countenance for then there were no major Singaporean Chinese filmmakers. Our contemporary duo seemed to have taken up the "tradition," to push the long dormant local film industry - this time round, it was the Chinese face of Singapore - into the volatile and uncertain frontiers, a future is pregnant with new promises of younger talents and renewals.
Already wannabe director Lay Jinn or Djinn, made a nod to the 1960s' sub-genre Pontianak films, with his mini digital video venture The Return to Pontianak (1999/2000) and this is a good sign it is going somewhere. Really, the modest revival started with no fanfare or massive publicity stunts like Liang Po Po, with beauty pageant organizer, Errol Pang, who executive-produced Medium Rare in 1991. It was an unremarkable flick about the exploits of infamous Adrian Lim, a temple medium who ritually murdered children in Toa Payoh. No films ere made in the next four years.
Then Eric Khoo surprised all with his 1995 film, Mee Pok Man, about a dumb noodle seller's obsession with a naive whore, which went to win accolades locally, Pusan, Berlin, Moscow, Venice and many other festivals.
Hongkong-based, Macau-born director Manshih Yonfan made the controversial Bugis Street (1995), a tale of a young lass's coming-of-age in the infamous ex-transvestites' red-light district. In spite of the popular gay subject matter, it flopped commercially. Undeterred, Cathay Asia's CEO Choo Mei-Leen went ahead to turn Michael Chiang's army romp play, Army Daze (1996) for the screen, directed somewhat theatrically by TheatreWorks' chief resident drama director, Ong Keng Sen. It made some good money here and in Malaysia also.
The year 1997 saw actor-turned-director Hugo Ng's God Or Dog, a far better developed remake of Medium Rare. Eric's second film, 12 Storeys, a pessimistic story of 3 households in Singapore's in Singapore government's flats, showed better directorial handling but weighed down by scriptwriter James Toh's ponderous screenplay. It went on to win more critical praises worldwide, however. Overshadowed by Eric's brilliance, first-timer Lim Suat Yen's Mandarin melodrama, The Road Less Travelled, which tells of 4 youths struggling in the music and media industry, got sidelined.
In 1998, the economy went into a tail spin, following the rest of the Asian tigers. The once lucrative cinema attendances dipped more than 30 per cent since the June high of 1.9 million. It closed down six out of 1997's 144 screens. Even today, the total tally of screens hovers at 138. Nothing prepared Singapore for that "freak comedy," Money No Enough that year. Only James Cameron's Titanic tipped the scales. Producer J.P. Tan's and director Tay T.L.'s slice-of-life feature, came second, with a whooping S$5.48 million takings! Its massive appeal was mainly due to the comic trio's crunched-uptravails which Singaporeans and Malaysians could identify.
Another success story was Glen Goei's 1970s music melodrama, Forever Fever, a slick story of a dreamer who joins a disco contest to win his dream bike. It was taken up in May 1998 by Beyond Films (for Australia and New Zealand) and by Miramax (for U.S., Britain and Canada) for S$4.5 million.
Before 1998 ended, magician Victor Khoo's Tiger's Whip, an absurd tale of a struggling Hollywood actor who "loses his banana and finds Nirvana," became the biggest flop. Hong Kong director Gao Lin Pao's Lucky Number, plagiarized blatantly the super-hit, Money, in subject matter and structure.
For the third time in a year, overexposed Jack Neo made his directorial debut, That One No Enough, about 3 romantic fools' entanglement with their opposite numbers and not getting enough "sex satisfaction." - Note 'That One" of the title refers coyly to sex. 'Sex Not Enough" would have been its real title, if not for the conservative Board of Film Censors' objection. Director Teng Bee-Lian's Liang Po Po - the movie reprises Neo as the "shuffling footed, signature grunts" granny who has close brush with local and the more sophisticated Hong Kong triads. 'Where Got Problem? ex-Producer-turned-director J.P. Tan's second film is about the story of two upper-crust families who pool resources to weather the 1998's recession. Tan's yuppie remake of Money did not engage the post-recession crowds who ignored it altogether.
Raintree Pictures' Yun made his second feature, this time round it was director Derek Yee's (of Hong Kong) The Truth About Jane and Sam, co-produced with Yee's Film Unlimited. Truth is about the tumultuous romance between Jane (super TV star, Fann Wong), a streetwise 19-year-old drifter and naive reporter, Sam, from the upper class (Taiwan's singer, Peter Ho). Their chemistry is veneer thin. Fann's Brigitte Lin-plagiarised acting and always with the "cool, cute" look, alienated her die-hard fans. Still, Derek pulled off his uninspired work to Malaysia, Hong Kong and even Korea. Street Angels, the first and last production of Act Venture Films (under Faez Construction's boss, Clarence Tan), directed by Hong Kong's David Lam, is a realist chronicle of five female delinquents from dysfunctional families.
Ex-journalist Kelvin Tong and film editor Jasmine Ng's Eating Air focuses on love and gang camaraderie and thus transcend its usual provincialism, to become like Mee Pok Man and 12 Storeys, the cultish exotica that gained acceptance from Hong Kong and Rotterdam. It was, undoubtedly, the best film, of the mini-revival decade.
Early this year, the monstrously-budgeted (at S$6.4 million) actioner-thriller, A.D. 2000 (directed by action maestro Gordon Chan from Hong Kong) fell flat on its extravagant belly - which became the "Waterloo" like the fiasco Heaven's Gate of overambitious Raintree Pictures and Hong Kong's Media-Asia. It is back to basics for the big players, after this decade's end. However, the new digital decade provides a cheap way to shoot and then exhibit, after kine-transfer, on the big silver screen. This comes in the form of digital video, digital-beta, call them what they may.
A bunch of National University of Singapore undergrads seized the initiative and became the first pioneers, to make a digital biography or slice-of-hostel life, called Stamford (1999). Then came Ong Lay Jinn or Djinn (or Imp!). Djinn's mini-DV debut paid neo-homage to the old Pontianak sub-genre horror of the 1960s. With a bow to the Net's hit "mockumentary" effort, The Blair Witch Project, it engages with more suspense and growing sense of dread and terror. It was shot in under 10 gruelling days in December 1999.
The triptych film, Stories About Love, produced by Cyberflics (founded by Singapore International Film Festival's founder, Geoff Malone and hotelier Andrew Yap) is the first digital full-length feature, from production to projection. It looks at love and passion (or lust) somewhat cursorily, each segment directed by new talents - Music Teacher (scriptwriter/director James Toh) - about the affair of the heart between an older woman and her youthful charge, Haura (director Abdul Nizam), about an indie woman who thinks she has found Mr Right and ClicK (director Cheah Chee Kong or better known as CheeK), about a computer geek who dreams of becoming a successful local porn king.
Just last year, CheeK's, Toronto Film Festival's Popular Audience award winner, Chicken Rice War, entertains somewhat lamely (to jaded local audiences), about two rival food stores selling chicken rice in a hawker center.
TV producer-turned-director Daisy Chan's The Tree, about a relationship between a pathologist and the boy under his charge and his mom, is a lame Raintree Pictures' produced film, which failed to make the true intense talent of Francis Ng of Hong Kong and Caldecott Hill's Queen, Zoe Tay as the melodramatic woman.
Currently, this year's biggest turkey of the action football film, One Leg Kicking (2001), directed by both Wei Koh and the legendary Eric Khoo, saw lame over-acting by Singapore's premiere comedians, Mark Lee, Brian Richmond, Siva Choy, Moe Alkaff, with an uninspired Lolita-like plagiarized lounging position by MediaCorp's pretty but wooden Sharon Au. Although it saw great returns of S$400 grand by the first week, word-of-mouth got out that it was so bad many felt cheated and the potential patrons just did not patronize the "bad" film and worse, one irate viewer called it "the worst movie he ever saw on screen."
However, Vincent Wong's Hype (2001) last year, inspired by How To Get Ahead In Advertising, has its chief protagonist Eurasian yuppie caught between two women of different temperament and it was he, as an advertising exec who brings in hype into his love relationship and that leads him into a messy menage B trois, with him the loser in the end. Cheaply made but scripted by the director with a passion, it was a good effort and as a relationship video work with nods to Woody Allen and Richard Grant and some of Hollywood's screwball comedies, Hype comes across as an impressive first work by a budding film director who is slated, better than the much hyped Wei Koh and the over-rated Eric Khoo, who has since gone on to produce and yet to direct another acclaimed third feature, for better things and more mature films, in time to come.