Worlds Inside Your Head: Singapore Films in 2018

As tiny red dots go, Singapore is as small as they come. When the question of the film industry comes up, most of us can only name one local filmmaker (that is, Jack Neo) who has held box office power for the last decade. Most Singapore films don’t even get released, and if they do, they often disappear quickly in the box office shuffle. But when it comes to the subject of film awards, Singapore has fared better than its Olympic’s gold medal tally, as two significant prizes were won in 2018. Singapore started last year with a big bang at the Sundance Film Festival with Sandi Tan’s Shirkers, which won best director in the World Documentary section. Later in the year, Chris Yeo won the Golden Leopard for best film with A Land Imagined at the Locarno International Film Festival.

Both films were quirky outings. Shirkers explored what happened to a feature film, also called Shirkers, that Sandi Tan wrote and starred in during her teenage years in 1992. The film was not released back then – if it had been, it would have gone down in history as Singapore’s first modern independent feature, and might even have changed the face and direction of Singapore cinema. Tan’s universe was decidedly quirky, with clear pop cultural references to comics and music, and Shirkers unspools like a predecessor to Terry Zwikoff’s Ghost World, although the latter was actually made later, in 2001!

The original Shirkers was so zany that it would have flown Singapore’s freak flag loud and proud, and would have been much, much harder to co-opt into the mainstream than most Singapore indies today. Shot in 135 locations on a budget of SGD$400,000, the film, about the paradox of killing those you love, mysteriously disappeared with the director, Georges Cardona. Following his death, 70 cans of 16mm film mysteriously reappeared via Cardona’s widow.

The new Shirkers brings it all back home through the memories of cast and crew revisiting the impossibility of ever making this film. More important is the realization that quirky talents still fly below Singapore’s funding radar, as Shirkers, in its second incarnation, still did not find official Singapore funding. But as Tan says in the film: “When I was 18, I had the idea that you found freedom by building worlds inside your head.”

Similarly, Chris Yeo’s A Land Imagined had to embrace magic realism in order to reveal Singapore’s fantastic reality. As with Shirkers, Yeo’s film takes the form of a mystery, a disappearance, and the possible deaths of a migrant worker from China and a Bangladeshi labourer on a land reclamation site. There is a symbolism to the story: a Chinese immigrant community took over Singapore after its founding by the British in 1819, and much later South Asians, who were recruited in the late 1970s due to a tight labour market, came to make up a significant part of the foreign workforce.

Space, and the need for more of it, has always been an obsession for this tiny dot of a country. Land reclamation to increase the country’s landmass, has become such a contentious issue that Singapore has reportedly contributed to Cambodia’s environmental problems due to its huge sand imports. (Consequently, Cambodia banned sand exports to Singapore 2017.) By making a film that just touches on reality, Yeo re-creates the shock and awe Singaporeans sometimes feel about their country, a feeling that often only finds expression in their imaginations. Or as Tan said, “by building worlds inside your head.”

Shirkers was bought by Netflix and released non-theatrically last year, while A Land Imagined was released in February 2019. But the latter film did succeed in securing official funding for its production, perhaps due to producer Fran Borgia’s previous track record of films selected by Cannes.

Meanwhile, A Land Imagined’s film editor Daniel Hui directed his third feature, Demons, which was shown at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea last year. Like A Land Imagined, magic realism pervades the film, but this time it’s focused on the relationship between an abusive theatre director and his actress. You can bill this one as psycho-horror and there are enough gruesome, creepy scenes to turn a genteel art house audience away. This happened at the Berlinale where about 10 per cent of the audience walked out at each screening.

It’s easy to read this film simply as showing the dynamic between an actress and a director, since the filmmaker’s own name is transposed onto the protagonist. In addition, the filmmaker himself acts as the protagonist’s lover. But the doubling that exists in the film puts forward the notion that Singapore is a great place to find your evil twin! If you take it one step further, the actress-director dynamic is political, showing the power relation between people and their leader. The irony is doubly delicious when you realise that Glen Goei (who visited the FEFF in its early days with Forever Fever), who portrays the director in Demons, was the filmmaker behind The Blue Mansion (2009), an allegorical tale of Singapore’s ruling party’s leader’s family. In a sense, he reprises the role he never got to play in his own film, in a tour-de-force performance here.

Subtexts abound in Singapore cinema and these cause foreign and local reviews to exist on different planets. However, while there is so much unsaid (or left silent to taunt you) in public interviews and reviews, it has led to a kind of professional trainspotting career for those of us who have sat through these films for all these years. The above three titles are of note because of their pedigree. For example, while Shirkers is a loving paean to Singapore in the 1990s, the director is now listed as a “Singapore-born US filmmaker.” Not only does Daniel Hui edit Chris Yeo’s film, they are part of an independent collective, 13 Little Pictures, several members of whom also appear in Demons. They form a filmmaking vanguard that is apart from the Singapore mainstream.
Altogether, about nine films were released theatrically last year, including Jack Neo’s Wonderful! Liang Xi Mei, with a gross of SGD$1.7 million at the box office. Other films were Eric Khoo’s Ramen Teh, about a Japanese chef fusing the Singapore pork ribs soup (known locally as bakkutteh) with the Japanese noodle (or ramen). The quest is also one of family as his late mother was Singaporean. Japanese film director Saitoh Takumi plays the chef and there’s a striking guest appearance by veteran superstar Matsuda Seiko.

Singapore’s reputation and obsession with food plays out again in Kelvin Tong’s comedy, Republic of Food. In the dystopian future, the eating of unprocessed food is banned due to a global food-borne virus. But in Singapore, an underground food club still cooks up a storm until it gets busted. Jacen Tan’s Zombiepura tries to follow both the success of Korea’s Train to Busan (2016) and the Jack Neo army comedies, Ah Boys to Men (that series is about to have its fifth sequel), with a film about an army camp that’s infected by a zombie virus. Meanwhile Gilbert Chan returns with a sequel to 23:59 (2011) with 23:59: The Haunting Hour. More of the same with army and horror, and a tagline that reads: “No army is safe from hell.”

Mike Wiluan’s directing debut, Buffalo Boys was Singapore’s entry to the Academy Awards for the Foreign Language Film Category this year. Many pundits were caught off-guard because the SGD$4 million film came across as an Indonesian film, a cowboy western filmed during colonial-era Indonesia. “People don’t make westerns in this part of the world,” Wiluan said. “I wanted to see how I can make an interesting story that makes sense, so I used Indonesian history and filled it with interesting facts about colonialism.”

More traditional fare came from Lee Thean Jeen’s A Simple Wedding, a film which that follows the trials and tribulations of a young couple, and Raymond Tan’s Wayang Kids, a children’s comedy stressing inter-cultural harmony. It’s no wonder that the film received funding from the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism. The recent concern for cross-cultural regionalism reared its pointed head with the arrival of the Southeast Asian film fund. Administered by the Singapore Film Commission, the fund will grant up to SGD$250,000 per film if it is produced and developed by Singaporean producers with Southeast Asian partners. Perhaps this was why Buffalo Boys was chosen as Singapore’s bid for the Oscars.

While Singapore’s per capita cinema attendance remains the highest in the world at 19 million, it’s a known fact that there has been a decline in the total figure, from 22 million in 2016 to 19 million in 2017.But more cinema halls are being built. Eagle Wings, a new independent exhibitor, entered the market with a cineplex of two premium and two standard halls late last year. This brings up the number of screens from 257 to 261 and the number of exhibitors with more than one hall to eight.

This persistence of vision is also apparent in a number of self-funded independent films. Most intriguing of all is Konpaku (Soul) by Remi M Sali, a young filmmaker who began with short films in 1995 (after Sandi Tan). Still with his filmmaking partner, Dzulkifli Sungit, a cinematographer, Sali’s film is an in-your-face politically incorrect film about the Malay minority in Singapore. Based on a real-life Islamic exorcism, the film is a love story between a man and a female spirit. You can call it an update of the Pontianak (female vampire) films from the 1950s, as Konpaku engages the social phenomenon of mixed-race marriages today. In this case, the female spirit happens to be Japanese, and she happens to be a very raunchy spirit (and if you ever wanted to know, iku iku in Japanese means “I’m coming”). Unlike other Singapore horror films, Konpaku wears its cultural badge proudly. Can you imagine that much of the dialogue is a debate with the ghost about marriage and the necessity for Islamic conversion?

Finally, Jason Chan and Christian Lee’s Jimami Tofu represents the global borderless future. Both filmmakers are Singapore permanent residents, with the former hailing from Australia and the latter from the US. Their company Banana Mana Films is based in Singapore, and their audience award-winning (at Hawaii IFF 2017) Jimami Tofu features a Singaporean chef, played by Chan. But the film was largely shot in Okinawa with a Japanese cast. The title refers to an Okinawan dish, and the story focuses on a chef who falls in love with a Japanese food critic and tries to cross cultural boundaries by tackling an alien cuisine. Is this actually a Singapore film? Who knows and who cares? Crazy Rich Asians could even be this film’s evil twin!
Philip Cheah