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A new direction for Singapore films: in its heyday the Singapore film industry churned out more than 30 productions a year, albeit for a predominantly Malay-speaking audience. The new filmmakers are taking a very different path to success.


SINGAPORE'S film industry was a regional powerhouse from the 1930s to the late 1960s. Local movie companies like Shaw and Cathay-Keris, ruled the celluloid with stars like Siput Sarawak, Jins Shamsuddin, and P Ramlee. Film directors from India lent both their technical skills and added an Indian flavour to the productions.

Predominantly in Malay, these productions were strongly rooted both in local Malay mythology and the village lifestyle. But the major successes were the culturally biased horror films like Pontianak and Orang Minyak, and slap stick comedies.

But this golden era, when more than 30 feature films were churned out each year, came to an abrupt end with the partition of Singapore from Malaysia and the turn of fortunes of the big studios in the late sixties. Film production all but ground to a halt.

The early Singapore filmmakers left a legacy of Malay comedies and dramas as there were no major Singaporean Chinese filmmakers that could compete with the Hong Kong movie industry. After such a long stagnation from the late 1970s, filmmaking in Singapore had to start from scratch. The revival of the industry in 1995 witnessed a major shift in content. Both short and feature films were produced mainly in Mandarin with some in English.

The actors are predominantly Singaporean Chinese with a supporting casts of other races--reflecting the current mix of races and cultures in Singapore today. It is common to find local movies using different languages in the same sentence reflecting the country's multiracial and cultural character.

Film production has reached an average of five feature films a year by early 2000. This is still some way from the critical mass required for the industry to grow. Filmmakers, directors of photography, technicians, and actors cannot easily improve with just those few movies every year.

Singapore actors face a lack of projects. Veteran actors like Lim Kay Tong have only featured in nine feature films and most are not Singapore productions. The industry is still too small, with a handful of leading protagonists. Most of the leading local filmmakers have not made more than two full-length movies, except for Royston Tan, Jack Neo, and their ilk.

Beyond reaching a critical mass that would enable it to explore new avenues, and provide opportunities for more talent, the Singapore cinema has to develop its own identity.

Several attempts at internationally marketable features have failed, the product sounding and looking "forced". Locally made films should not fear being too locally rooted. Many industries elsewhere in the world have their own identity.

The closest thing that Singapore has to a studio movie company is MediaCorp Raintree Pictures. It is the movie business of Media Corporation of Singapore, a media company with television networks, productions, radio stations, Internet business, and print publishing. Raintree Pictures was set up in August 1998 and has produced over 20 movies to date. The company works with Asian and Western filmmakers to produce movies for the international viewer.

Short Films Spark

Perhaps the catalyst that sparked the resurgence of film production in Singapore was the mushrooming of numerous locally-made short films in the 1980s. This was a new venture in itself as the nation never had a history of producing short films.

Promising talents like Dzulkifli Sungit, Nisar, and Nazir Hussain produced Ragged, which won the Special Jury Prize at the 1993 Singapore International Film Festival. Yet, they did not go on to make full-length features.

The 1990s witnessed a slew of upcoming film talent like Kelvin Tong, Meng Ong, and Jasmine Ng. They all shot short films before 1996 and moved on to feature films. By 1997, short movies were being made by students from newly-created film departments at various tertiary institutions in Singapore.

The Singapore International Film Festival not surprisingly, saw an increase in the number of local entries for its short film competition. But not all made the grade. The next wave of short filmmakers were fortunate in being able to benefit from the support of the Singapore Film Commission (SFC) that was established in 1998.

The SFC's Short Film Grant helped to develop budding local filmmaking talent by funding their projects. It offers up to S$5,000 for productions on any format, with budgets of S$20,000 or less or up to S$10,000 for high definition or film format productions, with budgets of more than S$20,000. The SFC supported over 70 short films in 2006 through the Short Film Grant, as compared to only 11 short films in 1998.

With the ready availability of short film grants and a renowned international film festival offering first exposure, the young up-and-coming Singaporean cinema was ready to grow.

One of the early successes was Sandi Tan's Moveable Feast. This short film, focusing on the different varieties of food in Singapore, was indirectly addressing multiculturalism in the city. Given the importance of food in Singapore life, its use as a metaphor for this multilayered society was intelligent and appropriate.

Moveable Feast won the Best Short Film award at the Singapore International Film Festival, and went on to compete at festivals like Clermont-Ferrand in France. It was screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and was the first of many short films to garner international notice.

Winning Acclaim

Gaining prominence and recognition rapidly around the world in the last few years, the short film genre in Singapore was given a further boost with the selection of the first Singapore film, Ah Ma (Grandma) in the official competition of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.

Directed by 23-year-old Anthony Chen and supported by the Singapore Film Commission through its Short Film Grant, Ah Ma is only one of 11 short films, chosen from a pool of over 3,000 entries, to be selected for competition in the Les Courts Metrages En Competition where short films compete for the Palme d'Or Short Film award and a Jury Prize.

In addition, filmmaker, Ekachai Uekrongtham's Kuaile Gongchang (Pleasure Factory) co-produced by Singapore companies Innoform Media and Spicy Apple Films has been selected for screening in the Un Certain Regard category of this year's festival and will compete for the Camera d'Or award.

Ekachai, a Singapore permanent resident, is the second Singapore director to be honoured. In 1997, Eric Khoo's 12 Storeys was selected for Un Certain Regard which recognises films that demonstrate a personal vision, cultural expression, and innovation in the cinema. Last year, Singapore films were shown through a special selection at the prestigious Tous les Cinemas du Monde (All the Cinemas of the World), a side bar event of the festival.

Man Shu Sum, director of broadcast and film development, Media Development Authority of Singapore, says: "We are delighted by the news. It is fantastic to see an increasing number of local short films gaining recognition in the international film festivals. Over the years, films selected to participate in these festivals have improved in quality and depth; both in terms of cinematography and content. We are very proud to see our local filmmakers gain the international acclaim that they have worked so hard for."

Ah Ma follows a string of successful and internationally acclaimed short films made by Singapore directors. The most recent, Royston Tan's Monkeylove, won the Grand Prize for the Labo Competition at the 29th Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival which was held in France from January to February 2007.

Five other Singaporean short films--Bedroom Dancing by Sun Koh, Don't Say Farewell Again by Eva Tang Poh Chooi, Sewing Room by Ang Soo Koon, Elefant by Willie Koh, and My Demon Brother by X'ho were screened at the highly regarded Rotterdam International Film Festival in Netherlands in early 2007.

Rise of the Documentaries

Filmmaking in Singapore has also taken a new turn in recent years with the emergence of the documentary filmmakers. Directors Tan Pin Pin and Martyn See, stand out for their unique takes on Singaporean society and political life.

Tan's first documentary Moving House, documents the consequences for a Chinese Singaporean family who has to exhume the remains of their relatives and move them to a columbarium as the cemetery is cleared for redevelopment.

The work won her acclaim both at home and internationally. She went on to make documentaries for international cable network channels.

Martyn See started out editing movies like Jack Neo's That One No Enough. His 2005 effort, Singapore Rebel, on Singapore's political opposition figure Chee Soon Juan was banned as it contravened the Film Act which prohibits films on political parties. Undeterred, See's next project examined the 17-year detention of political prisoner Said Zahari.

These two directors represent the cutting edge of new talent and directions that filmmaking is taking in Singapore. Besides delving into the rigid genre of documentaries, they are choosing to document historically apt and culturally significant topics that need both documentation and preservation.
2007 Singapore Film Production Costs and Receipts

The following information is gathered from various sources including
Web sites, local press, local distributors, and producers. Information
is accurate as of May 2007.

Title Singapore Directed by Produced by

1. One Last Dance January Max Makowski Ming Productions
 & MediaCorp
 Raintree Pictures

2. Protege February Derek Yee Peter Chan &
 Raintree Pictures

3. Just Follow Law February Jack Neo J-Team
 Productions &
 Innoform Media

4. Cages March Graham Streeter Joshua Wong

5. Tha Kallang Wave * April Yanfeng Lee & Zayed bin Abdul
 Hanafi Ramdan Aziz Talib &
 Mohamed Fairil
 bin Sugang

Title Production Singapore Box
 Cost Office Gross

1. One Last Dance S$3,420,000 S$459,000

2. Protege S$10,260,000 S$1,658,000

3. Just Follow Law S$1,200,000 S$2,777,400

4. Cages S$1,000,000 S$11,200

5. Tha Kallang Wave * S$100,00 S$3,500

Source: Singapore Film Commission

* The Kallang Wave" was not commercially released. It was screened for
one week at Cathay, The Picturehouse as a special showcase.
COPYRIGHT 2007 Singapore Institute of Management
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Ravindran, N.
Publication:Today's Manager
Geographic Code:9SING
Date:Oct 1, 2007
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