One exception to the predictability of Singapore’s moviemaking talent may be Kelvin Tong. A former film critic who has picked up a clutch of prizes as scripter-helmer, he is set to direct three movies during 2007.
His first pic was a 1999 kung-fu comedy called “Eating Air,” which got a respectable reception. But only with 2005’s “The Maid” did Tong, who trained as a shipping lawyer, shift to the forefront of filmmaking in Southeast Asia.
While the differences between the recent Japanese and Korean genre movies and Tong’s effort may be subtle, “Maid” was widely hailed as Singapore’s first horror movie. It featured a naive Filipino domestic who encounters ghosts among the comfortable middle classes of suburban Singapore during the one month of the year when Chinese superstition says the gates of hell are open.
The local touch helped it to a smart S$2 million ($1.5 million) at the local B.O. and gave it some play in other Asian territories.
Encouraged by that success, the self-confessed prankster is now in production on “Men in White,” a Mandarin-language horror comedy about four ghosts who find it harder to live in Singapore as spirits than as humans.
Next up will be “Rule Number One,” a supernatural thriller about what happens when the police take time to investigate what they had assumed were hoax calls for help. Pic is to be handled by Fortune Star, News Corp.’s film finance and rights arm.
At the end of the year Tong will be working on “Bed,” a 1960s-set drama about the social upheaval caused when Singapore’s education system switched from Chinese language to English overnight.
“I don’t have a glib answer to my genre diversity,” Tong says while acknowledging that his range raises questions when promoting a movie or trying to raise finance for one. “As a moviegoer, my tastes go from Lars von Trier to Stephen Chow.”
Tong’s rise, however, has been made possible by the growing success of Singapore as a filmmaking hub, albeit from a low base. Despite the different routes in their careers, Tong shares with star director Eric Khoo and thesp-turned-helmer Jack Neo a determination to point out the oddities of life in Singapore.
The country is a city-state, run like a private corporation, which Tong describes as “a very, very strange place.” It’s a place where censorship and self-censorship are rife and where people are guarded about information in general.
Yet Tong has benefited both from the Singapore state — the Media Development Authority is part-financing “Rule” — and from the territory’s film love-in, especially with those movies that dare to hint at subversion. Cinemagoing rates are among the highest in the world.
“I have to straddle both sides. I don’t want to make the kind of movie that an American would make better, but if I become too local the film ends up parochial,” he explains.
Tong, who gives off an air of thoughtfulness as he chain smokes, says he is still learning the craft. “It is one thing to talk about films as a journalist, but it is fascinating that many of the decisions that make a difference between a good and a bad film are made in front of a monitor, often in a fraction of a second,” he says.
Helmer also runs his own production house, Boku Films, with his younger brother. “It is a necessity,” he says. “There are not many producers to choose from, and while a lot of people enter the industry, there is little continuity.”
Having his own team enables Tong’s Boku to put together a package and then approach financiers. And where semi-state body MediaCorp Raintree used to be the only game in town, foreign financiers are now willing to take a look.
“What Fortune Star is doing is upping the ante. And it is recognition that Raintree has taken (Singapore) to a certain level,” he says.