Indie film house sending '881' to Oscars

Since its launch in 1995, Zhao Wei Films has been Singapore’s leading indie shingle. Consistency of its track record was upheld last month when its Royston Tan-helmed musical comedy “881” was tapped as Singapore’s foreign-language Oscar entry.

Company is headed by director Eric Khoo and describes itself as “dedicated to nurturing local talent.” That’s a tall order in a territory whose film history and traditions are dwarfed beside those of its neighbors in Hong Kong and China.

But its strength lies in the balance of movies with its other businesses: TV production and especially commercials.

These can serve as steady sources of cash flow and as training grounds for directors, screenwriters and producers that Zhao Wei later uses on features.

Khoo has also become a significant talent magnet in his own right, receiving pitches and unsolicited scripts from filmmaker wannabes that he sometimes develops and sometimes shares with Singapore’s Media Development Authority.

Zhao Wei’s mission to make the country a regional media center — with an emphasis on digital animated products, high-definition TV and feature films — was established well before the MDA launched in 2003. Now the MDA’s generous cash support can be seen as complement to Zhao Wei’s scouting.

While other companies have taken a more corporate approach, Zhao Wei behaves more like a cooperative, concentrating on development and production while turning to outside sources for production coin.

In Khoo and Tan, the company claims two of Singapore’s three most successful helmers. Their films have played in Venice, Cannes and Sundance fests. While the pair are far from underprivileged, their subject matter is often hard-hitting and set in the darker underbelly of the model state.

Khoo’s breakout pic, “Mee Pok Man,” traded in street dwellers, prostitutes and necrophilia. Tan’s “881” is set in the kitschy world of getai bands, who traditionally sing to ghosts. Pic recently became the fifth biggest of all time in home market with a B.O. of $2 million.

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