A year ago, news that seven Singaporean directors were to collaborate on “7 Letters,” an omnibus film celebrating a half century of independence for the island nation, was met with incredulity, and not a little skepticism from filmmakers and the public alike.
“Everyone was expecting it to be a very rah-rah National Day Parade-type film,” says Tan Pin Pin, one of the seven directors invited to contribute to “7 Letters.” “I was shocked at how introspective it ended up being, how all of us grappled with what it means to be separate, what it means to be together.”
Indeed, the film, made with the support of Singapore’s Media Development Authority, has proven a surprise domestic hit. The premiere in July was scheduled to be followed by a short, three-day screening at the historic and recently refurbished Capitol Theatre.
When tickets were snapped up within three hours of their release, authorities immediately organized additional screenings, eventually putting it in general release, where it grossed an exceptional S$137,000 ($97,342) over the first five days of exhibition. The film’s theatrical run has been extended three times and has since grossed over $223,817.
“People expected it to be hard-selling propaganda,” says Royston Tan, executive producer of “7 Letters” and director of the segment “Bunga Sayang.” “But really, all we set out to do was write a heartfelt love letter. Each of the short films is an intimate reflection of our unique stories and connections with Singapore, and we ended up with the most un-SG50 (Singapore’s 50th birthday) of films.”
Directed by a panoply of acclaimed Singaporean filmmakers, including arthouse doyen Eric Khoo and local box office champion Jack Neo, the film boasts a renowned cast drawn from stage and screen, including Singaporean emigre Lydia Look (“NCIS: Los Angeles,” “Bones”) as well as a cameo by Juliette Binoche.
Many segments deal with the trauma of separation from Malaysia in 1965. Boo Junfeng, director of “Parting” (pictured), says this is an attempt to give voice to narratives that are less commonly discussed.
“I knew I wanted to feature the causeway because it was a severance of ties that led to our independence,” says Boo, who is also an Asian Film Academy alum. “In many official narratives, Malaysia is never addressed, even though it was so intrinsically part of our history.”
Ultimately, the reason the film succeeded, per Tan, was due to an increasingly trusting relationship between filmmakers and commissioning body, the Media Development Authority of Singapore. As both funding body and censorship authority, the MDA has occasionally had prickly relationships with directors.
“I think every director will definitely have challenges working and brushing up against censorship,” Tan says. “It will always be a constant thing, after all, we are vocal about what we see and that’s an integral part of being a filmmaker.
“In the case of ‘7 Letters,’ the MDA heard us and were really very respectful of the filmmakers. They invited us to make the film, and trusted us enough to leave us to do our work.”
Premiering at the Busan Intl. Film Festival, “3688” is the long-awaited follow-up feature from Tan. The musical comedy tells the story of a young parking attendant who joins an amateur singing competition and ends up enrapturing a nation with her unique voice and sincerity. Billed as Singapore’s answer to “Little Voice,” it comes a full seven years after Tan’s last feature, the stagedoor tragedy “12 Lotus.”
“Busan is a very important festival for me,” Tan says. “They were very supportive of ‘881’ and ‘12 Lotus,’ and they told me that I have a very loyal following here, who like the outlandish costumes, and who are familiar with my style.”
The $1.8 million film is a co-production between Chuan Pictures and mm2 Entertainment, and is on a 23-print general release in Singapore. The film grossed over $142,106 in its opening week.
Not to be outdone, Singapore’s short filmmakers and writers are creating their own buzz at Busan.
Lei Yuan Bin’s project “Tuition” has been selected for the Script Development Fund at the Asian Cinema Fund sidebar at Busan. The script tells of a forbidden love between a 50-year-old teacher and her 16-year-old male student. Lei’s previous feature documentary, “03-Flats,” won the best film prize at the 2015 Salaya Intl. Documentary Film Festival.
“For We Are Strangers” is one of 10 Asian short films shortlisted for the Asian Short Film Competition’s Sonje Award. Directed by Asian Film Academy alumni Nicole Woodford, the film is a psychological thriller depicting the relationship between a young female prison counselor and the inmate with whom she shares a past. The film is the only Singaporean title in competition at this year’s Busan fest and underscores the importance of the festival’s Asian Film Academy in cementing close ties between the continent’s young filmmakers and creatives.
“Busan really means a lot to me,” Woodford says. “It was here that I was awarded the Dongseo Prize for Outstanding Performance, and Teck Siang (d.p. for the film) is also one of the AFA alumni. It’s very fascinating to see Asian filmmakers come together here, and it’s a great sounding board for us.”
The $21,315 film was shot over 3½ days with support from the MDA. Ling Tiong, producer of “For We Are Strangers,” says the marketing assistance grants given by the MDA are a lifeline for independent producers and directors.
“Short film projects don’t have much traction for theatrical,” Tiong says. “However, we’re using the film to build Nicole’s profile in the international filmmaking circuits and without MDA’s support with flights and accommodations to overseas film festivals, it would be nigh impossible to do so.”