Singapore Celebrates 50 Years of Filmmaking as Biz Builds on Local Talent

Even if 2015 is tinged by the recent death of the country’s founder and former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore will put on a happy face for its 50th anniversary celebrations later this year. Events, programs and initiatives are included under the “SG50” branding, and there will also be anniversary-themed movies and TV shows, a second edition of the Singapore Media Festival and a project in Cannes’ Cinefondation Atelier: Kirsten Tan’s “Popeye.”

“This is a special year for Singapore as we mark 50 years of independence,” says Angeline Poh, assistant chief executive officer (industry group) at Singapore’s Media Development Authority. “We are also pleased that Kirsten Tan’s ‘Popeye’ was nominated at the Cinefondation Atelier, as she is one of Singapore’s rising filmmaking talents.

She follows in the footsteps of other Singaporean filmmakers like Anthony Chen, Eric Khoo and Boo Junfeng, who have all made their mark at the Cannes Film Festival. We are bullish about the growth of Singapore cinema and hope to showcase more of our films internationally so that audiences abroad get to enjoy our stories.”

Moviemaking in Singapore had its richest period in the late 1950s and early 1960s when the MP&GI company (a predecessor of the Cathay Organisation, which is an exhibitor and distributor in Singapore today) was in its heyday, producing films in Mandarin, Malay and Cantonese. But after a decline in the mid-1960s, Singapore filmmaking was in abeyance until the late 1990s.

Its revival since the beginning of the millennium has been slow, but there have been signs of acceleration. Indicators range from the volume of production, which now averages 15 films per year, through to the arrival of filmmaking talent such as Chen, who won the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 2013 with “Ilo Ilo,” Ken Kwek, as well as Wong Chen-Hsi and Amir Virmani (documentary “Menstrual Man”).

Despite a flurry of local hits over the past few years, The new crop of local films have so far done little to change the status quo. Hollywood fare dominates.

The local B.O. king is Jack Neo, who has dominated the record books as director and producer of the “I Not Stupid,” “Money No Enough” and “Ah Boys to Men” franchises. Each lampoons Hokkien culture and other Singaporean tics.

His latest, “Ah Boys to Men 3: Frogmen,” set in the army, is on course to break the franchise and national record with a gross of S$7.6 million ($5.56 million).

The SG50 celebrations may add some local spice to the box office mix. With backing from the Media Development Authority, this year will see two anniversary films and a number of special TV shows. “1965,” produced by Daniel Yun and directed by Randy Ang, is a dramatic thriller that promises to portray the racial turmoil of the period and Singapore’s split from Malaysia in a fashion never previously shown in a movie.

The other film, “7 Letters,” is a portmanteau of short “love letters to Singapore” directed by Neo, Khoo, Kelvin Tong, Royston Tan, Boo Junfeng and K. Rajagopal, whose “A Yellow Bird” was selected for Cinefondation program last year. Underlining the sometimes awkward position of Singapore’s Media Development Authority, an institution that was founded in 2003 and acts as industry regulator, censor, funder and promoter, director Tan Pin Pin, whose 2014 doc “To Singapore With Love” was banned by the MDA on the grounds that it undermined national security, is one of the “7” helmers.

The MDA, which recently appointed Gabriel Lim as its new chief executive, has set out a 10-year plan to further “nurture local talent and encourage the development and distribution of made-in-Singapore content.” Initiatives include: Creators Space for the development of online video content with Disney’s Maker Studios as a partner; Singapore Film Lab, a mentorship program for screenwriters and directors; and Partner of Choice, a connection service that puts together local producers and international broadcasters.

Newish local companies including distributor-producer Clover Films and mm2 Entertainment may also be part of the process of change. Both are investing in local productions.

The year will end with more celebrations. November and December will see the second edition of the successful Singapore Media Festival, an umbrella for the Asia TV Forum, ScreenSingapore, the Silver Screen Awards and the revived Singapore Intl. Film Festival.

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