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Singapore Media Festival Ushers in New Wave of Southeast Asian Cinema

Singaporean filmmaker Boo Junfeng considers 2016 a very good year. Following a standing ovation for his second feature “Apprentice” after it was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes Film Festival and winning the rising director award at the Busan Intl. Film Festival’s Asia Star Awards in South Korea, the film was recently selected to represent Singapore in the foreign-language film race at the 89th Academy Awards.

But Boo doesn’t see the glory belonging just to his intense and critical drama about capital punishment in his home country. It also belongs, he says, to a new wave of Singaporean cinema. Many of these films will be screened at this year’s Singapore Media Festival, which runs Nov. 23-Dec.9.

“This wave of Singaporean filmmakers has certainly come a long way,” says the filmmaker. “It only began in the 1990s and then there’s been a steady stream of filmmakers who started with making short films and getting themselves at international film festivals. And this eventually paves the way for a new wave of filmmaking.”

Films from the Southeast Asian country with 51 years of history and a population of 5.6 million have garnered more attention from around the world in recent years. Boo’s “Apprentice” is only one recent example.

In 2013, family drama “Ilo Ilo,” directed by Anthony Chen, won Camera d’Or, the first time for a Singaporean film to win an award at the at Cannes Film Festival. The film went on to became a major triumph in the fest circuit that year, winning the first feature Sutherland Award at the 57th British Film Institute London Film Festival and best film at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Film Awards.

Additionally, young filmmaker Royston Tan won the Asian short-film trophy at Sapporo Intl. Short Film Festival for his “Bunga Sayang” in October, and Yong Mun Chee’s “Badass” is among the 29 projects shortlisted in this year’s Golden Horse Film Project Promotion. The outlook for Singaporean cinema looks promising.

“It is heartening to have the effort of our local film professionals recognized and to showcase the Singapore stories to the world,” says Yuni Hadi, executive director of Singapore Intl. Film Festival and producer of “Ilo Ilo.”

Hadi says increasing support from the government is one key factor. Data from the Info-communications Media Development Authority shows that as of June 30, $35.4 million has been approved to fund 93 creative projects, including 36 film projects.

“As a country, we are beginning to recognize the impact the arts can have socially and culturally,” Hadi says. “There has been greater support towards the local film industry by the government, with new opportunities to grow Singapore-made content.”

“Apprentice” is one of the beneficiaries. The film was made possible thanks to government funding, but it wasn’t enough. Boo had to look for money elsewhere and ended up with money from four foreign territories — Germany, France, Hong Kong and Qatar — to back the €1 million ($1.08 million) project.

The small local market saturated with foreign titles is one main reason why non-government film financing has been a challenge in Singapore, says the director.

“The idea of cinema among a general public is Hollywood,” Boo says. “We are an English-speaking country, but mainland Chinese, Korean and Hong Kong films are doing quite well here. Bollywood also finds a market here.”

But “Apprentice” might have set a new example for the financing of Singaporean films in the future. Boo says the fact that Hong Kong helmer and producer Pang Ho-cheung is coming on board as an executive producer has gotten the local industry interested. “I’m getting interesting questions from local commercial producers,” he says. “People are starting to look to our direction.”

Censorship in Singapore has been blamed as an obstacle to creativity in the country, but the fact that “Apprentice,” which takes a critical look at the country’s judicial system, is being backed by the government is seen as a positive sign. The film had a restrictive M18 rating. “I hope it is a sign of progress,” says Boo. “But it’s very hard to make it definitive based on just one film. How much it continues to open up is waiting to be seen.”

Hadi says that filmmaking in Singapore is still young and she hopes that filmmakers can be allowed to explore all genres. But this wave of Singaporean cinema offers a different dimension to the city state that has long considered merely a financial hub. Films like “Ilo Ilo” and “Apprentice” represent a rise of social consciousness in filmmaking.

“What’s interesting is that the image of Singapore being a financial hub and being a wealthier country in the region isn’t quite represented in the films we make,” says Boo. “It’s a kind of soul searching, taking an honest look at the society. This honesty defines this new wave of filmmaking.” “‘Apprentice’ took me five years,” he says. “Hopefully I will get the next project done in three year

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