Singapore Films Reflect Many Cultures

Emerging artists bring new ideas from various ethnicities and roots into this crossroads of Asian civilizations

yellow bird Singapore Movie
Courtesy of An Akanga Film Asia

Directors Boo Junfeng, K. Rajagopal and Kirsten Tan have taken the unbeaten path in their artistic endeavors, reflecting their individualism, moral complexity and empathy for outsiders. Their films “Apprentice,” “A Yellow Bird” and “Pop Aye,” respectively, have done Singapore proud, earning accolades at key fests such as Cannes and Sundance.

They are also expressing a global mindset in their focus on diversity in Singaporean society, and through a small-scale but personalized model of co-production across Asia. This is a path and attitude leading the way in the island state’s burgeoning independent film industry — shared by other upcoming film projects releasing in 2017.

Anthony Chen, whose “Ilo Ilo” was the first Singaporean film to win the Camera D’Or in Cannes, was exec producer on “Pop Aye.” His company, Giraffe Pictures, was founded in 2014, as a result of the lessons learned from having to co-produce his own film. The company has also completed an omnibus film, “Distance,” shot across Taiwan, China, Thailand and Singapore by directors from those regions.

“Our mission is to protect the voices of young, talented young Southeast Asian filmmakers we admire and help them with development, financing and production,” says Chen. He claims to put a strong focus on development, which he felt is lacking, sometimes even absent in Asia.

The emerging filmmakers that Chen and his producer Weijie Lai are fostering include Chiang Wei Liang, Shijie Tan, Nelicia Low and Le Bao. The latter is one some consider a Vietnamese visionary whose project “Taste” is about a Nigerian trying to support his family by joining a soccer team in Ho Chi Minh City.

The company is also developing a TV series. “As with our ethos, these projects are very much filmmaker-driven,” says Lai. Chen is also returning to directing this year.

Twenty-two years after he debuted with the murky “Mee Pok Man,” Eric Khoo is making a second noodle film that’s a little more feel-good, stirring culinary fusion with a quest for identity and family roots. Takumi Saito (“Umizaru,” “Shin Godzilla”) plays a ramen chef who leaves his hometown Takasaki for Singapore to find out about his mother. Everything he knew about cooking is challenged after encountering his uncle, a master of bak kut teh (pork rib soup).

Filmmakers discuss “667,” the new omnibus title produced by Royston Tan, which will be made in mulitiple Chinese dialects.

“I’ve often joked that I’d never be able to leave Singapore for good as the hawker fare here is simply the best and you can get a gorgeous hot meal for $2.50. And for the Michelin guide to award a local hawker stall with one star does say something about how our humble street food has arrived,” the helmer enthuses.

He will next produce Gilbert Chan’s sequel to horror “23:59,” to be followed by “Buffalo Boys” a Singapore-Indonesia co-production set in 1870. Directed by Mike Wiluan, CEO of visual media content company Infinite Frame Works, it’s a Spaghetti Western packed with action and glamorous Indonesian stars.

Another producer, Fran Borgia, seems to have a golden touch when it comes to getting films into coveted festivals. Before “Apprentice” and “A Yellow Bird,” he co-produced Lav Diaz’s “A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery,” which won the Silver Bear at the Berlinale in 2015. He also produced Boo’s 2010 debut feature “Sandcastle” and Ho Tzu Nyen’s “Here” (2009), which competed in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes.

Borgia’s company, Akanga Films, will start shooting Yeo Siew Hua’s “A Land Imagined,” a Singapore-French-Dutch collaboration next January. He is also in advanced development on Wong Chen-Hsi’s “City of Small Blessings,” and Jow Zhi Wei’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time.”

While showing greater awareness of the ever-evolving ethnic makeup of the city, filmmakers are also delving into the rich regional Chinese cultures and histories of their parents’ or grandparents’ generations. To inaugurate the Singapore Chinese Cultural Center, “667” could be the first anthology of Chinese-dialect films ever made. It is particularly meaningful to those growing up after the ’80s, when the government promoted Mandarin by imposing a quota on the amount of other dialects spoken in films and other entertainment.

“667” is produced by Royston Tan, known for peppering his own films including “15” and “881” with Hokkien slang, who brought together five directors — Kirsten Tan, Liao Jiekai, Eva Tang, He Shuming and Jun Chong — to make shorts in the dialect of their own origins.

What’s surprising is that, except Tang, none of the directors spoke their own dialects fluently, though they grew up hearing them spoken by relatives. The intention was to prompt the filmmakers to discover the history and cultural characteristics shaped by the dialects of their ancestors, and reinterpret them from a fresh angle.

“667” refers to the size in square-feet of a standard flat of the Housing Development Board that most Singaporeans lived in, especially before the ’80s. The title implies that despite coming from varied regional backgrounds, there’s common ground in growing up in the same public community.

(Pictured above: K. Rjagopal’s “A Yellow Bird,” one of several Singaporean films that recently created buzz at Sundance and Cannes.)