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Language and Censorship Stir Singapore Filmmakers

The title of the panel discussion at the Singapore International Film Festival on Saturday was innocuous enough – Singapore cinema: Then and Now – but the filmmaker panelists chose to speak about subjects close to their hearts, especially the use of the Hokkien dialect of the Chinese language and censorship.

The panelists included Ghazi Alqudcy, whose debut feature “Temporary Visa,” shot entirely in Bosnia Herzegovina is currently in post; Wesley Leon Aroozoo whose first feature documentary “I Want To Go Home” premiered at Busan and is also playing at SGIFF; and filmmaking couple Colin Goh and Woo Yen Yen, who are now based in Taiwan.

“Money No Enough” (1998), written by and starring Singaporean superstar Jack Neo was a seminal film for these filmmakers. “Money No Enough” was a game changer in terms of language and representation,” said Woo. For the first time, audiences, including the filmmaker panelists could hear Hokkien and Singlish on screen. “It was mind blowing. I thought, why don’t more movies and TV sound like this,” said Woo.

The Singapore authorities have a policy where only a limited amount of Singlish and Hokkien are allowed in local films and television. Goh believes that language should be natural and not in “perfect English.”

Inevitably, the conversation turned to censorship. Goh and Woo had a surprisingly positive experience with Singapore’s film classification authorities on their film “Talking Cock the Movie” (2002), a comedy that Goh describes as being inspired by “Chunking Express” and “Kentucky Fried Movie.” The film was based on a popular website that was atracting three million hits a month, long before the era of social media.

The film had several swear words in Hokkien that Goh and Woo bleeped out and replaced with bird sounds. But the censors wanted them deleted. “The censors told me that the audiences can lip read,” Goh told the appeals board. “I told them that if the audiences can read them, then they know the words already. I am not the one corrupting them.”

That was a battle that Goh and Woo lost. But they won another one. There is a sequence in the film dealing with Sikhs that the censors wanted cut. Goh and Koo screened the film for leaders of the local Sikh community and got a letter with their approval. “The censorship battle was useful because the censors were not as rigid as I thought they would be,” said Goh.

Saturday’s panel ended with the sober reflection that films with R21 ratings cannot be exhibited outside downtown Singapore. That deprives producers of the ‘heartland’ market, where the vast majority of Singaporeans live and watch movies.

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