The Singapore Film Commission continued the ongoing celebration of its 20th anniversary by screening a specially commissioned documentary “Singapore Cinema: Between Takes.” Directed by Koh Chong Wu, the film played on Saturday as part of the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF).
The illuminating feature traces the history of Singapore cinema from the 1950s through the 1970s, the decline of the industry in the 1980s, and its revival in the 1990s. The present day may be enjoying a renaissance.
The screening was followed by a lively debate on new perspectives on Singapore cinema, moderated by journalist Genevieve Sarah Loh, with panelists that included local superstar, the director-producer Jack Neo (“Wonderful! Liang Xi Mei the Movie”,) Singapore Film Commission director Joachim Ng, Singapore filmmaking doyen Eric Khoo (“Ramen Shop”,) and directors Kirsten Tan (“Pop Aye”) and Sanif Olek (“Sayang Disayang”).
“You can see from early days that it’s been a huge struggle and we were trying to learn,” said Ng. “In the last five or six years it’s really been an incredible journey where some of our filmmakers are making films that are really resonating on the world stage.”
Neo and Khoo reminisced about the days when they worked together on 1997’s “12 Storeys.” Responding to a question from the audience, Khoo said that the SGIFF was instrumental in Singaporeans getting access to world cinema, such as the films of Aki Kaurismaki.
Inevitably, the topic of censorship was raised in an audience question. “Once you take money from any funding body, whether it is the Singapore Film Commission or not, you are subject to their values, their politics, their guidelines, their rules, their regulations. And in Singapore it is very much a reality that the press and the media is very much controlled by a higher entity. So being a filmmaker in Singapore, it’s also navigating all that process,” said Tan. “It’s also very much about how much you can go and how much you cannot go. It’s a dance really.
“As a Singaporean filmmaker I do hope that one day there will be more trust, because I feel like we are rapidly maturing as a society, as an audience… basically it’s about all of us growing together, trusting each other more, so that we can make the glorious Singaporean films that we deserve to make.”
Regarding the possibility of private investors getting tax breaks for investing in Singaporean films, as is common in some European countries, Ng said, “We’ve looked at it. It is tricky, given Singapore’s tax regime, to create a special tax holiday for private monies that comes into a very narrow sector called film. We don’t have the same tax regime as many of the European countries. It’s something that we have considered, but at this point, probably not.”
When asked about local audiences for homegrown independent cinema, Khoo said, “It has been our dream that more Singaporeans will come and support the less mainstream films, but then again, in reality, it is a small market, and it’s incredible that Jack’s film ‘Ah Boys to Men’ has half the gross of a Marvel film!” Khoo noted that beyond the superhero and action franchises, the market for American dramas and indies has reduced by 10% in Singapore(in recent years).
Neo is looking to make films that can travel around Southeast Asia. These are expected to include his Chinese New Year 2019 release, action comedy, “Killer Not Stupid.”
“The main thing that drives attention to our films is we ourselves,” said Olek. “Singaporeans, we should open up ourselves to all the different, diverse, language films that come from Singapore. That will drive up viewership to our local films.”
“In time, Singapore as a country will reach a certain level of affluence and a certain level of reflectiveness of who we are as a people,” said Ng. “The audiences will come. The challenge to our own industry is that we have to continue to up our game.”