It may not have the same international cachet as rival Asian countries such as South Korea or Japan, but Singapore’s film scene is growing in stature.
Credit for this can go in part to the Singapore Film Commission (SFC), celebrating its 20th year in operation. Founded in 1998 with an aim to nurture Singaporean filmmaking talent, it has offered support, grants and promotion to more than 600 projects over the years, including feature films, shorts, scripts and events. The SFC’s relevance and endurance stand as a testament to the staying power of the country’s film scene.
“Ultimately, we recognize that the heart of all good films and media content lies in its storytelling,” says Joachim Ng, director of the SFC. “The stories told through films or any other medium must resonate with its audiences.”
The past decade has been a particularly impressive one for Singaporean movies, with several SFC-supported local releases winning plaudits and awards at international film festivals. Among the SFC’s recent successes are Anthony Chen’s debut feature “Ilo Ilo,” which won the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 2013, and Kirsten Tan’s “Pop Aye,” which took home a screenwriting award at Sundance in 2017.
“Despite being a relatively small and young country, Singapore has punched above its weight at the top film festivals such as Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and Berlin,” says Ng. “Both filmmakers were supported by the SFC since they were students. … These efforts have borne fruit as filmmakers like Anthony and Kirsten have made Singapore proud with their achievements and put us on the world map.”
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But the SFC’s overall attention goes far beyond a mere local focus, and into efforts to collaborate with fellow Asian countries. “Pop Aye” was filmed entirely in Thailand with a Thai actor in the lead role, and was particularly praised within the country, winning the jury prize at the Bangkok ASEAN Film Festival. Boo Junfeng’s “Apprentice” (2016) meanwhile, was filmed largely in Australia and ended up as a Singapore/Germany/France/Hong Kong/Qatar co-production, taking home prizes at both the Taiwan Golden Horse Film Festival and the Busan Intl. Film Festival.
“Over the years, the SFC has shifted its modus operandi from ‘Made in Singapore’ to ‘Made by Singapore,’” says Ng. “And hopefully in the future, ‘Made with Singapore,’ to encourage local filmmakers to form collaborations between countries, as well as create stories that have a universal appeal.”
Then there are surface-level showcases to gain: While critical awards and Asia collaborations are helpful on a niche-interest level, their effect on cineplex audiences is little to none. Compared to such fellow Asian metropolises as Tokyo, Hong Kong and Bangkok, Singapore has rarely been the setting of major international films.
The SFC is attempting to change that through partnerships between Singapore-based Infinite Studios and numerous high-profile films. Major movies that were partly produced by Infinite and shot in Singapore include video-game adaptation “Hitman: Agent 47” (2014), Kristen Stewart sci-fi film “Equals” (2015) and the upcoming U.S. adaptation of the best-selling Singaporean novel “Crazy Rich Asians.”
Large-scale international opportunities such as these “hone the skills of our talent to take on big projects,” says Ng. For the SFC, that’s all part of an overall long-term focus that also includes further regional collaborations and co-productions, as well as greater attempts to break into new digital platforms to reach the widest audience.
“The SFC will continue to encourage and support the creation of compelling, quality film as we recognize that films are a powerful medium that shapes our society’s values, culture and reflects who we are in the world,” says Ng.
The organization plans to continue sowing the seeds to nurture creative talents to be involved in projects on par with international standing. Ultimately, the SFC hopes to help the country’s movie biz to step out of the shadow of Asian cinematic powerhouses such as South Korea, Japan, India and China — and to change the image of republic nation as another important Asian filmmaking hub.