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Southeast Asian cinema

Despite having a flourishing Chinese and Malay film industry in the 1950s and 1960s, Singapore's film industry declined after independence in 1965.[1] However, there were a few films featuring Singaporean actors and set in Singapore, including Saint Jack and They Call Her Cleopatra Wong. However, most of these did not get released in Singapore and are unable to be labeled as truly Singaporean productions.


After 1990

Early '90s pioneers

The first truly Singaporean film came in 1991's Medium Rare, which was based on a true-life local cult killer, Adrian Lim, who was hanged in 1988 for murder. Although costing over S$2 million in production, it performed dismally at the box office. The film took in merely S$130,000 locally but broke the ice for the next coming Singapore movie, Bugis Street, which was released in 1995. Bugis Street is a gaudy film about the famous sleazy district where transvestites and transsexuals can be found. The same year saw the release of Mee Pok Man, the first full-length film made by a Singaporean independent filmmaker, Eric Khoo, on a tight budget of S$100,000. Concerning a lonely noodle seller who falls for a prostitute, Mee Pok Man earned much critical accolade worldwide and encouraged more experimental, independent filmmaking in the nation.

Army Daze, made in 1996, takes a humorous look into Singapore's national service, and turned in high profits at the box office.

In 1997 came another Eric Khoo feature film, 12 Storeys, a highly acclaimed production which was the first Singaporean film to be shown at Cannes. Interweaving 3 stories about life in the HDB high-rise flats, 12 Storeys is seen as a breakthrough for Singaporean films, combining a coherent plot with Singaporean production crew and actors, such as Jack Neo and Koh Boon Pin. The rest of the decade had been encouraging for the growing film industry. Glen Goei's Forever Fever (1998) was picked up by Miramax for S$4.5 million and re-released in the U.S. as That's the Way I Like It. These two years saw the releases of a number of other films, such as A Road Less Travelled (1997), God or Dog (1997), Tiger's Whip (1998) and The Teenage Textbook Movie (1998).

Late '90s successes

However, it was the phenomenal success of Money No Enough (1998) which eventually catapulted the nation's drive toward movie-making. Using a local crew of actors drawn from television comedies, this 'heartland' comedy written by Jack Neo uses a smattering of Singlish and Hokkien to make a realistic, easily identifiable drama about everybody's quest to earn more quick bucks. Made for less than S$1 million, it raked in S$5,800,000, making it the most commercially profitable local film to date. It also demonstrated the viable potential of the Singapore film industry. The next year would be a boom year for local films. Eight Singaporean feature films were made in 1999 alone, the most notable being Liang Po Po: The Movie (starring Jack Neo in a reprisal of his television cross-gender role), That One No Enough, the first directorial effect of Jack Neo, and Eating Air, made by film critic Kelvin Tong and film editor Jasmine Ng on a budget of S$800,000. Eating Air did not break even; That One No Enough barely did and only Liang Po Po: The Movie continued the vein of commercial success of Money No Enough, collecting S$3.03 million.

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Life in Singapore
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1999 also marked a watershed for Singapore films. Raintree Pictures, the filmmaking subsidiary of MediaCorp Productions, was started. Raintree Pictures invested in two regional co-productions, Liang Po Po and The Truth About Jane and Sam, which starred Singaporean television lead actress Fann Wong with Taiwanese singer Peter Ho and Hong Kong director Derek Yee. Raintree Pictures would finance a number of local and Hong Kong productions in years to come, and are the producer company of the films of Jack Neo. Subsequent productions, such as 2000 AD (2000) and The Tree (2001), also drew on Hong Kong star power; the company invested in critically acclaimed regional films such as The Eye (2002) and Infernal Affairs II (2003). Raintree Pictures also produced two English-language local productions, Chicken Rice War (2000) and One Leg Kicking (2001).

With the financing of a local production company and the setting of organizations such as the Singapore Film Commission (SFC, set up in 1998), budding filmmakers, especially independent ones, are finding it easier to make movies on subsidies and loaned funding. The advent of digital video also meant that some novice filmmakers can experiment with cheaper alternatives. Features like Stories about Love (2000) and Return to Pontianak (2001) are both shot on digital videos, but they have not been commercial success.

Jack Neo and Royston Tan

The success story since the turn of the century must be from local comedian-turned-director Jack Neo. Financed by Raintree Pictures, he has made a number of hits dealing with the heartland problems of Singapore in an engaging and deceptively light-hearted fashion. I Not Stupid (2002) is a peek into the ultra-competitive academic lifestyle as seen through three local students who do poorly in grades; its acerbic social commentary marks another height for Singaporean films. Homerun (2003) is a remake of the Iranian Children of Heaven in a local, pre-independent era context; it won for its young lead Megan Zheng the first Golden Horse Award for Best Newcomer. The Best Bet (2004) takes a humorous dig at the heartlanders' obsessions with lotteries. Neo is averaging a film per year and his productions feature local Singaporean (usually television) artistes in filmic roles. They have been successes locally as well as abroad, especially in those places with a Chinese-language market, such as Hong Kong. He has started his own artiste management company, J-Team Productions.

Royston Tan, a young Singapore TV commercial director who has been making award-winning shorts for years, released 15: The Movie, his first feature, in 2003. An expanded version of an earlier short film he made, this 90-min movie on the fringe and drug-abusing delinquents uses bold subject-matter, some graphic scenes with non-professional actors. When the film censorship board passed it with cuts, it prompted a backlash from the director in the form of Cut, an all-singing musical satire à la Tsai Ming-liang lampooning the system. Interestingly, this short film was passed uncensored by the board and was seen during the Singapore International Film Festival, but there were open discussions about it during local parliamentary sessions prompting remarks that the government was "not amused" by it. Royston Tan has since made three more features, 4:30 (2005), 881 (2007) and 12 Lotus (2008).

2005 and beyond

2005 can be seen as another mini-boom year for Singapore cinema, with commercially successful fare like Kelvin Tong's horror flick The Maid, two Jack-Neo co-directed movies, I Do I Do and One More Chance; and less mainstream offerings like Eric Khoo's critically acclaimed Cannes opener Be with Me, and Perth, Djinn's dark take on Scorsese's Taxi Driver.

In 2006, the independent feature Becoming Royston paid homage to the above-mentioned filmmaker. It was made under new Originasian Pictures. The film went on its festival run in Europe and South Asia and was released in 2007. 2006 also saw the premiere of Singapore Dreaming by Woo Yen Yen and Colin Goh, who won the Montblanc New Screenwriters Award at the San Sebastian International Film Festival, the first Singaporeans to do so. The film has also played at numerous festivals worldwide, and in 2007, also became the first Singaporean feature to win the Audience Award for Narrative Feature at the Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

In 2007, Jack Neo released another film known as Just Follow Law (我们在政府部门的日子) which takes a dig at the bureaucracy in the civil service, as well as the lengthy procedures one has to go through in Singapore to get a permit for various things. This film garnered generally positive reviews and was moderately successful at the box office. However, the success story of the year was Royston Tan's 881, which brought Singapore's seventh month getai culture to the big screens. While it was intended to be a niche film, it exceeded expectations and became one of the highest grossing local films of all time. Critics generally gave it positive reviews and it is generally believed that it was the fact that the film gave the younger Singaporean Chinese more insight into their traditional culture that made it a success. In addition, the use of Hokkien songs, which had been suppressed by the government as part of the Speak Mandarin Campaign, may have contributed to its popularity.

In 2008, Eric Khoo's Tamil language social drama My Magic became Singapore's first film to be in competition for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.


Further reading

  • Ciecko, Anne Tereska (2006) Contemporary Asian Cinema. New York: Berg. ISBN 1-84520-237-6
  • Millet, Raphaël (2006) Singapore Cinema. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet ISBN 981-4155-42-X
  • Slater, Ben (2006) Kinda Hot: The Making of Saint Jack in Singapore. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish. ISBN 981-261-069-3
  • Tan, Kenneth Paul (2008) Cinema and Television in Singapore: Resistance in One Dimension. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill. ISBN 978-90-04-16643-1; ISBN 1567-2794. see website
  • Uhde, Jan and Uhde, Yvonne (2000) Latent Images: Film in Singapore. Singapore: Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-588714-X

See also

External links

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