At a local movie premiere a few nights ago, an industry veteran who relocated here from China, pointed an artiste out in the crowd from across the cinema hall at the Capitol Theatre. “It is easy to over or underdress this evening. Her dressing is appropriate for the occasion,” he said. He was referring to Zoe Tay, fresh off winning Best Actress at the Stars Awards, 21 years after her first win.
I took a long hard look at her, almost rediscovering this acting icon. Have we, the entertainment industry and the public, perhaps taken this evergreen actress for granted? I also started thinking – how has she stayed on top through the years? Is she still relevant? Hers is probably the career that most closely mirrors the ever-evolving local media and entertainment scene in the last three decades. Suddenly I wanted to know more.
I made arrangements to meet her. We worked together many years ago, and have not met for a while. When she turned up, she was immediately disarming. We started talking like old friends. The years have been more than kind to her, she looks almost the same, and during our nearly three hours chat, I noticed her English has improved by leaps.
Zoe is quite an unusual name in the 1990s. But this girl from the pig farms of Lim Chu Kang would make it a household name. Now, this country owns the name – Zoe Tay.
In a recent gathering with two friends, one in education, the other in public transport, I felt a new-found sense of validation as a Singaporean film-maker. One of them said: “You should be proud of me. This year, I watched two local films: Long Long Time Ago and Apprentice. And you should be happy to hear I am warming up to Singapore movies.”
To them, film-making in Singapore is a fridge industry. As a film-maker, faced with two long-standing challenges — our market is small, our movies do not travel — I ask myself all the time: What will it take to push the Singapore film industry to a level where it can come of age? This year, for the first time, I am starting to see it less as wishful thinking and more of a probable reality.
I never thought I would see the public listing of a local movie company in my lifetime. In 2014, MM2 Entertainment was listed on the Singapore Stock Exchange. This year, it consolidated its standing as the de facto “movie studio” in Singapore and a prominent regional movie producer. Working with veterans, and nurturing new film-makers, including creators in the online space, MM2 founder Melvin Ang and his team have become the kind of producers the film industry in Singapore sorely needs. Producers who find the money to make films. “I am a businessman through and through, but I work well with creative people. I make them comfortable because they know I genuinely want to help them succeed,” Melvin told me about his successful mix of art and commerce.
For most of us, there is one person whose views we seek when something does not add up or make sense. Someone rational and insightful. I would go to this one friend, who is unfailingly analytical. In the last six months however, he has been trying to make sense of the US election. After watching the third presidential debate, he said, “I realise watching it made me angry. There is so much anger. And it is contagious.” It took a while for it to sink in. Suddenly it started to make some sense. This US election is driven by rage. The main engine of this rage is not Donald Trump. Trump fans the fire. With full-fledged rage, common sense and civility fly out of the window. Which is why this US election is the nastiest in modern history. Why this nastiness is not the new normal. It is the new abnormal.
The 1976 movie ‘Network’ has an iconic character Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch, who famously yelled, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Trump is the present-day Howard Beale who has declared, “I am very angry, because our country is being run horribly, and I will gladly accept the mantle of anger.” Some of us may think that ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ applies to Trump’s forceful narrative. His antics, ironically, overshadow the real issues he brings to the table – a populist fury at the consensus for a more globalised world which benefits only some, frustration over 15 years of slow economic growth, unhappiness with immigration laws, and the perceived helplessness towards conundrums like homegrown terrorism.
I had assumed everyone knows Ang Peng Siong. Until I mentioned his name to a 21-year-old and did not get the reaction I expected. I asked this young man if he was familiar with the music of ABBA. The reaction was similar. To a whole generation of Singaporeans, Ang Peng Siong was arguably the first poster boy of swimming, nicknamed Asia’s ‘Flying Fish’, idolised and the source of inspiration for many. It was a time when our nation was coming into its own, when the bread-and-butter issues of the 1970s were less pressing. In 1982, Ang Peng Siong became the first, and since then the only, Singaporean to hold the world number one ranking in the 50m freestyle with a time of 22.69 seconds. He was awarded the ’the world fastest swimmer’ title that year. He would go on to represent Singapore in world events, including the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Last Saturday, from the business district to the heartland, in homes, coffee shops, offices, shopping centres and clubs, Singaporeans held their breath for 50.39 seconds. When they exhaled, an Olympic record was broken. By a 21year-old Singaporean. On the podium, with the gold medal hanging from the broad shoulders of Joseph Schooling, grown men and women started to cry across the island as Majulah Singapura was played for the first time at the Olympic Games. And for the first time, a new generation of Singaporeans saw how sports can unite a nation with pride, how sports can knit the multi-racial and multi-cultural fabric in a way they have never experienced before. From that moment, Singaporean boys and girls will take for granted that it is possible to win at a world event. A glass ceiling was broken. Young Singaporeans will work harder, push further and dream bigger.
This week, a new Singapore film, ‘Apprentice’, opens in our cinemas. It deals with the death penalty. In this sophomore feature, following his well-received debut ’Sandcastle’, Boo Junfeng tackles the subject of capital punishment. It has garnered positive to glowing notices around the world, with a standing ovation at Cannes, no less. How will the Singapore audience respond to such a film in its home turf? A friend who just watched ‘Finding Dory’ asked me, “Is ‘Apprentice’ any good?” Before I could answer, he ventured with more questions, “Did you enjoy it? Should I watch it?”
The straight forward answer is, “I enjoyed it and you should watch it.” But it is no ‘Finding Nemo’ or ‘Ah Boys To Men’ and there is nothing straight forward about ‘Apprentice’. Nothing cut and dry or black and white about it. In cold hard shades of grey, it shows the dark corners and cruel space in and around a prison. Alongside, it unravels the emotions under the calm surfaces of people inhabiting this space. Watching this film, if you notice the look and feel is less parochial and local while still unmistakably Singaporean, you will have uncovered a significant precedence this film has achieved.