Biting The Bullet For Singapore Movies

2011 is the start of a brand new decade. We may also see the start of the new shape and form Singapore movies will take, as they emerge from a period of transition. All the key players are still at a crossroads. We see new signs but nothing to show the way for a new brand of Singapore movies yet.

Eric Khoo has made his first animated feature, ‘Tatsumi’, and is looking to direct a more mainstream movie, ‘Chinese Rose’. Kelvin Tong is the creative consultant of Raintree Pictures and has a new movie, ‘It’s A Great Great World’. After his scandal, Jack Neo has put his company on hold and started working closely with Malaysia, while exploring co-productions with Taiwan and China. Royston Tan started a new company and is also working on his next feature. Of course, I have started Homerun Asia. ‘Homecoming’ is our first feature but the operative word in our company is Asia. Our business model is grounded on a slate of regional movies with China, Japan and Korea as our key markets.

The Singapore movie industry is back in a state of flux. How the dust will settle this time is still open. It was a very similar situation at the turn of the last decade. Jack Neo was then the newly minted poster boy of local movies. He was the ‘6 million dollar man’, having just released ‘Money No Enough’, which hit an unheard of box office of almost S$6million. It was a watershed movie.

Unrelated but related in timing, was the set-up of Raintree Pictures and the Singapore Film Commission in 1998. There was a flurry of movie-related activities. Everything seemed possible. At Raintree Pictures, our first feature, ‘Liang Po Po The Movie’, was a collaboration with almost everyone working in movies then. It was a smash hit and we established new norms – big advertisers as joint marketing partners (McDonald’s and Singtel), a local release on over 30 screens (a number previously only reserved for Hollywood blockbusters) and perhaps most significantly, we created for the first time, the release of a local Chinese New Year movie (then there was a Jackie Chan movie and a Hong Kong star-studded comedy released every Chinese New Year).

However by 2001, local films were doing badly. Raintree Pictures released ‘The Truth About Jane and Sam’ and the big budget action thriller ‘2000 AD’. Both did not perform to expectations. Jack Neo produced another movie ‘That One No Enough’ which was both a critical and commercial failure.

It was precisely this time ten years ago. Everyone was experimenting without success. I took stock and decided on a two-pronged approach – worked on indigenous material on the local front, and co-produce with regional experienced practitioners. Jack came to me with a project that was raw and critical of the Singapore education system. Peter Chan approached me with a premise for a horror movie that was both original and captivating.

In 2002, Raintree Pictures produced two landmark hits – a local movie which would be the ultimate reference for a Singapore film – ‘I Not Stupid’, and a regional co-production which would pave the way for more regional collaborations – ‘The Eye’. These two movies would redefine Raintree Pictures as a movie producing company within Singapore and in Asia. It would also establish my strong and lasting working relationships with Jack Neo in Singapore and Peter Chan in Hong Kong.

I went on to co-produce ‘Turn Left Turn Right’, the first feature by Warner Asia and ‘Infernal Affairs 2’ with Media Asia. In Singapore, I produce Jack’s next hit, ‘The Best Bet’. This would remain as Jack’s best Singapore comedy in terms of reflecting the sensibility of the local grassroots. It was on the hot topic of gambling, years ahead of plans for the Integrated Resorts.

I also worked with other local filmmakers. After ‘Eating Air’ I persuaded Kelvin Tong to go mainstream with our own horror hit, ‘The Maid’. It became the most travelled Singapore movie, and the first Singapore film to be marketed by Fortissimo. While everyone warned me against a musical, especially one with Hokkien songs, and the fact that Royston Tan might be too art house a director (following his short films and ’15’), I nevertheless proceeded to work with Eric Khoo on Royston’s ‘881’. The outcome was phenomenal. It was our first local musical hit, which spun a hit album while the street art, Getai, danced into the glare of mainstream media.

Regionally, I started to work with Australia on the critically acclaimed ‘Home Song Stories’ and New Zealand on ‘The Tattooist’.

Meanwhile, Eric Khoo had more notices in Cannes with ‘Be With Me’ and ‘My Magic’, following ’12 Storeys’ and ‘Mee Pok Man’. There was also a charming film called ‘Singapore Dreaming’. In the last few years, while the main players shifted gears, the results were mixed at best. Junfeng’s ‘Sandcastle’ was a critical success. Anthony Chen’s ‘Ah Ma’ and this year’s commissioned short, ‘The Reunion Dinner’ were critically lauded. ‘Homecoming’ and ‘It’s A Great Great World’ were decent efforts but by no means groundbreaking.

What is disturbing are recent titles like ‘Forever’, ‘Perfect Rivals’ and ‘The Ultimate Winner’. These are by relative new filmmakers who should have worked with and listened to the more experienced producers. These titles set us back, give local movies a strange name, and they are products which will generate a no-confidence vote to investors, industry watchers, movie critics and most importantly, movie audiences.

There will be new players in this new decade. Movies are borderless. Homerun Asia will actively work with filmmakers of any nationality who are good storytellers looking for audiences to form viable markets. While I am hard at work, I am quite confident other Singapore filmmakers are all biting the bullet for that breakout hit which will travel the world. I hope the ten-year cycle is true to filmmakers like me. As with 2002 when there was a positive and revolutionary upturn, I hope in 2012, we will transform the way movies are produced from this part of the world.

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