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.
Over 15 years ago, a few of us, namely Eric Khoo, Jack Neo and I, tried to write the rules for the Singapore film sector. Those were the heady days of kickstarting the semblance of an industry. As Singaporeans would be, we set out to be successful. Success, as with any Singaporean industry, was ultimately about making money. Or at least being viable. We championed all that could make money, almost at all costs. We categorised movies in black and white terms — commercial movies and art-house films. The collective effort was to seek out who with, and how, to produce the next money-making film, the next hit.
I remember telling anyone who would listen: “I am not about art-house films. I make movies to make money so that I can continue to make movies.” Our words were powerful. Young film-makers saw the sky-high entry level for this industry. They needed to understand more than film-making — they needed to know how to outsmart Hollywood and Hong Kong titles in guerrilla marketing, to get a piece of the box-office pie. Making movies was all about understanding what the market wanted. By 2003, we started seeing the “Jack Neo derivatives”. The idea that to succeed, we needed to make Jack Neo types of movies. Such a herd mentality existed everywhere, but for a small and budding industry, it was more pronounced and limiting.
In 2013, Ilo Ilo won both the Camera D’Or Award at Cannes and the Best Film honour at the Golden Horse Awards. It showed what a different kind of success looks like, and broke the glass ceiling for a different breed of film-makers — film-makers with an independent bent who are inspired by auteurs. To them, good cinema is not totally driven by market considerations, although the two are not mutually exclusive. They want to move and inspire audiences by telling stories of the human condition. They endeavour to engage the market to progressively raise the common denominator in public taste. Variety, the international film magazine, hailed them as the new wave of Singapore directors.
In the last two years, these directors have found their own success: In 2015 with 7 Letters, this year with Apprentice and A Yellow Bird. Boo Junfeng’s Apprentice became a watershed Singapore film, not for tackling the topic of capital punishment per se, but for its bold and sensitive handling of it, and how the movie was produced. For the first time, a Singapore film was public-funded and invested in by five countries. And for all its international participation, it remains steadfastly a Singaporean story and Singaporean film. It brought Boo Junfeng five international awards, including the Rising Director accolade at the Busan Film Festival.
Does this mean we now have a successful film industry? Mr Ng Say Yong, managing director of MM2, thinks Singapore is almost there, but will need a steady stream of quality films in the next few years to be sure. Boo Junfeng feels that film-making has been driven largely by directors, producers or actors. “We will need artistically discerning people who want to be the best cinematographer, line producer, sound designer, set designer, or editor, so that collectively, there are professionals across the board to help fulfil a cinematic vision for Singapore,” he said. The industry is making strides, but most agree we will need a break-out hit to take this momentum to a different plain. A breakout hit is one that breaks out of its domestic market into regional and global markets, paving the way for other titles to follow. I Not Stupid and Ilo Ilo are mini break-outs.
In a country with instant trees and a bottom line, how should we see success for this art form? The simple answer has been that it should make money, or it should win an award. At such a critical point, this would be the wrong answer, and we will be missing the plot again. Success is manifold, and I am of the opinion that we should produce more films. Better films, of course, but also those of greater diversity. This is where a company like MM2 plays a vital role. Its forward production output for the next 18 months is now scaled up to about 30 movies across the region. In this business, the irony of quantity for quality is intriguing. With volume, an industry can take shape. And with volume, the chances of a gem emerging are higher. And this gem of a film will be our much needed break-out hit.
My friend who watched Apprentice asked me to relay his thoughts to the director. He enjoyed the film. He did not think he would because of the subject matter. Leaving the cinema, he felt a sense of pride that Singapore had produced a film of such restraint and intellect. It has widened his perceptions of what a Singapore film is or can be. 2016 was a big year for swimmer Joseph Schooling and singer Nathan Hartono. Their success unified and bonded Singaporeans as a people in ways that were new, exhilarating and spontaneous. Can such cultural cheerleading be less conditional? Can we cheer our people on, to win and not only after we have won? Indeed, the time has come for Singapore to support Singaporean films. It is only with such support that our film-makers, in whatever country they are shooting or releasing their movies, can look back and know their stories have a home. After all, their films are meditations of who we were and who we are.