Last updated: 13 March 2023
Published on: 11 June 2018
10 MINS READ
As we mark the Singapore Film Commission's 20th anniversary, here's an insider's take on how local films tell our stories to the world.
By Daniel Yun
When Joseph Schooling won the gold medal at the Rio Olympic Games and Nathan Hartono almost upstaged the Sing! China competition in 2016 – a year after we celebrated SG50 – something happened to us as a people. Across the island, Singaporeans felt a source of national pride we have not fully experienced before.
The pride that united us then is more powerful than any national campaign.
Younger Singaporeans suddenly understand what it means to follow your heart. That you can dream because your dream can come true. This intangible, unifying force is a part of the awakening of the nation’s “soft power”, a term coined by a political scientist in 1990. Singaporeans rally together as they see the image of their country boosted on a global stage.
Developed countries see entertainment, especially films, as a key contributor to their soft power. America is the top player with Hollywood. China is an emerging force, with ambitions to be a cultural superpower. South Korea has become a modern classic case study with their Korean Wave, which boosted their economy with an estimated US$11.6 billion in 2014.
Can Singapore wield this soft power? Before we start looking at our limitations or how small our market is, perhaps we can take a look at how far our film industry has come.
There was a time when we wondered if Singapore could have a film industry at all. In 1998, the Singapore Film Commission (SFC) was formed. It was a good year for Singapore films. It was the year Money No Enough created waves at the local box office, signalling the start of the Jack Neo phenomenon.
It was also the year Raintree Pictures was incepted as a company and went on to produce over 30 titles, some of which are watershed films in our cultural landscape.
In the first five years of the formation of SFC, the average output per year was four movies. That number doubled in the next five years. From 2012 to 2017, average output reached 11 movies annually. These numbers reflect only films with theatrical release, not counting movies for festivals, telemovies or online content.
Now we do have a film industry to speak of. It is small, but the numbers show a steady growth. Almost every filmmaker working today will attest to the crucial role the SFC plays in this growth. In recent years, we are also starting to witness international acclaim.
In 2013 Ilo Ilo won the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, along with four awards at the 50th Golden Horse Awards, including Best Feature Film. It marked a turning point for the local film industry.
Films such as Apprentice, A Yellow Bird and Pop Aye followed with more international accolades at festivals such as Busan, Sundance, Toronto and Rotterdam.
So has the Singapore film industry come of age?
"Coming into my own and making a feature like POP AYE, I realised that what was more difficult than making the film and having it premiere at a good festival is getting enough local audiences to see the film," Kirsten Tan, the film’s director, said.
Herein lies a real challenge. A recent straw poll (with 80 respondents of diverse backgrounds) revealed that 80 per cent of Singaporeans think Singapore films are important for the country. Yet less than 30 per cent of Singaporeans have seen a locally made film in the last year.
The Singapore films that are top of mind include Ah Boys To Men, I Not Stupid, Money No Enough, Ilo Ilo and 12 Storeys. Other titles that registered are Homerun, 881, 15, The Maid, 7 Letters, POP AYE and Ramen Teh.
Telling our stories
The poll also asked this question: What if all these films were not made in the last 20 years?
What would the impact be in the life of a Singaporean if there were no discernible Singapore films? The qualitative responses to this question are telling. For some respondents, there would be a disconnect. For others, there would be a void in our culture. But the sad truth is that for most, life goes on. Is it a surprise at all?
Singaporeans by and large are apathetic to Singapore films. Then why does the government continue to support the industry and Singapore filmmakers continue to make films? Why nurture such a creative endeavour? Why make films at all?
“Every country, every society needs its people to tell stories. We need to tell stories (and) tell the truth about ourselves to ourselves and to the world,” explained K. Rajagopal, the director of A Yellow Bird.
Joachim Ng, the director of the SFC, echoed this sentiment. “Families are held together by stories of their past, present and future. More than economics, a resilience of a country is built on the stories we have. And film is one of the best, if not the best medium to tell our stories,” he said.
For Boo Junfeng, who made Apprentice, there is a “need to see cinema as a form of art before we can even consider building an industry out of it."
Jennie Chua, chairperson of the SFC, added: “Without films, I think our emotional growth as a people will be stunted. How stunted? I cannot quantify. What kind of a society will we be if we focus only on economic growth?”
Our own films tell our stories like no other films can or will. Singapore filmmakers and the SFC are punching above their weight. Output has more than doubled. There are international accolades. Why then are Singaporeans still not supporting the industry?
Singapore films take only below 5 per cent of a thriving total box office of just under S$200 million, compared to about 10 per cent in Malaysia, over 50 per cent in Korea, about 70 per cent in China and almost 90 per cent in India.
“Singaporeans are generally suspicious of the appeal of local films. A Singapore film is guilty until proven innocent," explained Lim Teck, founder of Clover Films. "It is not enough that Ilo Ilo won big at Cannes, it took an unprecedented win at the Golden Horse for local audiences to want to watch it.”
Ultimately, Singaporeans must want to watch Singapore films. Films can be a source of national pride, within and outside the film community.
This pride is the start of soft power. For a film to truly succeed internationally, it needs to have the home support from the ground.
“I want to first feel proud of Singapore films. If the branding of our local films inspire pride, support will follow. Right now, I do feel proud of some Singapore films,” said local designer Bjorn Yeo.
In 2008, Eric Khoo’s My Magic became the only Singapore film to compete for the Palme d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival.
“Walking up the red carpet for My Magic and hearing my son Christopher’s score playing, was surreal and moving. It dawned on me that anything was possible. Finally a Singaporean film was selected for the main competition at the world’s most important film festival,” Eric recalled. The film went on to receive standing ovations at its screenings during the festival.
Sean Ng, founder of Amok who is preparing to shoot his first feature, looked back and said: "I remember reading about the standing ovation (for My Magic) when I was still in film school. I felt a pride I have never felt before. For my country, for Singaporeans, and for filmmaking… My pride filled me with a sense of hope that making films could indeed be a livelihood. I could now hone my craft to tell stories from where I grew up.”
Local designer Amy Tan, who was in France when Ilo Ilo won the Camera d’Or at Cannes, shared her emotional experience. “Something stirred in me. I was surprised by my own reaction. That moment got me thinking of coming back to Singapore. I felt very proud how Singaporeans have broken out of our limitations. There are many other practical reasons for me to return. But I am still surprised by how such a moment can become life-changing for me.”
But the ultimate question remains: What will it take to make Singaporeans rally behind Singapore films?
Ray Pang, founder of Premise, a new film crowd-funding platform, said that supporting Singapore films should not be the sole responsibility of the SFC. “Everyone, from our media, the exhibitors, the public at large, should support. If we ourselves don’t support our own film industry, no one will.”
Neither is it the responsibility of filmmakers alone. “Singaporeans must know the success of Singapore films is a collective national effort. Our filmmakers need their support to succeed locally and on the world stage,” said Melvin Ang, the founder of mm2 Entertainment.
After 20 years, perhaps it is time Singaporeans show our filmmakers the love they deserve. It starts with appreciating their efforts and feeling proud of their work.
As Jennie Chua observed: “Whatever the message, the films are made with love. And all of them love our country dearly.”
Daniel Yun is a filmmaker and life coach.
1. Still of Ramen Teh for teaser image: ALL RIGHTS RESERVED © 2017 COPYRIGHT WILD ORANGE ARTISTS INC. & ZHAO WEI FILMS PTE LTD | Photo by Leslie Kee
2. Still of Apprentice for teaser image courtesy of Akanga Film Asia.
3. Still of Pop Aye for teaser image courtesy of Giraffe Pictures Asia.
4. Poster of Ah Boys To Men for teaser image courtesy of J Team Productions.