From the luxurious, airy halls of the Capitol Theatre to the offbeat charm of indie cinema The Projector, there’s no denying that Singapore has its own thriving cinematic audience. In fact, our sunny island has one of the highest per capita cinema attendance in the world - with 19 million attendees and over 250 cinema screens islandwide!
Beyond international blockbusters and Marvel movies, it seems that Singaporean cinema is moving towards the limelight. Jack Neo’s Ah Boys To Men 2 is the top-grossing Singaporean film of all time, evidently striking the right chord in local culture.
And of course, household names Royston Tan, Anthony Chen and Eric Khoo have continued ushering Singapore cinema towards global attention. More recent Singaporean cinematic accomplishments include Kirsten Tan’s Pop Aye (which bagged an award at the 2017 Sundance Festival) and A Land Imagined by Yeo Siew Hua, which made history for being the first ever Singaporean film to win the Golden Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland.
Meanwhile on the small screen, Channel 5’s longest-running series Tanglin concluded recently with a whopping 823 episodes, while The Little Nyonya, one of local television’s most beloved series, is getting a remake in China - and was launched at the Asia TV Forum & Market and ScreenSingapore 2018.
With such a strong slate of content from Singapore and an eager audience, what exactly is the inspiration that drives these stories? We speak with three of Singapore’s prominent talents to find out.
Queen of Drama
Chan Pui Yin, Associate Producer, The Little Nyonya, has fond memories of working on the remake of The Little Nyonya. ‘[The original show] has been acclaimed by viewers and critics, receiving the highest viewership in Singapore in 14 years. This success gave rise to the show being broadcasted internationally in over 9 countries including Malaysia, Cambodia, France, Philippines, Myanmar, United States, Vietnam, Thailand, Hong Kong and China, over renowned networks like TVB and Netflix. This is a proven IP that has the unique Peranakan culture, identifiable to Singapore and Malaysia, and is a good first production to be introduced to China from [the region].’
‘In past productions, we rarely built such gigantic sets due to budget constraints and limited market size. But with the expansion of our products into the worldwide Chinese speaking territories, the delivery of a high quality premium drama is a prerequisite.’
It was a great feeling to be standing on one of these sets and to be involved in delivering a soon-to-be premium product for the audiences.
The secret sauce to a good local drama?
‘Other than a good story and a good way of telling the story, it is important for the drama to be unique in its own way, so that the audience will be attracted to follow through its episodes. For example, it could be based on a unique territorial culture, or characters recognisable from that part of the world. Audiences will be interested to find out more as they do not see these content in their own countries frequently,’ says Chan.
Documentaries are also gaining traction in recent years. 2017 saw the release of Tan Pin Pin’s A Time to Come, while Sandi Tan’s documentary Shirkers made it onto Netflix. As part of its 20th anniversary celebration this year, the Singapore Film Commission (SFC) has commissioned a production that will document the history and evolution of the Singapore film industry, featuring numerous local filmmakers sharing their insights on filmmaking as well as the film community.
This year, the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) also features several documentary films in its extensive lineup - including Craig McTurk’s directorial debut The Last Artisan. The film follows Teo Veoh Seng, a longstanding artisan at Haw Par Villa - a uniquely Singaporean location often overlooked in lieu of more glamorous attractions. The park itself features sculptures and installations depicting aspects of Chinese folklore - some bordering on surreal, others on grotesque.
The film’s director, Craig McTurk, senior lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, has been based in Singapore for the past 17 years. ‘I was looking for a small human story against which I could try to convey how a country and people have changed over one man's lifetime,’ said McTurk, on the inspiration behind The Last Artisan. ‘I found Mr. Teo's life story to be ideal in this way, because it offers poignant personal and social insights against the visually rich, somewhat macabre world of Haw Par Villa.’
McTurk also found the filmmaking process to be a unique experience in itself, as he did not speak Mandarin or Teochew and could not directly converse with Teo Veoh Seng. ‘It was always exciting for the editor and I to view the English transcript of the dialogue for the first time. We could finally read the interview segments that were done in Mandarin or Teochew a few weeks prior. More than once we were delighted at the some of the responses given by the three main characters.’
Many of the [main characters] statements couldn't have been written or conceived by a scriptwriter - they were that heartfelt, vivid, and soulful.
But the film is more than just about its characters. McTurk hopes that The Last Artisan will bring across an important message to audiences.
History and memories from workers and labourers (both Singaporean and migrant workers) are very real and meaningful. Their thoughts and experiences can sometimes take us to places we never expected to go. Sadly, their dilemmas and personal situations are often overlooked or ignored by the mainstream press and academics - the custodians of history.
Human stories featuring artists and musicians resonate with me, and I hope to continue making films that explore their world.
All About Animation
Last but not least, animation as a media format has always continued to deliver engaging stories to audiences of all ages. Just last year, Tiny Island Productions (Dream Defenders, Ben 10 - Destroy All Aliens) were in talks to produce more animated content for general audiences. The hugely popular Oddbods by One Animation has reached global markets, receiving nominations both last year and this year for the International Emmy Kids Awards.
In the midst of this animation attention is Low Ser En. One of the judges for SMF Ignite this year, Low was the producer behind Poles Apart, an animated short that won several awards - including the McLaren Award for Best British Animation at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and a BAFTA award for Best British Short Animation this year.
‘I really like animated films because it is a medium that really allows filmmakers to tell stories that are out of this world, it can be very imaginative and magical,’ says Low.
A lot of people think that animation is used to create fantasy worlds, but it can also be used for serious films and topics, in a way that live action films can’t express.
‘The inspiration for Poles Apart came from a news article that [director] Paloma Baeza and I read, which described a vast white Arctic landscape viewed from the air, with an unusual dark shape moving across it - a Grizzly Bear,’ she explains.
‘We created these two characters who are literally polar opposites, and the film is about their friendship and how they learn to work together to survive. It was a collaborative effort with the director Paloma, and I had the chance to be creatively involved from script development all the way to the edit.’
Low had also worked on other live-action projects, including the recent Zombiepura. Her experience with animation as a medium came with its own set of ups and downs. ‘Animation is definitely a much slower process, but it’s so satisfying when it’s completed! Paloma and I are in love with the stop motion animation technique because it provides such a tactile quality, and there's something visceral about moving a puppet frame by frame, that sets it apart from the smooth CG animation films we are so used to seeing. Poles Apart is only 12 minutes long, but took 15 months from conception to completion, and the shoot itself took 29 weeks as we could only shoot 4-5 seconds a day.
Besides animation on a global level, it seems that Low Ser En is also very supportive of the local animation offerings. ‘Recently I was one of the judges on Cartoons Underground and there are so many confident, unique films from Singapore. I was very impressed and had a hard time selecting a winner! When I was working in visual effects, I met many talented individuals as well.’
‘I am sure with the right infrastructure, and financial support for animation films, we will get there someday.’
Indeed, the future of media is set to achieve new heights, with local storytellers continuing to put Singapore on the map. Keep a lookout for the yearly Singapore Media Festival, as we celebrate the finest in Asian storytelling.