Course Title: Film Studies
Growing up under Pressure
Some of my perspectives on Singapore film industry
(As a Chinese born in the late 1980s and grown up in a populous mainland city, Singapore film is not a familiar word to me. Surrounded by Hollywood blockbusters and Hong Kong gangster films, I watched my first Singapore film 3 months ago after arriving here. The more Singapore films I watch, the more curious I feel about the film industry of this country, that is the reason why I choose this topic.)
Singapore film industry began in the early 1930s, it enjoyed a golden age in the 1950s and 1960s and produced nearly 400 films during that period. After its independence in 1965, the film industry of the nation was almost silent before 1990 as the government despised film making. However, since the release of Bugis Street and Mee Pok Man, the first profitable local film in 1995, film industry of Singapore has launched into its renaissance.[①] From my perspective, the renaissance of Singapore film industry is in a steady but tortuous process.
The film industry of a country is inseparable with its culture, history, politics and economy background as well as the ideology and value it believes in. Accordingly, I’d like to analyze Singapore film industry from the following aspects:
Singapore a small and multi-raced country possessing a diversified culture, the various ethnic groups celebrate their own cultures while they intermingle with one another. This special form of culture has great influence on local film industry, since film is a cultural practice, it is born in a certain culture context and has emotional and moral impact on the audience. Film is also remarked as a “bridge” connects different cultures and represents the culture background in which it is produced. Therefore to utilize film as an instrument for cross-cultural exchange is rather important to Singapore, since culture harmony is the basic element for a steady-going society.
Take Kelvin Tong’s horror film The Maid for example, it is a horrible story happens in a Singapore Chinese family, there are many traditional Chinese elements in the film, like the Seven Ghost Month, the Chinese Opera and the sacrifice to the dead, these are all representations to the traditional Chinese way of life in the old days. It would arouse a range of different responses among audience coming from different culture background. A Chinese will probably understand the heavy and deep pathos in this movie or even have a feeling of nostalgia to the philosophic perception on life and death in traditional Chinese values, while, say, an Indian or American would probably only enjoy the horror it brings in and sigh with confusion or even misunderstanding of the “unreasonable” Chinese way of life after seeing the film. They may have a peep into the traditional Chinese culture while misunderstand it at the same time. The risk exists in any film produced from any culture background.
Example above is one aspect of the culture issue, on a higher level, film need to represent the unique culture of Singapore to the world and promote indigenous culture at the same time. However, as 99% of the films screened in Singapore are imported while few films are exported, the indigenous culture of Singapore is under threat in the tide of globalization.
Politics & Ideology:
Acting as a part of media industry, film is under the influence of political power and ideological tendency since its appearance. Government is the leading power in control of the film industry, the administrative control can be implemented by two means, one is financing (this will be mentioned later), the other is censorship.
Film censorship is inevitably practiced in every country in different forms and different degree, according to Singapore Media Development Authority, the film censorship in Singapore aims to “protect the young from unsuitable content as well as to maintain stability and harmony in our multi-racial and multi-religious society”.[②] Besides, films are classified into 5 categories in order to provide a wider choice for audiences. As a matter of fact, either the film censorship or the classification is accepted by most of the local audience.
However, things are becoming more complex when we regard film as a way to reflect reality rather than a tool to conform the ideology. Hong Kong broadcasting magnate Run Run Shaw once called Singapore “too clean”,[③] which is a reflection on the strictness of the film censorship, and the “cleanness” is even seemed unreal.
I’d like to discuss more on Royston Tan’s film 15: The Movie, which narrates five fringe Singaporean teenagers who are abandoned by the system, the life they adopt is incompatible to the mainstream of the society. It seems more like a documentary than a film, recording the true-life story of the “bad boys” who lost themselves in the metanarrative in this postmodern world. For some acceptable reasons, this film was initially banned in Singapore and then suffered 27 cuts before being approved for release. It is reasonable for a film which reflects the dark side of a society being banned by the authority in order to maintain social stability, but sometimes to uncover and expose the wound is a better cure. The drug smuggling, suicide committing and self-abandoned adolescent gang boys can be found every place in the world and have become a social problem, film bears the responsibility to guide the audience looking into their inner world and touch their weakness behind the marble façade. It is much helpful than simply brand them “bad guy” and throw them in the corner of this “rich-and-educated-set-the-rule”[④] society. From this point of view, film censorship can be more open and flexible in some certain conditions.
On the other hand, politics is an effective power in promoting the local film industry when the government has realized the function of popular culture in facilitating economy and improving country’s image in the world. Events like the annual Singapore International Film Festival and the Film Week in Singapore Season held in London 2005 witness the government’s effort in promoting Singapore film to the world. Actually these events turned out to be great success which acquires both reputations and profits for Singapore.
What impresses me most on Singapore film industry is that many celebrated films turned out to be very cheaply made. Eric Khoo’s film Mee Pok Man was made with a tight budget of S$100,000, and Tay Teck Lock’s Money No Enough was made for less than S$1 million but raked in S$5.8 million[⑤], making it the most commercially successful local film up to now. (Disappointedly, according to a statistic made by Singapore Film Commission, which indicates the production cost and box office receipts of all Singapore films produced from 1991 to 2007, most of the films are still at loss in business.[⑥]) Compared with some Hollywood blockbusters with tens of millions of US dollar’s budget, or even some Chinese movies produced in recent years, the financing deficiency in Singapore film industry is easy to notice and is apparently a burden on its renaissance, although the relationship between financing, quality and commercial success is not a certainty in film industry.
Accordingly, from another perspective, Singapore films concentrate on themes like social life may objectively because of the restrictions on its small budget, further financial support and more multinational cooperation is needed if Singapore wants to produce epic films like Troy or high-tech films like Star Wars.
Audience & Market:
Geographically, Singapore is an island-state with a 4.5 million small population, it is a limiting factor to the domestic film market. At the same time, due to the diversified culture background, some small budget and realistic films tend to be more successful in Singapore, like Eric Khoo’s 12 stories, Djinn Ong’s Perth and Jack Neo’s I not Stupid. Concentrating on social topics and culture interweaving landscape in Singapore, these films are capable to maintain the customer inland as well as exploit new market and find audience overseas. In recent years, more and more Singapore films appear on the stage of some well-known international film festivals (Pusan, Berlin, Moscow, Venice, etc.), they are nominated or awarded, manifesting Singapore’s marching into the international film market.
It is reasonable that due to the limited space of box income in local film market, the future of commercially successful Singapore film lies in the oversea market. In order to get a position in the international film market, domestic film productions will compete (and cooperate) with studios like Hollywood, Bollywood, and other competitors in Europe and Asia. From my perspective, a renewal in film themes and trends in Singapore film industry is necessary, filmmakers could experiment on new themes like historical or fictive, also, cooperation with other film magnates in the world is helpful to exchange ideas and acquire new techniques in film making as well as solve financial problem.
There are many capable filmmakers and directors in Singapore, they make films with their talent and passion and are trying on different styles and genres, exponents are Jack Neo, Royston Tan, Eric Khoo and Kelvin Tong. These filmmakers and their works have become the milestones in the renaissance of Singapore film industry. Besides the achievement, there is still a rough road to go. More panoramic films capable to reflect the history, society and human spirit of Singapore are in need and other challenges still occur, like to forge an indigenous as well as distinct film culture and film style of Singapore; and to produce more mature films that are both artistically and commercially successful.
To sum up, rapid development in Singapore film industry in the past decade has accumulated governors’ and filmmakers’ experience and confidence in film making as well as marketing. Both domestic and oversea markets are being cultivated, while problems and challenges still exist, the film industry of Singapore has obtained great progress and is showing its huge potential. As long as Singapore film industry can take advantage of its internationalization while maintain the indigenous color, it will harvest more achievement in future.
[①] The history of Singapore film is from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinema_of_Singapore
[④] This phrase is from one of the boy’s lines in 15: The Movie
[⑥] Statistic resource: http://www.sfc.org.sg/main.html