Singapore Cinema

While I did not attempt this question during the Asian Film History exam last week, I felt I had some thoughts that I wish to share with regard to the following question. So here I am, again, with what I would probably have written should I have attempted that question.

Has there ever been a breakthrough film movement in Singapore cinema? Justify yes or no, and why.

No I do not think there has never been a breakthrough film movement in Singapore cinema. The revival of Singapore cinema in then 1990s may be considered a “breakthrough” for the sudden, dramatic and important development of film, a renaissance since the flourishing industry of the 1950s and 1960s met its demise following the shift in focus of Cathay-Keris Films and Shaw Brothers from that of a production house to a film distributor. But there has not been a “film movement” to talk about that is much alike the other film movements that I have discussed. A primary factor to consider in a film movement is a similarity in aesthetic and treatment of the films within a specific time period. Yet this has not yet been evident in Singapore cinema. Amid the local film circle are established auteurs like Eric Khoo, Royston Tan, Jack Neo and Kelvin Tong but their works all deviate widely from each other. Further, these directors (save for Jack Neo) are very sporadic, which does not fulfill the prolific nature of moviemakers within a film movement.

They possess distinctive styles. Eric Khoo’s Mee Pok Man (1995), 12 Storeys (1997), Be With Me (2005) and My Magic (2007) were all akin to neo-realism in their reflection of proletariat Singaporean society—as personalities like the hawker vendor, an alcoholic single parent, a prostitute came under the spotlight of his film. His style is more quasi-documentary, and he does not serve to sensationalize the films beyond the simplicity that they are.

Yet Royston Tan’s films like 15 (2003), 4:30 (2005), 881 (2007) take on an entirely different aesthetic with a staunch focus on musical elements. While he also deals with a reflection of the layman Singaporean society, dealing with marginalized characters like the gangster and the getai singer, unlike Khoo he opts to intersperse this contemporary realism with MTV-esque elements of song and dance such as rap in 15 (2003) and Chinese opera in 881 (2007).

Erstwhile, there is Jack Neo, the most prolific of the lot. But even though his films reflect contemporary Singaporean society too, he generally does it with a comedic twist, and in an almost catered-for-television manner that bears a throwback to his television roots. His repertoire includes Money No Enough (1998), I Not Stupid (2002), The Best Bet (2004), Just Follow Law (2007), though it also comprises the anomaly that was Home Run (2003). His style can hardly be considered experimental à la Khoo’s or Tan’s.

In comparison, Kelvin Tong’s style cuts the swarthe from experimental comedy (Eating Air, 1999) to horror (The Maid, 2005) and comedy horror (Men in White, 2007). Furthermore, his upcoming 2011 feature It’s a Great Great World is more of a historical biopic, and this lack of singularity in his style further contributes to the argument of a lack of a breakthrough film movement.

Yet the recent works of fledgling filmmakers may just serve to provide the impetus needed for a breakthrough film movement that Singapore cinema needs., These films bear Italian neorealist trademarks, and are generally experimental works that blend theatrical elements with realism in a quasi-documentary manner. Pertinent filmmakers of this movement—if they gain in prolificacy—will include Boo Junfeng (Sandcastle, 2009; Keluar Baris, 2008 (short) ), Han Yew Kuang (18 Grams of Love, 2008; When Hainan Meets Teochew, 2010), Nicholas Chee (Becoming Royston, 2007) and Loo Zihan (Solos, 2007). But whether or not this movement will kick start is determinant of the course that is set in the next two years or so.