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.


Eating Air (1999) Jiak Hong / 吃風

Language: English, Mandarin, Hokkien
Director: Kelvin Tong & Jasmine Ng
Runtime: 100 minutes
Starring: Benjamin Heng, Alvina Toh, Joseph Cheong, Mark Lee, Michelle Chong

Theme: Crime/Gangsterism

Ratings: IMDB: 4.9/10

Film Festivals:
2000 Rotterdam International Film Festival (RIFF)
2000 Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF)
2000 Stockholm Film Festival (SFF)

2000 Silver Screen Award for Young Cinema (SIFF) – Kelvin Tong, Jasmine Ng
2000 FIPRESCI Prize – Honorable Mention (SFF), “for its sense of escapism and youthful dreams through visual metaphors, special effects and inventive humour.”

2000 Tiger Award (RIFF)
2000 Silver Screen Award for Best Asian Feature (SIFF)
2000 Bronze Horse (SFF)

Eating Air is former film critic Kelvin Tong’s debut feature film foray, albeit a joint collaboration with another directorial upstart Jasmine Ng. It remain the latter’s sole feature film work, having went on to documentary direction with credits in Lonely Planet Six Degrees and Invisible City. Kelvin Tong, however, boasts subsequent box office hits like The Maid (2005), Rule No 1 (2008) and Kidnapper (2010) to his filmography. It must be noted that Eating Air was one of the films to premiere amongst the influx that came with the renaissance of Singapore cinema, and it was also one of the many that fell flat, failing to break even. Made on a budget of S$800,000, it only managed to gross $350,000 during its month-long run.

A significant feature of Eating Air is its heavy use of visual metaphors and special effects, a tone set right from the start through the use of bright, sharp, vivid colors throughout the film that sometimes border on psychedelic. The punk, proletariat tone of the film is set right from the start through the use of stereotypical clichés. First, we have Ah Boy (the protagonist) on a motorcycle spinning left and right (despite keeping within his lane) along the virtually deserted roads along Bugis. The punk rock track in the background lends credence to this mood in the opening sequence. We then see Ah Boy entering the expressway when another motorcycle pulls up beside him. The symbolic act of sharing a smoke cements their relationship as good friends. The scene ends with another car with troublemakers chasing them, which eventually gets into a chain collision, the comedic tone set when the hooligans get out of the car ready to start a brawl and they realize their motorcycles simply would not start; they then sit by the kerb, bloodied (03:21).

Further establishing the uncouth nature of the movie is Ah Boy’s first actions after waking up from bed. Topless, he stretches as he stands by the doorway and gives his crotch a gentle scratch (04:25).

Chinese/Japanese martial art comic impressions (04:19) are visible through Ah Boy’s surrealist dream sequences that start off with a clap of thunder in the background and him wielding a sword to fight with a ninja (04:12). Such instances are peppered throughout the film, and his opponents range from his parents (04:50), geishas (26:51) and even the elevator (06:09). “In this world, I walk alone,” he declares.

A key scene (and a very clever one, I must add, in terms of aesthetics and technique that all film students really should study) of the movie begins in the photocopying shop at 27:34, which captures the menial, repetitive nature of the job. The rhythmic scans of the machine is remixed with steady drum beats, marking the begin of a full two-minute long sequence that leads to other rhythmic actions. We see Ah Girl playing with her purple pen, a man walking by the shop, a lady ironing clothes, a man playing with coins, a man swinging the plastic bag, an athlete bouncing a ball, a man lifting weights, a hostess banging on her mike etc. This smooth rhythm creates a prominence of menial Singaporean tasks that many have taken for granted and not paid much attention to. Further, it bears a stark contrast to the gang chase that ensues.

The anime influence of the movie is further expounded through the emphasis on the blow of punches and faces hitting the wall, through close-up shots utilized at 30:40 for instance. Further, the anime emphasis on color is evident in the scene at 35:30, where a black-white, good-evil dichotomy is omnipresent through their attire. This scene is further contrasted with

The main difference between Eating Air and Royston Tan’s seminal 15 (2003) – which also deals with similar themes of gangsterism – is that the latter came under heavy scrutiny by the film censors, and thus was thrusted into the public limelight. Eating Air perhaps failed on this count, aside from its poor timing that pushed it into the shadows of other more prominent commercial releases such as Jack Neo’s Liang Po Po: The Movie (1999) and the Fann Wong-helmed The Truth About Jane & Sam (2000). While it did make a slight ripple on the international film festival circuit for its vivid tones and inventive humour, I believe this remains one of the most underrated Singaporean films of all time. For it manages to capture the root and essence of the Singaporean culture (the next film that manages to do that, in my opinion, is Singapore Dreaming (2006)), whilst seamlessly marrying elements of Japanese manga anime within.