Phillip Lim (part 1)
The year was 1996. The book The Teenage Textbook had been on Singapore bookshelves for almost ten years. There had been no such thing as a “Singapore film industry” for the past twenty-something years.
Phillip Lim, then 32 and working with MTV, decided that he would make the novel into his first feature film.
Recollecting those days now, he can’t help but shake his head during our conversation. “All I wanted to do was make a simple movie, like Kevin Smith’s Clerks. I didn’t treat it like a business. Just do it lah, you know? We weren’t really prepared for what was coming at us.
What was coming was a sudden explosion of Singapore films in 1998, with The Teenage Textbook Movie coming in the wake of Eric Khoo’s 12 Storeys, Glen Goei’s Forever Fever and Jack Neo’s Money No Enough. The expectation, naturally, was that The Teenage Textbook Movie would be the next big hit.
As a filmgoer in Singapore, I remember the heady energy of those days. Iâ€™d just returned from university studies abroad and it seemed that a whole new world had opened up while I was away. It was suddenly possible to talk about Singapore films, Singapore filmmakers and the potential of the Singapore film industry.
To think that when Phillip was first looking for investors in the film, he encountered more blank stares and disbelieving looks than anything else. He spent as much time explaining what went into making a film in general as he did the plans for his film.
But you can’t blame them. No one had a track record then and everyone was equally clueless, he points out.
Once production kicked into gear, Phillip found himself sucked into what he calls â€œa vortex that you can’t get out of. The film grew into enough of a monster to inspire the name of his production company, Monster Films. He woke up everyday not knowing what battles to expect (there was the time his film crew was expelled from CHIJ St Nicholas Girls School, but that’s another story for another time).
Having said all that, he got the film made, it topped the Singapore box office for four weeks and it remains one of the highest-grossing Singapore films to date. It’s got a recognisable cachet, due in no small part to its association with the iconic Singapore novel. To hear Phillip tell it, that was all part of his devious plan from the beginning. “Latch onto Adrian Tan’s fame, you know?” he kids.
Eight years on, what does Phillip make of his freshman feature film? There are things that I really hate about it, but there are things that I also really like.
Hates first: “I was haunted by the car shots,” he confesses. He’d tried to experiment with using car shots overlain with a deejay’s narrative to stitch his story together, Ã la Wolfman Jack in American Graffiti. Unfortunately, given his limited budget, he ended up with fewer shots than he needed, which didn’t quite achieve the same effect.
Likes, then? “I’m very proud of the end of the movie,” Phillip says with absolute verve, just before he plays it for me on his PSP. The ending is where it all began for him, after all. The first time he read the goodbye scene between Miss Boon and Captain Hari, he knew he had a cinematic moment on his hands.
For all the rollercoaster ride that it was, Phillip says that he would still make the film again today. “It got mixed reviews but I knew that was a risk going into the film. Just as everyone has their own opinion about who serves the best chicken rice, everyone has an opinion about The Teenage Textbook novel. They’ll have their own ideas about what the film ought to be too. Just let the box office speak for itself.”
Read part 2 of Sinema.sg’s interview with Phillip Lim, where he tells us more about the kind of films he wants to make next.