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Woo Yen Yen & Colin Goh (part 2)

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Read part 1 of the interview here.

Quite a few Singapore films depict the same issues, the same scenes and the same personalities, e.g. the heartland family and their pursuits to climb the social ladder. Why do you think this is the case?

Woo Yen Yen and Colin GohYou know, we’ve heard this comment before, but we’ve never quite understood it.

There seem to be certain people who seem to feel that Singapore films shouldn’t be about Singapore life at all. But 80% of Singaporeans live in the heartland, and 100% of them are climbing the social ladder. Get used to it!

Anyway, look at the response at the box office. The films that reflect our way of life tend to do quite well, which means that there is a hunger to see our experiences depicted authentically.

This isn’t just the case for film. Look at the 2006 Singapore Theatre Festival, with its focus on local stories. It did much better than the Arts Festival with all its international orientation. I think people just respond naturally to the truth.

Also, we think it’s pretty shallow to just look at the cosmetic elements of a film. Just because a film features heartlanders doesn’t mean the treatment is the same. Even if the films are about heartland life, the stories, characters and how the issues are dealt with are completely different. Anyone can tell that Jack Neo’s films aren’t the same as Djinn’s, Royston Tan’s, Eric Khoo’s or ours. Money No Enough or I Not Stupid are not remotely similar to Perth, 15 or Singapore Dreaming in tone, plot, rhythm or anything else.

You don’t see British audiences or critics having a go at Mike Leigh or Ken Loach for making working-class films, or at Martin Scorcese or Francis Ford Coppola for making Italian-American films. So we feel this criticism is severely misplaced.

It’s funny, but the people from whom we usually hear this comment tend to be upper middle-class types, and we always sense a veiled resentment that their lives aren’t being featured. Well, if these audiences feel you’re being marginalised in culture, then go and make some films that really reflect your reality! We would definitely support the film.

Some people have questioned the extent to which Singapore filmmakers understand “heartland” issues, since these filmmakers are generally middle-class or relatively well-off. What do you think?

We can only speak for ourselves, of course. Yen grew up almost all of her life in HDB settings, beginning with a tiny 1-room (not 1-bedroom, ah!) flat to a 3-bedroom flat. Almost her entire family continue to live in HDB flats. Both of us have many friends and relatives who live in HDB settings.

Leaving aside where a person lives, how can someone living in Singapore avoid interacting with the lives and dreams of HDB-dwellers, when more than 80% of Singaporeans live in HDB flats? Are we that insular as a society?

This comment also relies on a rather strange assumption. Must you have seen ghosts to make a ghost movie? Must you have been in a gang to make a gangster movie? Must you have gone to outer space to make a sci-fi movie? Should we accept I Not Stupid only if Jack Neo was a schoolteacher, or 15 only if Royston Tan has an arrest record?

Another funny assumption we keep encountering is that if a film is about HDB life, then it must be about a poor family. Come on, this is nonsense. We all know people who live in HDB flats who also drive BMWs and hold corporate jobs. Not all of us live squalid, desperate lives. The Loh family in Singapore Dreaming is actually middle-class, not working-class. Loh Poh Huat works in a law firm, for crying out loud.

Maybe the problem is not that the majority of filmmakers are from the middle class, but that too many film critics, students and pundits have too rigid a notion of class. Maybe not enough of them live in HDB flats either.

Having said that, we do think it is important that in the arts, we get more voices from different walks of life, different races and different social classes. This is very important for the arts to really educate us about different people’s experiences. In that way, we get a richer view of our society and maybe become better people as well.

But we really believe that ultimately what’s important is not stuff like where you came from, what school you studied in or other bits of window dressing. What’s far more important is getting the fundamentals of cultural work right: being thorough in one’s research, being imaginative about new spaces and characters, and being honest in translating all the elements into emotional truth.

Are you going to continue telling “heartland” stories? What other types of film styles or storytelling would you like to try out? What are some other ways of telling stories that perhaps haven’t been attempted in Singapore film yet?

As filmmakers, we aren’t the sort who‘s out to develop a particular style or type of film. We’re primarily storytellers and the story will drive the look and feel. Otherwise, it gets a little boring for us.

Our focus is to tell compelling and layered stories, and the styles we choose will always have to support the story, not the other way round. We think that Singapore films are often very good technically, but more often than not, more thought needs to go into the script.

For us, the script is the foundation of the entire film, and no amount of clever cinematic jiggery-pokery will ever save a shallow story. We learned this the hard way with TalkingCock the Movie, which was almost all attitude and no script. With Singapore Dreaming, we tried to be very disciplined about conceiving the narrative threads, and I guess that¹s paid off.

We hope to improve even further with our next film, which is a mystery thriller. We¹re going to be entering our “Fortress of Solitude” soon to really break down the beats and work out the character and narrative threads. The storytelling structure with this is more complex than in Singapore Dreaming. We don’t want to give anything away at the moment, but it’s like an acrostic puzzle, so it’ll be a real challenge.

But at some point, we also want to return to do a really silly, laugh-out-loud, pound-the-floor comedy, rooted in human ridiculousness. There are some wacky things that have been percolating in our head which we’d really love to try. Akan datang!

What are your hopes for the Singapore film scene? Are there any developments or trends you’d like to see happening?

Hopes? You mean filmmakers have hopes? Bwah-ha-ha-ha-ha! OK, how about some wishful thoughts:

1. That more Singaporean films will make meaningful breakthroughs in the international market.
2. That we’ll see more Singaporean films with a greater emphasis on story, rather than just mood and pretty pictures.
3. That film piracy will disappear.
4. That making features can be a viable career and not just the expensive hobby you do in between producing commercials or selling MLM or whatnot.
5. That the Singapore filmmaking community will share knowledge and resources more.

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