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The Torch: Last Exit – Hollywood

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The fascinating thing about triviality is to see how marvellously well it works. I think it has a lot to do with beauty rather than how it is treated by (art) historians as a sociological phenomenon with clearly attributable historic causes, or how it means different things to different people, the prime democratic instinct of the meaningfully-biased individual.

What is operative is the innate ratiocination of perception. Its essence is the pattern that lies beneath the complexity and

The Torch

diversity of our surface world, simplified into a pictogram or an ideal representation of that sub-structure of form that strikes us as beautiful. A beauty that is recognisable when seen on screen the world over, because it addresses the universal theme of what it is to be human and tells an ageless, inexhaustible tale in a language accessible to all, in forceful images that strike a chord, resonate and last.

So much for visual beauty. To me, there are two different ways to make use of this and translate or address its demands when making a film. I’m speaking here of the ill-balanced competition between your local Singaporean product and its huge Hollywood counterpart.

Hollywood has been remarkably successful in establishing and distributing a limited set of story formulae and character stereotypes that fit into a framework of pared-down basic drama, with variations depending on what the respective studio budgets allow for. Dominate the market, monopolise the marketing channels and sooner or later you will have grown your audience to fit your product – that’s what I call pragmatic!

This is hardly advice to the independent community. Hollywood’s decidedly antagonistic approach to making a movie is why I think you can do much better than any giant media corporation in general – specifically, what you can achieve in Singapore that only you can possibly do and be successful with.

Let’s talk about provincialism. The wrong people always object to it; whenever I encounter them, it really gives me the creeps. For starters, these thorough-thinking folks don’t seem to know what they are talking about. The concept of provincialism emerged in the olden days of the Roman Empire. Without going into details, it was surely a blessing back then. But usage alters the original, and where meaning and words are concerned, re-coining adds an additional worth to the currency. Therefore we now understand the term to signify the dumb-struck and foolishly-awed attitude of those who live away from the perceived centre, who unquestioningly take virtually everything that pertains to this admired “beacon of excellence” as being superior by default and try to mimic its every expression.

This is right at the heart of the matter – to adopt a provincial point of view and constantly look to Hollywood or Hong Kong as your guiding reference as the capitals of successful film making, can yield nothing but formulaic, second-class results.

A good portion of parochialism is however beneficial. You have an awareness of your surroundings, you feel what is closest to you and that you are a product of yourself, love it or hate it. Such an approach strengthens everything that is original and unique about your film; you’re on home ground after all and no one knows better.

I cherish films that have a strong and unmistakable sense of place about them, films that you see and know right away couldn’t have been conceived or shot anyplace else. In this way Singapore, in my opinion, will make it onto the screens and into the global visual memory, which is the cornerstone of any international and inter-cultural exchange.

Don’t be apologetic about your Singaporean take on things, rather make it your prime asset. What makes a film truly “Singaporean”, well, that is not for me to tell. But I do know that you film makers have every conceivable freedom to define it, to let it take on whatever meaning you want it to have.

Don’t redo – instead, innovate, challenge and never underestimate your audience. Cinema has its part to play in creating awareness and educating people. Just remember: you can build up your audiences of the future – but you can likewise ruin them forever. There are patterns of consumption applicable to watching movies in the theater or at home, just as there are any number of behaviourisms to be sown, fostered and ultimately profited from. So don’t try to imitate a standard mould of storytelling and squeeze your idea into its limited container; it may not fit. Dare to deviate from the blockbuster scheme and don’t confuse its well-established allure to the many with the much grander appeal of speaking to the universal, the collective human condition itself.

Clearly there is much more that makes for a good movie that people will like to watch, spend their time and money on. But as far as the initial momentum that propels you to venture forth and make a film as a Singaporean is concerned, I say that as long as you stick to what speaks directly to your heart, you already have what it takes, the creative spark that sets the imagination ablaze.

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