Going Under With Chew Tze Chuan
Singapore’s landscape of homegrown cinema seemingly falls into two camps: mainstream and indie. So it made sense for me to delve into the psyche of someone who lies very much on the fringes of both—Singaporean independent underground filmmaker Chew Tze Chuan. I sat down with him to reflect on having his film denied public release, art born from repression, and what he has to say about the past, present, and future of Singapore Cinema.
Prior to meeting with independent underground filmmaker Chew Tze Chuan, he shares with me a couple of documents along with a link. “In case you’d like to read up about Lesser,” the email reads. I follow that link, and it leads me to a rather out-of-date blog from a bygone era, definitely one that hasn’t been updated since the blogging renaissance of the early 2010s.
The post on the main page lays out a contentious statement: “I salute the mainstream filmmakers that still succeed in hooking the attention of the masses by projecting the series of signposts from genre films that are more than half-a-century-old. These businessmen succeed mainly in their manufactures of mind-numbing visual and aural stimulation with their arsenal of cinematic cosmetics, deluding the audience to feel clever (“cool”) and almighty (“kickass”) like a master of the universe.”
The rest of his blog offer visceral reflections on the unconventional personal philosophy he subscribes to: Chew calls it Lesser, a mixture of ideologies culled from the conflicting but bold filmmaking movements of Cinéma Vérité, Direct Cinema, and Dogme 95. A grisly yet enthralling banner photo looms over every edition of his musings—a bloody and psychosexual still from his film All Merciful (Carnaval Redux) depicting an ensanguined couple in the midst of an intimate act.
That original 90-minute cut of this film saw nothing but rejections and dismissals from various people in the film circuit, “enough to make a budding indie filmmaker want to hide in the cave and disappear from the scene forever”. But Chew, along with some encouragement, saw some rudiment of merit in that piece of art, forming the bedrock for Lesser filmmaking.
Watch any of his films or trailers and you’ll see that Chew’s unclassifiable visual aesthetic is clearly that of someone who has thrown off the shackles of a corporate, generic existence. He ricochets between chaos, experimentalism, erotica, and everything in between, challenging conceptions of what a conventional film could or should be. But it’s his palpable desire to pursue the lesser trodden paths and iconoclastic imagery that effectively renders him an outsider in Singapore Cinema.
He brandishes an unapologetically provocative and evocative identity very much a product of the Cinema of Transgression pioneers, whom themselves were born out of the downtown New York City scene in the 1980s and 90s.
Chew was there—during his semester at the 16mm Filmmaking Workshop at New York Film Academy in 1993, he frequented the beloved alternative film paradise Kim’s Underground, a video store that even in its last days rallied together communities of punks, freaks, and artists. “So that’s how my first foray and adventure into underground films started. I was pretty much fucked in the head just from going there everyday for three months…that was pretty much my cornerstone,” he recalls.
A flood of memories of his early introduction to the underground filmmaking scene starts revealing themselves through more of a winding, fervent ramble. “I remember Nick Zedd, I remember Lydia Lunch, they’re all very punk and very transgressive; they challenge everything—everything from the president of America to war,” he expounds.
We were sat at a nondescript table at perhaps the epitome of corporate consumerism, a MOS Burger outlet located in the basement of a heartland mall. So when Chew outwardly alludes to sexuality and queerness in our conversation, it seemed rather transgressive in itself that we were talking about topics that very much leaned into the taboo in the heart of sanitary, suburban Singapore.
“…I think [Singaporeans] have had it with heartlander comedies; why do we always need to have Jack Neo-ish Kopitiam, Heartlander kind of jokes?”
These paths of sensuality and eroticism would intersect at more points than one in Chew’s boundary-pushing career, one that has proved to be nothing less than a tumultuous uphill battle.
What would look like random shocking imagery and scrawls to the average person are a living language to Chew. To him, he revels in them being Lesser, approaching and reading these films imbued with low-budget chaos and violent eroticism like hieroglyphics.
“What draws you to these kind of films?” I ask. “Good question, I’ve been asking myself just that for the last 10 years.”
He replies: “After a while, people will question you, asking why you are doing this, what’s the impulse?” He points to local director Sam Loh, who has helmed erotic thrillers like Lang Tong and Siew Lup, a daring rarity in Singapore cinema’s largely synonymous relationship with feel-good slapstick and horror flicks. Chew gushes at how Loh, whose films have pushed the censorship boundaries with their graphic nudity and violence, has unabashedly stepped into the spotlight of local media to declare his love of gory, hypersexual, and oftentimes controversial Hong Kong Category III films.
“When I look at him, I just want to clap my hands and laugh, because I think he’s bloody honest,” he says: “A lot of those films come out of a certain frustration, and I think [Singaporeans] have had it with heartlander comedies; why do we always need to have Jack Neo-ish Kopitiam, Heartlander kind of jokes?”
Of course, this version of Sam Loh didn’t exist when Chew was still a young, wide-eyed budding provocateur in the early 90s. When he came back from his stint at New York City, he caught short films from early local underground torchbearers Eric Khoo and Dominic Christopher Pereira. The former was more daring in his filmmaking then, Chew recalls, with his 1992 short film Carcass being “very beautiful in a raw sense” due to its unpretentious appearance of its prostitute character. He had never seen such a daring portrayal in a Singaporean film before Mee Pok Man. “That was when I realised it was the dawn, the dawn of alternative filmmaking in Singapore.”
Chew, however, having spent the last three months inundated with the punk-horror-porn edge of the New York independent scene, craved a more Lynchian non-narrative approach to films, something that was missing in narrative-driven Singapore.
Chew takes a long pause from his meandering. He continues: “I think it all comes down to the point that when I look deep inside, there’s this lack of representation, or rather avenues of expression for sensuality here. You don’t have to make it super-artistic, or so transgressive, but in my case, I want to create my own kind of personal cinema that embraces human sensuality, sexuality, and even pornographic imagination all in a way that doesn’t debase human existence.”
“So in a way, your love for transgressive filmmaking was born out of repression?” I probe.
Chew: “Definitely. [Film critic and editor of BigO, Singapore’s only independent pop culture publication] Philip Cheah saw my film Lesser #8 and gave this one-liner: “This is a very intense personal diary of sexual repression in Singapore.” So repression is definitely the word.”
Lesser #8 is a self-described “head-on confrontation with the issues that my late collaborator, Abdul Nizam and I encountered when making Haura in 2000”. They had faced resistance for casting a Malay actress in his film centering on its honest, raw, and more importantly—or more disdained—portrayal of graphic female sensuality.
I ask him if he’s ever thought of leaving Singapore for good, to a place more accepting of the avant-garde. “I think, ultimately, I still have a lot of baggage here in Singapore,” he replies. His main collaborators reside in Tokyo and Manila, which he admits are places much more in tune with his off-kilter sensibilities. But—he emphasises—these cities already had their fair share of counter-culture emergence. From the trashy sexploitation Bomba movies of the Marcos regime, to the Japanese with their “multiple subgenres and sub-sub-subgenres”, their film resistance had already come and gone—multiple times at that.
“I realise that they have done it all in their respective countries, and I have not done it all. I think filmmakers from the Philippines or Japan would say that my films are not transgressive or hardcore enough for them. If I show them to Singaporeans, especially local filmmakers who are still struggling, they would actually feel the intensity and importance,” he says.
A lot of Chew’s writing and thought process involves being cognizant of our primal desires—not just by letting go of our preconceptions of what’s traditionally taboo or not, but also by embracing every single aspect of our vices.
“One could refer to rule number four of my Lesser filmmaking philosophy, ‘Be patient to recognise the conditions behind the endless cycles of repression and indulgence’,” he says.
Chew frequently interjects his stories with requests for me to write things down, often titles of films he deemed were important to the transgressive movement—Scorpio Nights for its depiction of sex, death, philosophy, and martial law, Base-Moi (Rape Me) for its brazen feminist approach to the male gaze. He wonders why forthright portrayals of sensuality is so lacking in local cinema. He says: “It’s time we let go of all that’s holding us back and make something that embraces more of the lower chakras.”
In some ways, Chew is a modern dichotomy. He says he shuns the work of filmmakers who make mainstream films facilitating the “degeneration of human imagination”, yet craves the same mainstream love that these films get. He jokes about the Camera d’Or prize-winning Singaporean film Ilo Ilo, saying its success gives Singaporeans more reasons to hate his work.
He points out how the father in the film is depicted as perpetually smoking cigarettes, a decidedly bad habit to portray on screen. “He can’t even jerk off in that film!” Chew exclaims with exasperation. “Of course, it got a 15-minute standing ovation at Cannes so you can’t include jerking off. So I slam the audience that on the other side of Ilo Ilo, Blue Is The Warmest Colour, a very sexual lesbian film was also screened at Cannes and also got a big fat award,” he regains his air of seriousness: “So what say you?”
In many ways, Chew has already made his mark in Singapore. His last feature film, Shadows of Fiendish Ancestress and Occasionally Parajanov on Durian Cialis (Lesser #9) was scheduled to premiere at the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) in 2017, but was slapped with a ‘Not Allowed for All Ratings’ classification from the Infocomm Media Development Authority. It was denied public release on the basis of containing “several prolonged sexual scenes which comprise depictions of real and pornographic sexual acts” as well as on the ground that “it could hurt Muslim feelings”.
“I was shattered, I felt like I had been shamed indirectly. I’ve always felt like I’ve been in a self-imposed exile. This time round, I felt so sad because I really wanted to show Lesser #9 to Singapore. What happened to the dialogue and discourse I’ve been trying to reach for since ‘93?”
A mouthful both by name and nature, Lesser #9 continues on the exploration of the native sensuality that he focused on Lesser #8, inventing the genesis of Singapore’s native erotic myths before Sang Nila Utama. He deconstructs it as a fervent subversion of how female protagonists who assert free will of their sexualities are typically portrayed as victims or fiends in art films, “left miserable, dead or gone amok in the end”.
Chew reflects on how he had watered down his inherent over-the-top eroticism: “Some people who know me said that Lesser #8 is still my best film, that it’s an underground cult classic. Why be sad over Lesser #9, this film feels like a cop-out. I felt so insecure because they’re right.”
A portion of Lesser #9’s full title, ‘Parajanov’ refers to a real-life Soviet filmmaker who was sent into exile by imprisonment. More importantly, it’s a larger than life symbol to him for the “exiled maverick, outsider artist, a soul punished for uncompromising individuality, a mind refusing to be silenced”. Despite facing a slew of resistance seemingly every step of the way, Chew refuses to be silenced, he refuses to compromise his individuality.
Chew doesn’t feel the need to prove himself to be a versatile filmmaker. Though, he is ready to start laying a little less on the fringe. “For me now, it’s about using other genres to make the sensuality and sexuality I’m exploring more accessible and more coherent to a bigger audience,” he tells me.
“Singapore’s current art scene, its psyche, seems to be in its teens. It’s almost like that Britney Spears song I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman. I think that’s where Singapore is at. How do we become a more complete being?”
At 48 years old, Chew is looking ahead to the next generation of filmmakers and young minds who will carry the torch and throw the first molotov cocktail for the inevitable resistance. He isn’t completely disillusioned with the country, which I assume is why he’s sat here with me.
I bring up the frustrations and woes of my film school peers, to which he replies: “I’m so afraid that you guys would be, in a sense, brainwashed that you have to make a certain type of film to get government funding.” This immediately brings me back to reading that same post on the main page of his blog: “Could this commodification of the imagination lead to a generation of filmmakers and viewers that are addicted to generic pleasures?”
Chew still stubbornly subscribes to the same New York DIY ethos he witnessed in that winter of ‘93, believing that any form of external film funding is censorship to his writing. He has never bothered to apply for or raise funds, none of that new age online crowdfunding bullshit. He proudly admits that he has, without fail, always kept the production budget under USD6,000 for his feature films.
“This is so warped, it’s the closing of the minds. The underground is a medium that’s supposed to liberate ourselves,” Chew says.
“When you have no insider to tell you what to cut and what makes the cut in your films, you’re kind of marginalised. But the reward is that you find your singularity,” he says: “Filmmaker Daniel Hui wrote a beautiful article about how he felt Singaporean cinema has died somewhere along the way. And that’s good that it’s dead, so hopefully the singularity from all of us can rise from the ashes like a phoenix. The beautiful part of diversity is that it’s made up of singularities. But when our diversity is made up of homogenised singulars, that’s horrifying. In a perfect world, I want a diverse society made up of singularities, and a diverse society made up of homogenised souls.”
Chew name-drops a few singularities in the form of local young filmmakers and writers—Sun Koh, whom he worked alongside in Lucky7 and who told him his segment “wasn’t pushing it to the max”; Ang Geck Geck who directed Broken Crayons and “totally nailed the story of young kids discovering sex”; Amanda Lee Koe, the author of Ministry Of Moral Panic as “you can tell that she has no qualms about female sensuality”.
While Chew sees the future of counter-culture art led by empowered women, he saves the bulk of his compliments for beloved filmmaker Boo Junfeng. “Honestly, if you give Boo Junfeng a safety net, or tell him not to worry if he’d be scrutinised or have any damage done to his career, he will be the man. Even in his feature film Apprentice, that seed of transgression is still in him.”
“Singapore’s current art scene, its psyche, seems to be in its teens. It’s almost like that Britney Spears song I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman. I think that’s where Singapore is at. How do we become a more complete being?” Chew asks.
So how do we become a more complete being? Another portion of Lesser #9’s full title, ‘Durian’ refers to the symbol of “the perfect tourist image of Singapore; the dormant potency beneath the hardened facade”. Chew sees the potential in Singapore, mostly its people, that our hearts can be pruned and re-rooted to eventually create potent art, or be more receptive to his and many others.
“The underground is a medium that’s supposed to liberate ourselves.”
Chew would be the first to admit that his movies may have become too confounding, abstract, and idiosyncratic for the average viewer to understand. But he’s proud and hopeful that his craft would gain relevance and cultural significance in the grand scheme of things: “I hope my films, my practice, can inspire a would-be filmmaker to be mindful of what’s his or her repression, and what’s his or her indulgence. And to cut across that to reach out so that Singapore’s cinema can evolve.”
He ends his sermon here: “Good cinema, no matter how cheap or expensive it is, doesn’t matter if it’s queer or straight, you should be able to watch it again and again without feeling tired or desensitised and still think it’s a breath of fresh air. It transcends. It touches your human heart.”
A few days later, I revisit some of the documents he had sent me in that email, and spot press materials he prepared for the screening of Lesser #9, the film that never got the chance to be unveiled to the world. I notice a penned letter to the late film critic-turned-director Toh Hai Leong on the hopes and dreams he has for Singapore Cinema, something that before our conversation, did not initially catch my eye. It reads:
“Dear Hai Leong, I dream that our local filmmaking community is no longer kiasu and kiasi. The producer frees the content constraints as he uses his own money for the film production. The writers create stories without the past paranoia and fear of embracing racial, religious, political and sexual themes. The acting talents of different races and nationalities boldly join in a sincere New Wave to create a naive yet authentic cinema… Knives and broomsticks replace automatic rifles and pistols. Molotov cocktails replace Hollywood pyrotechnics. HDB corridors & flats replace CG cityscapes. Majulah Day, a low budget sci-fi action movie with a hardcore twist! On the eve of NDP, the heartlanders unite to defend against invasions of faceless and stateless enemies from Nowhere. At the eleventh hour of a losing battle, Annabel Chong saves the day with her suicide squad of jaded porn stars to engage the simpleton aliens in the greatest orgy of the millennium.”
I don’t exactly know what the greatest orgy of the millennium looks like, but Chew’s sure as hell he can feel it coming.