FOOISM: Memorable 2019
Time flies when you’re having fun – it also flies when you’re busy. In 2019, filmmakers and Singapore screen content thespians alike have much to be proud of and more to continually ponder. Let’s recall chronologically and reflectively…
January – Make It Big Big
Filmmaking is as much about art as it is about engaging the mass audience. In January 2019, cashing in on the immediacy of the majority 75% Chinese race of Singaporeans, and the assumption that volume translates to views, Chinese entertainment comedian Mark Lee’s directorial debut Make It Big Big did not make it as big as it had hoped. Featuring the lives, hopes and dreams of popular local radio personalities didn’t seem to break the box office and soon, the cinematic attempt of big screen storytelling waned into a checked box for celebrity credibility having helmed the coveted iron throne of the director’s chair.
It is common that acting talent find a natural progression to place themselves into the director’s seat. More often than not it may be premature, for a director’s technical craft in leading the screen aesthetics like the mise-en-scene, AND the story itself, makes for the difference of the consumer’s viewing pleasure. Vision aside, performances are penultimate, but leadership in all other aspects of cinema are crucial too. Add that mix with the crucial strategies of marketing the film will earn you a basic opportunity to make box office. Filmmaking is practice – and it is a privileged practice at the expense of the investors and producers if directors fall short of their own desires.
February – Ghost Meets Zombie – Killer Not Stupid – A Land Imagined
Spooky rom-com When Ghost Meets Zombie hovered their release around Valentine’s Day. Quirky-comedy director Han Yew Kwang returns together with Chinese drama production studio Wawa Pictures in their debut feature – a starry-eyed light funfair about a ghost and a zombie finding love in each other while reflecting on (in-the-flesh) human relationships that take love, affection and loving attention for granted. Many media quoted this film as the best place to see famous singer Nathan Hartono, who played the zombie-lead, shirtless. While well-packaged with notable production veterans from broadcast, star cameos and talents (movie also stars K-dance trained Ferlyn as the Ghost), critics frowned upon familiar ‘television’ gags.
February also saw the release of Killer Not Stupid. Announced as movie-maker Jack Neo’s first foray into the action genre, the movie traces two assassins on the run after finishing the classic one-last-job. This meld of his comedic kung-fu with a new martial arts manual proved an unwieldy yield of entertainment goofiness without the veracity of gunplay and pyrotechnics; like using old tools to play as new toys. The movie did not do as well as his others as expected in the box office. Even the homeland heart-landing Singapore audience is getting harder to please. Seems I not stupid, killer not stupid, and audience also not stupid.
Multiple award-winning feature debut of filmmaker Yeo Siew Hua, A Land Imagined was commercially released in the cinemas in February. The film was also sold to Netflix while on its festival run. Witnessing a tirade of exasperation by a woman in the cinema that I watched the film in, there is some acknowledgement that A Land Imagined, while made-in-Singapore and made-by Singaporean, is not a film catered to the Singaporean palette. Much is needed to really pull in the people on the street to watch Singapore films, and it is not about mere marketing and promotions, somehow ideology and a sense of belonging come to play here. Our semangat not kuat enough lah.
May – From Victoria Street to Ang Mo Kio
The month of May brought a dose of refined nostalgia in Singapore cinema with filmmaker Eva Tang’s ode to her alma mater with her feature documentary From Victoria Street to Ang Mo Kio. This is one of the most memorable films to grace the Singapore screen. From Victoria Street to Ang Mo Kio is a quaint documentary that drew hearts and minds from its large alumni and audiences alike. Celebrating the school’s anniversary, Eva Tang’s keen poignant eye for storytelling brings us to a historical era in Singapore, where getting educated culturally and spiritually was more prioritised and meaningful than getting an education with certification and validation. Yes, times have changed. Ideas of resilience, charity, hope are all embedded flawlessly in the film – a sign of a deft directing hand. Five body parts towards ground (五体投地 — to deeply admire).
June/July – Hollywood in Singapore Again
June 2019 will be remembered as the month where Hollywood came to Singapore (again). On the production end, following closely with the production of Crazy Rich Asians in 2017, cyber-cowboy HBO series Westworld took a plunge in tropical waters as they came to shoot for 10 days, featuring iconic locations that took co-creator Lisa Joy’s breath away. The multi-million dollar studio production was filmed at places where passion was made possible – the National Gallery, Esplanade Park, the Helix Bridge, the Park Royal Hotel at Pickering, and including LASALLE College of the Arts, which houses the Puttnam School of Film.
When a foreign production of scale comes to Singapore to shoot, entire cohorts of production crew are roped in, generating a shortage for the remaining usual hirers.
After local production crews gain their stripes on Hollywood production standards and welfare, they are left for want once they return to Singapore productions and standards. This could create inconsistencies in training, standards, references and the ever-important payment. This is a breakable vicious cycle if the industry comes together to create their own. A problem that needs to be addressed.
August – Revenge of the Pontianak
Each generation of filmmakers puts their own stamp on cinema either as a tribute to past glory or a claim on the genre. Theatre doyen and film director Glen Goei’s take on the classic Nusantara folklore of the female spirit is luscious drama design, with high production values not usual of the traditional indie-horror the predecessors have. Co-directed by Malaysian Gavin Yap, this ‘repackaging’ of the Pontianak lore from a horror to a romance tragedy is the filmmakers’ ownership stamp within the current sign-of-the-times. A trend perhaps to be observed also in many Hollywood movies that are ‘rebooted’ by their directors giving new branding to age-old stories. Space operas, girl power teams come to mind…
December – Wet Season – Unteachable – I Dream of Singapore
The December rains brought on the wet season, and Wet Season premiered both at the 30th Singapore International Film Festival and in commercial cinemas. The film dances around edgy controversies and cultural ideologies, making it clear on target with Chinese audiences and a dash of European cinema endorsement.
For the avid Anthony Chen fan we will remember from a lot of his interviews and public appearances how he mentions and insists on two favourite terms – authenticity and sincerity in filmmaking. This has become a mantra of sorts and spending thought on them in the context of filmmaking may well make Singapore talent better filmmakers and story writers. Stories should reflect authenticity even in the fiction that they portray. And filmmaking should be a balance of fascination and technique to exude the sincerity of expressing art. Maybe we don’t think of these things through enough? Filmmaking can be the whim of the rich, because they can afford it. Filmmaking can be the call of the underdog because they have something to say. Can we combine both?
The year’s unsung hero has to be attributed to this film seven years in the making – documentary feature Unteachable by director Yong Shuling and producer Lisa Teh. Unteachable traces a young educationist piloting a new teaching pedagogy to help streaming students learn better in an educational system very much steeped in result-driven labelling. The topic resonates with Singaporeans, judging from the film being sold out within six hours of the release of tickets, this followed not once, but three more times within the festival run and garnered Unteachable the Audience Choice Award screening (which was also sold out). The film will continue a commercial run in a cinema chain in 2020 to meet the demand and curiosity it literally created by ‘word of mouth’. Clearly there is some draw in putting issues of national concern to screen.
Filmmaker Lei Yuan Bin’s documentary I Dream of Singapore similarly drew curiosity and played to sold-out screenings at The Projector. A migrant work relationship story, the film pushed viewers to look at migrant works differently. In an ultra-pragmatic Singaporean instinct, this film perhaps is also a much-needed realisation that human relationships matter more than checklists.
What 2019 means to Singapore filmmaking is that we have directors that are making films and making efforts to tell stories. We will always have people who want to be directors to tell stories, to be who they want to be and to leave their legacy. While exhilarating, it is also challenging. Having your vision realised in the cinema is still the greatest dream of a director but a grim bane of producers because the audience is waning. How then do we bring them back? Having the same trite stories being told in an assumedly different way or using different tools is not engaging them enough. How do we seek and develop newer and fresher stories? How does the Singapore film and screen ecosystem work together to seed new talent and strategies? How do we have vision 2020?
Stay tuned. Don’t stop making films.