Charting and Celebrating Singapore’s Film History With Picks From Netflix’s Collection of Local Classics10 min readReading Time: 7 minutes
Although this year’s National Day celebrations will lack a bit of the usual oomph, having to be holed up at home might present the perfect opportunity to celebrate the long-underappreciated works and achievements of Singapore’s filmmakers. Bolstering its collection of local films, Netflix has recently made available a deluge of local offerings that could be the perfect companion to the long weekend ahead.
A total of 106 films and series will be progressively released all the way till end October. While massive in scope, all these only represent a portion of the grand diversity offered by local cinema. Still, not only would these films be a source of entertainment, they could also offer a rough map of just how far Singapore cinema has grown in the past three decades.
A complete portrait would require a little more digging, but it’s undeniable that the collection boasts most of the heavy-hitters of our history. It’s admittedly difficult to convince most to be away from their usual diet of overseas films and series. However, it’s in the hopes that these picks, coupled with a short exploration of their place in history, will be able to see more dive into the fascinating world of Singapore cinema. Looking back at the past could also unearth how Singapore films could reach new heights moving forward.
The Revival: Eric Khoo’s Mee Pok Man (1995) and 12 Storeys (1997)
Little-known to most is Malaya’s film industry stretching back to the 1930s, with hundreds of films produced between the 1940s to the early 1970s. The early years of post-independence Singapore, however, would see a hiatus for film.
What little was locally-produced in those years, such as with Singapore’s first martial arts film Ring of Fury, would also butt heads with a government more focused on raw economic progress and cleaning up the city’s image. 1992 would see the production of Singapore’s first English-language film Medium Rare directed by British Arthur Smith.
In an alternate history, Shirkers could have been remembered as Singapore’s first contemporary indie film post-independence (as detailed by Sandi Tan’s award-winning documentary of the same name). That accolade would instead belong to Eric Khoo’s 1995 film Mee Pok Man, with Ong Keng Sen’s Army Daze to follow in 1996. Khoo would ascertain his place in Singapore history with 1997’s 12 Storeys, Singapore’s first of many Cannes appearances to come. Both films would stand out as responses to the societal expectations baked into the Singaporean experience.
Stylistically, his films’ melancholic eye on the not-so-pristine sides of Singapore life would arguably define the tone of numerous local independent films to come, while boldly proclaiming Singapore’s place on the international stage. The Cultural Medallion recipient continues to be a strong voice in Singapore cinema today, bringing the industry forward through his numerous collaborations with budding filmmakers.
The Hits to Follow: Philip Lim’s The Teenage Textbook Movie (1998)
1998 would see local cinema’s revival back in full swing. While 12 Storeys is a trailblazer, it has a strong arthouse style that might not resonate with most. It was with hits such as Glen Goei’s Forever Fever, Philip Lim’s The Teenage Textbook Movie and another soon-to-be mentioned smash that showed the possibility of success for Singapore’s commercial releases.
Starring a young Adrian Pang, comedy musical Forever Fever saw a successful release in local theatres. Distributed by US media giant Miramax, the film is also Singapore’s first international commercial success.
Based on Adrian Tan’s bestselling novel of the same name, Philip Lim’s The Teenage Textbook Movie saw similar domestic success. The film’s local flavour is further enhanced with its all-Singaporean soundtrack – although Wikipedia may be incorrect in crediting Teenage Textbook as the first English-language film to do so with Eric Khoo’s two releases having similar integrations.
Nevertheless, the cross-cutting of disciplines from these early films could be relinked and furthered in today’s production as well. Singapore media today all lack local audience support and tighter links across seems like the best foot forward, even if they are not a sure-fire way for commercial success every time.
The Commercial Titans: Tay Teck Lock’s Money No Enough (1998) and Jack Neo’s I Not Stupid (2002)
In retrospect, it was no surprise that Tay Teck Lock’s 1998 comedy Money No Enough would hold the record as the all-time highest grossing Singaporean film all the way till 2012.
It starred cast members from Comedy Night, an immensely popular Chinese-language comedy series on television. Similar to Eric Khoo’s first two features, it touched on the generally despaired mood brought by the Asian Financial Crisis but through a different approach, showing a humorous side of the Singaporean everyday that had been absent from the big screen.
Already a household name from his work on Comedy Night, the success of Money No Enough sparked the film career of Jack Neo, who both starred and wrote the film. Making his directorial debut with 1999’s That One Not Enough, he would have another smash hit with his I Not Stupid in 2002, becoming the second-highest grossing Singaporean film by the end of its initial theatrical run.
Singaporeans often criticise Jack Neo’s work for being lowbrow and unrefined but it’s absolutely undeniable that he is a bonafide hitmaker. His time-tested formula of showcasing a liberal use of local colloquialism and satirical views on everyday life have resonated with Singaporeans throughout the years. This, however, may not be the only formula around for domestic success.
Recent Singaporean productions have scored awards from all around the world but most never reached the domestic heights marked by Neo’s productions (with Royston Tan’s 881 being a notable exception).
Is it because these films aren’t comedies? Is it because these films usually adopt arthouse sensibilities that are unappealing to the mass audience? Is it because local independent filmmakers aren’t spotlighted unless they win the big awards? Or are local films doomed to lack Singaporean support? Perhaps the answers can be found with Neo’s breakthrough hits.
Expanding in Genres and Themes: Kelvin Tong’s The Maid (2005) and Eric Khoo’s Be With Me (2005)
As the country headed into the 21st century, a constant flow of familiar commercial releases and international co-productions would stand side-by-side with local filmmakers’ exploration of genres beyond drama. Kelvin Tong’s horror film The Maid broke local box office records, perhaps paving the way for similar forays into the genre such as with Gilbert Chan’s Ghost Child in 2013 and Lee Thean-jeen’s Bring Back the Dead in 2015.
Tong would also venture into the less-travelled thriller genre with 2010’s Kidnapper. Local filmmakers continue to challenge how most define a Singaporean film – keep an eye out for Circle Line, Singapore’s first VFX and CGI-driven monster film, coming soon to theatres.
While Netflix has a supply of local films that could last through a second Circuit Breaker, it gets difficult with its current collection to encapsulate Singapore cinema’s growth in terms of the themes tackled. There are definitely examples available on the streaming service.
Challenging social stigma, Eric Khoo’s Be With Me released in 2005 was Singapore’s first film to explicitly feature a lesbian relationship. Sam Loh’s 2014 Lang Tong was controversial for its graphic sex scenes with its lead actress receiving online harassment shortly after ithe film’s trailer was released – a damning indictment of how backwards Singaporeans can still be.
However, there are still so many gems out there. Premiered in 2003, Royston Tan’s 15 remains one of Singapore cinema’s most daring endeavours. Tan Pin Pin’s 2013 documentary about Singapore’s political exiles To Singapore, With Love remains banned by the government.
These, and so many more especially with independent short films, speak of the frustration Singaporeans face with the country’s sometimes archaic values system and its deeply entrenched societal issues. Filmmakers became even more willing to push the boundaries, tackling taboo topics while adopting bold storytelling styles.
Singapore Films Today and Beyond: Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo (2013) and Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined (2018)
Whether commercial or independent, key themes in films in the 2010s were a mix of the familiar and fresh. Nostalgia, the cost of living, and complex family dynamics continued to dominate the conversation, but there was more than enough room to discuss emerging issues such as with mental health, an ageing population, and LGBTQ issues.
The 2010s could possibly be remembered as a watershed decade for Singapore cinema. 2012 saw Jack Neo’s Ah Boys To Men shatter records as the all-time top grossing Singaporean film, only to be topped by its 2013 sequel. 2010 brought us T. T. Dhavamanni’s Gurushetram – 24 Hours of Anger, Singapore’s first locally produced Tamil feature film. 2013’s Sayang Disayang by Sanif Olek was Singapore’s first locally made Malay-language film since independence.
Local television celebrities such as Michelle Chong and Tay Ping Hui tried their hand at filmmaking. The total number of local films produced continued to grow year by year. There was an undeniable interest in the local industry – even for those overseas.
Singapore films continued to make their mark on the international stage. From short films to feature length productions, the sheer number of international nominations and awards won by Singaporeans is staggering.
To list only a few: Boo Junfeng’s Sandcastle was the first Singapore film invited to Cannes’ International Critics’ Week in 2010. Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo swept international awards, Cannes’ Caméra d’Or and the Best Film prize at the Taipei Golden Horse Awards. Most recently in 2019, Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined received a similar slew of nominations and awards, including the top prize at the Locarno Film Festival and wins at the Golden Horse Awards.
For an industry partly revived by a Cannes appearance in the 1990s, it seems like we have reached a full circle. Still, the story continues. The advent of the Internet and lower equipment costs have made it possible for virtually anyone with a dream to make a film, which may explain the influx of local short films in recent years.
These, as highlighted through initiatives such as the National Youth Film Awards, showcase an exciting vision especially with its wider representations both in front and behind the camera.
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