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ERIC KHOO & KIRSTEN TAN――A Genealogy of Filmmaking in Singapore

Interview / Asia Hundreds

The Revival of Singaporean Film

Takiguchi: The 1990s was also the time when the government started to support the arts extensively: the National Arts Council (NAC) was established in 1991, the School of Media and Film Studies at Ngee Ann Polytechnic was set up in 1993, and Mr. Khoo submitted a White Paper to NAC, proposing to set up an organization to fund and market Singaporean films which resulted in the establishment of Singapore Film Commission in 1998. How would you assess the infrastructure of governmental support since all of this?

Khoo: When I finished my second feature 12 Storeys in 1997, I strongly felt that there should be a body to support film. And, as you said, we prepared a White Paper and submitted it to NAC. But they sat on it for three months. At the end, they got back to me and said, "Film is not an art form." I thought, "What are you guys saying? You've got photography, you've got performance, you've got music, and all of these are elements of film!"
But I was actually very fortunate. In that year, our then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong mentioned my film in one of his speeches addressing Singaporeans; "You can make films like Mee Pok Man." When we found that out, we sent the White Paper to the Prime Minister's Office. This time, they didn't sit on it for three months; they called me back in one week and said, "We're going to look into it."
At that time, the Minister for Information and the Arts was Mr. George Yeo. When I attended the Singapore International Film Festival that year, I bumped into him in the men's room. He winked at me and said, "It's going to happen." The Singapore Film Commission was set up soon after that—in April 1998.

Tan: I feel the support scheme is the key to the development of film in Singapore. Filmmakers in their thirties, including myself, grew up with public funding; I was able to study film thanks to public scholarships since my parents did not support me. Not that I expect them to since it's often difficult in that older generation to see intrinsic value in the arts. So, it was great that my generation got to grow and develop our skills by making short films and later on features thanks to those initiatives.

Khoo: I have always pushed the government to give young filmmakers seed money. You cannot shoot a film without any resources. First time feature filmmakers with talent should be supported with a substantial amount of funding. Now there is a grant scheme which gives you up to 250,000 Singapore dollars to make a feature film. Previously it was an investment and I am glad they changed it to a grant. The Singapore Film Commission is helping young filmmakers in a much bigger way. For Pop Aye, you got the...

Tan: New Talent Feature Grant.

Khoo: Yes, that's meant to support first- and second-time directors.

A photo of Eric Khoo during the interview

Takiguchi: So, from the very early stage of your career, you have an access to this kind of funding.

Tan: Yes. I got a scholarship from the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA)—the Singapore Film Commission is under them—when I studied at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. And basically all my short films were funded by the Singapore Film Commission. That is how I was able to practice, bite into the world of filmmaking, and make Pop Aye.

Takiguchi: How do you see the governmental funding at the moment?

Khoo: I would say that the situation is pretty good. If you compare, by and large, with other countries, our government is supportive. I really hope that they will continue to be supportive. The success of Pop Aye—winning prizes at the Sundance Film Festival and the International Film Festival Rotterdam—is proof that they should support emerging young talent.
Now we have Kirsten. In two years' time, we may get another young female director if they continue their support [smiles].
Seriously, if you talk about commercial cinema in Singapore, there is only one filmmaker who can hit the Jackpot and that is Jack Neo, who is known for his very successful Ah Boys to Men series. He is the only Singaporean director whose films can almost compete with Marvel Studio's films at the box office.
Art filmmakers, to whom I feel closer, do not have that kind of audienceship. However, looking at the young creators such as Royston Tan, Anthony Chen, Boo Junfeng, and, of course, Kirsten, I think it is remarkable to have these talents in such a small country. And we are going to have more creative individuals. As long as the Film Commission supports the growing young talent, Singapore films will be around for a long time.

Takiguchi: Is there an orchestrated voice of Singaporean filmmakers to push the government toward that direction?

Tan: Certainly. In Singapore, we have a film community that often gives feedbacks to the government—to the Singapore Film Commission and IMDA in particular. Actually, almost every time a new policy comes up, the local film community makes it a point to engage with IMDA to keep the mutual dialogue flowing.

A photo of a scene from the movie
Kirsten Tan, Pop Aye (still), 2017
(C) Giraffe Picture Pte Ltd, E&W Films, A Girl And A Gun 2017

Takiguchi: Pop Aye was shot in Thailand, with Thai actors, and with mostly Thai crew members. What made you decide to make your very first feature film in Thailand?

Tan: It reflects my personal experience; I grew up in Singapore but I traveled a lot and I lived in Thailand for nearly two years before I moved to New York. When I had a brainstorming session for my feature film, the idea of shooting it in Thailand somehow stuck in my mind and I found it is easy to expand this story.
Another reason is that I wanted to do a road movie because I love traveling and the whole idea of a journey. To do a road movie, I feel Singapore is too small.

Khoo: If there is no traffic jam, we can travel from one end of the country to the other end in just forty-five minutes [laughs].

Tan: And I do love Thai films. I really respect the independent Thai film community from what I witnessed when I was living there in my early twenties. So I wanted to do my first feature film in Thailand.

Takiguchi: Mr. Khoo, you also created works set in other countries, including Tatsumi (2011). It is an animated drama based on the life and stories of Japanese manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi, who is known for his gekiga-style works.

Khoo: Yes. I have been a big fan of Tatsumi for many years and a lot of my short films are somewhat inspired by his shorts. So, I decided I should pay back my respects to sensei. I did not know his life story, but I was totally overwhelmed when I read his autobiography A Drifting Life (2009). My good friend in Japan wrote to sensei on my behalf—he wrote in classical Japanese. Sensei replied to him and said, "Ok, I will meet this Singaporean."
Three months later, I visited Tokyo and met him at an old café. I explained to him what I wanted to do. After three hours of conversation through a translator, he looked at me and said in English, "Make the film." I just replied, "Ok!" I actually had no idea how I was going to make the film because I had never done animation. But we did it, and I am very happy with the result.

Takiguchi: And you recently shot your new film in Takasaki, Japan.

Khoo: Yes! I love Japanese culture, food, and aesthetics. Probably my favorite country other than Singapore is Japan. This project was initiated by my producer, Yutaka Tachibana. He said to me, "Eric, would you like to do a co-production with Japan?" The city of Takasaki was very kind to allow me to film there. I loved the statue of the Goddess of Mercy, which is an icon of the city, because, as a little boy and even now, I pray to the Goddess of Mercy. I really feel that she embodies compassion and forgiveness.
I also love the Daruma doll, a talisman of good luck which is said to have originated from Takasaki. I remember I bought a Daruma doll because I knew sensei wanted to go to the Cannes Film Festival very much. I made a wish on the doll and that wish came true eventually. When we were walking up the red carpet at Cannes, sensei held my hand tightly and said, "I always wanted to make a film." I did not know that! He was always influenced and inspired by cinema, but he could not be a filmmaker because he did not like to talk to people; apparently he was not much of a people person. That was a fantastic moment because ultimately all his stories became cinema and we walked up the red carpet.

Takiguchi: Did you work with a Japanese crew in your new film?

Khoo: Yes. I love working with a Japanese crew. In Takasaki, we had a great production house called Knock on Wood. What really, really touched me was that a lot of the Japanese production crew flew to Singapore on their own accord to help us out with the rest of the shoot. I said to them, "Hey you guys, you are here in Singapore. Don't you want to visit our famous zoo?" But no, they just stuck with us. It was fascinating to work with the Japanese crew and team, and I would love to work with them some more.

I was a bit worried to have the Japanese cast in Singapore, actually. In Takasaki, for example, our meals were on nice tables in proper bento boxes. But in Singapore, you may be sitting on the floor and eating from a Styrofoam box. However, when they actually came, they had a great time because they loved the food with all kinds of spices.
I think there was a nice synergy with the Japanese cast; actor Takumi Saito who played the protagonist of the film was so instinctive and the Japanese Idol Seiko Matsuda.... I was such a big fan of hers when I was a kid. So I got her to sign my records! They were able to get into character and to deal with my script in their own way. I liked it a lot; I like people who can contribute. I would love to do another film with Japan.

Takiguchi: Ms. Tan, you worked with Thai actors and crew members during the shooting of Pop Aye. How do you describe your experience of working in Thailand?

Tan: The creative team for Pop Aye was all Thai members apart from me—my director of photography, editor, production designer, and all the actors were Thai. It was a great experience for me. My two years of staying in Thailand was, I think, my formative years and I was learning a lot about life and cinema. I saw individuals like Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and Prabda Yoon, who were very inspiring figures for me.

Takiguchi: That is why their names are included in the end credits in Pop Aye.

Tan: Yes. What I really admire about Thai culture is that everyone is really like a family—everyone personally takes care of each other and is interested in each other's works. So I feel like I owe a lot to them in materializing this film.

Takiguchi: Both of you have been working on international projects, which sounds gigantic and complex. However, listening to your stories, and also watching your films, I got a sense that your filmmaking was very intimate and organic. Did you feel that kind of intimacy with your team?

Khoo: Totally. I think the Japanese cast members of my new film were really excited because we did not stick to the rules they had been familiar with. It went like this; "Read this script, do a rehearsal, and go with what you want." And even on the shoot itself they could improvise a bit. This approach gave them an incredible amount of freedom which, for me as a director, is the best thing. There is no way I can constantly push them to give me a better performance if they have to follow the script. I believe in that kind of intimacy. And, as you can easily see, Pop Aye is also a very intimate film.

Tan: Yes, but to be honest, our crew was very big – about sixty members on average which sometimes went up to around a hundred because we had an elephant in the film. We needed elephant handlers and extra assistant directors, and the crew became massive, which made it impossible to keep the entire crew close together.
However, in terms of the core crew, I would say that our relationship was very intimate. All of us—my producer, for whom Pop Aye was the first film as well, the assistant director, and the assistant to my producer stayed in the same house during the shoot. We had a strong sense of intimacy among us and we worked very closely as a team—almost like a family. We did everything together and we ate every meal together. So it was a really, really tight-knit group and a wonderful experience.

Khoo: It is incredible she directed an elephant! If you give me a script with an elephant, I will run away [laughs].