At San San’s household in 12 Storeys, San San has her first flashback of her late mother. The old woman says, in Cantonese, “Ah Ling and I worked...” Her words may contain a hidden reference to a lesbian relationship...

... San San in her kitchen with Spirit next to her. San San rehashes traumatized memories. Her mother had constantly verbally abused her, with the mother’s voice here saying, “All you do is sleep and eat.” In narrative terms, Spirit’s appearances in the film are narratively unmotivated. He “happens” to appear in scenes, an omnipresent and “invisible” leitmotif. ...

... San San cries. A cut across the 180o line shows Spirit sitting behind her, not as a scary specter but as an ordinary person. ...

... The narrative has established Spirit’s peacefulness. In using this character, 12 Storeys eschews horror genre suspense, eerie music, or rapid mood changes in the mise en scene. ...

... San San sits on her bed, alone....

... In the reverse shot, Spirit is sitting at her side, looking friendly. His appearance here is not shocking to the viewer....

... In Spirit’s final appearance in 12 Storeys, he stands behind San San on the HDB common balcony and gives her a hug, which she cannot feel.

Ethnicity and Singapore film production

Finally the third category refers to joint ventures between local and Hong Kong producers; the former may involve independent or state film bodies. Such coproductions would have a multinational cast, though mainly with actors of “Chinese” origin, be they from Singapore, Hong Kong or Taiwan. The directors are invariably from Hong Kong—for example, Derek Yee with The Truth about Jane and Sam (in Chinese: Zhen Xin Hua; 1999), Gao Lin Pao with Lucky Number (in Chinese: Bailiu Libai; 1999) and Oxide Pang and Danny Pang with The Eye (in Chinese: Jian Gui; 2002). The local producer in this instance is most likely Raintree Pictures, the filmmaking arm of the government-owned Media Corporation of Singapore, or MediaCorp; MediaCorp also manages the Television Corporation of Singapore (TCS) and Radio Corporation of Singapore (RCS).

In the first two types of production, the local directors are mostly young Chinese-Singaporeans, under the age of 35 at the time of their feature debut. Some had overseas training. For example, Eric Khoo of Mee Pok Man (1995) and Lim Suat Yen of The Road Less Travelled (in Chinese: Guidao; 1997) respectively went to film school in Australia and United States. Other directors such as Colin Goh of Talkingcock —The Movie (2002; DV-film) and Royston Tan of 15— The Movie (in Chinese: Shi Wu; 2003) are largely self-taught. Some older directors come from the TV industry, including MTV, for example, Jack Neo with That One No Enough (in Chinese: Na Ge Bu Gou; 1999), Daisy Chan with The Tree (in Chinese: Haizi Shu; 2001) and Jonathan Foo with Song of the Stork (2002).

Actors and actresses similarly come from diverse backgrounds. They include local TV celebrities (e.g. Jack Neo, Zoe Tay and Gurmit Singh) and stage performers (e.g. Lim Kay Tong and Lucilla Teoh). Others are amateurs, including real-life street kids (e.g. Shaun Tan and Melvin Chen of 15—The Movie[25]). Yet others are big names from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand, for instance, Aaron Kwok Fu-sing (AD 2000; in Chinese: Gong Yuan 2000; dir. Gordan Chan,[26] 2000), Angelica Lee Sin-jie (The Eye, 2002) and Chutcha Rujinanon (The Eye), respectively, or relatively unknown American actors such as David Calig (Tiger’s Whip; dir. Victor Khoo,[27] 1998). Finally homegrown “Chinese” actors and actresses appear in all the three categories of productions, usually in a lead role. “Other” local races mostly get minor, supporting roles, with the exception of Andrea De Cruz (Tiger’s Whip) and Gurmit Singh (One Leg Kicking; dir. Khoo Koh, 2002); both are local TV personalities.

The cumulative effect of this casting practice makes Singapore on film look like, as Colin Goh puts it, “some amorphous Chinese city.” Asserting that this is not the Singapore he knows (“I have friends from every race”), Goh, a Chinese-Singaporean lawyer turned freelance cartoonist and then filmmaker, thus directed Talkingcock—The Movie (2002) with “a multiracial cast picked from the street.”[28] This DV-film and other “revival” films provide a stark contrast to the movies of the golden period.

Past era films chiefly starred Malay actors and featured Malay characters. In contrast, none of the “revival” films uses Malay dialogue. Instead the dialogue now contains the gamut of English, Mandarin, local Chinese dialects, Singlish and their permutations and combinations. While reflecting the country’s multiracial and multicultural character, this language mixture also suggests the marginal role the indigenous Malay language (or for that matter, Indian languages) plays in contemporary Singapore society.

The production crew may have a multiethnic configuration, but present day independent film companies are akin to Cathay-Keris and MFP in that they are in “Chinese” hands. These quotation marks signal that the “Chinese” are now Singapore nationals (as opposed to emigrants from China or colonial subjects of British Malaya), and that these companies, being independent, do not operate on a studio system with a stable of filmworkers on regular payroll.

Cathay Organisation’s production output in recent years has not amounted to its making a comeback in the filmmaking business. It did make Army Daze (dir. Ong Keng Sen, 1996), A Chinese Ghost Story—The Animation (in Chinese: Xiao Qian, dir. Tsui Hark,[29] 1997), and That One No Enough (1999).[30] As Cathay’s chief executive, Meileen Choo, put it at the time of Army Daze,

[I]f we do one movie a year, it will help the local film industry get a start.[31]

Cathay Organisation has yet to make another film since That One No Enough, but it still focuses on distributing and exhibiting films, as does Shaw Organisation.[32] As distributors and exhibitors, both companies face stiff competition for a share of the immensely lucrative local market from their business rivals, especially the GV chain of cinemas formed in 1992,[33] which now owns the most screens.[34]

As film consumers, Singaporeans have many choices. In addition to local films, they literally have at their feet mainstream movies, art house films and/or indies from East Asia (China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Korea and Taiwan), Southeast Asia (e.g. the Philippines and Thailand), North America (United States/Hollywood and Canada), Europe (e.g. Britain and France), and Australia and New Zealand. Singaporeans are some of the world’s most avid film consumers. On average, between 1991 and 2001 viewers here spent in excess of S$100 million per year on movie tickets.[35] Such statistics make local producers and their supporters look for a renewal of the once vibrant local filmmaking economy. Seeing promise in this movie-loving audience leads local filmmakers to aspire to success and fame, if not fortune.

Sadly, many have become a “one film wonder,” with three conspicuous exceptions: Eric Khoo, Jack Neo, and Daniel Yun, all often collaborating with each other. Eric Khoo owns the independent production company, Zhao Wei Films, and is the first local filmmaker to win international critical recognition for his features, namely, Mee Pok Man (1995) and 12 Storeys (1997). In more recent years, Zhao Wei Films has done collaborations with government funded film bodies such as Raintree Pictures, notably, Liang Po Po—The Movie (1999) and One Leg Kicking (2001). For these films, Khoo’s involvement has been that of coproducer and not director. Raintree, headed by CEO Daniel Yun, is now the country’s most active film producer and has made eight feature films, mostly in collaboration with local or Hong Kong producers.

Jack Neo, on the other hand, is primarily a comedian who became a household name by hosting the TCS show, Comedy Night (Gao Xiao Xin Dong; 1995-2002), and from 2002 on, another successful TCS Chinese variety show: Top Fun (Huan Xiao Dian Feng). Neo has also worked with Khoo in two film projects, first as an actor in 12 Storeys (1997) and then as actor, scriptwriter and coproducer for Liang Po Po (1999), made in association with Raintree and Zhao Wei. The script for the latter film features an immensely popular 85-year-old granny character of same name whom Neo plays on Comedy Night.[36] In the interim, he has scripted and acted in Money No Enough (in Chinese: Qian Bu Gou Yong; dir. Tay Teck Lock, 1998), which turns out to be the country’s top grossing local film of all time.[37] In addition to That One No Enough (1999), he has also directed the hit-comedy, I Not Stupid (in Chinese: Xiao Hai Bu Ben; 2002), which he additionally scripts and acts in.[38] In short, Neo is not only a highly versatile TV comedian/filmmaker, but also a most bankable local film personality.

The phenomenal success of Money No Enough and also Glen Goei’s Forever Fever in the same year (1998) brought about a sudden flurry of investors’ interest in film. The following year saw a two-fold increase in film production, a peak that has yet to be surpassed. Of the eight local features released in 1999, three (The Truth About Jane and Sam, That One No Enough and Liang Po Po) were local hits, but only in the qualified sense that their domestic sales exceeded their production costs. The rest were all box-office stinkers, including Money No Enough’s copycat, Lucky Number (1999). As a consequence, investors’ euphoria-driven optimism quickly subsided. If Money No Enough earned S$5.8 million in domestic sales, the producer’s eventual share was S$400,000—slightly less than seven percent of the total domestic sale. When compared to the production cost (excluding fees),[39] this was less than 50 percent return, therefore a small profit by commercial standard. But for Singapore filmmaking to have long-term commercial prospect, local producers need to sell their films beyond the domestic market. As we shall see in the next section, Raintree’s production strategies reflect such a growing awareness about distribution.

Continued: State initiatives