Mee Pok Man
(dir. Eric Khoo, 1995)

A visual analysis:

1. Late one night, a hit and run accident occurs near the mee pok man’s noodle stall at a coffee shop. The screeching of a vehicle speeding away gets the better of his curiosity. When he goes to an alley where the sound came from, he finds Bunny lying injured in the alley...

...He carries the injured Bunny over his left shoulder. The image has the fright-night aspect of a classic horror film, including the distorted shadow on the wall. It plays on the notion of a helpless woman in the control of an ogre like man and on the monstrosity of the man and his deed. The next scene offers a grim pardody of horror: Mee Pok Man flags down a taxi and has to endure the driver’s rant about the allure of women of different races and their distinct sexual smell.

2. Mee Pok Man brings the injured woman back to his HDB apartment. It does not have the trappings of a fiendish psycho but is typically working class. He tends to Bunny’s injuries. The sequence has still shots and minimal camera movements, with occasional cutaways to subplots in other locations. The framing of the shots becomes increasingly tighter, indicating a growing intimacy...

...The two fall asleep and then on the soundtrack are heard Bunny’s moans of pain...

...Mee Pok Man rushes about looking for pain killers, but Bunny throws up while trying to swallow the pills...

...He cleans her up...

...and cleans the vomit off the floor...

...Framed tighter, Bunny rests in bed. Her voiceover, “I feel very safe,” is an entry in her secret diary and foreshadows a motivated cutaway to her own bedroom where her younger brother reads the diary....

...The shift in camera position indicates some time has passed. Mee Pok Man had cooked some rice gruel for her and now feeds her...

..Though in a daze, she recognizes him and appears more comfortable...

...The two strike up a conversation. The use of shot reverse shot cutting heightens their individuality, and further, it helps establish a sense of camraderie between the two.

State film initiatives and
cultural economic policies

Can we have a Singapore Arts Centre by just bringing all the arts of the world to Singapore without our own education, without our own creativity?[40]

The Singapore Film Commission (SFC) and Raintree Pictures emerged in the same year as the Money No Enough’s success story. These two state initiatives also correspond with the official effort to remake Singapore as a “world class city,” inhabited by a gracious people more interested in the finer things in life such as the arts than in mere materialist pursuits. State film initiatives as such also complement and supplement extant independent film organizations—namely, the Singapore Film Society (registered in 1958), the Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF, launched in 1987), and the Substation (founded in 1991 to provide an alternative arts space).[41]

Set up with a seed fund worth S$2.5 million,[42] some five months before Raintree was founded in September 1998, SFC’s mission is to address “the film industry’s needs” and to “encourage, upgrade and develop Singapore filmmaking talent through training activities” by providing “funding for productions, training and film-related travel.”[43] In concrete terms, SFC has granted scholarships for film-related training, held the Master’s Series to promote film education,[44] and cosponsored the annual Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF). It has additionally funded local productions, occasionally collaborating with Raintree Pictures and Zhao Wei Films.

Financially better endowed than SFC, Raintree mainly does production. With Media Asia (Hong Kong), it coproduced the most costly Singaporean film, AD 2000. But this US$5 million (approximately S$9 million) action thriller contrasts with other revival film budgets. These range from the high of S$1 million to S$2.62 million to the moderate of S$300,000 to S$900,000 to the “shoe-string” budgets of S$18,000 to S$150,000. Although a stinker at the box office everywhere, AD 2000 nonetheless fits into Raintree’s production agenda: to make “truly international and ‘borderless’” movies that would “[raise] the profile of the company in the region” and “travel beyond Asia.”[45] For Raintree, finding the “right mix of local and regional talents” seems crucial. In AD 2000, this mix consisted of one notable Hong Kong director, Gordon Chan; one Hong Kong superstar, Aaron Kwok Fu-sing; and two TCS-MediaCorp celebrities, Phyllis Quek and James Lye. The same kind of mix characterized Raintree’s other two Hong Kong coproductions, The Truth About Jane and Sam (1999) and The Eye (2002).

Another variation of this mix for the same end can likewise be founded in the two Raintree’s local+transnational collaborations, Liang Po Po (1999) and The Tree (2001). The first was Raintree’s debut. It was made in association with Eric Khoo’s Zhao Wei Films and cast Hong Kong comic star Eric Tsang opposite Jack Neo who cross-dressed as Liang Po Po. Solely financed by Raintree, The Tree starred TCS-MediaCorp’s soap queen, Zoe Tay, and Hong Kong star, Francis Ng Chun-yu, the latter also appearing in AD 2000. The films were respectively directed by TCS-MediaCorp trained Teng Bee Lian and Daisy Chan. The “regionality” of Raintree’s films has also expanded to find symbolic expression in location shooting in Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand which variously make up the films’ backdrops.

In addition to using local celebrities from its parent company, MediaCorp, Raintree has the added advantage of state finance that allows it to mount major publicity campaigns for its films, pay good salaries to regional stars, and partake in expensive productions, estimated by local standards. Raintree and correspondingly the MediaCorp celebrity-actors get transnational exposure. Its coproductions allow it and its stars and directors to hitch a ride into pan-Asian film markets. The government hopes such films will become significant cultural exports.

Meanwhile back home, Raintree actively fosters ties between the TV industry and the filmmaking community, especially in its predominantly local productions, often made with Zhao Wei Films and/or SFC. Apart from Liang Po Po, Raintree’s other collaborations with Zhao Wei are One Leg Kicking (2002) and 15—The Movie (2003), both also supported by SFC. Prior to this, SFC had one other coproduction with Raintree: Chicken Rice War (in Chinese: Qiao He Ji Yuan; dir. Cheah Chee Kong, a.k.a. CheeK, 2001). Presently, SFC has planned four more coproductions, telemovies, with Raintree.[46]

SFC’s many activities and Raintree’s production strategies, whether at the local or regional and transnational level, underscore what Lily Kong has called “cultural economic policies”[47] more than cultural policies per se. In her paper, “Cultural Policy in Singapore: Negotiating Economic and Socio-cultural Agendas” (2000), Kong differentiates between these two types of policies: For her, cultural economic policies seem like cultural policies but have an economic-driven agenda; the chief aim of which is to nurture the arts as a potential cash cow for the state and to make the arts part of the state’s economic base. Cultural policies, on the other hand, support cultural practitioners and the socio-cultural agenda of artists.

Kong mainly attributes the prevalence of cultural economic policies to MITA (Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts; formerly Ministry of Information and the Arts, formed in 1991). MITA largely oversees the promotion of artist pursuits and cultural endeavours in keeping with state “world class city” discourse. In her paper, Kong generally discusses how technocrats in government have had control over the Singapore polity since independence in 1965. In her particular analysis of MITA’s public statements, it is evident that MITA’s promotion of the arts has consistently sought to push Singapore in the direction of becoming an “international market for the arts,” with the arts understood here as not different from rubber, spices, oil, Asian Currency Units or gold futures.[48] Not only that, cultural practitioners who object to such a push are very likely to receive a quick rebuttal from the state. In this connection, the refutation (1992) from B.G. George Yeo, then Minister of MITA, is exemplary:

Nothing is more inimical to the development of the arts than a false nationalism which tries to protect a market under the guise of safeguarding some misconceived national essence. We offer Singapore as a venue and as a stage for artists and those who enjoy the Arts from all over the world.[49]

In 1994, Yeo also said:

If the arts in Singapore are only by Singaporeans for Singaporeans, we will get nowhere for we are too small... Singapore is Singapore only because our national spirit is a cosmopolitan one.[50]

Such pronouncements not only negate the value of local arts and arts workers but also repudiate the socio-cultural agenda of local cultural practitioners as normative. Accordingly then, Kong concludes that the state’s 1990s cultural development policies were not really cultural policies but cultural economic policies trying to harness the economic potential of the arts.

For those not attuned to the Singapore polity, it should quickly be stressed that “film” has had an existence in state discourse for the arts as a discrete sub-category only in recent years, alongside the more traditional categories of theatre, dance, music, literature and the visual arts. Prior to this, film’s relation to the arts was implied, as demonstrated by the fact that SFC, at the time of its establishment was housed in NAC (National Arts Council), a MITA affiliate established in 1991 for promoting the arts in the nation-state. Now SFC comes under the umbrella of the Media Development Authority (MDA), a statutory body formed in 2002 through a merger of SFC, Films and Publications Department (FPD), and the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA). But SFC remains in MITA’s clutches because MDA, like NAC and NHB (National Heritage Board),[51] comes under MITA’s purview. SFC’s sometime collaborator in film production, Raintree, is similarly linked to MITA, but less directly. Raintree, along with TCS and RCS, is a subsidiary of the government owned MediaCorp. MediaCorp’s relationship with MDA is, technically speaking, that of a licensee and licenser, respectively, since MDA as the government’s media watchdog is entrusted with task of granting or rejecting MediaCorp’s license to operate as a national broadcaster in radio (RCS) and TV (TCS).

Our particular tracing of the government’s complex organizational network for media and the arts aims to highlight the intricate relation between film, media and the arts in Singapore society. That is to say, public pronouncements about and cultural economic policies for the arts, especially those emanating from MITA, affect film and media.

Indeed if the 2000 Renaissance City Report is an indication,[52] then it would seem that MITA’s cultural economic policies are here to stay. Produced by MITA, this report takes great care to emphasize its compliance with state discourse apropos to remaking “Singapore as a world class city supported by a vibrant cultural scene.”[53] Accordingly, it “outlines the strategies required to take Singapore there.” [54] A close scrutiny of the report’s outlined strategies reveals more of the state’s hegemonic economic-driven agenda, most evident in the following pronouncement:

[C]reative and artistic endeavors will... play a decisive role in the future economy [because they have] direct economic benefits [and lend themselves to] arts marketing and cultural tourism.[55]

Specific to filmmaking, the report recommends:

[that SFC] consider the commercial viability of building film-making facilities ... [so as] to establish Singapore as the regional hub for post-production work in films, [and that it should] encourage and facilitate international coproductions and collaborations involving Singapore and overseas talent.[56]

The report does not consider how local filmmaking (or for that matter, the arts in general) might develop as a socio-cultural activity in an indigenous way. However, it does say,

Culture and the arts are important to us because they enhance our quality of life, contribute to a sense of national identity and add to the attractiveness of our country. [57]

This is technocratic language at its best: Here, the use of “our” is all-inclusive, but it has discounted those who consider themselves outside this agenda—especially local cultural practitioners with a thoughtful agenda. Indeed, scrutiny of the report’s professed “consultation with members of the cultural community” [58] reveals no “consultation” with any notable person in the local film scene.

Given the state’s clear sense of the economic place of the arts, it is important to evaluate the degree to which independent filmmakers must work within the constraints of the state’s hegemonic economic agenda. Have they found or can they find alternative modes of expression, ones which manifest a strong awareness of state hegemony but work to circumvent, even overcome, it? After all, in the context of Singapore society, the state’s dominant economic agenda along with its autocratic and technocratic ways are not new to its citizenry. State policies have shaped people’s lives since independence. But even if we understand the degree to which the state has shaped people’s political sensibilities and sensitivities, we would not postulate that state force has ensured compliant subjectivities. The policing of boundaries is never absolute but is subject to negotiation and reinterpretation by the very people whom the state seeks to curtail with its policy net. Eric Khoo’s sardonic appraisal of his career as a filmmaker neatly sums up such popular kinds of interpretation and reinterpretation. Analogically he is referring to state control, policing and surveillance of the arts:

They used to call me the Prince of Darkness.

He says this referring to the early phase of his filmmaking career, a time when he was known for directing dark, depressing films about the Singapore underclass. Then, referring to his latter-day collaborations with SFC and Raintree, he adds somewhat self-depreciatingly,

Now they’re going to say: ‘It’s too mass. It’s too commercial. Why are you [referring to himself] selling out?’[59]

His self-mocking tone bespeaks a kind of reinterpretation that is self-empowering precisely because he uses equivocal speech imbued with heightened, ironic self-awareness. He calculatedly uses a discourse opposed to boundary setting, technocratic speech.

On this note, we now turn specifically to an analysis of Khoo’s early films, discussing them in conjunction with and as working against the above-outlined background of revival films and cultural economic policies. In so doing, we seek to address issues of artistic resistance in the face of policy policing and citizen negotiation and (re)interpretation. In this way, we analyze Khoo’s early films as counter-discourse vis-à-vis state discourse, its policies included.

Continued: Unorthodoxies of Eric Khoo’s early films