Singaporean box-office sensation 881

Follow-up feature 12 Lotus

Short My Sars Lover

Teen angst in 15

Childhood in 4:30

881’s glorious Papaya Sisters

Rivals — Durian Sisters

Getai in full bloom in 881

Royston Tan



an interview with Royston Tan,
one of Singapore’s most versatile filmmakers

by Anne Ciecko

Rotterdam International Film Festival (IFFR), January 2008:

At a hotel restaurant, I meet with Royston Tan who is just finishing a jury meeting for the Tiger Awards. As we are about to begin our interview, someone interrupts to ask Royston where the print of his latest film 881 is coming from. Emergency trouble-shooting ensues as Royston coolly ascertains it’s probably in Taiwan, providing his “producer’s contact, straightaway.” Tan’s growing oeuvre includes numbered features: his bad-boy docu-drama debut 15 (2002), followed by the wistful 4:30 (2005) and the effervescent musical 881, the top-grossing Singaporean film of 2007 — the one whose print may have gone missing…

Anne Ciecko: So 881 is going to be shown here at IFFR for its European premiere. I just watched the video in the press media library.

Royston Tan: It’s a crazy film.

AC: A major breakthrough for you in terms of box office! Were you surprised as far as the reception was concerned, and what do you perceive to be the film’s life now in a more international sphere?

RT: Well I think never expected 881 to be a hit, a hit to the point whereby all the songs in the film become almost like our national anthem. Even little kids know how to sing the songs, and the thing was to bring out our very repressed dialect, one off the languages that we have not spoken for a very long time. So I wanted to explore that, and now that it has become such a big hit in Southeast Asia. I’m quite used…to have only a few audiences watching my film, or most of my films have been banned in the country or things like that. But this time there has been a big change. But I’m thinking in a different light whereby when I did 881 I wanted to challenge myself as to whether I can tell a story that everyone in Singapore can relate to. …

AC: What are your current projects?

RT I’m currently working on a brand new feature film [the 2008 getai musical melodrama called 12 Lotus.] It is a musical too. And I have just set up my own company. It’s called Ten28 Studios — so another number [laughs]! Right now we are developing this new project. And also before I came to Rotterdam I just finished doing a short film called My SARS Lover.

AC: You’ve had a history of connections between shorts and features.

RT: But somehow every time I do a short film, it’s almost like when you see a feature film, you see traces of familiar characters from my short films. So it’s almost like a little diary that you have, how you see the character in your short film growing up in a feature film.

AC What’s your sense of taking the pulse of the current scene in Singapore as far as film culture is concerned? You’ve been a decidedly independent filmmaker, and now you’ve found a place at the box-office. Do you see more young Singaporean filmmakers wanting to stay in Singapore and make films there? Do you think that you’re inspiring younger filmmakers?

RT: I think that with the success of 881 there has been a confidence gained back for local Singaporean local productions. One very very healthy sign was in the past people would say, “Let’s go and watch a Singapore film,” and when they said “Singapore film,” it comes with a very bad punch. But now this time they just said, “Oh let’s go watch this film.” They don’t differentiate between a Singapore film or a Hollywood film. We are dominated by Hollywood films most of the time, but right now there’s a lot of confidence…And also for some strange reason somebody made a film called Becoming Royston [the 2007 feature directed by newcomer Nicholas Chee]. Some young filmmakers made a feature film about someone like me! That was one of the exciting things that happened this last year.

AC: Can you say more about the language or dialect too, because that’s been significant in your other films as well.

RT: It’s Hokkien. It’s a dialect that comes from the southern part of China, and we [ethnically Chinese Singaporeans] are all descendents from the southern part of China. We are all Chinese. But this particular dialect or language has been repressed, because in 1979 we wanted to unify and have one common language which is English, and the second language is Mandarin. So as a result, in the new current generation they are not exposed to the beauty of such wonderful language…That is my feeling because I am Hokkien, and I wanted to retain a bit of myself and immortalize that in my film.

AC: It seems that in contemporary Singaporean film, Hokkien and really hybrid Singlish have found their way into certain genres, especially comedy, and now the musical. Do you think there’s a connection between language and dialect and those genres?

RT: I don’t know whether there’s a connection, but I think it is because on television you are not allowed to show a lot of things in Hokkien or Singlish, so everybody pumps it into other outlets like a movie, and sometimes it get too much. It’s like we are repressed; we cannot show this here…Let’s show everything there [in a film]. That’s why sometimes too much of it becomes a problem…

AC: It seems like the genre is particularly celebratory of language: the wordplay of comedy. It’s an interesting issue for your films too, how much is lost in translation, in subtitling…

RT: Oh yes. So much is lost. Like if you were to watch 881 in Singapore, you could see people laughing every single second…This is the European premiere. In Korea they laugh, but not so much. But in Singapore…straightaway they get it. We play with words, how they rhyme and things like that.

AC: My collaborator with me on a project on the Korean wave in Southeast Asia translated for me the Korean bits of dialogue, which as I read in other interviews you decided not to translate in your film 4:30. That’s really interesting — how the Korean language gets rendered in that way, as undecipherable for those characters…

So it seems to me, in charting your amazing career trajectory, that festivals have been so critical for different aspects — from financing to casting to nurturing projects from short to feature. Is that the case, that (especially) the Asian and European festival circuit has been really critical to the building of your body of work?

RT: Definitely. In my case, I was first introduced in Pusan International Film Festival, and through that festival I got introduced to the European festivals like Rotterdam, like Cannes. But in fact it’s more so for Rotterdam because ever since after 15, Rotterdam has been trying to get my films to show in its festival [as world premiere] — but with no success. But they have still been constantly promoting my works, having interviews, or allowing grants and things like that—that helps us profoundly…

AC: As a formerly emerging and now established filmmaker, what do you think can be done to make festivals even more supportive?

RT: What Rotterdam is doing now is exhibiting first and second features to promote up-and- coming filmmakers, but what we are now also very concerned [about] is the filmmaker who has just finished making a first film; he might not be able to make a second film. Many, many filmmakers disappear this way. So in fact we [the Tiger jury] were just discussing is that there might be something that can be done on this level to help upcoming filmmakers.

Just one minute it’s my producer…

[Royston takes a cellphone call from his producer Gary with an update about the global whereabouts of film prints for 881, deliberating whether it’d be better to ship a print to Rotterdam from Miami or Singapore for Monday’s screening. After a few minutes we resume the conversation…]

AC: Can you say more about casting your films? You used a lot of nonprofessional actors in your films earlier on but not with 881, right?

RT: Yeah. But the strange thing about 881 is they are not really professional actors either. They are real singers. It’s all their first time [acting onscreen]…

AC: The making of documentary on the DVD for 4:30 was really interesting regarding the use of nonprofessional actors (who are great onscreen in all your films), although the Korean guy Kim Young-Jun had some TV credits, albeit modest ones.

RT: Very very few…

AC: And the little boy was completely amazing. [Xiao Li Yuan who previously had a very small role in Singaporean filmmaker Jack Neo’s Homerun, 2003, a remake of the Iranian film Children of Heaven]

RT: [emphatically] He’s amazing! And he’s as tall as I am now, and he's like, “OK, I’m waiting to grow up so that you can cast me in a new film.”

AC: When I was watching the making of the documentary for 4:30, however, I thought it would be really scandalous for some people in terms of child labor. That's because it’s 3:00 in the morning and you’ve been working on the film all night, and here’s this little kid. He’s really a little kid — he was so poised though.

RT: The problem with this little kid was every time we had night shooting we'd start late. But he had this problem. He had to sleep exactly at 12 midnight, and he was like … [imitates an extremely groggy young actor]…

AC: So you’re going to keep with your pattern of trying to work with nonprofessional or relatively inexperienced actors?

RT: I still want to work with them…[T]here are certain roles that very raw nonprofessional actors cannot deliver, and there are certain roles which I feel that [are not for] somebody who’s gone through a lot of acting [training]…I always like to switch their roles in the film. What is fun is that whether they are experienced or inexperienced, I always make sure that they do not really know the script. I will make it like what I always call a structure experience for them, meaning that they don’t know what scene they are actually going to do today; sometimes something different and natural comes out. And that’s what I want to capture in my film. In the case of 4:30, they were all given an 80 page script to memorize, but on the first day of filming I would throw away the whole script and ask them to act with their eyes and follow the things that I do.

AC: And 15 as well, was that very largely improvised?

RT: Improvised with a lot of precautions. I had a premonition that one of my actors was going to get into trouble but I did not know who. So I wrote many different versions of the script. I wrote it in a structure whereby if any of my actors disappeared, the whole thing would still continue.

AC: Is that true that you had an ambulance on hand for the self-mutilation scene?

RT: Yeah.

AC: People I’ve shown the film too either love it or they can’t bear it; it’s too visceral for them. But 4:30 has such a different vibe. I can see how it’s the same filmmaker but it’s got a whole different center. It’s nice to see a range.

RT: Yes, I want to surprise my audience every time, to let them know what I can do and to show them I don’t only make one kind of film. I think there’s many different sides to Royston…

AC: Would you be taken aback if a critic looked at all your features even 881 and called them queer films?

RT: Yeah, they say 881 is a lesbian film.

AC: There’re always types of intense same-sex bonding and friendship in your films.

RT: You know I don’t know how to answer this question because it really funny because when I was first starting out, they said, "There's no female characters in your films." Now I have all female characters in my film and they say it is a lesbian film. But personally for me in all my films I’ve never seen the distinction between whether you’re a male or a female. To me I see all my characters are human, no differentiation of sex.

AC: A totally random thing just popped into my head about Singaporean comedy: the chicken factor. Is there something about the chicken as in 881 that supposed to be iconically Singaporean?

RT: Yeah. There’s a lot of play on words with chicken, a lot of funny examples of bad words that all have to do with chickens, and the local audience really laughed…

AC: Even if something is lost in translation, it seems the subtitling of 881 really conveyed the sexual and scatological nuances of the chicken word-play.

RT: 881’s not too melodramatic for you?

AC: No, it’s kind of campy, so it works. I’ve never seen the live spectacle of the getai [Chinese seventh lunar month stage performance] singers, only in Singaporean movies. It seems to me that the song lyrics are expected to be over-the-top…

RT: It’s really scary. The lyrics are not like, “I look like the blossom, how beautiful.” It’s like, “My life is shit…” This is the very directness of Hokkien [language].

AC: Is that connected with opera tradition too?

RT: Originally, yes. And later all the tunes have been modernized to make it pop.

AC: You get some of that sense of cultural history the way you’ve framed it in 881 with the characters of the MTV-style techno-girls, the Durian Sisters, in antagonism to something more traditional…There’re really indeterminate. They speak English as their first language, and they don’t speak Hokkien well. [The Durian Sisters are rivals of the film’s getai heroines, the Papaya Sisters, played by Mindee Ong and Yeo Yann Yann]

RT: No, they don’t…In real life they are really like that. They are not even acting. They’re like, “Oh my God!” They’re real VJs from MTV. They were called the Double Troubles. They are half Norwegian and half Chinese [May Wan Teh and Choy Wan Teh]. I said, OK, I’m going to try to get them to act."

AC: And before I forget, regarding casting, I had read about 4:30 that you cast a Korean, somehow paying homage to the Pusan Film Festival. Is that true?

RT: Yeah, it is.

AC: But it wasn’t a duty?

RT: I wanted to make it in time for the 10th anniversary [October 2005] but it wasn’t ready for the Festival. I just finished shooting….I’m think I’m still not over Korea yet. I’m still writing a script with a Korean. There’s something very beautiful about people not being able to understand one another but trying to figure that out. I like that kind of feeling.

AC: I was thinking about that kind of feeling in recent Southeast Asian cinema. For example, in Pen-ek’s movies; he has some kind of Thai or other Asian characters in in-between spaces…

RT: Asano…

AC: Yes, [in Last Life in the Universe and Invisible Waves] characters are played by Japanese actor Asano Tadanobu, although his latest film Ploy employs a different Asano-esque young actor [Lao-Australian Ananda Everingham.] What is your sense of the bigger Southeast Asian regional scene more generally? I really liked this recent Malaysian film Flower in Pocket (Liew Seng Tat’s feature that won a Tiger award).

RT: I like that very much. [In Southeast Asian cinema] I think everyone is struggling, but in the last five years there's been a great interest in Chinese films, and there has been a lot of reinventing language … I just came back from Jakarta and right now they are coming out with all kinds of films with different textures…. The great thing about it is it’s very diverse, still. Although we are Southeast Asians, we are like a very small country coming together. There's a lot of celebration of diversity, which I really like.

AC: So do you see yourself as a Chinese filmmaker who’s part of a Greater Chinese diaspora cinema? Chineseness is so prominent in your films to date.

RT: Yeah, but I belong to the second generation of immigrants who live in Singapore. I think for every Singaporean, we are constantly searching and looking because we don’t feel here nor there, so in the films we’re always constantly searching and looking.

AC: Even the ritual of the Hungry Ghost Festival. I read in a book by an anthropologist it is a Chinese diasporic invention created by ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, like a fiction of a traditional festival trying to celebrate Chineseness. [Jean DeBernardi’s Rites of Belonging: Memory, Modernity, and Identity in a Malaysian Chinese Community]

RT: Unity…

AC: "… prosperity, and commercial aspects of Chineseness."

RE: It used to be just a performance for the ghost to watch, but twenty years later it’s evolved into something like a pop thing that everybody watches, that later becomes scandalous like bikini shows. It’s a weird kind of a thing. But right now because of 881 everybody’s trying to find their roots again…

AC: So has this film become so much a part of the popular imaginary now that it will influence future festivals?

RT: In bookings for the performances next year, the prices have all doubled. And because we fictionalize and dramatize the costumes in 881, now everybody is following that. [Royston Tan pantomimes the final spectacular showdown 881 between the female singing acts.]

AC: Yeah. The projectile bullet bra, that was really funny.

RT: It was a bit of a self-indulgence that I liked to do.

AC: But the ending’s tragic too, apropos (I suppose) of the songs.

RT: Yeah, very very sad. Onstage they sing — that’s when they feel alive. You see the contrasts in the life of all these people. Onstage they’re happy, they’re alive, la-la-la. But offstage…So they live on stage, and they die when the footlights go off. That is what I experienced when I was hanging out with them.

AC: So you actually tried to immerse yourself in getai culture?

RT: During the seventh month, I tried to follow them. When they were running, I was really running with my handicam to follow them, to experience the tension. And to a certain extent, I sang with them onstage. They asked me, "You go." So I know that feeling. As a director, it’s not that I cannot understand their world.

AC: Last question: You mentioned the MTV connection when you were casting 881. In Singapore how interconnected are the pop music industry and film? Because in all of Southeast Asia, there's been a history of trajectory of people who worked in MTV and commercials into features. Do you find that the pop music industry and film are mutually benefiting each other, or do you think that they corrupt or cannibalize each other?

RT: I think they stimulate each other for different reasons. I belong to the MTV microwave generation…Obviously subconsciously the things that we listen to, the things that we watch, that is in our work. It’s really up to you how you are going to use it to your advantage. So, yeah.

Barely into his thirties, with four features already to his credit, Royston Tan has clearly found creative ways to do just this: to use the melange of cultural influences that inform his work to his advantage, finding coolness amidst the chaos, garnering critical respect along the way. And the European premiere screening of 881(which finally went smoothly despite the wayward film print), was met with enthusiasm too.

Go to essay in this issue on 881

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