12 Storeys
(dir. Eric Khoo, 1997)

Frame analysis

1. Opening scene: The film is set in HDB public housing. Mandarin subtitles translate an English language radio broadcast: “It is now Sunday morning.” ...

... Meng jogs in a noticeably deserted HDB estate. Radio plays (subtitles): “How are you, my listeners..”..

... Two HBD neighbors in the local playground keep their distance from each other. Meng works out while San San sits on a bench. ...

... San San in the HDB elevator with the young Chinese man who will soon jump to his death from this building.

2. The ghost. Spirit the ghost looks at his dead body. Khoo’s use of the ghost works against a popular belief that ghosts do not manifest themselves in daytime...

... Spirit the ghost sees his former self in a pool of blood....

... Spirit the ghost squats next to his grieving parents who are estranged physically and psychologically from each other, even in their grief.

Contemporary Singapore filmmaking: history, policies and Eric Khoo

by Tan See Kam, Michael Lee Hong Hwee and Annette Aw

Our paper offers a brief history of contemporary Singapore filmmaking, as seen in the context of both public and private initiatives since the last decade to revive a once vibrant local filmmaking industry.[1] During the “revival” period, the independent production company, Zhao Wei Films, owned by Eric Khoo, has been one of the most active players. Sometimes this company produces wholly independent works and sometimes it makes movies in collaboration with state film bodies such as Singapore Film Commission (SCF) and Raintree Pictures. In this paper, we analyze only the former corpus of Khoo’s work, that is, his early films from 1990-1997,[2] with a particular focus on what has been regarded as the “breakthrough”[3] film of the “revival” period, 12 Storeys (in Chinese: Shi Er Lou; [4] dir. Eric Khoo, 1997).

We analyze Khoo’s work in relation to contemporary Singapore society, against the background of local filmmaking practices and policies. Positing the films as counter-discourse, we investigate their complicated role in the way they comment on state practices and ideology, directly or indirectly offering a critical response to PAP-dominated political culture.[5] As critique, the films represent a growing awareness among the current generation of independent filmmakers about the need to provide alternative ways of “seeing” the nation-state. That is to say, Khoo’s early films would approximate the kind of “critical requisite” which the cultural critic Kuo Pao Kun has called for:

The rise of the knowledge economy initiated a paradigmatic shift... The collective mentality which served the country well in its industrialization phase is rapidly becoming redundant. Individual initiative marks the character of the new labour, something a dominant state and a compliant people decidedly lack... If [art] was at all dismissible in the past, it has now become a critical requisite in the nurture of children for the knowledge society.[6]

Contemporary Singapore filmmaking: a portrait

Film in Singapore developed in a unique historical situation, as part of a multi-ethnic and multicultural society, reflecting the city’s demographic and cultural variety...[F]rom the earliest years, film production in Singapore has been subjected to a variety of cultural, economic and political influences: Chinese, Indian, British, Japanese, American and Malay.[7]


You know you’re watching a [contemporary] Singaporean movie, when ...

•There’s a reference to food or money in the title (Mee Pok Man, Chicken Rice War, Money No Enough and all their copycats).

•Singlish[8] is uttered with a vengeance, after being chased out of TV.

•A three-degrees-of-separation chart for every movie reveals a link to Eric Khoo or Jack Neo.

•The soundtrack lets you hear great Singaporean music you never knew existed, like from Tanya.

•You spot the all-too-familiar faces of TV actors, and realize there are no bona fide movie stars in Singapore anyway.[9]

Emerging hesitantly in prewar colonial Singapore,[10] the local filmmaking industry boomed in the postwar years. It then ended when Cathay Organisation’s Cathay-Keris Studio (established in 1953) closed in 1972, some three years after Shaw Organisation (founded in 1924) shut down its studio, Malay Films Production (MFP, established in 1947).[11] Cathay-Keris’ demise in post-independent Singapore[12] in the early 70s marked the end of a golden era of local filmmaking. Together, the two studios made some 300 Malay language movies,[13] which reportedly had reached numerous ethnic communities. These postwar films were variously directed by Indians, Filipinos and Malays, and were financed by Chinese magnates. All featured Malay actors, most trained in Bangawan, Malay opera.

The PAP-led government did not come to the aid of the once vibrant filmmaking industry. Its policies for the newly independent country were generally based on developmental economism, which emphasized rapid industrialization and modernization. This emphasis accompanied the political rise of Singapore as a one-party dominated, depoliticized, technocratic and administrative nation-state, a phenomenon coinciding with the PAP government’s social engineering policies.[14] It also led to increasingly strict media censorship.[15] These factors, together with the government’s anathema towards developing infrastructures in the domain of culture and the arts by way of funding, training or education, contributed to the eventual demise of local filmmaking activities.[16] During this period, Shaw Organisation and Cathay Organisation continued to be the major film distributors and exhibitors serving the domestic market, which in the meantime grew and expanded steadily.

In the 1990s Singapore saw a gradual re-emergence of local commercial filmmaking activities, beginning with the controversial Medium Rare (dir. Stan Barrett and Arthur Smith,[17] 1991), which if nothing else, revealed a lack of local filmmaking talent and related professional expertise.[18] The filmmaking “revival” period came about through a combination of initiatives from both the public and private sectors, including that of entrepreneurial individuals. The PAP government’s efforts to expand the service sector in response to the recession of the mid-1980s included identifying filmmaking as a service industry and a potential economic growth area.

Then the government pushed for Singapore to become a regional hub for international film production and distribution with state of the art media production and postproduction facilities. This push saw the setting up of filmmaking and related media studies programs at local tertiary institutions. Educational grants that funded overseas training for film industry professionals also became available. To encourage investments in media related projects, the government further offered attractive tax break packages to joint capital ventures. Meanwhile stringent film censorship rules were “liberalized.” This resulted in 1991 in an age-based film classification system, which allowed for more product variety, and the relaxation of censorship also led to the mushrooming of cineplexes, showing mostly overseas films.[19]

Peaking in 1999, and extending into the new millennium, the revival period has generated a total of 37 feature films.[20] Mostly on celluloid, they also include six DV-films, with the first, Stories About Love (dir. James Toh, Abdul Nizam[21] and Cheah Chee Kong),[22] released in 2000. Two of these DV-films, Stamford Hall (2000) and Hype (2001), are amateur attempts by university students. Otherwise the “revival” films are all professional efforts. They generally draw upon established genres such as family drama, horror, action thriller, comedy and farce, and they may be grouped into three production-types: local independent productions, local+transnational collaborations, and local+Hong Kong coproductions.[23]

Productions in the first category do not receive any form of financial assistance from the state: they are the efforts of independent producers. The second category does not preclude wholly independent productions, but it additionally contains semi-independent (with finances from state film bodies) and wholly state productions. That which most distinguishes the first two production-types is the local and transnational divide in the creative aspect. In local independent productions, the director(s) would all be local. This is also generally the case with the cast. Examples include 12 Storeys (1997) and Stories About Love (2000). This is not always the case of local+transnational collaborations since the directors and lead actors concerned may be foreign, though not exclusively so; examples include Medium Rare (1991), Liang Po Po—The Movie (in Chinese: Liang Po Po; dir. Teng Bee Lian, 1999), Song of the Stork (dir. Jonathan Foo and Nguyen Phan Quang Binh, 2002).[24]

Continued: Ethnicity and Singapore film production

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