Singapore film ready for close-up

Industry is diverse, mature

Like the country's population, the Singaporean cinema scene is small and diverse, though unlike the renowned Singaporean economy, the film industry has yet to become highly developed. There are signs of maturity and progress, however, and more than 10 local films were commercially released in Singapore in 2007, more than double from the previous year.

It's only been in the past 10-15 years that significant local Singaporean films have been made, and there isn't any real film studio built on the island to date. Additionally, since its population is only 4.6 million, it's difficult for local filmmakers to make their money back. Nevertheless, the local film sector continues to expand, and is now setting its sights on the international marketplace.

At press time, Jack Neo's August release "Money No Enough 2" -- the sequel to his low-budget 1998 comedy that became the most successful local production of all time -- had earned about $4 million when factoring in the Malaysian boxoffice, where the film grossed an estimated $800,000 in its first two weeks.

"The Malaysian theatrical results have begun to confirm my view that although grounded in the Singaporean context, my movies can appeal to overseas markets," says Neo, who recently set up Neo Studios to directly supervise the marketing of his films overseas. "Neo Studios is also exploring how to be a useful bridge for U.S. and European companies looking for means to access the Asia Pacific media markets."

However, since most Singaporean filmmakers don't earn as much domestically with their films as Neo, they need to do well in overseas sales in order to secure a worthwhile return on investment. As a result, Singapore producers deal with the confines of the country's small population by increasingly looking to international co-productions.

Raintree Pictures -- the filmmaking division of state-owned MediaCorp, the largest media entity in the country -- released its first co-production with Australia last year, "The Home Song Stories," and recently released Singapore's first co-production with China, the fantasy/ horror film "Painted Skin." Raintree also is co-producing "Dance Subaru" with Edko Films, its first co-production with a Japanese company, slated for release in early 2009.

Raintree CEO Daniel Yun says that co-producing can boost budgets significantly, pushing them as high as $10 million, whereas a local movie would rarely have a budget of more than $1 million.

"We have got to get around the system -- we can't beg, borrow and steal to make a film anymore because some films become expensive," he says. "For us, there's no choice but to open up. We need to be very flexible for our survival. In 1965, when we became independent, we didn't have our own natural resources, so we worked with others from around the world. It's the same with our film industry."

So what makes a film Singaporean, other than the locale? Neo says Singaporean cinema is "a great test-tube for all sorts of movie genre experimentation."

Director Eric Khoo, whose "My Magic" is making its Asian premiere this year at the Pusan International Film Festival after being the first Singaporean film to compete for Cannes' Palme d'Or, adds with a laugh that "food is quite a constant in all of our films because Singaporeans love to eat."

Other than food, though, Yun says it's hard to define a signature Singaporean film.

"It's very diverse, it's difficult to pinpoint. First of all, the market is too small. Secondly, there's the language of the film -- what's the local language?" he asks, referring to the fact that Mandarin, English, Malay, Hokkien and other Chinese dialects are all spoken in the country.

"In Hong Kong, they make Cantonese films, in Japan they make Japanese films, it's very clear that there's a heritage in those places," he says. "In Singapore, we have different languages, and the younger theatergoing generation watch movies from Hollywood and imported TV from the West and the East. The young generation is coming to terms with the fact that it's a nation. It needs to define its own culture. In the last few decades the country was preoccupied with survival."

One film that did display Singaporean culture and caught the nation's attention was last year's "881," directed by Royston Tan. It was the highest-grossing Singaporean film in 2007, taking in $2.5 million at the Singapore boxoffice. Compared by many to "Moulin Rouge," the film looks at Singapore's boisterous Ge Tai stage shows, where traditional Hokkien songs are dedicated to spirits during Singapore's Ghost Festival. Tan's latest feature, "12 Lotus," will have its Asian premiere this year at Pusan.

Singapore's notoriously fastidious government, not surprisingly, has a fairly strict rating system, and an R21 rating, or even an NC16 rating, can do serious damage to a film's take at the boxoffice. Curiously, Khoo's "My Magic" received an NC16 for violence from the Board of Film Censors, though the government still chose it as Singapore's entry for this year's Academy Awards --a point he found ironic.

"I was going to fight for PG, but I didn't have time on my side," Khoo says. "The movie was supposed to be released Oct. 23, then I got an e-mail from the Singaporean Film Commission saying it had to be released no later than Sept. 30 so it could compete in the Oscars. So after bringing the whole film forward one month for release, nice of them to give me that rating. But the good thing is that we released everything uncut."

However, rather than just concerning themselves with the censors, Singaporeans in the film industry also have an appreciation for what the Singapore government does for them. The Singapore Film Commission, part of the government's Media Development Authority, celebrated its 10th anniversary this year and has helped more than 100 filmmakers travel to foreign film festivals and funded more than 200 "Made-by-Singapore" short films. The SFC also has four schemes in place to support local filmmakers, including grants for script development, a short film grant, a new feature film grant and an overseas travel grant.

Elsewhere, in an effort to encourage leading international filmmakers and broadcasters to shoot and produce movies and television programs in Singapore, the Singapore Tourism Board offers subsidies of up to 50% of the expenses incurred by international film companies that shoot in Singapore. The STB also assists with the logistics requirements and applications for filming permits, working with the relevant government agencies and industry partners.

Max Makowski, a Brazilian-born director now living in Hong Kong who received incentives from the Singaporean government to shoot last year's "One Last Dance" starring Harvey Keitel, says he was quite impressed with his experience.

"The first impression I had of Singapore was that it would be a wonderful place to shoot a movie," he says. "There is an aesthetic mix of old and new, East and West, urban and rural that I had never seen anywhere else.

"The government's very proactive and is pushing hard to nurture its film industry," he adds. "I would not be surprised if in 10 years, Singapore becomes the hub for all non-local Asian-based film production. One thing I found amazing while prepping for 'One Last Dance' was the endless supply of talented actors. It baffles me that Hollywood turns to Hong Kong and China when they want an Asian for an English-language role. Singapore is a far better choice."
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