Singapore director Royston Tan’s latest film, “881,” is a musical about two childhood friends who grow up mesmerized by the glitter and glamour of getai — concerts on makeshift stages all over Singapore. Getai events are held to placate and entertain the spirits during the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar, when the ghosts and spirits of the departed make their annual pilgrimage back to the land of the living. Filmed in Mandarin as well as the Hokkien dialect, “881” is Tan’s third film — and his first commercial success. His first feature, the award-winning “15,” is a gritty look at teenage delinquency. In addition to being the first film from Singapore invited to be in competition at the Venice Film Festival for the “Lion of the Future Award,” the film earned Tan a reputation as the enfant terrible of Singapore cinema. “881,” with glitzy costumes and lavish choreography, is described as “a cross between ‘Dancer in the Dark’ and ‘Moulin Rouge.’ ” All the musical numbers are by Chen Jin lang, a Singapore getai songwriting legend who died in August 2006. The director spoke with The Hollywood Reporter’s Janine Stein about his commercial success and his approach to filmmaking.
The Hollywood Reporter: “881” is a glitzy musical heavily rooted in a tradition not usually associated with young, cutting-edge Singapore or the art house films you are known for. What made you choose this particular film?
Royston Tan: The film started as a joke about finding something Uniquely Singapore (the slogan of the Singapore Tourism Board’s campaign). We came up with getai as an answer. The story began to take shape, and I wrote the outline in one sitting. It’s time for us to appreciate the beauty of the Hokkien dialect. The next generation will lose it, and if we do, we lose a part of ourselves. I’m very concerned. The younger generation are not speaking Hokkien anymore. There are a lot of feelings and closeness when you speak in Hokkien. As a Hokkien boy, I must add that I have a special fondness for the dialect, which I think is an indispensable part of my heritage and hope young filmgoers will hear its beauty in the songs’ lyrics.
THR: What would you like movie audiences to take away from “881”?
Tan: The first thing is that I never have the audience in mind when I make my films. I move with my own vision and emotions. With “881,” I wanted to appreciate the beauty of Hokkien song. It’s also a celebration of kitsch and having fun.
THR: As of the beginning of October, the film had earned S$3.45 million at the boxoffice since its opening in August, making it the highest-grossing film in Singapore so far this year. Are you surprised at the response?
Tan: Yes. I’m happy. All my films lose money, so I’m very pessimistic. I’ve heard that some people have been to watch it 10 times. There were two weeks when we beat some of the really big budget Hollywood films at the boxoffice. That was a big surprise.
THR: What part of the response to “881” surprised you the most?
Tan: That it turned out not to be a film for the older generation. It’s huge among young audiences. According to the local media, the demand for the live performances has gone up. Some of the live shows are attracting audiences of between 3,000 and 5,000, because of “881.” Some have been extended for another month because audiences are so great. I’m really happy because the important thing is to keep the Hokkien tradition, which has been repressed for a very long time.
THR: Were you concerned at all about the Singapore government’s response to the film because of the use of dialect, which is usually strongly discouraged?
Tan: It was a leap of faith. The government sees the point that this is a cultural thing and the use of the language is not in a vulgar way. They did a thorough investigation. I was worried, but I told them that the script was already done.
THR: Do you think there is any particular reason that the government’s attitude toward the public use of dialect has — or appears to have — softened for “881”?
Tan: Now we have someone like Mr. Man (Man Shu Sum, the Media Development Authority’s Broadcast & Film Director and the director of the Singapore Film Commission). Without him, a lot of things in Singapore would not get done. He believed in this piece of work, so I have to thank him for that.
THR: How would you describe your approach to film projects?
Tan: My next film is very art house. Again, it depends on the story that I want to tell. I didn’t want to be predictable. I want to be a chameleon director, always changing. I’ve made three films and I want it to seem like three people with three films. My style is very changeable. I want to be a little bit unpredictable so that the audience never knows what I’m doing next.
THR: Is there anything you feel you didn’t achieve with “881”?
Tan: I tried my best. If I were to do it again? That’s difficult to answer. I achieved all I wanted to in 22 days, so I’m very happy with it. It’s a miracle that we did it in 22 days. After we finished, I had to change my entire wardrobe. I lost 10 kg (22 lbs.). I couldn’t wear anything.
THR: Which of your films is most meaningful to you?
Tan: “430,” because it was a turning point for me. It was a very quiet film. It was a personal diary for me, and it took a lot of courage. But If I hadn’t done “430,” I wouldn’t have been able to do “881.”
THR: Does being the “bad boy of Singapore cinema” bother you?
Tan: I don’t know. It brings attention but ultimately it’s this label that the media have given me. I can’t control that. I am still the same, but maybe it can change now to “a better boy.” It really doesn’t have an impact on me. All this is external. My state of mind is always trying to find a balance in myself and in my own work. And I think “bad boy” has a very charming side.
THR: Have you forgiven Singapore’s Media Development Authority for cutting your film “15”?
Tan: That is a closed chapter already. There has been a new beginning since I made “Cut” (a spoof about Singapore’s censors CHK). Our system is opening up and, once again, Mr. Man coming in and helping out has had a big impact. His arrival was a real turning point for Singapore film.
THR: Do you think they’ve forgiven you for “Cut”?
Tan: I think so! I think we have quite a good relationship now. Obviously they have a bureaucratic point of view and we have our filmmaking point of view.
THR: What are you going to do next?
Tan: I’m severely burned out and planning a month’s rest in Europe. I’m dying to be in the mountains. There are a lot of beautiful hot springs in the mountains in Slovakia. That’s where I’m going.
Born: Oct. 5, 1976
Selected filmography: 4:30 (2006); 15 (2003); short films “DIY” (2005); “Monkey Love” (2005); “New York Girl” (2005); “The Absentee” (2004)
Notable awards: Time Magazine’s Top 20 Asian Heroes (2004); ASEAN Director of the Year (2001); Singapore National Arts Council Young Artist of the Year (2002); Best Contemporary Film and Best Art Direction at the Sapporo International Short Film Festival for “DIY”