Q&A: Eric Khoo

"My Magic" director won't self-censor again

Director-producer Eric Khoo made Singapore film history again this year with "My Magic," the first Singapore film selected for the Festival de Cannes' main competition. Khoo describes his films as small and intimate. "I love the little film with heart," he says, citing Aki Kaurismäki's "The Match Factory Girl" as his favorite film of all time. His current project is "Chinese Rose," about legendary stripper Rose Chan, whose stage show with a python and other stunts in the 1950s and '60s made her a household name in Singapore and Malaysia. After that is a slate of horror films. "I've been a horror film buff since I was two years old," Khoo says. While Khoo describes the domestic film industry as too small to be viable, he talked with The Hollywood Reporter's Janine Stein about how his production company, Zhao Wei Films, is heavily involved in championing Singapore's young filmmaking talent.

The Hollywood Reporter:
How do you feel about being called a pivotal name in the history of Singapore film?
Khoo: I don't want to be stressed by titles. I'm just a storyteller.

THR: Singapore's big filmmaking focus is now international. Is your home market becoming irrelevant?
Khoo: There's a much bigger market out there, a much more important market. A local film in Korea can make $90 million domestically. Singapore has 4.5 million people speaking different languages. If you spend $2 million on a film, you have to have local boxoffice of $6 million to be viable. It's just not possible. It's so difficult to make a profit here. If you want to go with humor, it becomes very parochial, then you have a problem getting out. You can go to Malaysia, but piracy is rampant. So the film has to travel. It's the only way.

THR: You've called "My Magic" a "spur of the moment" film, yet you've been toying with the idea for about five years. What's spur-of-the-moment about five years?
Khoo: The father-son theme has been playing on my mind for about five years, and I've known (lead actor) Francis Bosco for more than 10 years. His bizarre magic has always enthralled me. We would meet for a drink and talk about doing a father-and-son story. Last year, I read Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" and I cried. I sat down for three days with my dog next to me and drew out the scenes. That was in November. We started shooting in December, and we wrapped in nine days. So it was almost spur of the moment, just jumping in and doing it.

THR: Where did you get the money so quickly?
Khoo: We funded it through Zhao Wei Films. Compared to my new project "Chinese Rose," with MediaCorp Raintree Pictures, "My Magic" is really shoestring. Looking at the first cut, I was happy with it but I never thought it would be embraced the way it has been.

THR: How much is shoestring to you?
Khoo: Under $200,000.

What favors did you have to call in to bring in a film for under $200,000 and in nine days?
Khoo: Mike Wiluan and Freddy Yeo from (post-production house) Infinite Frameworks supported "My Magic." The last scene, which is my favorite scene in the film, the money shot, was created at Infinite Frameworks. Without this magic sequence, the film would lose 50% of its impact. I also had help from Panasonic. We were using a new camera and it was shot on file card, not on tape. Shooting on HD is very cost effective. You don't need that much light and set up times are shorter. The whole film was done in 90 hours.

THR: Describe the transition from a tiny intimate film like "My Magic" to "Chinese Rose," which you're doing almost back to back?
Khoo: "My Magic" and "Be with Me" are both personal films. "Chinese Rose" will also be a personal film, but with a humungous budget and a lot more razzmatazz. (Cinematographer) Adrian Tan and I are talking about the look of the film at the moment. We are definitely staying away from Christopher Doyle and Wong Kar Wai. We want to come up with something new.

THR: How much is "humungous"?
Khoo: About $2 million

THR: That's 10 times what you had for "My Magic." Do you feel like you've died and gone to funding heaven?
Khoo: Everything is relative. I think "Chinese Rose" requires a bigger budget. It's a period piece and going into different decades of a person's life. I'm very particular about the look. Most times, when I find an interior or an environment that's right, I don't need to do any art direction. You just go in and capture it, like the old provision shop in "Be With Me." It's all there. But in "Chinese Rose," we have to create the cabaret setting. The prep time will be a lot longer.

Are you worried that all those details, and the pressure of portraying a woman who is a legend in the region, will distract you?
Khoo: I don't want it to. The best way to go about it is not to think "Is this going to be better than my previous work?" or "Do I have to prove anything to anyone?" As long as we can make a film that we can all feel for. My main intention is that when the audience leaves the cinema, whether they have heard of Rose Chan or not, they will say what an amazing person she really was.

Is it easy to find actresses in Singapore who will take their clothes off for you to play Rose?
Khoo: I will go elsewhere, including to China, if I have to. Singapore actresses are all really skinny and I don't think they could give me what I want, be the way I hear Rose and feel what she would be.

THR: Why do you prefer releasing your films outside Singapore?
Khoo: I know the reality of my films here. "Be with Me" played here for a month and a half. It showed in France for a year.

THR: How do you feel about Singapore's censorship guidelines?
Khoo: I wish they would drop the R21 rating. It's ridiculous that we can carry guns and kill people at 18 but we can't see a film. But at the end of the day, if they give me problems I won't release my films here.

You cut one of your early films - "12 Storeys" - to comply with censor suggestions. Would you do that again?
Khoo: No. I don't want to self-censor anymore. My first film, "Mee Pok Man," was given an R21 rating, which I was happy about because they didn't censor the film. But that meant it could only be shown in three halls in the city area. My short films were always getting in trouble, and "Pain" was banned in 1994. I wanted a PG rating for "12 Storeys," so I went to the head of censors, and told him the idea, and we had a frank discussion. I changed certain things because I wanted the PG big time. The irony of it all is that I sent him the first cut and he called me and said I had the PG rating. And then I get a letter that said (I would receive an) R21 unless I cut seven shots. I called him and he said, "Sorry, I don't understand Chinese." We compromised, and I deleted a couple of seconds. I am not prepared to do that again.

Vital stats:

Born: March 27, 1965
Cannes Film Festival entry: "My Magic"
Selected filmography: "Barbie Digs Joe" (1990); "Mee Pok Man" (1995); "12 Storeys" (1997); "Be With Me" (2005)
Notable awards: Young Artist Award for Film from the Singapore National Arts Council; Directors' Fortnight selection for "Be With Me" (2004); Cultural Medallion, Singapore?s highest arts honor; Chevalier de L'Ordre des Arts et Des Letters from the French minister of culture