Two or three things about Singapore and its cinema.

Two or three things about Singapore and its cinema.

Seen from the outside, from afar, too far, no doubt, the island of Singapore might seem to be just an El Dorado for expatriates, an aseptic, refined place. An “air-conditioned nation”, controlled by an immense guiding power, discreetly omnipresent, taking care of everything. A place which, in the end, we don't know much about, but about which there would not be that much to know, since it's a place with no real identity nor its own culture. Nothing could be more wrong, for like any other society, Singapore is much more complex than it might appear. This nation, in its first stages of development, only fully independent since 1965, made up of multiple religious, cultural and ethnic strains (mainly Chinese, Malay and Indian), is a strange melting pot, the result of two centuries of racial intermingling, where the emergence of tomorrow's world is perhaps faintly outlined.

The very little-known Singapore cinema prides itself, obviously, on reflecting all of that, since, for nearly a hundred years, it has been accompanying and chronicling the evolution of the island. For if we have sometimes heard of Eric Khoo, a filmmaker who arrived on the scene in the middle of the 90s, and one or more representatives of the younger generation for whom he was, in part, a precursor, we are often unaware that Singapore cinema existed, and, what's more, a real golden age of cinema, long before that, when Singapore was either still a British colony, or else, provisionally, one of the states of the Malaysian federation.

After a handful of first films which were Chinese or Malay in the 20s and 30s, the period immediately following the Second World War saw the arrival of real production studios along the Hollywood studio Ford production line model. The first of these was that of the Shaw Brothers who, arriving in Singapore from China in the middle of the 1920s to develop a network of cinemas, opened the Malay Film Productions in 1947, thus investing, as the name of their company itself suggests, in the production of films in Malay with mainly Malay actors, but produced by Chinese. The Shaw Brothers were followed from 1953 onwards by their traditional rival in terms of cinematographic exploitation, that is to say, the Cathay organisation directed by Loke Wan Tho, who also opened his own studio, the Cathay-Keris (Keris being a reference to the Malay dagger). This emulation gave birth to a real golden age during which, from 1947 to 1973, about 350 films were produced, of which the festival presents two interesting examples.

The first example, “Jewel in the Slum”, has the advantage of being one of the first feature films in which Malays not only act but which was also directed by a Malay film director, the long-forgotten Haji Mahadi, (the Shaw Brothers had until then put film making into the hands of Indian film directors and even, in certain cases, Philippines). This part-musical is a reasonably representative production of what the Shaw Brothers were doing at the time and fits into the then contemporary context of Malay society in the 1950s. Still, the film did not seduce its public and, following this relative failure, Haji Mahadi gave up film making to concentrate on an acting career. The second one, “Dang Anom”, is, as far as it is concerned, a superb example of the Cathay-Keris studio productions. The action of this costumed period film is situated in the golden age of the Malay sultans, around the 14th or 15th centuries, before western colonisation. There we have the other great cinematographic genre of the Malay film industry, the south-east Asian equivalent of our good, old, swashbuckling feature films in Jean Marais style. Dang Anom has the advantage of having been made by one of the best Malay film makers, the highly prolific Hossein Hanif, who died unfortunately a few years later, at the age of 32. In the middle of this golden age of Malay cinema, some filmmakers tried, as well, to develop Chinese cinema for a population of Chinese origin living in Singapore and Malaysia. “The Lion City” (1960) was the very first film in Chinese produced by Cathay-Keris. In it we can see the island of Singapore before independence, enjoying at the time only simple administrative autonomy, on the road to accelerated modernisation with urban surroundings under total transformation. No doubt this is one of the most interesting films from this period, because of what it managed to put across, but also for prefiguring what the island was going to become. One particularly important point is that the film treats, in quite a shallow way certainly, the triumph of the People's Action Party (PAP) of Lee Kuan Yew in the general election of 1959 and the “change of era” which followed, and which carries on today (since the PAP is still at the helm, after 63 years of uninterrupted power).

After the closing down of the Singapore studio of the Shaw Brothers in 1967 and that of Cathay-Keris in 1973, local cinema production floundered quickly with only a few rare films, often genre cinema, managing here and there to get some notice. That was the case especially for the surprising “Ring of Fury” (1973), the only film by the producers James Sebastian and Tony Yaow, and especially the only film about martial arts “made in Singapore”, in the pure tradition of Bruce Lee, who had at the time just died and who was the source of inspiration for the film. The main actor, Peter Chung, a sort of cross between Bruce Lee and Charles Bronson, is a real karateka who pursued his sporting career at top level, to the point of being one of the rare athletes in the world today to have obtained the 9th Dan (the highest possible being 10). Beyond the quality of the shooting which can perhaps give food for thought (it's really a pure Z movie), the film is notable, on the one hand due to a large number of fights being in fact “for real” with blows given for real as well, that is to say, with no tricks and illusions, the practically non-existent budget for the production not allowing them to do otherwise, and on the other hand because we can see how the modernisation boom of Singapore continued in the 1970s.

Then there was a sort of long cinematographic coma for a good 12 years, Singapore cinema quite simply no longer existing. “Cinematographic rebirth”, as the Singaporeans themselves call it, did not occur until during the 1990s with the appearance of Eric Khoo, whose first short films came to light at the then newly launched Singapore Film Festival (created in 1987) and whose first long feature film “Mee Pok Man” (1995) truly marked the beginning of a new era, that of cinematographic production almost solely in Chinese, occasionally in English, but having very little to do with the golden age which had preceded it, marked by mainly genre cinema. What succeeded it then was arthouse cinema, of a completely different kind, and of which Eric Khoo would, for many years, remain the only important representative, especially of international renown. For after “Mee Pok Man”, the story of a lonely, depressed pasta salesman, came the excellent “12 Storeys” (1997) telling the tale of a building of municipal flats (the HDB), and presenting an acid cut across Singapore society, marked by a sort of ill-being, hiding its real name but ending up occasionally in suicide, with its victims throwing themselves down from the 12th floor. This sort of “Life - instructions for use” in Singapore style did not go unnoticed and got Singapore its first Cannes selection in the section: One way of looking at things (Un certain regard).

A year later, in 1998, another film made a name for itself, the musical “Forever Fever” by Glen Goei, thus exploring another cinematographic register by bringing back to life the disco era in the Singapore of the 70s. More importantly, it did well in the local screenings, helping to boost Singapore cinema with the local public. More popular filmmakers like Jack Nao then took advantage of this opportunity.

As far as Eric Khoo is concerned, he went on consolidating his artistic career with films like “Be With Me” (2005), mingling three love stories. This time the film was welcomed in France by a selection at The Directors Fortnight (la Quinzaine des Réalisateurs), making Khoo the permanent figurehead of the new Singapore cinema, an incarnation which was that much more perfect as Khoo, born in 1965, the year Singapore gained independence, is the exact same age as this young nation.

However, in his wake a generation of younger filmmakers was already forming who were born between the middle of the 70s and the end of the 80s, right in the middle of that black cinematographic hole during which the local production had been reduced to nothing. These young directors were sometimes more enterprising than Khoo himself, daring to take on board more difficult subjects, not afraid of facing censorship, directors like Royston Tan, Boo Jungfeng, Anthony Chen or else Ken Kwek, no doubt the freest electron of them all. “15: The Movie” (2003) by Royston Tan made a sensation at the time, drawing the portrait of a 15-year-old teenager (where the title comes from) about to opt out of society, drop out of school and what’s more, who lets himself get caught up in gang business. Royston Tan appeared at the time a bit like the “bad boy” of Singapore cinema but that did not last long, for, after a short period of scandal, he quickly calmed down, developing more commercial and consensual work. In his place then emerged Anthony Chen and Boo Junfeng whose films give us a sort of very honest X-ray of Singapore society, somewhat in the same way as Eric Khoo had managed to outline but, no doubt, going further than he had. The international public, the critics and the festivals, moreover, made no mistake about it, for if, after the films of Eric Khoo, someone succeeded very well in “transforming the prototype”, it was Anthony Chen who, with his short film “Ah Ma” (2007), was in competition for the Palme d’or and obtained a special mention, thus becoming the very first Singapore film to get an award in Cannes. Then with his first feature film “Ilo Ilo” (2013) he won the Golden Camera Award (Caméra D’Or), again in Cannes, with a story bringing the presence of “maids” in Singapore into the limelight.

As far as Ken Kwek is concerned, from now on it's probably he who is the real bad boy of Singapore cinema, the one who for a good ten years has been afraid of nothing with “Sex.Violence.Family values.” (2012), an omnibus film made-up of three short sequences, completely banned in Singapore, then with the very interesting “Unlucky Plaza” (2014), in which, for whoever knows Singapore society, the realistic effect was striking. His last work, “#LookAtMe”, indirectly inspired by the affair of Amos Yee, a young Singaporean who, in 2015 when he was then 17 years old, published on the Internet a video not only attacking in a very direct manner Lee Kuan Yew (the previous Prime Minister who had at the time just died), but also the Christian religion, has obviously never been able to be shown in Singapore itself. Which is what Ken Kwek must have been expecting when he insisted so blatantly on such a sensitive area.

In the end, even if local cinematographic production over these last 30 years (those of the “rebirth”), remain relatively scant as far as quantity goes, limited to just a handful of real films per year, we can, all the same, talk about Singapore cinematographic identity as much by the themes often marked with the stamp of uncanny, urban melancholy, as by its aesthetic quality. All things considered, its cinema has very little to do with its immediate neighbours, with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and next to nothing to do with Vietnam, Cambodia or Thailand. At a pinch, if there are, at times, exterior influences which can be felt, they come from beyond: from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan but also from western arthouse cinema. In as much, Singapore cinema, mirroring the city-state which has engendered it, is a meeting between East and West, giving the lie to Rudyard Kipling who used to say “East is East and West is West (and never the twain shall meet)”. In Singapore, all of that meets and merrily mingles.

Raphaël Millet

Author, director and film historian, Raphaël Millet has lived in Singapore since 2002. He is the author of Le Cinéma de Singapour. Paradis perdu, doute existentiel, crise identitaire et mélancolie contemporaine (2004) and Singapore Cinema (2006), as well as the director of the documentary Le Capitol de Singapour (2020).





Focus on Singapore cinema

Jewel in the Slum

Our Farmland

Monday march 6th, 16:00 - Majestic 3
Tuesday march 7th, 10:00 - Majestic 3

The Lion City

La jeune fille Xiao Xiao

Thursday march 2nd, 09:45 - Majestic 3
Saturday march 4th, 09:45 - Majestic 4

Dang Anom

Neige Noire

Wednesday march 1st, 18:00 - Majestic 3 
Thursday march 2nd, 14:00- Majestic 3

Ring of Fury

Les Femmes du Lac aux Âmes Parfumées

Friday march 3rd, 16:00 - Majestic 4 
Tuesday march 7th, 15:30 - Majestic 4

Forever Fever

Un conte Mongole

Friday march 3rd, 14:00 - Majestic 4
Saturday march 4th, 20:30 - Majestic 4

Mee Pok Man

Chanson du Tibetb

Saturday march 4th, 16:00 - Majestic 4 
Sunday march 5th, 18:00 - Majestic 4

12 Storeys

Les Femmes du Lac aux Âmes Parfumées

Saturday march 4th, 18:00 - Majestic 4 
Monday march 6th, 10:00 - Majestic 4

Be With Me

Un conte Mongole

Tuesday february 28th, 20:00 - Edwige Feuillère Theatre

My Magic

Chanson du Tibetb

Thursday march 2nd, 20:30 - Majestic 4 - Positif Magazine 70th anniversary Night
Friday march 3rd, 16:00 - Majestic 10


Les Femmes du Lac aux Âmes Parfumées

Friday march 3rd, 20:30 - Majestic 2 
Monday march 6th, 18;00 - Majestic 4

15 : The Movie

Un conte Mongole

Wednesday march 1st, 14:00 - Majestic 4
Thursday march 2nd, 16:00 - Majestic 4

Ah Ma

Chanson du Tibetb

Thursday march 2nd, 12:00 - Majestic 3 
Saturday march 4th, 12:00 - Majestic 4

Ilo Ilo

Les Femmes du Lac aux Âmes Parfumées

Sunday march 5th, 14:00 - Majestic 2 
Monday march 6th, 14:00 - Majestic 2


Un conte Mongole

Wednesday march 1st, 10:00 - Majestic 4
Friday march 3rd, 10:00 - Majestic 4

  • 01-vesoulagglo
  • 02-vesoul
  • 03-regionbfc
  • 04-hautesaone
  • 05-cnc
  • 06-minsiteredelaculture
  • 07-academiebesanconweb
  • 08-FDCP
  • 09-uniphilippines
  • 10-guimet
  • 11-inalco
  • 12-keolis
  • 13-vbus
  • 14-mobiliteagglomeration
  • 15-mobigo
  • 16-creditagricole
  • 17-suzuki
  • 18-SNCF
  • 19-orange
  • 20-cora
  • 21-mgen
  • 22-vignoblesguillaume
  • 23-georgescuisine
  • 24-distilleriepeureuxweb
  • 25-Prime
  • 26-sahgev
  • 27-orinvestissement
  • 28-majestic
  • 29-schraag
  • 30-netizis
  • 31-onlineformapro
  • 32-franceinter
  • 33-francebleubesancon
  • 34-estrpublicain
  • 35-france3bfc
  • 36-lapressedevesoul
  • 37-ecrannoir
  • 38-asianmoviepulse
  • 39-positif
  • 40-tlramasorties
  • 41-cinealliance
  • 42-jfmaillot
  • 43-dbtechnique
  • 44-badkidproductions

FICA Contact
 +33(0)3 84 76 55 82
 25 rue Dr Doillon, 70000 VESOUL

Press Contact
J-M. Thérouanne : +33(0)6 84 84 87 46


Follow us!