Earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival, a bit of history was made: It was the first time that two Singapore movies had played at the festival.
‘I think we’re all very happy,’ says Boo Junfeng, the director of Apprentice, which was unveiled in the festival’s Un Certain Regard strand.
‘Singapore films have been to Cannes quite a few times, but never two [at once],’ marvels his compatriot K. Rajagopal, who directed A Yellow Bird, which screened at the festival’s International Critics’ Week.
For this sovereign state, with a population just north of 5 million, that’s quite an achievement.
Coming three years after Anthony Chen’s directorial debut Ilo Ilo won the Camera d’Or, making it the first Singaporean film to ever claim a prize in Cannes, it’s an indication that the Singapore film industry is on the rise.
‘It’s definitely growing,’ says Boo. ‘More and more, you are starting to see a generation of filmmakers who care about the development phase of filmmaking.’
Boo adds that the local film industry has ‘for too long’ rushed its productions for commercial reasons.
‘There hasn’t been enough time and effort put into development. So now we’re starting to see a lot of filmmakers going to script labs, going to project markets and making sure that there is a rigorous process for development before going into production.
‘I think that’s a very healthy sign, and hopefully all this sets a good precedent for future films.’
It’s certainly a positive upswing—if not quite a return to the glory days of the 1960s.
‘There were a lot of films—Malay films especially—being made in Singapore then,’ says Rajagopal. ‘They even had film studios.’
A new wave
After Singapore gained independence in 1965, the film industry gradually declined over the next two decades, until the arrival of the Singapore International Film Festival in 1987 created a platform for short films.
Directors swiftly progressed to feature films, the first being Mee Pok Man by burgeoning director Eric Khoo—who later would become the first Singaporean to see one of his films in Cannes’ official competition (with 2005’s Be with Me).
In the meantime, the 1998 comedy Money No Enough had already sent the industry ablaze.
Its writer Jack Neo went on to direct a number of hit local movies, as did commercials director Royston Tan. But it wasn’t just their successes that encouraged this new wave.
Rajagopal, 51, who won the Singapore International Film Festival’s Special Jury Prize for three consecutive years from 1995, also points to the rise in filmmaking courses in the city-state—something that has encouraged students to consider film as a viable career option.
‘All the polytechnics and universities have an elective on filmmaking. So you have a lot filmmakers graduating and coming out to make films and be part of a growing industry,’ he says.
Rajagopal could easily be talking about 32-year-old Boo, whose prison drama Apprentice marks his second movie after 2010’s Sandcastle.
In his early days, Boo attended Ngee Ann Polytechnic, taking a course in Film and Media Studies. His initial interest was in production design.
‘I fell in love with the idea of make-believe, the idea of being able to create another world, or recreate a reality,’ he says. ‘Production design allowed me to do that.’
It was only after an exchange program to Barcelona that Boo made his first short film, 2004’s award-winning A Family Portrait. Ever since, he’s been embraced by the industry and his peers; in 2008, he became the first recipient of Lasalle College of the Arts’ McNally Award for Excellence in the Arts, and The Wall Street Journal dubbed Sandcastle one of Asia’s most notable films of 2010.
Dealing with the very controversial issue of the death penalty in Singapore—explored through the relationship of an executioner (Wan Hanafi Su) and his young pupil (Fir Rahman)—Apprentice is equally arresting.
‘I was always interested in the issues surrounding the death penalty,’ explains Boo.
‘I was particularly curious about the character that is the hangman. The person who needs to pull the lever, and the psyche behind it, is something we’ve very rarely heard of before.’
While Apprentice was a five-country co-production (the prison scenes were shot in Sydney), Boo has no desire to abandon Singapore for other climes to make his next feature.
‘I think Singapore has a lot of very interesting stories to tell,’ he says. ‘It is such a unique, multicultural society in Asia, with a very unique history, with a very unique political climate, so the kinds of themes that can be explored are very interesting.
‘I hope more and more stories can be told from Singapore.’ Rajagopal concurs.
On the margins
His film, A Yellow Bird, dives into the margins of Singaporean society even more than Apprentice does.
The story follows Siva (Sivakumar Palakrishnan), a Singaporean Indian released from jail for contraband smuggling, desperate to locate his wife and child.
Born and raised in Singapore, Rajagopal has Indian heritage—from Kerala—and he wanted to shine a light on this minority race.
‘I was interested in exploring the ‘other’ in society especially in a country so small,’ he says.
‘We have a majority of 75 percent Chinese. Indians are only 7 percent. A lot of times, we tend to be judged by our race rather than our nationality. That was something I was asking myself: Why am I considered other than a Singaporean?
‘A lot of people, when you take a cab, ask ‘Where are you from?’ That was the starting point of the film.’
Despite increased support from the Singapore Film Commission, Rajagopal believes it will take time for the industry to compete against its bigger neighbors.
Yet, like Boo, he remains positive. ‘Most of the films being made in Singapore are for the Chinese audience—lighthearted comedies. That’s what we’re seeing now.
‘So it’s good that non-commercial films are getting international recognition and a bigger platform to show and present their films. Hopefully there will be a balance.’
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Photos: Alamy/Akanga Film Asia