Crossroads of the East (1938): Singapore Cinema (2008)

by being

How Wee, a Chinese teacher by day and DJ by night, invited me to his radio programme – 1003漫游UrbaNite – to respond to an extensive report on Singapore cinema (1990-present) written by Eista Lee and Lim Fangwei from Lianhe Zaobao. Eista wrote to me earlier when she was preparing for the article to compare notes on films made during this period.

What is Singapore Cinema?

Indeed, 2008 was a bumper year for Singapore Cinema. 32 feature films were exhibited in cinema theatres and alternative screening venues including The Substation, The Art House and Sinema.

2008 Director
12 Lotus Royston Tan
18 Grams of Love Han Yew Kwang
Ah Long Pte Ltd Jack Neo
Boomtown Beijing Tan Siok Siok
Dance of the Dragon John Radel, Max Mannix
Diminishing Memories II Eng Yee Peng
Dirt Out Yousry Mansour
Dreams from the Third World Kan Lume
Feet Unbound Ng Khee Jin
Hashi Sherman Ong
Homeless FC Lynn Lee, James Leong
Kallang Roar Cheng Ding An
Keronchong For Pak Bakar Abdul Nizam
Lucky 7 Sun Koh, Rajagopal, Boo Junfeng, Brian Gothong Tan, Chew Tze Chuan, Ho Tzu Nyen and Tania Sng
Mad About English Pek Lian
Money No Enough 2 Jack Neo
Month of Hungry Ghosts Tony Kern
My Magic Eric Khoo
Painted Skin Gorden Chan
Pulau Hantu Esan Sivalingam
Road to Mecca Harman Hussin
Rule Number One Kelvin Tong
Salawati Marc X Grigoroff
Sing to the Dawn Philip Mark Mitchell
Slam Johnathan Lim
The Carrot Cake Conversations Michael Wang
The Days Boi Kwong
The Leap Years Jean Yeo
The Spirit Compendium Foo Fung Koon
To Speak Craig Ower
Women Who Love Women: Conversations in Singapore Lim Mayling
Veil of Dreams Zaihirat Banu Codelli

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This is how I came up with the list:

1. Films made by Singapore filmmakers and/or;

2. Films made/produced in Singapore and/or;

3. Films made about Singapore and/or;

4. Films categorised/branded/imagined as a Singapore production.

(1): Rule No. 1 directed by Singapore filmmaker, Kelvin Tong and produced by Scorpio East, was shot in Hong Kong. Three films were made in China – Mad About English directed by Pek Lian, Boomtown Beijing directed by Tan Siok Siok and Slam directed by Johnathan Lim. Ah Long Pte Ltd directed by Jack Neo, was shot in Malaysia and was a co-production between Singapore-based Mediacorp Raintree Pictures and Scorpio East, and Malaysian-based Double Vision. Road to Mecca, directed by Harman Hussin, was a road movie that spanned Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and India.

(2): Dance of the Dragon was made and produced in Singapore but directed by John Radel and Max Mannix, both Australians, their debut film; Sing to the Dawn directed by Philip Mark Mitchell (Canadian) his debut film, was produced by Infinite Frameworks; A Month of Hungry Ghosts directed by Tony Kern (American), was produced in Singapore and also about Singapore.

(4): Hashi directed by Sherman Ong (Malaysian) was shot in Japan. However, in the programme notes of the International Film Festival of Rotterdam, it was categorised as a Malaysia/Japan/Singapore film. Sherman holds a Malaysian passport but lives and works in Singapore. The film is about a young film maker from Singapore, invited to make a film in Japan. Ekachai Uekrongtham (Thai), who directed The Wedding Game in 2009, also attended the National University of Singapore and went on to be based in Singapore for his work in theatre. Painted Skin directed by Gordon Chan (Hong Kong) was shot in China and funded by Mediacorp Raintree Pictures. In its 2007 list of Singapore Movies, the Singapore Film Commission included Raintree-funded films such as Protégé (directed by Hongkonger Derek Yee, shot in Hong Kong), Home Song Stories (directed by Australian Tony Ayres, shot in Australia) and The Tattooist (directed by New Zealander Peter Burger, shot in New Zealand).

I find (4) most interesting. According to Singapore Statistics, out of a population of 4.8 million people residing in Singapore in 2008, 3.1 million people are Singapore citizens. Singapore, at the crossroad of the East and West, takes on a multi-cultural and cosmopolitan character. It is not difficult to see such cross-border and cross-cultural influence in films from Singapore. Cinema can be viewed as not just merely of a particular culture or nation. Film productions in Singapore has tapped on regional resources and networks. In the golden age of Singapore Cinema (1950s-60s), the Shaw Brothers, Cathay and Kong Ngee recruited ‘foreign talents’ from Malaysia (P. Ramlee), India (B.S Rajhans, Phani Majumdar), the Philippines (Ramon Estella, Lamberto V. Avellana) and Hong Kong (Chun Kim) to make films here. Films made in Singapore were distributed and exhibited in Malaysia and Indonesia. All three major studios also went on to venture into Hong Kong, making heavy investments in building the film industry there, exporting films made for the Chinese community worldwide and especially targetting the Southeast Asian markets.

Whereas filmmakers like P. Ramlee and Ramon Estella were employed to make films in Singapore in the 50s, Raintree-funded films such as Painted Skin (2008), Protégé (2007), Home Song Stories (2007) and The Tattooist (2007) were shot overseas, with a primarily non-Singaporean crew and cast. In numerous interviews, Daniel Yun, Managing Director of Mediacorp Raintree Pictures, insisted its involvment was an active investor and producer of these “borderless” and “international” works. Famously, he was quoted in an interview: “If we are local, we are not necessarily international. But if we are international, we are definitely local.” (Ong Sor Fern, “Raintree Branches Out”, LIFE! Straits Times, 14 March 2007)

More than half of directors are first-time filmmakers who have been making short films or working in various other capacities in the film and/or TV industry. I also find it heartwarming that filmmakers like K Rajagopal and Abdul Nizam have returned to filmmaking after a long hiatus.

Box Office

The report also highlighted that these Singapore films grossed over SGD$10 million for the first time since 1990. From the figures published by Box Office Mojo, I’ve compiled the Singapore films that made it into the list of 272 films released by commercial cinema theatres in Singapore in 2008.

Titles Box Office (Singapore) in USD Box Office (Singapore) in SGD Box Office Ranking in Singapore
1 Money No Enough 2 $3,389,709 $5,084,563.50 4
2 Ah Long Pte Ltd $2,115,640 $3,173,460.00 11
3 Painted Skin $1,025,372 $1,538,058.00 37
4 Rule No. 1 $704,511 $1,056,766.50 51
5 12 Lotus $684,753 $1,027,129.50 54
6 The Leap Years $667,575 $1,001,362.50 56
7 Sing to the Dawn $180,173 $270,259.50 111
8 Dance of the Dragon $148,132 $222,198.00 127
9 The Days * $181,574.36 N.A
10 Mad About English $120,724 $181,086.00 136
11 Kallang Roar $62,106 $93,159.00 173
12 A Month of Hungry Ghosts $43,353 $65,029.50 193
13 Slam $31,735 $47,602.50 203
14 My Magic $19,941 $29,911.50 217
15 Feet Unbound $16,772 $25,158.00 234
Total $9,210,496 $14,005,744

* Statistic for The Days is not found on Box Office Mojo and provided by the producer of the film.

To see this in perspective of the box office rankings of other films released in 2008: Wall-E (13), Cape No. 7 (91), Atonement (132), There Will Be Blood (183) and Persepolis (189).

a. 1-7 on the list were produced by Mediacorp Raintree Pictures.

b. I think it’s great that Singapore exhibitors are getting adventurous. Mad About English became the first Singapore documentary that was commercial released. From 2006-2008, Singapore GaGa and Invisible City by Tan Pin Pin and Dimishing Memories by Eng Yee Peng ran multiple sold-out screenings at the 80-seater Art House theatre. No box office records of these 3 films were recorded. By extrapolation, I do not think they would have topped Mad About English‘s smashing $181,000 takings at the box office too. I might be wrong.

c. It is disappointing to see My Magic directed by Eric Khoo, Singapore’s first film that competed in Cannes flopped so badly at the box office. One would expect to be able to count on some support from patriotic Singaporeans. Ironically, Eric Khoo commented in the report that Singapore cinema-goers were swayed by the directors and not stars. He quoted the examples of Dance of the Dragon that starred Fann Wong and Sharp Pencil that starred Mark Richmond. Both did ‘badly’ in the box office. Jack Neo’s films, however, always did well in the box office in Singapore. One wonders where Eric Khoo’s fans have gone. From the record, Be With Me (2005): SGD$175,000, 12 Storeys (1997): SGD$650,000 and Mee Pok Man (1995): SGD$450,000 (from the Singapore Film Commission List of 1991-2006 Singapore Movies).

d. It is noteworthy that with Ah Long Pte Ltd and Money No Enough 2, Jack Neo contributed 60% or $8.2 million of the $13.8 million of the total box office takings (Singapore) in 2008.

e. The most expensive Singapore production last year (and possibly since 1990) – Sing to the Dawn directed by first-time Canadian filmmaker, Philip Mark Mitchell, was made at the cost of SGD$7.5 million.

Overseas Markets

It is not clear if Lee and Lim included overseas box office takings of Singapore films. If they did, Singapore films in 2008 would have grossed over SGD$20 million. From the figures below, Malaysia is also the largest export market for Singapore films, contributing 25% to the total combined box office earnings.

In Malaysia

Titles Box Office (Malaysia) in USD Box Office (Malaysia) in SGD Box Office Ranking in Malaysia
1 Money No Enough 2 $1,378,946 $2,068,419 24
2 Ah Long Pte Ltd $1,342,065 $2,013,098 26
3 Painted Skin $626,440 $939,660 57
4 Rule No. 1 $183,191 $274,787 127
Total $3,530,642 $5,295,963

In Hong Kong

Titles Box Office (Hong Kong) in USD Box Office (Hong Kong) in USD Box Office Ranking in Hong Kong
1 Painted Skin $1,339,198 $2,008,797 32
2 Rule No. 1 $36,793 $55,189.50 187
Total $1,375,991 $2,063,987

This would bring the combined box office earnings of Singapore films in 2008 to SGD$21.2 million. Even if one were to not consider what might be a contentious inclusion – Painted Skin, the amount was still a respectable SGD$16.7 million.

Titles Box Office (combined) in USD Box Office (Combined) in SGD
1 Money No Enough 2 $4,768,655 $7,152,982.50
2 Ah Long Pte Ltd $3,457,705 $5,186,557.50
3 Painted Skin $2,991,010 $4,486,515.00
4 Rule No. 1 $924,495 $1,386,742.50
5 12 Lotus $684,753 $1,027,129.50
6 The Leap Years $667,575 $1,001,362.50
7 Sing to the Dawn $180,173 $270,259.50
8 Dance of the Dragon $148,132 $222,198.00
9 The Days * $181,574.36
10 Mad About English $120,724 $181,086.00
11 Kallang Roar $62,106 $93,159.00
12 A Month of Hungry Ghosts $43,353 $65,029.50
13 Slam $31,735 $47,602.50
14 My Magic $19,941 $29,911.50
15 Feet Unbound $16,772 $25,158.00
Total $14,117,129 $21,365,694

With new films already scheduled for release and production in 2009, and more first-time filmmakers working in earnest to bow, one can be hopeful that this momentum is likely to sustain.