A vibrant city and country nestled at the foot of the Malaysian peninsula, Singapore has long been a crossroads, a stopping point, and a cultural hub where goods, inventions, and ideas are shared and traded.
Though Singapore was home to a flourishing Chinese and Malay film industry in the 1950s and 1960s, between independence in 1965 and the early 1990s, few movies were made there. A new era for cinema in the sovereign city-state started with the international recognition of Eric Khoo’s first features, followed by a New Wave comprised of graduates from local film schools. In recent years the Singapore film industry has produced commercially successful fare, such as the horror movie The Maid, as well as more artistic films like Sandcastle, the first Singaporean film to be selected for International Critic’s Week at Cannes, and Ilo Ilo, which won the Caméra d’or at Cannes in 2013. Covering the myths that surround Singaporean film and exploring the realities of the movies that come from this exciting city, World Film Locations: Singapore introduces armchair travelers to a rich, but less known, national cinema.
About the Author
Lorenzo Codelli is a contributor to Positif and a Cannes Film Festival advisor.
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World Film Locations Singapore
By Lorenzo Codelli
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2014 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
City of Imagination
Text by TOH HUN PING
IN JANUARY 2014, the new 'Sandcrawler' building, regional headquarters of Lucasfilm, was unleashed to much fanfare in Fusionopolis (a 'business park' on the outskirts west of downtown Singapore). Expectations are high. This world-class production complex is anticipated to 'tap Asian talent to support future Star Wars movies' and assist in manufacturing other special-effects-heavy, big-name international blockbusters.
Imagining Singapore for the movies started over 88 years ago. In July 1926, a humble film production studio, the first ever in Singapore, was established by an entrepreneur from Muar. Named after himself, the Low Pui-kim Nanyang Independent Film Production Company was located in a bungalow at 58 Meyer Road in Katong, a suburban district in the east, and was to produce Chinese films with a 'Nanyang' (literally 'South Seas'; broadly refers to South East Asia) flavour using homegrown talents. It made a silent feature The New Immigrant (Guo Chao-wen, 1927) which told the story of a fresh Chinese immigrant's experiences in Singapore. The studio subsequently moved to 333 Pasir Panjang Road, on the western outskirts, and did not manage to complete a planned second feature.
In May 1933, Motilal Chamria, a film producer from Calcutta, set up Indo-Malay Talkies Co. along the same road where Low Pui-kim left off, at Lions' Gate, Pasir Panjang Road. With B.S. Rajhans – an Indian film director who would make a greater impact in Singapore's post-World War II film industry – at the helm, the studio by the seafront aimed to produce films with 'a local atmosphere and featuring Malay artistes'. Eventually, the only film Motilal Chamria produced was 1934's Leila Majnun, a Malay talkie adaptation of 'a world famous Arabian love tragedy' (The Straits Times, 27 March 1934, p.6).
The Shaw Brothers Ltd – a well-established film distributor/cinema operator in Malaya run by brothers Runme and Run Run – also began producing films locally in 1940. They imported Chinese directors and second-hand equipment from Hong Kong, while recruiting local Malay (bangsawan) artistes to act for a handful of Malay films with titles such as Mutiara/Pearl, Bermadu/Polygamy and Toping Saitan/Devil's Mask (all directed by Hou Yao and Wan Hoi-ling, 1940–41). To facilitate the expansion of their film business, the Shaws converted a warehouse into a studio at 8 Jalan Ampas, in a suburb not too far from town. There were ambitious proposals to produce Malay and Cantonese talkies and establish a newsreel service. However, the Japanese occupation (1942–45) put paid to their plans.
After the Japanese surrendered, there was a flurry of interest in making movies about the war experience. A group of Chinese artistes active in local performance troupes joined Zhonghua Film Production Studio, which had its studio in a mansion along Geylang Lorong 24, in the heart of what is today a famous red-light district. The studio produced a trilogy of films about the tribulations of overseas Chinese during the Japanese occupation.
The Shaw Brothers joined in the fray by reopening its Jalan Ampas studio to produce its trilogy of post-war Chinese films. They also revived their Malay film venture by employing seasoned director B.S. Rajhans to oversee production, and beefed up studio facilities with American imports. They founded Malay Film Productions Ltd (MFP) to churn out huge outputs of popular Malay films to feed their expanding film exhibition circuit. At its peak in the 1950s, MFP was producing more than ten films a year. The Jalan Ampas studio was even prominently featured in several MFP films, e.g. as a factory with picketing workers in Mogok/Strike (K.M. Basker, 1957) and as itself, a 'dream factory', in Seniman Bujang Lapok/The Nitwit Movie Stars (P. Ramlee, 1961). By then, Shaw Brothers had acquired the studio's neighbouring land plots to build new soundstages, rebuilt the old studio complex and housed their employees in quarters at nearby Boon Teck Road. (The abandoned buildings at 8 Jalan Ampas are still standing today.)
Competition to MFP's monopoly on local Malay film production came from two studios established in the 1950s – Nusantara and Cathay-Keris. Nusantara Film Productions Ltd ('Nusantara' refers to the Malay Archipelago) was founded in 1950 by Penang cinema entrepreneur Ong Keng Huat, and was managed by Hsu Chiao Meng, a photographer/cinematographer active in the local Chinese cultural scene. Nusantara's first studio was located in the South Winds Hotel at Tanjung Balai (a remote location in the western part of Singapore; now the Jurong Fishery Port). Then, it moved to a factory at Bukit Timah Road 8th milestone (219J De Souza Avenue). The studiowas noted for being the first to use Malay directors like Naz Achnaz and A.R. Tompel, in contrast to MFP which had employed non-Malay directors from overseas. Nusantara finally folded in 1954due to a lack of access to local exhibition venues and after Indonesia imposed restrictions on Malay films made in Malaya/Singapore. The premises at Bukit Timah evolved into an independent film factory named Nanfang (literally 'Southern') Film Studio, and was used in the shooting of a number of Hokkien dialect and Mandarin films up to the 1960s.
Cathay-Keris had its roots in Rimau Film Productions, founded in 1951 by Ho Ah Loke. Ho built a film studio, essentially two makeshift tin sheds, at Tampines Road 9th milestone in the far north-eastern reaches of Singapore. After two unprofitable films, the irrepressible Ho renamed his company Keris Film Productions and persisted with making movies that were characteristically Malay/Malayan, often adapting from local folklore and novels. Later, Ho collaborated with CathayOrganisation's head Loke Wan Tho to form Cathay-Keris Films in 1953, with a new studio at 532D East Coast Road, including two new soundstages and existing buildings that were former barracks used by the Japanese. In Muda Mudi/The Young Ones (M. Amin, 1965), a story about an aging and out-of-favour actress, one would be able to see depictions of studio life in Cathay-Keris.
Adopting a similar strategy as the Shaw Brothers – vertical integration of production, distribution and exhibition within a single organization, Cathay-Keris would release a total of 125 feature films (mostly Malay) in its twenty years of existence (1953–73). Add to that MFP's output of more than 150 Malay films (1947–67), the total oeuvre by the two major studios was considered astounding, in an era now often lauded as the 'Golden Age of Malay cinema'. A mix of political factors, labour issues and competition from television led to financial losses and the ultimate decision to close the studios for good by 1972, thus marking the end of a boom period for local movie production and the start of a lull until the next 'revivals' in the 1990s and beyond.CHAPTER 2
MALAY SCREEN IN A PREDOMINANTLY CHINESE SINGAPORE
Text by JAN UHDE AND YVONNE NG UHDE
ONE OF SIN GAPORE'S conspicuous characteristics is its multi-ethnic and multicultural character. In 2013, the city-state was home to 74.2% Chinese, 13.3% Malays, 9.1% Indians and 3.3% Eurasians and other ethnic groups. Reflecting the island's history, it is the Malays and the Malay language who enjoy indigenous status in Singapore while the Chinese have grown to become the city's most numerous and politically influential ethnic group, with the exception of the years between 1963 and 1965 when Singapore was a part of Malaysia.
Singapore feature film production, born in 1926, saw a remarkable creative surge in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1965, Singapore left Malaysia and became an independent republic. It also marked the beginning of the decline of the film industry there. In its heyday (roughly between 1950 and 1965), some 250 features were made, averaging sixteen annually. A number of accomplished film artists such as B.S. Rajhans, P. Ramlee, Hussain Haniff and Maria Menado, left a significant cinematic heritage – the 'Golden Age' of Singapore (Malay) cinema. In comparison, only a handful of Chinese-language films were made in Singapore during this time.
The film-making activities in this fecund period involved all major ethnic groups of the city. The Chinese, led by two major corporations, Shaw Brothers (Malay Film Productions) and Cathay Organisation (Cathay-Keris), acted as producers and distributors. A number of trained film professionals – directors, cameramen and film editors – came from India bringing with them their technical know-how and experience, as well as dramatic and moviemaking traditions and styles. The Malays, frequently employed as actors, were the most visible element in these movies. Probably the most popular among them was P. Ramlee, an extraordinarily gifted composer, singer, performer and director. Most of the Malay feature productions between 1950 and 1965 exploited popular genres such as contemporary dramas and melodramas, accenting family, romantic and social issues; comedies usually in present-day settings; historical or costume dramas exploring local and regional Malay history; and horror films, centring on the local pontianak and 'oily man' folklore.
A noticeable characteristic of the Singapore-Malay movies were songs, integrated with the action or separated from it. Such scenes were mostly lyrical, lending the films a poetic flavour. This stylistic feature, familiar in Bollywood movies, was introduced by the Indian professionals involved in the Malay film production. This import fell on fertile soil in the Malay performance culture where it easily blended with the tradition of bangsawan (Malay opera).
Despite the involvement of Singapore's entire ethnic spectrum in the city's feature production, the great majority of these films focused exclusively on the Malay culture, which could also be appreciatedby the Malays in the region. These movies put forward Malay life, values and identity. Other ethnic groups were filtered away, which is most apparent in films set in contemporary Singapore. Watching almost any Singapore-set Malay movie of the 1950s and 1960s period, an audience unfamiliar with the city's actual ethnic composition and visual appearance, would hardly believe that more than three quarters of Singapore's population were not Malays. Here are a few examples illustrating the screen image of Singapore as a Malay city:
In his popular Penarik Beca/Trishaw Puller (1955), director P. Ramlee moved away from the Indian model that characterized the Malay movies until then. He turned to a contemporary, socially conscious subject and rendered it in a realistic style. The film's melodramatic plot centres on a poor trishaw puller (P. Ramlee) and a girl from a rich family (Saadiah). The girl's father is against her marriage to a poor man but an incident involving a callous criminal opens the father's eyes. As in a number of the Malay Film Productions movies, Trishaw Puller's introductory shots feature the iconic clock tower between what was then the Victoria Theatre and Victoria Memorial Hall, followed by shots of busy boulevards and streets and a Cold Storage grocery outlet. They confirm Singapore as the film's location. In the following scenes however, virtually every character, even minor ones, including the police, hospital and restaurant staff and guests, is Malay. The Chinese and Indian segments of the population are practically invisible.
Korban Fitnah/Victim of Slander (1959), directed by P.L. Kapur (pseudonym of the acclaimed Indonesian director Usmar Ismail), produced by and starring Maria Menado, includes a number of visual Singapore references: the protagonist's transfer from the Outram Prison to the District Court, the Wyman's Haven restaurant, the C.K. Tang store and the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. On the whole, however, the viewer sees mostly the city's Malay visage, as only a handful of non-Malay characters appear in the role of extras: a turbanwearing young man among the merry group of cyclists, two Caucasian females and a couple of Chinese guests being entertained by the singers in Wyman's Haven, a Hokkien-speaking servant Ah Peck and the Caucasian ophthalmologist are among the few who represent the other side of Singapore.
Madu Tiga/Three Wives (1964), directed by the versatile P. Ramlee, was awarded Best Comedy Film at the Asian Film Festival in Taipei, 1964. Its 1960s Singapore setting is anchored through a number of easily recognizable locations throughout the film, including the Shaw House/Lido complex built in 1958–59, the Fitzpatrick's supermarket, Hotel Ambassador and several tracking shots along busy streets. The film's plot, however, which focuses on the Malay community, reduces the visual presence of other ethnic groups to a couple of salespersons in a Chinese goldsmith shop and a secretary in the workplace of the main character. The film's impression of multi-ethnic Singapore is again that of a Malay city.
In an interesting reversal, post-2000 Singapore projects onto the movie screen an opposite image. Malay feature production in the city is sadly negligible at present. Most of the local feature production is now focused on the Chinese majority of the city, reflecting its political and economic influence in the city-state. The disparity in ethnic representation on-screen, however, is less radical than it was half a century ago. Today, Singapore is a much more cosmopolitan city, and its film-makers are more sensitive to the ethnic balance on the movie screen.
COCONUT PLANTATION/À TRAVERS UNE PLANTATION DE COCOTIERS À SINGAPOUR (1910)
Unidentified palm grove [photo taken at Pulau Ubin's coconut plantation]
PATHÉ WAS ONE OF the forerunners of colour cinema. The pochoir technique was developed in 1906, transformed into Pathécolor, and exploited until the early 1930s. Pathé travel and exotic films had without any doubt a very significant impact on the diffusion of cinema. The precise description of the handling of coconuts in Coconut Plantation/À travers une plantation de cocotiers à Singapour is countered by the spectacular depiction of large palm groves using a smooth cameracar. Five intertitles divide the reel. 'CLIMBING THE TREES TO OBTAIN THE SAP OF COCOANUT.': a brief panning shot over a coconut grove. A man climbs on top of a tree and begins to cut the fruits and throw them down. On the ground a wagon is pulled by an ox. Other natives are carrying coconuts. The first climber descends from the tree. 'PLACED IN JARS AND LOADED IN WAGONS.': bringing coconuts on their head and shoulders the natives put them on the wagons. Wagons are beginning to move. 'CATERING THE COCOANUTS.': another man climbs up the palm tree. From the top the fruits are cut and made to fall to the ground where natives are collecting them. 'REMOVING THE HUSKS WHICH ARE USED BY THE NATIVES FOR MANY PURPOSES AMONG OTHERS FOR MAKING TOOTH BRUSHES.': a man standing takes a knife from the ground covered with coconuts, he cleans it up then opens it – looking straight into the camera – and offers it to another man who begins to drink from it. At his side a child is waiting. A close-up of the man cleaning up his teeth with pieces of the coconut bark. 'the road home.': a square with some houses among the palm groves. A man protecting himself from the sun with an umbrella. Other natives move towards the camera, some of them carried by rickshaws. From 1910 till 1915, Pathé produced five short reels in Singapore and Malaysia. Carlo Montanaro
MALAYA WAR RECORD: A RECORD OF THE MARCH ONWARD/MARE SENKI: SHINGEKI NO KIROKU (1942)
City centre – Anson Road and Padang
ASSEMBLED FROM JAPANESE war news footage and confiscated British newsreels, Malaya War Record: A Record of the March Onward was a feature length combat documentary that recorded Japanese military operations against the British in the Malayan Peninsula and Singapore from December 1941 through to the surrender of Singapore on 15 February 1942. Told from the perspective of the victors, this was to be a propagandistic filmic document created for the consumption of the Japanese home population. One of the most striking segments of the film was the portrayal of events immediately after the surrender, that which spoke of the psyche of General Yamashita's army after the conquest of Singapore. A day after the surrender, the Japanese army organized a procession of tanks into the Singapore city centre. The documentary depicted tank soldiers in dignified poses, bearing the urns containing the ashes of their dead comrades. It was not a portrayal of a triumphal parade, but a sombre commemoration for the dead as the tanks executed a symbolic takeover of the city centre, which had a concentration of architectural icons and monuments built during the reign of the former masters. The Japanese flag was shown mounted on one such icon – the Cathay Building – where, incidentally, Yasujiro Ozu was drafted to work in Singapore from June 1943. He had proposed a shot of the Union Jack flag atop the same building (to depict the era of British colonization) for the film On tsu Delhi/On to Delhi. Some footage was shot for this film but was reportedly destroyed before the eventual Japanese surrender in August 1945.
Excerpted from World Film Locations Singapore by Lorenzo Codelli. Copyright © 2014 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Singapore: City of the Imagination
Toh Hun Ping
Malay Screen in a Predominantly Chinese Singapore
Jan Uhde and Yvonne Ng Uhde
Scenes 1-7: 1910-1958
The Outsider’s Singapore: A Brief History of ‘Western Film-makers’ Expeditions in Singapore
Scenes 8-14: 1961 x-1966
A History of Saying No: Singapore International Film Festival and Censorship
Scenes 15-21: 1967-1990
Scenes 22-28: 1995-2002
The Cultural Materialism of Singapore in Jack Neo’s Cinema
Scenes 29-35: 2004-2009
A View of Public Housing in Singapore Cinema
Scenes 36-42: 2009-2013