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movieXclusive.com had recently attended a rare filmmaking seminar, where for the first time, two of our homegrown award winning filmmakers, Royston Tan and Kelvin Tong, came together and shared with the audience on the topic of Insights into Asian Cinema: From Local To Global.

Q: How did you get into filmmaking?

Kelvin Tong: It's more an accident rather than by design because I started off as a writer, and I was reviewing films for The Straits Times, and I was writing about films day in day out, Hollywood films, Hong Kong films, Taiwanese films, then at a certain point, Thai films, and at a certain point I got sick of doing that. I was going like, why aren't there Singapore films to write about? And I waited and I waited and at that point I think Jack Neo made Money No Enough, and I think the strong response of Singaporeans towards that very lively heartland film started what I think was called the renaissance of Singapore films. So partly encouraged by what he was doing and at the same time my desire to actually be part of this movement to create more stories about Singapore. So I took the leap from being a film critic to being a filmmaker. That's how I got started

Royston Tan: Basically for myself I'm not very good with my studies. So back then I calculated and I realized that to pass my O Levels I can only pass 4 subjects, and to go to polytechnic you need 5 subjects you see. So I thought the easy way out would be to take art as one of the subjects because it's just you "anyhow draw" and pretend it's just abstract stuff that you can pass it off. But my principal felt it was too late for me to actually learn pottery or abstract drawing. He said there's one course that nobody wants to take in the O Levels art elective program, which was filmmaking, whether I would like to try it, and I said OK. When I went into polytechnic successfully, there's where I actually met Kelvin. So actually I'm very happy to see him here today because he's one of three persons who actually convinced me to make 15 a feature. Because there were two people from overseas to whom I said no. One could be just a coincidence, two persons telling you the same thing could agai! n be another coincidence, but when the third person tells you the same thing is an assurance.

Q: Both of you made short films before making feature films. Do you think it's a necessary step for all aspiring filmmakers embarking on their feature films?

RT: I think short films itself should never be a rehearsal for feature films because short films is a beautiful art form. But what you can actually learn from it is the experience of learning to deal with people, and telling stories.

KT: I think Royston hit it right on the head. I think short films are completely different from feature films in the same way that a poem is very different from a novel. And the stronger short films, and a lot of Royston's works which I enjoyed, they're very good examples of visual poetry. That kind of approach towards making short films really give rise to very good works as opposed to a person's attempt to making a feature that didn't have enough budget and ended up being a short film.

Q: So it's a misconception that short films is a first step to feature filmmaking, that they are totally different genres

RT: Also I think people who have never done any short films, starting making features first, and that might be very very dangerous, because you might not have enough experience, and also I always feel that our very first feature is the most important one because you can never make a "first" feature over again.

KT: Like Ozzy Osbourne says, you have your whole lifetime to make your first rock album, but you only have like 2 days to make a second one. So before you go make your first one, think twice, think three times. I think another form of visual arts which often is ignored, is perhaps television. Television can be a very good starting point for learning the craft of telling stories over an extended format. So it could be a 24 minute programme, it could be 48 minutes - that's half a feature film already. I think in Singapore that's not being explored enough. Somehow people just seem to think that the formula is still down to short film, then feature film.

Q: Kelvin, you're self taught, and Royston, you actually went through some courses. Do you think it's a requirement for professional courses?

RT: I think schools and institutions do give you an environment for you to interact. Ultimately for me I really learnt from watching television. Like in the past, I was watching music videos on MTV, I was really intrigued how within three minutes you can convey a story, with music, and how condensed it was - you can sell an emotion. That's when I started to dissect the formula and get to know a little bit more. Before I started to make short films, I did music videos first, to see how can I grab the attention of the audience and sell an emotion to them.

KT: I actually think that film in its various basic components are made up of things like literature, photography, painting and so for myself, where I like myself to belong is, for instance, I'm a voracious reader, in fact I read more than I watch, and I try to do that on a constant basis. It's difficult because it's so easy to watch a film now. but to actually commit yourself to a novel, it takes a lot more out of you. Yes, watch the films, but do go back to the basic building blocks of narrative, and I actually think that in a lot of countries, especially South America for instance, the literary scene is a lot more advance in form than say, cinematically, and so actually it's a precursor of their cinema so you can actually learn from the kind of things that books are teaching you in terms of stories, human emotions, the human conditions and apply that to film. I think it could be very rewarding

Q: Both of you have made award winning films. Where did your inspiration come from, is it from life or were the ideas developed in the mind, or ...

RT: I think we copied somewhere (laughter) Honestly I think for me, a lot of times I get inspired by a few sentences of what people say, and from that few sentences, to a certain extent, a certain storyline forms. Or from certain people whom I see. There's a lot of inspiration around everyone of us here,.

KT: I think a lot of people say it's so tough making a film in Singapore. To a certain extent it is as our industry is so young. But to a large extent it's very privileged and lucky to be working in Singapore because there aren't any films made. So if you look around and you talk about inspiration, there're so many things that have not been made into a film, as compared to say if you're living in LA, you'd really would have to dig to find a film. So things that inspire me on a daily basis - normal people, normal stories, you know, the fact that nobody has seen a certain something, a certain part of Singapore from that angle, things like that move me to work. But more than that, especially people like Royston, like Eric (Khoo), like Jack (Neo), who have committed to telling stories on the big screen, I think we cross-polinate a lot. We don't meet up a lot but we definitely watch each others' films a lot, and through events like these, we would actually sense that, my goodness! , it's not just yourself who is like, working late at night, and cursing the whole world how come nobody wants to fund you. Then you realize, there's 4 other guys, and its 4:30am.

Q: I was really intrigued where did you guys get your ideas from. For example in Eating Air, Mark Lee had to climb up against the toilet and excreted. Was that a real life reference?

KT: It's the "Spiderman Shit Scene" you're talking about. I think for that sequence, what made me think was when you have a creature like Mark Lee, who has very long legs and hands. and he's in this really tiny toilet cubicle. Then your mind starts going, he can really do this physically. So you know, filmmakers are attracted to spectacles, so "Climb, Mark, climb". So that's how the sequence comes about. A lot of it is seeing what you have on set and then trying to do something new with what you have.

Q: And in 4:30, there's this scene where the Korean man was bathing, and the boy Xiao Wu was peeing, and he suddenly peed into the basin.

RT: When I write a script I always try to put myself as the character. So if I was to be taking a shower and somebody just rushed in and started peeing, the next thing I would do is actually to wait for the right moment and pee even more in front of him when he's taking a shower. This was intensified more with the actor himself. He's also a creature actually, a very mischievous monkey. So very sadly, we were placed in the same hotel room during the whole shoot, and I observed him, so I brought a part of him into the film. That's why you may feel he's very natural in his acting, because he's just really playing himself. A lot of times we rewrite something and then we maximise what our actors can deliver.

Q: Is there any formula to making award winning films?

KT: Actually there is. There's a book you can buy at Borders, it's the third shelf on the left... No there isn't! There is no formula. Of course there are the theories and the amount of film history. But ultimately when you operate from a place like Singapore, you have to find your own way of doing things as you adapt to rules, and to a certain extent, it's improvised. We have to make things up as we go along.

RT: Right now the language of cinema is changing everyday. A lot of films don't really follow the three-act structure anymore. And also right now more foreigners are looking into Asian movies because it seems there is development in a new way of storytelling. It's a very strange phenomenon.

Q: The theme today is "From Local to Global". Comparing Singapore movies and those abroad, what are the differences and characteristics that set a Singapore movie apart?

KT: We make a lot less money. I think what we have will always be unique. We cannot help but be unique because we are not Hollywood, and neither are we Hong Kong. And I think what's interesting for Singapore is that we are actually everything - because the way it has been with our language, you see the definition of Singlish found in Singapore TV and the movies which they fabricated, and in this case, absolutely not true, but then became a caricature and now we're trying to disown that. I think this ping-ponging, this lack of identity, this insecurity, in fact i think is our characteristic in action. So it's very beguiling to put that on screen, and that's the Singapore cinema.

RT: He said everything already!

Q: In Singapore we have a very distinct culture. Do you think it can be branded for an international market, or is it actually a bane?

KT: I hope you all recall this wonderful film, Trainspotting. Seen it? I saw Trainspotting and for the first fifteen minutes I have no idea what they are talking about even though they were using English - I think it was Scottish? They were speaking in this horrendous Scottish dialect, and it doesn't matter. So I think Singlish or not Singlish, Hokkien or Hakka or Hainanese for that matter, I think what's more important is if you tell a story that matters to people outside, so it need not be something just about the ERP (Electronic Road Pricing) or reservist IPPT (Individual Physical Proficiency Test) you know, but if you tell something a bit broader, that somebody elsewhere can actually connect to, I really think language is not a barrier.

RT: I agree language is not really a barrier. One good example will be 15. Those who have seen 15 the uncensored version you'll see the part where the gangsters did the rap. What happened in Vancouver was a deejay was very impressed with that and wanted our soundtrack to spin in his club. So he has no idea what's going on, but he could feel something. Another example will be 4:30. There's so little, in fact there's no dialogue, just one sentence of dialogue, but yet the movie can move people. So a lot of times, like what Kelvin has said, language is never a problem, and even if it is, it should be a key highlight for us to maximize.

Q: What is this thing about Singapore culture that we can market overseas?

RT: For me it would be the diversity of our races, ethnic groups and things like that. It's very interesting, because within one movie you can find Indians speaking to them (the audience), and the Chinese and the Malays. And we have many very colourful locations here. A lot of times many foreigners always feel that Singapore is just like New York with many high rise buildings. But when they see HDB estates, they are very impressed. It's a very strange phenomenon. I've a few filmmaking friends, the first thing they want to see when in Singapore was HDB estates. They probably have seen it in Eric's films, and they want to go to Toa Payoh or Ang Mo Kio, and I think STB can develop that (of HDB being a tourist attraction).

KT: Like Royston said, we have a very rich mix of heritage. For my case in The Maid, it was to everybody's surprise that it was picked up by Hollywood and it got sold around the world. A quarter of it is in Teochew, and it's so much about "dua hee" - wayang (Chinese Opera), stuff like that. Then it turns out when you speak to the distributors and the cinema owners, you get a report back and you actually discover that's what people are really interested in seeing and they don't mind a little bit of barrier in the sense that, oh I don't understand it immediately, but that's the point of watching something because you come away learning something, rather than you understand everything perfectly, and there's nothing to be gained. So I think for something the The Maid, the fact that it had so much Singaporiana and so much Chinese culture in it, I think that boosted it chances abroad.

Q: Going back to filmmaking, are there particular challenges other than financing?

KT: It's a challenge of going out to an audience, because filmmakers just don't exist in a vacuum. I do believe for an audience to grow alongside with you, for Singapore to appreciate its stuff. The films that we make, it may not be as big as say a Hollywood blockbuster. But perhaps it has something special to offer and if the audience support grows alongside the kind of industry that is growing in Singapore, then that can be sustainable in a very very long run. I think it's very important.

RT: I think the primary thing that I've always been worried about, is whenever we tell the younger generation about a Singapore film, then you have (makes a dreadful sound). Right now I'm going down to schools and telling them about local filmmaking to remove certain stigmas about local films. They always feel that local films are very very low budget and why do they have to watch a local film when they can watch a six million dollar Hollywood film? And again, it's to explain to them and tell them that we do have something different and special that Hollywood doesn't have.

Q: Was it difficult initially to get the local market to accept the films that we make?

RT: The films that we make, they're growing. I'll talk about 4:30, which is the more challenging film. I see younger Singaporeans go into the theatre, and with the response and emails I got, it was very encouraging for me.

KT: When Eating Air came out, it was still the early days of the renaissance of Singapore films. And I think other than Jack's films, the rest of the films that came out during the period took a beating at the box office because I suspect the enthusiasm of the filmmakers were a lot higher than the receptiveness of the audience. And at that point this gloom just descended upon the entire industry. But that was for my first film. But then with Love Story and The Maid especially, suddenly I'm in a public toilet and I'm hearing people talking about The Maid, and I'm very kaypoh (inquisitive) I wanted to hear more but I'm scared that if they said something bad I wanted to beat them up! Then you realize that things have changed a lot more, from people not heard anything about your film to people talking about it in public toilets. I think Singapore has come a long way in just a few short years.

Q: Let's talk about commercial viability. Was it a problem for you, balancing between substance of the film and maintaining commercial viability?

KT: I don't think it's mutually exclusive. I don't think a film with substance is doomed to lose money, and I don't think a film without substance is naturally guaranteed a box office success. And I think the pot of gold, literally and figuratively, for filmmakers at the end of the day, is to make an intelligent film that a lot of people want to watch. And there are many examples of such films, especially when you look at the Oscar's foreign language section - Amelie, City of God, Trainspotting, The Full Monty - these are small sleepers, that's what the industry calls them, these are small movies, and usually made in some obscure part of the world, You can't say that these films have no substance, in fact they have tons of substance, they are award winning. But you can't say that they suffered at the box office because they made many times their budget. And that's something to aim towards.

RT: Yeah he answered the question (laughs).

Q: What's next for the Singapore movie scene?

RT: I'm seeing a lot of young aspiring filmmakers making their films, and that's very exciting. In fact they've taken a lot of proactive moves now, and also they've learnt the art of marketing already. So I'm seeing a new wave of independent films using HD and things like that. Really small films.

KT: I think in addition, you'll see much bigger players coming into the media scene, and I think media companies are hot property right now. So you'll see a lot more bigger MNCs coming in to grab a share of new media companies here. Hopefully some more studios in Singapore. So apart from the rise of independent arthouse, hopefully what will also happen is we see an increase in the number of mainstream Singaporean films which I think together with arthouse, will really give Singapore that advantage, because we can do both very well.

RT: Recently I've been to a Substation screening, and there seems to be a certain way of telling stories, and I'm taking it as a good sign because there is a certain kind of identity which encompassed a lot of films we've done in the past. And you see them all weaved together now, in creating a different culture. It's a very strange fusion, and I'm taking it as a very healthy sign.

Q: What kind of advice will you give aspiring filmmakers?

KT: Save money, don't spend money. Tough days are ahead....

RT: To me I think the philosophy is you don't need to be rich to make films. The most expensive thing in making a film should be your idea. That has always been my philosophy. And for every young filmmaker I always advise if Plan A doesn't work, you must have Plan B. If Plan B doesn't work then you have Plan C, and Plan D and Plan E. So that's what I always have in my mind.

KT: Well put. I think for young filmmakers, if you really want to embark on this road, you damn well decide right now that you're not going to mope about it when you're not making a certain amount of money when you're 33, and not resent it later on. We're not sure if it pays off. I think Royston and myself have been pretty lucky so far, and people do see the industry really improving in the coming years. But that's it, it's anybody's guess how the industry will play out and of course to every individual it's really up to your own talent. Perhaps one thing that will really help along the way is to decide who your friends are now, now. And rope them all in because like they say, it's always better to suffer together than to suffer alone. And filmmaking is collaboration. If you can find an art director, get him on board, if you have somebody who really likes using the handicam, so that's your DP (director of photography). And you try to grow together and it softens the harshnes! s of not making money, and the moment everybody rejects your application for money, at least you can go drink stout together.

RT: The whole team of people that I work with, this will be the eleventh year. We all started off with friends, and suddenly someone good in lighting say I can put the lights together, and back then we don't have props and food, so my dad and mom actually supported. Eventually the whole group of us came together, made short films over the years and grew together, up to the point now the guy who does lighting for me, already has a son.

Q (from the floor): Singapore is very young in terms of the cinema scene. Do you have a role model you look up to?

RT: My role model in the past, up to now, is actually director Ed Wood. Yeah Ed Wood is the worst director in the history of American cinema, but what moved me was when I saw all his films. He had really low budget to make films, and he wanted to do sci-fi films but he doesn't have the money to make spaceships so he used paper plates and started spinning them... But it's that kind of undying spirit that actually made me think, hey, he has limitations, but he's still making films, even when people are saying he's making crap films. He's always been my biggest motivation.

KT: I strive to be a very stubborn person. And you read in the papers, so-and-so came from kampung, and built an entire company just making bread. I think that's a true Singaporean success story. So to a certain extent, it's not the world of filmmakers versus non filmmakers, it's essentially success stories in different ways - he does it with ba-hu (meat floss) and bread, we do it with 35(mm) film. I see that, and it is possible to have a dream, and go out there, and pay a very high price, but then live the dream. So those people, inspire me a lot.

Q (from the floor): Do Chinese movies have a market in Singapore?

KT: I think I've only made Mandarin films?

RT: I also make Mandarin films!

KT+RT: We're Mandarin filmmakers!

RT: Kelvin, do you have to struggle? Because I feel that my English if being said on the big screen, it feels funny, for me. I'm not sure if it's because of the actor's delivery, or are we still trying to find a comforting zone where English can flow in very smoothly.

KT: In my case, usually when I announce a film, some journalist will always ask me "So is it an English film or a Chinese film", and I always get stumped. I don't know! What I'm trying to say is the language of the film is ultimately decided by the characters. Now if tomorrow I go and, I hope I don't have to, but imagine if I have to make a film about stockbrokers in Shenton Way, I guess it'll be in English. But if I am showing stuff in Ang Mo Kio Central, I really doubt it'll be in English. And that's really what's fun in Singapore

RT: 4:30 is easy.... silent!

Q (from the floor): How has movie making change your perception of life, and what movies leave you the deepest impression?

RT: Filmmaking has changed my life in different ways. When I make a film, it gives life a second chance. What I cannot have, what I cannot create, what I cannot see, and what can never ever happen in my life, can take a second chance and breathe and happen in my film. What is the film that impacted me the most will be Three Colors by Krzysztof Kieslowski. That trilogy actually moved me a lot in many different ways. Everytime I see the films over and over again, I have different interpretations. There're so many different layers to it. To me, that will always be a masterpiece.

KT: It's a kind of therapy, because filmmakers are very troubled (laughs) so we need a lot of therapy. Telling stories is another way of saying telling lives. "Lives" is kind of boring as it is. It's when you can tell stories, it could be an elaborate story in the sense of a feature film, or you can tell a dirty joke to a friend in the bar, it's still storytelling. And in a brief moment, not just the teller but the listener as well, are transported somewhere else. And I think that moment is when everybody suspends their disbelief and gravity doesn't apply, everything floats. And that's very beautiful and is rare. So that's what I strive for and that's how I put a lot of things in my life on hold just to aim towards that. The film that I like, again, changes everyday. But I think one of my all time favourites is Peter Chan's Comrades, Almost a Love Story. I think it being made so early on it really broke so many barriers. I think to this date it's a very understated film. I t! hink it's a film that has not been given due recognition for what it did for Asian films as in, it really broke open the western market. It really told a story that spanned so many generations but in a very cogent and mainstream way. I think Peter Chan is a filmmaker that I really look up to.

Q: On a very personal level, in the process of making a film, do you think that you'd discover a part of yourself that probably you did not really know?

KT: Yes, and I suspect it's the same for you (to Royston). You know how sometimes you don't know what you're thinking, or don't know what you're saying until you actually say it? And so film is something like that.



Transcript by: Stefan Shih | Photos by Lokman B S| Interview by: John Li, Richard Lim Jr, Stefan Shih
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