Q: How did you get into filmmaking?
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
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
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?
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
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.
So it's a misconception that short films is a first
step to feature filmmaking, that they are totally different
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.
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.
Kelvin, you're self taught, and Royston, you actually
went through some courses. Do you think it's a requirement
for professional courses?
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.
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
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 ...
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,.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Is there any formula to making award winning films?
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.
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.
The theme today is "From Local to Global".
Comparing Singapore movies and those abroad, what are
the differences and characteristics that set a Singapore
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.
He said everything already!
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?
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.
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.
What is this thing about Singapore culture that we can
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
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
Going back to filmmaking, are there particular challenges
other than financing?
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.
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.
Was it difficult initially to get the local market to
accept the films that we make?
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.
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.
Let's talk about commercial viability. Was it a problem
for you, balancing between substance of the film and
maintaining commercial viability?
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
Yeah he answered the question (laughs).
What's next for the Singapore movie scene?
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.
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.
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.
What kind of advice will you give aspiring filmmakers?
Save money, don't spend money. Tough days are ahead....
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.
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
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.
(from the floor): Singapore is very young in terms of
the cinema scene. Do you have a role model you look
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
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.
(from the floor): Do Chinese movies have a market in
I think I've only made Mandarin films?
I also make Mandarin films!
We're Mandarin filmmakers!
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.
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
4:30 is easy.... silent!
(from the floor): How has movie making change your perception
of life, and what movies leave you the deepest impression?
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.
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.
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?
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.