Setting the scene

Setting the scene
Cinema still: Ah Boys To Men 3: Frogmen
PHOTO: Golden Village Pictures

Location, location, location.

It is a mantra that property experts take to heart, but it might well be a lament for home-grown film-makers.

The fact that Singapore is a compact, bustling city can make it challenging to pin down that perfect spot.

They take Boon Chan and John Lui behind the scenes on the key filming locales for their movies.

Director: Kelvin Tong

Movie: The Maid (2005)

Location: Peranakan house, Koon Seng Road

When Tong was preparing to make his third movie, The Maid (2005), he knew it was crucial to find a house that suited the horror film's tone.

"Every horror flick needs a house with oodles of atmosphere and character," the 40-year-old says.

Hollywood has its horror-ready ramshackle farm houses and crumbling Gothic mansions. Tong found the perfect Asian equivalent when he saw a Peranakan shophouse in the Joo Chiat area.

"I knew it had to feature in The Maid. It was old, really spooky and so, so South-east Asia. It was perfect as the setting for a horror film set in Singapore during the Hungry Ghost Festival," he says.

In the film, a young domestic helper Rosa (Alessandra de Rossi) moves into the house to care for an ageing couple and their mentally disabled son, only to find horrific apparitions following her around the home.

The crew stood aside and let the house do the work of being creepy, says Tong.

"The original wooden floors creaked, the stairs looked and sounded like they were going to collapse any moment. Some wooden walls on the second floor had holes patched by newspapers going back to the 1940s and 1950s," he says.

He did get one thing wrong when he picked the house, however. He forgot to take into account the din caused by cars headed to pubs in the area. The noise ruined sound recording, forcing the crew to block traffic when cameras were rolling. Drivers were not pleased.

"Imagine trying to get those drunkards on their way home from the bars in Joo Chiat to stop for five minutes. It was hell," he says.

John Lui

Director: Eric Khoo

Movie: Mee Pok Man (1995)

Location: Hua Bee coffee shop in Tiong Bahru

Khoo's debut feature, Mee Pok Man, is arthouse horror. It was appropriate that shooting the pivotal Hua Bee coffee shop scenes was, in Khoo's words, "horrifying".

"Everything that could go wrong went wrong," he says. Problems with cameras, sound, lighting and artist performances piled up. The location is where Bunny, a prostitute (Michelle Goh), is served by the noodle seller of the film's title (Joe Ng), a man who dreams of prying her from the hands of pimp Mike Kor (Lim Kay Tong).

It was an ominous start to the first shooting day of Khoo's first feature. The crew, new to working on features, filmed from dawn to near midnight that first glitch-filled day, but failed to complete key shots.

"We were all so demoralised," the 50-year-old says. He apologised to Lim, who had worked in the United States.

"He looked at me and said, 'Hollywood takes longer,'" says Khoo. That remark cheered Khoo immensely. After a night's rest, everyone came back and got it right.

Today, the 50-year-old Hua Bee, at 78 Moh Guan Terrace, is where diners come for bright, chilli-red mee pok in the day. At dusk, yakitori bar Bincho takes over the space. A poster of the movie hangs next to the kopi station.

Movie: 12 Storeys (1997)

Location: Stirling Road HDB flats

The crew for Khoo's next feature, 12 Storeys (1997), spent the most time at the HDB blocks around Stirling Road.

One of the film's four stories, Sister's Keeper, was shot in a Stirling Road flat that belonged to a friend's mother. Restaurant scenes featuring Ah Gu (Jack Neo) chatting with buddies were filmed at the nearby Zi Yean zichar restaurant, which has since moved to Lengkok Bahru.

The interiors for the rest of the stories were filmed in Tiong Bahru and Ang Mo Kio.

In Sister's Keeper, Meng (Koh Boon Pin) is the domineering, straight-laced brother who struggles to keep wild-child sister Trixie (Lum May Yee) on a tight leash.

Besides the good food at Zi Yean, Khoo remembers a cameraman who jury-rigged a contraption to capture the point of view of a suicidal person who jumps off a building.

A rented camera worth $100,000 was attached to a bungee, then thrown from the 12th floor.

"When I saw the camera go down, my stomach went down with it," says Khoo. The falling camera was dangerously close to impact when the elastic rope arrested its fall, yanking it back up. The crewman asked Khoo if he would like to repeat the stunt.

"I said, 'No, no, no, no, no,'" says Khoo. As luck would have it, that single take gave him good footage.

Movie: My Magic (2008)

Location: Bar in Orchard Towers

For the 2008 father-son drama My Magic, Khoo was looking for a stage for his main character, the magician Francis (Francis Bosco), to perform on. But it could not be just any stage. The location had to echo the world-weary yet optimistic character of Francis. It had to be "not sleazy, but it had to have a lot of texture".

Khoo found the ideal place in Crazy Horse bar on the fourth level of Orchard Towers building, a locale known for its cluster of hostess bars.

The thing that Khoo was most excited about was a hand-painted mural on one wall, done by an anonymous artist. He could see his magician character performing against it.

The mildly titillating, kitschy painting, depicting bikini-clad girls at play, was so right in tone that Khoo used it without the need for touch up.

"I didn't have to do any art direction," he says.

Khoo says he could not have encountered more friendliness when he filmed there: "A friend who was helping with the production knew the lady in charge. She was a lovely lady in her 50s."

His crew were told to make themselves at home and she served them drinks. The only instruction given by the lady boss: No drug-taking on the premises.

John Lui

Watch the interview with Eric Khoo at

Director: Jack Neo


Ah Boys To Men (2012)

Ah Boys To Men 2 (2013)

Ah Boys To Men 3: Frogmen (2015)

Location: Military training areas in Pulau Tekongand Sembawang Naval Base

Hit film-maker Neo laments that filming on location in Singapore is "quite a headache". After all, there are only so many ways that one can try to dress up HDB blocks.

He adds: "We try our best to scout for locations which have not been seen before because audiences get tired of seeing the same views as well. But given Singapore's small size, what spots can be truly fresh? Not too many."

That is why he points out that the locations used for his national service-themed Ah Boys To Men films are "quite special" as they are normally out of bounds.

Neo, 55, adds: "Few people have had the opportunity to film in training areas. We were able to do so because we worked with the Ministry of Defence."

He ventured to military areas on Pulau Tekong, the Naval Diving Unit in Sembawang and restricted training areas in Lim Chu Kang.

"I was very excited to shoot there because even parents of trainees can't get access to these places. I'm really thankful to Mindef for giving us the permission to do so as that makes the movies more authentic."

He notes that it is actually common in Hollywood to shoot inside studios, but this is difficult to carry out in Singapore because of budget constraints.

Money issues aside, it is sometimes necessary to venture outdoors.

As Neo says: "In the case of the Naval Diving Unit, I had to go to the naval base to shoot because only that location will give audiences that 'feel'. Picking the right location will definitely make an impact on the audience."

Boon Chan

Purchase this article for republication.



Your daily good stuff - AsiaOne stories delivered straight to your inbox
By signing up, you agree to our Privacy policy and Terms and Conditions.