He lived and breathed film

SINGAPORE - The local film community has lost one of its most outspoken and passionate members.

Toh Hai Leong, director and star of the cult social satire film Zombie Dogs (2004) and former Straits Times film reviewer, died of diabetes-related pneumonia on Wednesday afternoon. He was 58.

The 2007 documentary F chronicled his struggle with Type 2 diabetes from November 2005.

Before illness struck him, his passion for film apparently knew no bounds. When he could not afford an air ticket to attend the 2003 Bangkok International Film Festival, he took the alternative route of bussing overland for two days.

Film-maker Tan Pin Pin, 43, who recounted this incident, reposted on Facebook a piece she had written about Toh for the online publication Criticine in December 2009.

"He spoke very fast, spoke non-stop and spoke always about film. He was and still is my most intense brush with cinephilia. It was as if his life depended on it, and perhaps it did," she had written.

They had first met in the early 1990s at a Singapore Film Society screening of the 1941 classic Citizen Kane. Then secretary of the society, he sneaked Tan in when she did not have the money to buy a membership. "I have never forgotten that moment of kindness," she added.

On the other hand, he was intensely principled when it came to paying for his own ticket.

Film programmer Zhang Wenjie, 38, tells Life!: "He would insist on paying $6 or $8 for a film ticket even at the lowest point of his life when he didn't have the money to take the bus. I've never seen anyone like that. He's the most fervent and ardent friend of local film- makers."

Toh was not one to mince his words when it came to film.

Recalling her most striking impressions of him, film-maker Wee Li Lin, 40, says: "He once stood up and blasted one of my short films with vigour, prompting me to look away in embarrassment.

"Another time, he stood up and lauded another one with equal vigour, prompting me to rush over and ask him to sit down in embarrassment."

These incidents took place at screenings at The Substation more than a decade ago.

Wee adds: "In hindsight, Hai Leong's passion and outspokenness were nothing to be embarrassed about. He was a living, breathing, true Singapore film fanatic and zealot."

While he was a film critic for The Straits Times from 1989 to 1992, he raved about Police Story III: Supercop (1992) - "Like most Jackie Chan productions, this is a beautifully crafted spectacle. Unreservedly recommended" - and slammed Stephen Chow's Royal Tramp (1992), whose "misogynistic rantings and farces wear thin after a while".

His enthusiasm for film was infectious. While he was having several rounds of drinks one day in May 2003 with film-maker Eric Khoo, film editor Chew Tze Chuan, bit-part actor Lim Poh Huat, producer Tan Fong Cheng and cinematographer Jimmy Tai, the idea of Zombie Dogs was birthed.

It was billed as a mockumentary to be directed by him. In the film, Toh - playing himself - plans to make a snuff movie and pitches the idea to several cast and crew members.

Khoo, who produced the film, says: "He had an incredible memory for films and I left him once with a Cannes programmer and they spoke for hours on Hong Kong cinema. He was special and I had a wonderful time working with him on Zombie Dogs."

The Straits Times review of it said: "Zombie Dogs, dark, funny, gritty, uneasy and yet poignant, is astonishing in its raw polish and fascinating in its heartfelt commentary."

It "starts out looking like an indictment of Singapore's artless soul but ends up harbouring the sad story of a man living on the margin of society".

Toh - who was a librarian, security guard and peddler of knick-knacks along Sungei Road at various points in his life - lived at the Apex Harmony Lodge in Pasir Ris from 2007 till his death.

Chew, who had visited him there occasionally, says he seemed to have lost the will to go on and was fed through tubes for the last two years.

He is survived by three elder brothers and three elder sisters.

A Facebook page on the funeral and memorial services for Toh has been set up by Chew and a few others. The wake is at Singapore Casket and there is a note urging "friends from the film-making community" to head down for the memorial service from 1 to 2pm tomorrow. The cremation is at Mandai Columbarium tomorrow at 3.45pm.

Film critic Philip Cheah, 55, notes that the French have archivist and cinephile Henri Langlois while the Americans have respected critic Roger Ebert: "But we have Toh Hai Leong. He ranks as a world-class film eccentric."

When in 2004, Toh was asked if Zombie Dogs' tale of a man who does not know when delusions end and reality begins was a reflection of his life, he told The Straits Times: "Sad and tragic humans are full of contradictions and I am no different. The Bard, in Macbeth, summed it all up: 'Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.' Dare I challenge the Bard's universal truth about life, which is really but nothingness?"

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