Local filmmakers who leave their mark here and overseas

SINGAPORE - At a glance, local filmmakers Chai Yee Wei, Wong Chen-Hsi and Anthony Chen may look like they come from different schools of filmmaking with their individual cinematic voices - Chai's retro-musical That Girl In Pinafore is targeted at a mainstream audience; Wong's indie debut feature Innocents is proudly arthouse; and Chen's Cannes-winning heartland tale Ilo Ilo might intimidate the general multiplex crowd.

But one thing's for sure; all three award-winning filmmakers are part of a new wave of directors in Singapore who are set to shape the future of local cinema with their latest works opening across the island this month and next.

"I think we are still searching for what a Singapore film is. Korean, Japanese, Hong Kong and, now, even Taiwanese films have their distinctive look. But for us, it's difficult to pinpoint what a Singapore film is," shares Chai, who has won awards for his earlier short films, and has had his previous feature films, Blood Ties and Twisted, selected to screen in various festivals across the world. "I think we're still evolving to find out how our films can be accepted on an international level and identifiable as a Singapore film."

Chen agrees, as he notes that most countries have that "distinctive brand that tells us there is quality work coming from that particular country". And that's something he hopes to build for Singapore cinema.

"That doesn't mean that all the films should look exactly the same," he clarifies. "Diversity is important - we need to have a lot of voices and new perspectives. But at the same time, we want Singapore cinema to be taken seriously."

And, perhaps, that's something that is beginning to happen right now. All three directors offer different styles and perspectives through their films; and have made international festival directors, judges and audience sit up and take note of this new wave of Singapore cinema. Chen's Ilo Ilo won the prestigious Camera d'Or prize for Best First Film at Cannes, while Wong's Innocents picked up the Best Director prize at the Shanghai International Film Festival, where Chai's That Girl In Pinafore made its world premiere to a highly positive response.

"I'd like to think that a new chapter has started in Singapore," Chen says. "There has been a lot of attention on our country ever since we won the award. In every interview with foreign press, I'm asked: 'What else is there in Singapore, what is Singapore cinema like, what is it about?' I think there're a lot of curious people, such as audiences and critics around the world with their eye on Singapore, so the way I see it, the next three to five years will be very exciting, as there will be a lot of fresh new, talented voices emerging."

But he cautions young filmmakers against being too opportunistic. "One of our key problems is that we've been trying too hard, and we haven't actually developed organically. We try to imitate what other countries have done, like oh, Koreans have done this genre so let's try it, or let's do an action film like what they're doing in Hong Kong, but every time we try, we fail, because what you have is just a bad counterfeit copy," he warns.

Having been in the film industry in Los Angeles for more than a decade, Wong also notices that Singaporeans tend to rush into making their first feature films. "Making a film is also about knowing when you're ready to do it," she says. "In the States, most directors make their first films only when they're in their 30s, so it's interesting to see there are so many young directors in Singapore making their first feature so young. It's really about finding the right time - for some people it's appropriate when they're younger, and some when they're older."

"It goes back to the intention of making the film," Chen adds. "A lot of times it's just about getting to the finish line to sell tickets and I caution against that. People can smell it and they can see it. We don't spend enough time working on content development, or put enough money or resources into the development. We are always so quick to rush into things."

Not limited to just one type of story - Anthony Chen

With some directors - think Quentin Tarantino and Woody Allen, for example - you'd know what to expect. But not Chai Yee Wei.

His latest film, a rom-com titled That Girl In Pinafore, which opened on Thursday, is a far cry from his past works - 2009's gory supernatural thriller Blood Ties, and the screwball horror-comedy, Twisted two years later.

But the 37-year-old director doesn't think there's anything surprising about switching genres.

"Filmmakers are, after all, story tellers," he shares. "I don't think a story teller should restrict himself to just one type of story. As long as I find the story compelling, I would probably be interested in taking a stab at telling it."

As a child growing up, he often watched horror films and Hong Kong comedies, so when it came to making films, it was only natural that he turned to those particular genres.

"My first film, Blood Ties, was made because I had made a short horror film of the same title and some producers liked it and suggested we turned it into a movie. The second, Twisted, came because the producer said I was good with horror, so why not try to do something with comedy, which I personally loved," Chai remembers.

"The third one, That Girl In Pinafore, was something I had always wanted to do," he shares. The film, which is set in 1993, revolves around a group of friends and their attempts to keep the xin yao (the Singapore Chinese folk music) scene alive.

"I grew up watching and listening to xin yao music. And I always wanted to do a film that paid tribute to these songs," he says. "So when I decided to do it, it really wasn't from a business angle."

Accessible, communicative

And unlike most emerging filmmakers who are all too eager to carve a unique and unconventional style for themselves based on the diet of arthouse films they grew up on, Chai prefers to keep his productions accessible to the audience, while keeping production values high enough to match international standards.

"People may have the impression that my films are more commercial because they are quite accessible and communicative," he offers. "But I always believe that there aren't many differences between commercial films and art films - would you classify an art film that makes money a commercial film? Like Wong Kar Wai films - it sells, but it's also art."

For him, it's important to strike a good balance between maintaining high quality in his films and making sure they reach out to as many people as they can. Neither does he believe the numbers game at the local box office is indicative of how good your films are.

"It's tough to make money from films in Singapore - unless you're Jack Neo," he half-jokes. "Until both the film producers and consumers mature, I don't think we can reach the level where local filmmaking is financially viable. We're still a very young nation, and we need a lot of practice."

This applies to Chai as well as he still feels he's learning with every film and that "there're so many things I want to try out before I can find my distinct style and direction", he says.

Instead, he prefers looking at how well received films are in overseas markets, especially since our markets in Singapore can sometimes be a little restrictive. "Let's say you have a good film, but it's rated M18 - your market is immediately restricted. It won't do as well as it would if it wasn't rated M18. And if you go overseas, you have many more markets to tap into," he points out.

"I'm glad my shows have been able to sell overseas because they were international enough," adds Chai, whose films tend to feature a regional cast so overseas audiences will have a familiar face to look forward to. Blood Ties starred veteran Hong Kong actors Cheng Pei-Pei (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Kenneth Tsang (Memoirs of a Geisha); while Twisted featured popular Taiwanese model, Linda Liao.

For now, he believes that current filmmakers like him should "keep insisting on making good quality shows and hopefully inspire everyone else to do the same", he says. "In terms of production values, content, and everything else - it's important to reach an international level for foreign markets to take us seriously, so that we can expand our market as well."

Shifting focus from Cannes to box office - Chai Yee Wei

Having a local film win an award at the Cannes Film Festival might be one of the proudest moments for Singapore cinema but for all its glitz and prestige, the Camera d'Or prize for Best First Film Anthony Chen received for Ilo Ilo, doesn't necessarily assure it of box-office success.

"There are a lot of preconceptions about how films that go to festivals are very arthouse, boring and hard to understand," he admits. "But I think this film is very accessible and comprehensible." While the 29-year-old obviously hopes that Ilo Ilo, which received a 15-minute standing ovation in Cannes, will perform well commercially, he feels ticket sales shouldn't be used to gauge the quality of a film. "Even outside of Singapore, a lot of bad Hollywood films make a lot of money. But the good ones, like those that have Oscar nominations, don't make as much," he points out.

"In life, we like to use numbers - especially in Singapore - to measure and compare things. It's easier to talk in quantitative terms than in qualitative analyses," he continues. "We're so used to looking at numbers in Singapore because we've been taught to play the numbers game since we were young. But it shouldn't be about that."

Instead, a good film should be about how deeply it connects and moves the audience. "Some of the best films in the world are able to move you in such an astounding way you can't describe it," he says. "Film is an emotional medium. A good film should move you, make you ask questions about yourself and humanity."

That's why he believes in making films that are sincere and honest, rather than making one with the intention of satisfying what you think audiences want. "It must come from a very sincere place. We just need to tell honest stories about people, relationships and humanity because those are always universal," he says.

Chen is putting his money where his mouth is as Ilo Ilo, which opens on Aug 29, is a film that should be close to the hearts of many Singaporeans. It explores the dynamics between a typical middle-class family and a Filipino domestic helper during the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

Industry support

In fact, it's such a local story it surprised Chen that an international audience could connect with it that easily. At many of the overseas screenings he's attended, he has noticed people being moved to tears by the film. "I realised that when you portray relationships, humanity and characters that are real, honest and recognisably human, people will connect with it," he says. "It's the same way you can watch and get inspired by a film from a totally different country, such as Korea, Iran or Kazakhstan."

As a young filmmaker himself, he hopes to see more support for the industry from the veterans to guide and nurture new talents. "I think there are a lot of passionate individuals around; it's about putting the right people in the right places, helping them create the right working relationships and right team for them - not just for one film, but for the long run," he says.

"We need to protect new filmmakers in ways where they are supported and encouraged to stick to their visions instead of being forced to take a commercial route - for instance, they may be pressured to cast a certain actor (to make their film more mainstream)," he adds.

Chen also believes that the local industry could do with more focus on content development. "A lot of times we think, let's just pay someone to write a script and make a film. In other countries, it takes years to develop a script. We're always so quick to rush into things we don't see how important a script and a story is - I always think if you're not sure about something, don't shoot it until you are," he offers

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