Recreating Chen's magic

For Singapore movies, 2013 was a good year.

Critically, we had Anthony Chen's Ilo Ilo, which helped put our film industry on the global map when it won the prestigious Camera d'Or prize for best first feature film - the first of many awards - at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

The movie that spins a simple yarn about the relationship between a boy and his maid went on to win 26 international accolades, including four Golden Horse Awards (one of which was the top honour of Best Film).

Commercially, there was Ah Boys To Men Part 2. The second instalment of the two-part army-themed series was a massive box-office hit. The movies also turned unknowns such as Tosh Zhang and Wang Weiliang into national sensations.

Can local film-makers raise the bar this year? And will the quality of the upcoming line-up benefit from the "Anthony Chen effect"?

According to a Media Development Authority (MDA) report, 2014 will see 18 Singapore films slated for release locally and regionally.

Kicking off will be Jack Neo's The Lion Men Part 1. The action comedy about two rival lion dance troupes features Ah Boys To Men stars Zhang and Wang.

Opening here on Jan 30, on the eve of Chinese New Year, The Lion Men Part 1 is poised to dominate the Chinese New Year holiday period, much like Neo's earlier movies. The Lion Men Part 2 is scheduled for a March release.

Said Neo, 53: "It has become sort of a tradition for me to release a film during Chinese New Year, as many families told me it's a ritual for them to watch my films either on the first or second day of Chinese New Year.

"Also, this movie is very appropriate for Chinese New Year, as the lion dance is part of Chinese New Year culture. I think moviegoers will receive the movie well."

As for any pressure stemming from Ilo Ilo's success, he joked that his movies are too commercial to win any awards.

"People who watch my movies know my style. They are of high entertainment value. Any awards that come are bonuses. What's important is that people enjoy watching my movies."

LOCAL HEROES

This year will also see the return of local heroes Royston Tan and Eric Khoo.

Tan, whose last feature film was 2008's 12 Lotus, is planning to release his latest musical 3688 in December, while Khoo's drama In The Room is scheduled to be released in the fourth quarter of this year. Both projects are currently in development.

Tan, 37, said he has gone under the radar to "recharge" and to "look for the next chapter" of his life.

He said that he worked on 3688's script for two years and hopes to start production by June.

"Moviegoers have been scolding me for not making any films all this while," said Tan.

"So 3688 is a thank-you note to them for believing in me."

Tan said that the success of Ilo Ilo had increased pressure on local film-makers to perform well. "Of course everyone is feeling the pressure, especially the younger film-makers."

Tan himself is not fazed by the expectations.

"I've already received Golden Horse nominations, and that's enough," he said, laughing. Tan earned two nominations for Best Styling and Best Costume for his movie musical 881 in 2007.

"Ilo Ilo offered new scope for Singapore films by putting us on the global map, and that's always a perk for our industry."

But at the end of the day, awards do not equate to box-office earnings. Ilo Ilo made more than $1.2 million locally. While it is in the healthy region, the response pales in comparison to Neo's mass appeal movies or Tan's 2007 hit 881.

"The Singapore audience has a certain kind of preference when it comes to the type of movies they like to watch," said Tan.

Actress-turned-director Michelle Chong agreed that local moviegoers generally like to watch genres like horror and comedy.

"It'll take a while to influence them to try watching other genres," said Chong, whose last movie, the romance 3 Peas In A Pod, cost $1.7 million but made only $290,000 here. It will open in Malaysia on Jan 14.

Said the 36-year-old: "But with more Singaporean film-makers producing quality movies of different genres, the audience's mindset will start to change too."

Chong is planning to film a mockumentary this year, and like Tan, feels that the impact of Ilo Ilo's multiple wins will certainly help elevate Singapore's film industry.

"I am very optimistic about the future of the local film industry," she said.

"There's been a lot of support from the MDA and our local film schools are churning out talents with passion and technical know-how who really contribute significantly to the industry workforce.

"As seen with the phenomenal success of Ilo Ilo, I really foresee more Singaporean films going places. I think the overseas film markets don't dismiss us as easily now."

OPTIMISTIC

Neo is equally optimistic about the industry's future.

He said: "There seems to be a misconception that it's hard to find funding in Singapore. There are investors locally and regionally, but one has to have a good storyline.

"If the story is interesting and there's commercial value in it, funding won't be an issue."

For local movie buffs, the quantity just means increased variety at the cineplexes.

Said Dr Daniel Chia, 52, a medical doctor and local movie supporter: "I'm delighted to hear that there are so many films scheduled for release. And if the 18 films are of great quality, that could change the public's opinion about local films.

"I think people are now more aware that local film-makers, even the young ones, are capable of creating quality films that can travel widely overseas."

Mr Dave Chua, a 43-year-old master's student in creative writing, agreed: "It's nice to see more support and variety for local films. Even if the smaller films don't do well, I still think it's good for local filmgoers to have more options."

Neo himself may be happy with the bumper crop, but he is still not satisfied.

"Eighteen movies in a year is good, but there is still so much more room for local productions. I think Singapore should see 20 to 30 movies a year."


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