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Eric Khoo & Kirsten Tan——A Genealogy of Filmmaking in Singapore

Interview / Asia Hundreds


ASIA HUNDREDS is a series of interviews with and conference presentations by professionals whom the Japan Foundation Asia Center works with through its many cultural projects.
By sharing the words of key figures in the arts and cultures in both English and Japanese and archiving the "present" moments of Asia, we hope to further generate cultural exchange within and among the regions.

Landscape of Singaporean Cinema

Ken Takiguchi (hereinafter Takiguchi): This year's Crosscut Asia highlighted the lineage of Southeast Asian filmmaking. Works from next-generation Southeast Asian filmmakers are featured at the recommendations of auteurs of the region. Mr. Khoo was actually the very first to respond to the request from the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) to nominate one film by a young director of his country, and his recommendation was Pop Aye by Ms. Tan.

Kirsten Tan (hereinafter Tan): Maybe Eric is just efficient with emails [laughs].

Takiguchi: May I start this interview by asking about your relationship? How do you know each other?

Eric Khoo (hereinafter Khoo): I saw Kirsten's films for the first time a few years ago; they were given to me by her producer. I was really captivated by them as I felt I had found a very talented filmmaker; a real, promising talent and her films were very different from those by other local filmmakers that I had been seeing. Then there was a chance to meet her in person.

Tan: Because I've been based in New York for about nine years, I was not very familiar with the people in the Singaporean film scene. But of course I knew of Eric Khoo because every Singaporean filmmaker in my generation grew up watching his films. Then all of a sudden, I heard from my producer that Eric wanted to meet me; and, of course, I said yes.

Takiguchi: Do you feel a certain closeness among the filmmakers in Singapore?

Khoo: I would say, yes. Of course, Singapore is a very small country and I feel that filmmakers are there for one another; I do not see much conflict among us. Kirsten and I have a lot of mutual friends—almost everybody in the film industry are friends.

Takiguchi: Ms. Tan, you have a strong connection with Singaporean filmmakers even though you are currently based in New York, don't you?

Tan: Yes, it is because I started up in Singapore and I went to a Singaporean film school called Ngee Ann Polytechnic. For some reason, a lot of my generation of filmmakers graduated from that school, such as Anthony Chen, who won the Caméra d'Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival with his Ilo Ilo (2013), and Boo Junfeng, whose feature films Sandcastle (2010) and Apprentice (2016) were also screened at Cannes.
We all knew each other from a very young age, and we have been following each other as our films went to different festivals. So I would say that filmmakers of my generation are quite close. And it definitely helped that there were more experienced filmmakers like Eric who could offer advice at times. I feel the community is quite small and tight-knit.

Takiguchi: How do you find the current situation of the development of young filmmakers in Singapore?

Khoo: I would say that we have a very good pool of young talented filmmakers for a small country with a population of 5 million—especially considering that only about 3 million out of the 5 million are Singapore residents. I have tried to watch as many short film competitions as possible, and found that there are a lot of talented Singaporeans. So I can say that we are progressing. And it is important that we have different types of films and filmmakers—drama, comedy, and horror. Our filmmakers are very diverse and we are beginning to see them flourishing.

 Eric Khoo (left) and Kirsten Tan (right)

Takiguchi: What are the major challenges for nurturing young filmmakers?

Khoo: Well, I wish that Singapore would have a larger population. If we had a population the size of, say, South Korea— where 10 million out of the 50 millionwatch films about their culture—I think things would be quite different. Unfortunately, the size of Singapore is too small. Thus the works of Singaporean filmmakers, especially art films by authors like Kirsten, need to travel out of the country because the domestic market is not big enough.

Takiguchi: Ms. Tan, you acquired a degree from the National University of Singapore (NUS), which is considered the most prestigious institution for tertiary education in the country, before studying film at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.
Generally speaking, a polytechnic, which focuses on the technical subjects and offers a diploma, is not a very usual destination for fresh graduates of NUS. I suppose this was quite an unusual academic path.

Tan: Yes, it was unusual. I come from a family that does not really believe in the arts; my parents wanted me to at least earn a university degree, but there wasn't a university that offered one in film. So I had to first earn a degree at NUS before going to film school. But then I reached a point when I realized I couldn't develop my skills any more in the environment I was in, so I went to New York to continue my studies. It took some time for me to find a path as a filmmaker.

Takiguchi: In the 1980s, there were almost zero films produced locally in Singapore while there was a revival in the 1990s. A group of new-generation filmmakers, including Mr. Khoo, emerged during that period. What do you think were the reasons for that?

Khoo: I would attribute a lot of it to Philip Cheah who was the head of programming for the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) in its early years. He created the Singapore Short Film Competition section in 1991 because there wasn't a feature-filmmaking industry to speak of in Singapore, and short films were the only possibility for young local filmmakers at the time.
I started making short films with the aim of submitting them to the competition and hopefully winning some prizes. It was important that I won the Special Achievement Prize for my short film called Pain at the 8th SGIFF in 1994; Pain was actually banned in Singapore. It was a new award, and the prize was sponsorship for the next film, such as post-production facilities and camera rental.
What I did after winning the award was visit the sponsors and I said to them, "I know your sponsorship is meant for another short film. But can you give me a bit more so that I can do a feature film?" This is how I made my first feature, Mee Pok Man (1995).

Tan: So interesting. I didn't know that.

Khoo: Kodak, one of the sponsors of the Prize, gave me a bit more, but it was still not enough. So a lot of my shots in Mee Pok Man were shot wide because I did not have enough footage to do close-ups. My shooting ratio—the ratio between the total duration of footage shot and the eventual runtime of the film—was 2:1, which meant I could make only one mistake.

Takiguchi: Ms. Tan, I suppose your generation observed that kind of development in local films.

Tan: Yes. Though to be honest, when I started becoming more local film literate in my teenage years, I realized that there was probably only Eric who was producing more culturally significant works at that time. So, it was very hard for me to find role models to follow, and eventually I felt that I had to figure things out on my own and see if something would work out. It was one of the reasons I went overseas to broaden my horizons and to deepen my understanding of the craft.