|WHEN SINGAPORE WAS SOUTHEAST ASIA’S HOLLYWOOD
Timothy R. White
Dept. Of English Language & Literature
National University of Singapore
1997 has been an important year for Singaporean filmmaking. In this year’s Singapore International Film Festival, three new feature-length Singaporean films debuted; in addition, four Malay films from Singapore’s “Golden Age” were screened, along with two independent features from the 1970s. Although it would be mistaken to assume that we now have a healthy Singaporean film industry, there are certainly signs of life appearing -- signs that have been largely absent during most of the last thirty years.
However, at one time Singapore was a major center for filmmaking in Southeast Asia, churning out Malay-language films in a variety of genres from two fully-developed studios. How did they start? What happened to them? And, what will happen to Singaporean cinema in the future?
THE EARLY HISTORY OF SINGAPOREAN CINEMA
In the mid-1930s, two film empires were founded in Singapore. The first of these was Loke Wan Tho’s Cathay Productions, with studios in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and, eventually, Hong Kong. The second was the Shaw Brothers studio, founded by the legendary brothers Run Run and Runme. Beginning with second-hand equipment they had found in an abandoned building in Shanghai, the Shaws built an empire that included film studios, distribution networks, and theaters.
Both studios relied, especially in the early years, on Indian directors remaking films they had already made in India, replacing Indian actors with locals but keeping the scripts largely intact. Even though they were recycled, these films, heavily laden with song and dance numbers, proved quite popular with local audiences. Unfortunately, the booming success of Singapore’s fledgling film studios was cut short by World War Two.
THE JAPANESE OCCUPATION
On 8 December 1941, Japanese forces invaded Malaya, and Singapore surrendered ten weeks later, on 15 February 1942. The Occupation force set out immediately to establish control over almost all aspects of life, including cinema. Although the Japanese were quick to utilize the studios of other occupied Southeast Asian nations, especially the Philippines and Indonesia, for the production of propaganda films, they seemed to take little interest in those of Singapore. However, there were a few films made in Singapore during the Occupation -- Bermadu, Hancur Hati, Ibu Tiri, Mutiara, Terang Bulan di Malaya, Topeng Syaitan, and Mata Hatu -- but little is known about these films or the circumstances under which they were produced.
All film exhibition came under control of one of the "kaishas," or official Japanese Occupation government monopolies; the movie exhibition monopoly was given to Eiga Haikyu Sha (the Japan Film Distribution Co.), with its headquarters in Singapore, and which took over all the theaters throughout Malaya. Japanese films were used in the campaign of "Nipponisation" carried out by the Occupation forces, who recognised the power of cinema for propaganda purposes and for building the shinchitsujo, or "New World Order." Because the Japanese initially lacked enough Japanese films to fill Malaya's screens, the Sendenbu, or department of propaganda, authorized the release of some of the 50,000 reels of British and American films they had seized, but only after censoring and re-editing them to deliver the “proper” messages. This lasted until 1943, when a regular supply of Japanese feature films was available.
These Japanese-made films, filmed in Japan and the studios of occupied nations in Southeast Asia, seemed remarkably familiar to war-time audiences; despite the propaganda content, stylistically they were not much different from the Hollywood films that the Japanese condemned. This is not really surprising, as Japanese cinema was heavily influenced by American films, and the Japanese studio system was modelled, to a great degree, on that of the Hollywood film industry. In fact, many of the key personnel involved in making these films had trained and worked in Hollywood. For example, Nankai no Hanataba (Bouquet in the Southern Seas; 1942), a film about the bravery of the Japanese pilots who paved the way for the invasion of Malaya, and which was made exclusively for screening in Southeast Asia, was directed by Abe Yutaka, who had been known as "Jackie Abe" in Hollywood when he worked there (as an actor, production assistant and, in lean times, a butler) in the late teens and early 1920s.
In addition to Abe Yutaka’s Nankai no Hanataba, other Japanese films made in and for Singapore and the rest of Southeast Asia include Shima Koji’s Shingaporu Sokogeki (All-out Attack on Singapore; 1943) and Koga Masato’s Marei no Tora (The Tiger of Malaya; 1943). Some animated cartoons were made for exhibition in Southeast Asia also. One very popular cartoon character was Momotaro, the "Peach boy", who appeared in a number of cartoons designed not just for domestic consumption within Japan, but for propaganda use in occupied countries as well. For example, Picture Book 1936 (Momotaro vs. Mickey Mouse) featured fanged Mickey Mouse look-alikes riding giant bats, attacking peaceful Pacific islanders (represented by cats and dolls, for some reason); the hero Momotaro jumps out of a picture book, repels the American mice, and cherry trees blossom throughout the island as the grateful natives sing "Tokyo Chorus".
In a more ambitious cartoon, Momotaro's Sea Eagle, released in 1943, Momotaro leads the attack on Pearl Harbor, then "liberates" Southeast Asia; although Momotaro himself is a human boy, the "liberated peoples" are presented as animals (cute little rabbits, mice, ducks and bears, who willingly and sternly fight behind Momotaro, their liberator and leader), while the Americans and British (and especially General Percival, who surrenders Singapore to Momotaro) are huge, hairy, ugly demons, complete with horns and drooling fangs. Nippon Banzai, another animated propaganda film designed for use in the occupied nations, employed an almost avant-garde mix of line animation, shadow animation, and live-action footage, along with the following commentary (in English!):
The peaceful Southeast Asian countries have been trampled underfoot for many years, their inhabitants made to suffer by the devilish British, Americans, and Dutch. In the midst of this hardship, in their hearts they (the inhabitants) have waited for a ray of light, a strong soul. That light, that soul was Japan.
THE “GOLDEN AGE” OF SINGAPOREAN CINEMA
To the disappointment of no one but the Japanese themselves, this “ray of light” was extinguished in 1945, and the Japanese Occupation ended. Within a few years, the cameras were turning in Singaporean motion picture studios once again. The first postwar film studio was Malay Film Production Ltd, established at 8 Jalan Ampas by the Shaw Brothers in 1947. Malay Film Productions was soon followed by Cathay-Keris Productions, the result of a merger of Cathay Productions and Keris Productions, with production facilities first in Tampines and later on East Coast Road.
The chief asset of Malay Film Productions was, of course, the great P. Ramlee (see last month’s article on Malaysian cinema for more information on Ramlee). Almost a one-man production crew, Ramlee wrote scripts, wrote songs (both music and lyrics), sang, acted in movies, and directed; almost everything, in fact, but run the cameras (although there is evidence from his films that he probably specified camera angles and lighting plans)! His films, especially the comedies, were very popular among the Malay population of both Singapore and peninsular Malaysia.
P. Ramlee made the majority of his films at Malay Film Productions studio in Singapore, and because most of his films were contemporary comedies or melodramas, and were filmed partly on locations in Singapore, they provide an interesting look at the Singapore of the 1950s and 1960s (especially interesting is his 1961 film, Seniman Bujang Lapok, known in English as The Nitwit Movie Stars, for its scenes of filmmaking at Malay Film Productions). However, the Singapore of P. Ramlee’s films (and, in fact, most of the Malay films made in Singapore) is unusual in one important respect. It is a Singapore almost totally devoid of Chinese. Just as African-American filmmakers of the 1920s-1940s made films featuring an almost completely black America, Malay films featured a Singapore in which racial difference, and the tensions it sometimes brought, did not exist. Certainly there were exceptions, but most of these films were made primarily to entertain, and social commentary, while not unknown, was seldom aimed at ethnic, racial, political or religious conflicts.
Cathay, unlike the Shaw brothers, relied, in addition to the foreign films it distributed, to a great extent on films made at its Hong Kong studio. These films were made mostly in Mandarin, but sometimes, especially in the early years, in Cantonese. In 1997 Cathay re-released three of these Mandarin films -- Our Sister Hedy (Tao Qin, 1958), Her Tender Heart (Evan Yang, 1959) and Mambo Girl (Evan Yang, 1957) -- revealing the inventiveness that became a standard feature of subsequent Hong Kong movies.
Back home in Singapore, Cathay-Keris made movies in Bahasa Melayu. Although it lacked a star of the magnitude of P. Ramlee (although leading ladies Maria Menado and Rose Yatimah were quite popular, as was comedian Wahid Satay), Cathay-Keris did boast of at least one outstanding film director. Unlike the small, personal films of Ramlee, the films of Cathay-Keris’s Hussein Haniff used a much a larger canvas, often featuring large battle scenes filmed outdoors (but with limited resources) with what look like fairly large numbers of actors and extras. Instead of contemporary subjects, Haniff worked with historical stories, setting his social commentary and criticisms in Malaya’s feudal past. As seen in Hang Jebat (1961) and Dang Anom (1962), the films by Haniff that were shown at the 1997 Singapore International Film Festival, he was a master of mise-en-scene -- scenery, precision acting, lighting -- as opposed to Ramlee, whose chief concerns were camera work and the emotions expressed by the human face and voice.
Although not directed by “big name” directors such as Ramlee and Haniff, the genre films, especially the horror films, made by Cathay-Keris were popular and worth seeing even today. Better remembered than the more prestige films are such Malay-language horror films as Anak Pontianak (Vampire Child; Ramon A. Estella, 1958), Sumpah Pontianak (Vampire’s Curse; B. N. Rao, 1958), and Orang Minyak (The Oily Man; L. Krishnan, 1958). These films, based on Malay mythology and legends, all seemed quite scary when they were seen in theaters at the time of their release. Now, they are just as entertaining, but maybe not quite as scary, and a little funnier than they were intended to be (although humor, as well as songs, were an important part of the genre), and not quite what we regard as realistic.
But this difference in the way we regard these films says much about the ways in which films have changed, and just as importantly, the ways in which Singaporeans have changed. Initially, movies from Hong Kong began to replace homegrown films. But in the late 1960s television became the rage in Singapore, and with it Western ideas and images. Of course, Singaporeans have lived with Western ideas for many decades, and Hollywood movies have always been popular here. But with television, the ubiquity of Western culture really began; no longer a relatively small part of the cultural mix experienced by Singaporeans, Western images of reality soon became something approaching the norm.
This made a crucial difference to the way Singaporeans saw reality in movies. They began to see it more with Western eyes, through which reality lies in the mise-en-scene -- the objects, the characters, etc. -- and not so much in the ideas, emotions, and relationships among people. No longer was it good enough to present mythical stories that expressed feelings, fears, and traditional beliefs through films that suggested the essences, rather than realistically depicted the images, of people, places and things. An unfortunate exodus occurred as Singaporeans began to reject their own movies in favor of those of Hollywood which, despite their high production values and visual excitement, said little to Southeast Asians about themselves and their culture.
In 1967, the Shaw brothers closed the Singapore studio of Malay Film Productions. Their biggest star and best director, P. Ramlee, had left in 1963 for Kuala Lumpur’s Studio Merdeka (which was subsequently taken over by the Shaws in 1966). Cathay had been in financial trouble since the death of its founder, Loke Wan Tho, in an airplane crash in Taiwan in 1964. When Cathay-Keris folded in 1972, Singapore became a nation without a national cinema.
THE POST-STUDIO YEARS
After the closure of Singapore’s two major studios, few films were made here. The handful that were produced in Singapore, or by Singaporeans, are indicative of the changes that audiences had gone through. In 1978, independent producer Sunny Lim made a series of action/spy movies, obviously made to cash in on the popularity of the spy movie genre (especially the James Bond series), and just as obviously made on shoestring budgets. But it is not the low production values of these films that audiences find so hilarious today (two of these films -- They Call Her Cleopatra Wong, directed by George Richardson in 1978, and Dynamite Johnson, directed by Bobby Suarez in 1978 -- were screened at the 1997 Singapore International Film Festival, and earned richly deserved laughs); it is the rather crude attempt to imitate Hollywood films that these films so sadly reveal. Hollywood movies have their faults, but one thing is clear: For better or worse, nobody can beat Hollywood at its own game, nobody can make Hollywood films like Hollywood itself can. And although audiences may have enjoyed these films, it was an enjoyment of these films as camp, not as genuine expressions of Singaporean culture.
The few other films made in Singapore at the time did little to remedy this situation. In 1979, Hollywood auteur Peter Bogdanovich, backed financially by Playboy magazine magnate Hugh Hefner, made Saint Jack, set and filmed in Singapore. Although an interesting film, it is hardly a Singaporean film; it merely uses Singapore as a slightly seedy, sordid backdrop for its tale of an American expatriate involved in prostitution and petty espionage.
More recently, 1991 saw a temporary return of Singaporean filmmaking with Medium Rare, based on the infamous Adrian Lim case. Although made in Singapore and featuring a story based on a true Singaporean incident, Medium Rare, directed by Australian Arthur Smith, is just as guilty as are Sunny Lim’s movies of trying to ape Hollywood movies. Singapore comes across as pure “oriental” exoticism; by comparison, the Singapore of Saint Jack is presented in a much more truthful, objective manner. To make matters worse, the filmmakers felt the need to add a white leading actress, in an apparent (and failed) attempt to attract Western audiences and Asian audiences accustomed to Hollywood films.
SINGAPOREAN CINEMA TODAY
After Medium Rare, the Singaporean film scene seemed bleak indeed. However, the last three years have shown that not only are there young Singaporeans with a burning desire to make movies that speak to Singaporeans, there is also an audience for these films. The “rebirth” of Singaporean cinema began in 1995 with Eric Khoo’s Mee Pok Man, one of the more interesting examples of truly alternative filmmaking in Southeast Asia in some years.
Although the influence of Western cinema is certainly not absent from this film, in its pace, subject matter, and sensibility it is much more Southeast Asian than it is Hollywood. It takes a subjective, at times mystical, but at the same time detached look at a number of such typical Singaporean characters as the cabbie who knows the best hotels for trysts with prostitutes; the Chinese fortune-teller, with his common sense advice, "Just be gentle and patient, and she will like you"; and the mee pok man himself, quietly plying his trade in a small, dilapidated storefront, wearing his singlet, cooking and serving his fish-ball noodles without a word to his customers.
1995 also saw the release of Bugis Street - The Movie, a film about the transvestites who haunted Bugis Street in the 1960s and 1970s (before it became a shopping center!). Although filmed in Singapore, Bugis Street, made by the Hong Kong director Yonfan, indulges in rather shameless exoticism, and, fortunately, did not set a precedent for future Singaporean films.
1997 has proven to be the best year for Singaporean cinema in the last twenty-five years. In addition to the re-release by Cathay of seven of its old films, the Singapore International Film Festival premiered three new Singaporean films. Director and actor Hugo Ng revisited the Adrian Lim story in God or Dog, this time with a much more Singaporean slant than that taken in Medium Rare. Although based on an incident involving quasi-religious cults, adultery, and murder, the film avoids the voyeuristic quality of Western films dealing with the same sort of subject matter.
More interesting, however, were the two other Singaporean films that made their debuts at the SIFF. The Road Less Travelled, by first time director Lim Suat-Yen, while lacking a dramatic story that makes a lasting impression, is significant in that it seeks to avoid the sensational subject matter often used by novice filmmakers to attract attention to their films. The Road Less Travelled, although similar in some ways to Hong Kong melodramas, deals with young Singaporeans and their concerns and relationships. Lim made a film that means something to her, that expresses what she wants to say, and not what she thinks will make the most money at the box office by appealing to an audience raised on Hollywood movies.
The other Singaporean film to debut in 1995 is Eric Khoo’s second effort, 12 Storeys, about the lives of various Singaporeans living in a rather old Housing Development Board block. Much more skilfully made than is Mee Pok Man, 12 Storeys, while retaining the mystical quality of the earlier film, relies much less on sensationalism. Gone is the prostitution and morbidity of a dead body rotting at the kitchen table, in favor of the lives (both interior and exterior) of ordinary Singaporeans. Like Lim Suat-Yen, Khoo is more interested in making a film for himself and his friends and neighbours than in pleasing Western sensibilities.
This change in attitude is, I think, indicative of a more general change in the attitudes of Singaporeans in general. This change is a greater sense of pride in being Asian and, more specifically, Singaporean; not just in the wealth and sophistication enjoyed by Singapore, but in the culture, creativity and artistic expression that has been overlooked for too long.
Will Singaporean cinema ever be as dominant and profitable as those of Hong Kong or Hollywood? Probably not. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. If young Singaporean filmmakers continue to keep their cameras trained on life at home, and if they follow in the footsteps of such greats as P. Ramlee and Hussein Haniff, who never lost touch with the common man, Singaporean films will continue to be appreciated where it counts: in Singapore. And, maybe, the rest of the world will find that these films speak to them, as well.