Against the massive international powerhouses of the Japanese and Korean industries Singapore barely registers, both as a film-producing community in its own right and as a nation producing films worthy of international recognition. On the home-multiplexes front, Hollywood and Hong Kong imports tend to reign supreme, pushing the overall market share for local films down to between 3 ½ and 5%. In its most promising years during the nineties Singapore cinema produced such filmmakers as Eric Khoo, Tay Teck Lock, Jack Neo and Teng Bee Lian, names which became synonymous with a sort of embryonic local cinema which gained some purchase in 1998 and 1999. This development was undercut, ostensibly, just a year later. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, Singapore has an indomitable video piracy system; it’s so strong, in fact, that film-producers are purportedly losing 30% of their profits on their biggest local hits. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly in artistic terms, the local cinema was already handicapped by creative limitation and thematic repetition. Censorship regulations and the relative ‘immaturity’ of the industry itself (filmmakers must look overseas for post-production facilities and to partake in joint ventures) disadvantaged the cinema further. The establishment of a Film Commission (the S.F.C.) in 1998 helped matters by promoting cinema (hitherto denigrated culturally and politically) as a worthwhile and productive pursuit — and indeed films like the high-profile Be With Me (Eric Khoo, 2005, Singapore) demonstrate a similar approach to domestic and social concerns as the critically well-received Jack Neo film I Not Stupid (Xiaohai bu ben, 2002, Singapore) — but questions still remain about cinema and other arts-oriented initiatives in Singapore.

One interesting offshoot of the Media 21 plan — an initiative set in motion by the Media Development Authority — is Singapore’s emergence as a potential site for foreign film production. I recall the finale of My Scary Girl (Dal-kom-sal-beol-han-yeon-in, Son Jae-gon, 2006, South Korea), a Korean film in which two former lovers meet serendipitously on Marina Bay promenade. It’s a dopey ending, but admittedly also the one watchable scene in an almost unwatchable movie; interestingly, the locale (which showcases the distinctive Esplanade building and a popular tourist feature known as the Merlion which pulls in a million people per year) becomes, one suspects for all audiences besides just Korean, a sort of stand-in for foreign exoticism, for economic prowess and for the glamour of a rampant capitalist culture.

Last week, the S.F.C. selected Khoo’s My Magic as the official contender in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 2009 Oscars; if accepted, the film could join the likes of Japan’s Departures (Okuribito, Takita Yôjirô, 2008, Japan) and South Korea’s Crossing (Keurosing, Kim Tae-gyun, 2008, South Korea) next year. Preposterously enough, Be With Me, the state’s entry in the 2006 Oscars, was disqualified from the process when the Academy rescinded its original decision based on their determination that English was the dominant language (its other languages include Cantonese, Singlish and Hokkien) — see Foreign Oscar Pix Lost in Translation (Variety, 21 December 2005) and Rules of the Oscar Game (Forbes, 2006).

This setback notwithstanding, Khoo was awarded best director at the Torino Film Festival and the Brussels Festival of Independent Film; and Be With Me opened the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes 2005 — the FIPRESCI jury award, representing the International Federation of Film Critics, would ultimately go to Her Name is Sabine (Sandrine Bonnaire, 2007, France). For Singapore to have any shot at the Best Foreign Language Film category in the 2009 Academy Awards My Magic must be in exhibition nationwide before 30 September, the official deadline for all contenders; as of 18 September the film has yet to be released. According to Variety the distributors are hastily rescheduling for a September 26 release in order to comply, but it is all a bit of a mess and questions remain about the S.F.C.’s role in this. This does not bode well.

18 September, 2008


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