Sunday, November 6, 2011

Singapore Cinema in a Timeline

The Year 2011 marked the 24th Singapore International Film Festival. Eight new feature-length Singapore films debuted, significantly with I Have Loved by Elizabeth Wijaya and Lai Weijie (2011) being nominated for Best Cinematography at Silver Screen Awards 2011. In addition, there were the screening of the Singapore Short Film Finalists and Non-finalists. Singapore has indeed blossomed from a lifeless film industry to one that is relatively healthy.

Many often focus on the achievements of today, but did you ever know that Singapore was a major center for filmmaking in Southeast Asia? Or that we started off with two fully developed studios that screened only Malay-language films? How did the Singapore's cinema scene evolve to what it is today and what is in store for us in the future? Let's take a trip down memory lane 80 years ago where we first started.


Loke Wan Tho's Cathay Productions

Shaw Brothers Studio, The Alhambra

The mid 1930s saw the founding of two film empires and theater chains in Singapore, Loke Wan Tho's Cathay Productions and the Shaw Brothers studios (by Run Run and Runme) respectively. Starting out with second-hand equipment, they slowly built their way to becoming the two main fully-developed studios that not only had film studios but distribution networks as well as theaters.

Laila Majnun (1933) was the first Malay film sensation.

During the early years, the studios relied heavily on the remaking of Indian films with local actors in place of Indian actors and in the Malay language. By the 1930s, Bollywood saw themselves "producing over 200 films per annum" (Nihanali). Due to their commercial success, it would be instinct to borrow their stylistic ideas as a stepping stone. True enough, despite not producing original films, the entertaining quality of these Malay language films had earned themselves an audience. However, this was not long before the budding success of Singapore's film studios was stunted due to the World War Two.


Japanese Troops invading Malaya (1941)

Japanese Troops invaded Malaya on 8 December 1941, and it was only 10 weeks later that Singapore surrendered on 15 February 1942. During the Japanese Occupation, the Japanese was in dominant control over all aspects of life and this included the cinema scene in Singapore. Singapore films were prohibited and our studios were not even used for the screening of propaganda films like that in the Philippines and Indonesia. The Japanese established control over the people in Malaya and began their campaign of the "Nipponisation" of Malayans. A Japanese film distribution company, Ego Haiku She, soon managed the film exhibition here, suppressing the film industry entirely. During this time, there was a regular supply of Japanese feature films as well as British and American films that were edited to the likes of the Japanese. This led to the growth of propaganda films and the building of shinshitsujo also known as "New World Order".

The Japanese cinema was greatly influenced by the styles of Hollywood films and these films were especially relevant to the war-time audience despite the propaganda content. This was ironic as the Japanese had condemned the ways of Hollywood productions.

Nankai no Hanataba (Bouquet in the Southern Seas)
by Abe Yutaka a.k.a "Jackie Abe" who worked in Hollywood in his younger days

Other than Nankai no Hanataba, there were similar Japanese films that portrayed similar themes like Shingaporu Sokogeko (All-out Attack on Singapore) by Shima Koki (1943) and Marei no Tora (The Tiger of Malaya) by Koga Masato (1943).

Momotaro, the "Peach" boy

Momotaro, the "Peach" boy was an animation character and popular at that. He appeared in several cartoons for domestic consumption as well as for propaganda purposes.

Picture Book 1936 (Momotaro vs. Mickey Mouse)
Featuring Momotaro who saves the Pacific islanders (represented by cats and dolls) from the evil fanged Mickey Mouse look-alikes who come riding in giant bats to attack them

Momotaro's Sea Eagle (1943)
Featuring Momotaro leading the attack on Pearl Harbour and liberating Southeast Asia (represented by animals)

Nippon Banzai (1943)
An animated propaganda film that employed an almost avant-garde mix of line animation, shadow animation and live-action footage including a commentary (in English)

These were the kinds of films that dominated Malaya during the Japanese Occupation and this was so because they simply had no choice. However, this was put to an end when the Japanese Occupation ended in 1945, bringing another phase of the film industry to an end.


In the post-war years in Singapore, the studios were back in action again. This time, however, with the establishment of the Malay Film Production Ltd by Shaw Brothers in 1947 and later, the evolution of Cathay-Keris Productions as a result of a merger of Cathay Productions and Keris Productions.

P. Ramlee
Chief asset of Malay Film Productions

P. Ramlee was known for being an almost one man production: writing scripts and songs, directing and acting. His talent was immense and this showed in his films, especially the comedies, that proved to be very well-received by the Malay population in both Singapore and peninsular Malaysia.

Seniman Bujang Lapok (The Nitwit Movie Stars)
by P. Ramlee (1961)

P. Ramlee's films were mainly shot in Singapore and gave the audience an interesting
perspective of Singapore during the 1950s and 1960s. However, it portrayed a Singapore that consisted of Malays as the only race, oblivious to the racial differences and the possible tensions that would arise. Though there were exceptions, these films were made with the intention simply to entertain.

Hussein Haniff
Outstanding film director from Cathay-Keris

Cathay-Keris had their own share of talented actors like Maria Menado, Rose Yatimah and comedian Wahid Satay. One director that stood out especially was Hussein Haniff and his style of using a larger landscape that required massive outdoor scenes that included many actors and extras.

Heng Jebat by Hussein Haniff (1961)

Dang Anom by Hussein Haniff (1962)

At the 1997 Singapore International Film Festival, these films by Hussein Haniff were screened making him well-known for his mastery in mise-en-scene. Hussein Haniff focused on historical stories and critiqued Malaya's feudal past. Thus, his approach to the types of films made were clearly different from P. Ramlee's and this added to the variety of films shown in Singapore during the 1950s and 1960s.

Genre films were also on the rise, especially that of the horror genre that caught the attention of the audience with the thrill and suspense. Most of the films were based on Malay mythology and legends and thus added to the terror of the audience that were mostly Malay at that time.

Anak Pontianak (Vampire Child) by Ramon A. Estella (1958)

Orang Minyak (The Oily Man) by L. Krishnan (1958)

Our perspective toward these horror films have probably changed in present day due to the unrealistic and simplistic effects employed at that time. Though it still encompasses the tinge of terror, the audience will find themselves laughing at certain points and thus adds as a new form of entertainment to this genre.

Mr. Terrific
Television series that was commonly shown in Singapore in the 1960s

This change in perspective would point us to the fact that as Singapore has changed over the years, so have the mindset of the people towards films as well as the people making these films. In the late 1960s, the television to Singapore by storm. This came with the even greater exposure to Western films and images resulting in Singaporeans creating their perception of reality based on these ideals. Their change in expectations of what reality is in films made it evident that it lies in the mise-en-scene (setting, lighting, acting, etc) and not so much the plot or relationships of people. It was no longer simply the portrayal of myths and morals through the films but what was used to bring out the idea of this myth and the aesthetics used in the filming process. This led to the unfortunate rejection of local films in Singapore. The attractions of Hollywood film took domination here despite not representing anything that was culturally Southeast Asian.

P. Ramlee's departure to Kuala Lumpur's Studio Merdeka saw Shaw Brothers losing their most prized actor and director and thus leading to the closing down of the Singapore studio of Malay Film Productions in 1967. Soon after, Cathay-Keris faced financial troubles when Loke Wan Tho, their founder, passed away in an airplane crash in 1964. Eventually, Cathay-Keris winded up their business in 1972 and this left Singapore without a national cinema.


Without a national cinema and thus a studio, it was difficult for Singapore to produce many films. However, the few that were produced by Singaporeans and made in Singapore were reflective of the changes that were happening in the country during that period.

They Call Her Cleopatra Wong by George Richardson (1978)

Dynamite Johnson by Bobby Suarez (1987)

These series of action and spy movies were produced by Singaporean independent producer, Sunny Lim who took advantage of the popularity of this genre in Hollywood despite being of a smaller canvas. These films were well received at the 1997 Singapore International Film Festival as they had an element of humour despite the stark contrast with Hollywood's professionalism and capital shown in their films. This only made it evident that Hollywood was in a class of their own and such expressions were not representative of the Singapore culture.

Medium Rare by Authur Smith (1992) was Singapore's first full-length English-language film and also marked the revival of Singaporean filmmaking at that time. It was based on the notorious Adrian Lim case that was an incident familiar to all Singaporeans. This made the film more close to the heart in comparison to the other films though it also attempted to include aspects of Hollywood cinema (a white actress played the lead female role) to attract the Western audience as well as locals who were inclined to the likes of Hollywood films.

Unfortunately, this film was the one and only success during that period, turning the cinema scene in Singapore back to its lifeless state.


The year 1995 marked the true beginning of Singapore's film industry: aspiring directors and the rise of an audience that were receptive to their films. Films during these period portrayed the darker side of Singapore with seedy night clubs and prostitution as a recurring theme. This suggesting how these directors wanted to subtly acknowledge the marginalized through the medium of cinema.

Mee Pok Man (1995) & 12 Storeys (1995) by Eric Khoo

Eric Khoo was one of the up and coming directors who made his debut with Mee Pok Man and 12 Storeys in 1995. These films made use of common everyday events and iconic people that were truly Singaporean (mee pok man, prostitutes, taxi drivers, chinese fortune teller, neighbours in a HDB to mention a few examples). The influence of Western cinema definitely plays a part in Eric Khoo's filmmaking however its subject matter and plot are evidently more Southeast Asian thus allowing his films to be appreciated on an international level.

Army Daze by Ong Ken Seng (1996)

Army Daze was a Singaporean comedy that every National Service (NS) man will be able to relate closely too. It was a critique yet humourous approach to presenting the NS experience and this helped the film garner the support of Singaporeans. This indicated the change in Singaporeans who started to have a sense of greater national identity and pride.

The Road Less Travelled by Lim Suat-Yen (1997)

This was Singapore's first feature length Chinese-language movie. The Road Less Travelled was void of sensationalized plot like that of Eric Khoo's films but was a portrayal of the director's perspective that focused on the problems of young Singaporeans and human relationships. This was the beginning of Singaporean directors using film as a platform to express the societal problems as well as become a voice for Singaporeans as a whole.

Money No Enough (1998) and I Not Stupid (2002) by Jack Neo

Jack Neo is one of the few local directors who were able to deal with heartland issues in all seriousness and yet maintain a light-hearted approach for his audience. By including comedy to his films, he attracted an audience who could relate to these issues and laugh about it. The fact that Jack Neo depicts the sentiments of the society and criticizes the modern Singapore culture, he is indeed relevant in the local scene. In his use of 'Singlish' terms and dialect in his films, he has made the Singaporean identity even more defined and has managed to reach out to Singaporeans of all ages. Jack Neo went on to direct sequels to these well-received films that continued to portray the different societal and political issues in Singapore, like Money no Enough 2 (2008), I Not Stupid Too (2006), The Best Bet (2004), Just Follow Law (2007) to mention a few.

881 (2007) & 12 Lotus (2008) by Royston Tan

Royston Tan is a Singaporean commercial director who makes films that are satirical and seemingly politically controversial especially in a country like Singapore whose censorship for films are very strict. However, despite this, he still garnered an audience that showed appreciation to his films and style.

Similar to Singapore's growth as a country, from a small island to a cosmopolitan society today, the cinema scene in Singapore has definitely flourished over the years and is becoming an industry that is thriving with opportunities. With the emergence of these directors and their films, it is indicative of an evolving pool of talent in Singapore as a whole. We have definitely come a long way since the early days of limited resources and opportunities and can only attribute this success to our growth as a nation.

As audience, we look forward to more enriching films that will continue to shape our Singaporean identity as well as soar to greater heights with the rise of interests for filmmaking. Though as of now Singapore cinema may not be able to compete with the likes of Hong Kong or Hollywood, our films have a special connection with the local scene and it is that aspect that has secured themselves an audience where it matters - Singapore.


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