As small as the Singapore reel scene is, it’s the real deal. The ’50s and early ’60s were considered a golden era for Singapore cinema. Then, the ’90s and 2000s saw the rise (and first revival) of local directors like Eric Khoo, Kelvin Tong, Glen Goei and, yes, even Jack Neo.
Today, new names (and titles) are populating the second cinematic wave, which started around five years ago. Audiences would be familiar with Anthony Chen, whose debut feature Ilo Ilo (2013) made history as the first Singapore film to win the prestigious Camera d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. More recently Pop Aye (2017), the Thailand-based debut feature from Kirsten Tan received the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Screenwriting at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, and Boo Junfeng’s second feature, Apprentice (2016), premiered at Cannes last May, and is still picking up key awards from major festivals.
Directors aren’t the only local talents gaining accolades. In February, Los Angeles-based veteran sound editor Ai-ling Lee picked up two Oscars nominations for her work on La La Land (Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing), making her the first Singapore (and Asian) woman to be nominated for sound editing.
“What’s great about the Singapore film community is that filmmakers like Eric Khoo and Royston Tan are producing for filmmakers like Boo Junfeng and Kirsten Tan. That kind of mentorship and shared experiences can only make Singapore films better,” says Yuni Hadi, executive director of the Singapore International Film Festival. And it would appear that these second wave leaders are paying it forward – Anthony Chen mentored Martin Hong (one of the four filmmakers profiled here). These up-and-comers may be just a couple years out of film school and not household names (yet), but their smaller-scale works are already winning awards – just remember you read about them here first.
The genre-hopper: Martin Hong
Whether you realise it or not, you’re already familiar with Martin Hong’s work. The 27-year-old genre-hopper is perhaps Singapore’s answer to Spike Jonze, equally adept at directing shorts (Come Fly Away With Me, 2015 – nominated for Best Direction at the National Youth Film Awards), music videos (For Love, The Sam Willows) and commercials (McDelivery’s new spot with Female Collective member Aarika Lee). Of late, he’s added nominated actor (Outstanding Lead Actor in Comedy, 2017 LAWebFest) for his role in his web series Geeks Vs Bloggers, which looked at the machinations of #influencer culture.
Hong’s do-it-all approach is one he’s honed from the start. A self-professed David Fincher fan, who also admits to influences from Disney and Pixar films, he describes his work as “one with a strong Western-Asian fusion of aesthetics”. “All my films have traits of insecurity or pain,” he says.
The work he’s most proud of
“Despite all its flaws, the For Love music video was still very true to the original version, and it had a lot of heart from everyone who worked on it.”
On the current film scene in Singapore
“It’s growing really fast and becoming such a democratic medium. It also makes people more willing to break rules and challenge what film is. I’m looking forward to Singaporeans making crazier and edgier stuff.”
“More commercial work, but also a music video and a collaboration with 3-D design duo Machineast.”
The next big cinematographer: Rachel Liew
Rachel Liew doesn’t take the conventional route. For starters, while most student films are typically based in Singapore, Liew, 25, based her final-year project Han in South Korea because “it felt solemn, yet has a little sense of hope to it”.
The 20-minute short (Liew served as cinematographer and her classmate Jonathan Choo as director) centres around a Singaporean father who travels to South Korea to make amends to a family whose daughter is killed in a car accident by his son. While their budget ballooned (they raised $4,000 on Indiegogo; the other $36,000 required was pooled together from the crew members’ own savings), the money was well-spent – Han clinched the highest prize in the student category, the Laszlo Kovacs Student Award – Golden Tadpole, at the illustrious Poland-based Camerimage festival. It also won Best Direction and DBS Best Picture awards at the 2016 National Youth Film Awards.
Her style of work
“I tend to steer more towards a static slow-moving frame, rather than energetic handheld movements.”
On what she hopes to bring to the local scene
“Hopefully a female voice, which I feel is still somewhat lacking in the industry.”
Who inspires her
“Vittorio Storaro was the first person that got me thinking about cinematography, and how it encompasses light, music and literature.”
April saw the release of the music video (helmed by her and Choo) for Light Breaks In by singer-songwriter Charlie Lim. “I’m also awaiting replies for a master’s course at the American Film Institute, and National Film and Television School.”
The one who keeps it in the family: Gladys Ng
Family, and the ties that bind, hold 28-year-old Gladys Ng close to her craft. Like the lauded coming-of-age film Boyhood by American director Richard Linklater (in which his daughter Lorelei plays a key role), Ng’s works tend to feature her own family members as the protagonists.
My Father After Dinner (2015), a 15-minute short, starred – you guessed it – her father, and went on to win the Best Singapore Short Film at the 2015 Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF). The following year, SGIFF commissioned her to make The Pursuit of a Happy Human Life (written during a six-week residency in Bangkok), which became the opening act of the 2016 edition.
“I use film as a tool to understand the world around me. My works deal with the seemingly unimportant. They tend to explore interpersonal relationships between people, and often traverse the spoken and unspoken between them,”
Who inspires her
“Hirokazu Koreeda, Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit (her mentor) and Kelly Reichardt have shaped my sensibilities as a filmmaker. My favourite local directors are Liao Jiekai (Red Dragonflies) and Kirsten Tan (Pop Aye).”
On what she hopes to bring to the local scene
“Happiness. Perhaps a certain lightness and gentleness of quality that could be lost in today’s saturated contemporary culture.”
“A 30-minute short entitled Mother Wishes For Many Things, How Many For Herself?. It is part of a group exhibition, In The Garden, with five other artists that will run at Objectifs till July 9.”
The strong-minded philosopher: Han Fengyu
Han Fengyu, 25, is a director who knows exactly what he wants. This innate confidence has not only invited comparisons (by industry insiders) to Anthony Chen, but also helped him gain global recognition with his final-year project Last Trip Home (2014), which he – despite his lecturer’s objections – submitted to the Cannes Film Festival. The gamble paid off, the 26-minute short about immigrants in Singapore became the first Singapore student film to be selected for the prestigious Cinefondation Selection. At home, it won the Best Fiction honour at the 2015 Singapore Short Film Awards.
What drives his work
“The perceptions of human nature and how people would react in morally challenging situations. I would like to achieve the effect of yanking the chair out from under the audience, prompting them to ask the million-dollar question about life, which is ‘Why?’.”
Who inspires him
“I have an affinity for Taiwanese director Edward Yang’s work, but there are five filmmakers who really shaped my perspective and craft: Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke, Tsai Ming-liang and the Dardenne brothers.”
On changes he’d like to see in the local film scene
“Projects that are boundary-pushing need more support.”
“A short film (as yet untitled), on the romance between a pregnant domestic helper and her construction-worker boyfriend.”
This story first appeared in Female’s July 2017 issue.