Understanding Singapore Cinema

Film is no longer about seamless, immaculately planned shots pieced together with dramatic music cued to set you sitting on the edge of your chair and one brilliant mind behind the camera playing God. It extends beyond the emotionlessness of plastic buttons, black wires and the various devices into a world of fantasy and trance. Organised by Esplanade, Bitesize presented Understanding Singapore Cinema on 19th June, alongside with the Asian Film Archive. The talk not only delved into the origins of Singapore Cinema, it also highlighted the artistic and cultural achievements of key Singapore filmmakers like Rajendra Gour, Eric Khoo, Glen Goei, Jack Neo etc.

This little heritage tour back to our cinematic roots has certainly stirred up much appreciation for those lost and forgotten and of course the beauty of such never failed to enchant the audience, for instance like the ever hilarious snippet from Seniman Bujang Lapok directed by the Malaysian maestro, P Ramlee or the slightly uncomfortable scene where the sudden suicide occurred from 12 Storeys directed by our remarkable Eric Khoo. The talk has definitely provided an encyclopedic perspective of national cinema and the immense value and influence it possesses till this very day. However, this talk would not been made possible without this very man - Mr Tan Bee Thiam, the speaker of the day! So before we end this entry, SINdie had a brief interview session with Bee Thiam to find out more about Asian Film Archive and their works.

So tell us why hold a talk on Singapore Cinema?
Bitesize is a series of talks and workshops organized by Esplanade to introduce various aspects of the arts to the general public. When Esplanade approached the Asian Film Archive to do a talk, we thought it'll be interesting to do an introductory session on Singapore Cinema in the last 100 years.

How do you guys managed to find films that date all the way back the 1930s and restore them?
For old films, we rely on the traces of information we find to track things down. It's a bit like film archaeology, doing research, looking for materials, tracking down the rights-owners and making an ask for their donation so we can share them with the public. Luckily too, there have been a wonderful bunch of scholars and collectors who have done excellent work in this field and always willing to share them with us.

Some of the earliest Singapore films we hold today include Orang Minyak (directed by L Krishnan, 1958) and Sumpah Pontianak (directed by BN Rao, 1958) - both from the Asian Film Archive: Cathay Malay Classics collection. It was a donation from the Cathay Organisation. With the support of the National Archives of Singapore, we have been doing film cleaning work so they are maintained and preserved well.

Unfortunately, we do not have all the films I talked about. Some of the titles, we only have memorabilia (posters, film magazine articles, etc) of them. A major memorabilia collection was donated recently by an avid collector.

Only a very small number of films is selected so far for restoration work because it is very expensive. One of them is Moon Over Malaya directed by Chun Khim, a 1957 film shot in Singapore and Malaysia. It took us close to 2 years to get this restored.

What sort of feedback did you guys receiving after holding the talk?
From the people who talked to me, it's been wonderful! Here’s a quote from a participant too:

"Singapore clearly played a pivotal role in the development of Asian cinema -- and Bee Thiam's thoughtful lecture provided a historical overview of filmmaking in this region. It is not merely a chronology, but places the changing tides of the industry within the context of the political and social history of the country. As with the Archive's premiere of the restored print of "Moon over Malaya" earlier this year and the accompanying curated exhibit, this talk was enlightening and reveals a long tradition of Singaporean cinema. I'm happy the Asian Film Archive exists to preserve that rich tradition for future generations. Bravo to Bee Thiam and his colleagues!"- Amos Ezra Katz, NYU Tisch School of the Arts Asia

What other events can we look forward to?
We are doing a lunchtime talk in NUS on 10 August to review Singapore Cinema in the last decade (2000-2010). There will be a series of Singapore film screening in August too to celebrate National Day.

*The above pictures taken are courtesy of Esplanade Pte Ltd.

Here's AFA's take on the event!

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