STOP10 Jan 2017: 'Tony's Long March' by Ben Slater and Sherman Ong

To be screened as part of the National Museum of Singapore (NMS)’s Cinematheque Selects for January 2017, Tony’s Long March, a documentary on the late Tony Yeow, directed by Ben Slater and Sherman Ong, explores the journey of an inspiring man who took risks with his film exploits, face extraordinary hard knocks, and always found a way to bounce back with a new film idea.

Film Synopsis 
A “has-been who never was”, the late Tony Yeow was involved in film, television and theatre in Singapore for 45 years. He co-directed and produced Singapore’s first and only kung fu film in the 1970s, was a key crew member for Peter Bogdanovich’s Saint Jack in 1978, and inadvertently kick-started the revival of feature films in Singapore in the 1990s. All of his films were flops or failures, and yet Tony was always dreaming about his next movie. This documentary, an affectionate and moving portrait of Tony Yeow, takes us on a journey through a rich and complex part of Singapore’s cultural history, as it celebrates the extraordinary spirit that kept Tony Yeow going.

Directed by Ben Slater and Sherman Ong
2015 / 39 min / ratings TBA
We managed to grab Ben Slater for his thoughts behind the film.

Why Tony Yeow as a film subject?

The long answer is that I met him when I was doing research into my book on Saint Jack, and it was clear he was an extraordinary character with lots of tales to tell. He tried to get me involved in many of his projects and we stayed in touch over the years. When Time Out magazine launched in Singapore I was involved in the film section and I wrote a feature about Tony for them, and realised then how fascinating his life had been, as well as his attitude towards it. I had introduced Tony to the arts group Spell#7 via my various Saint Jack activities, and they had him record a voice for a project they did in  the Singapore Biennale in 2008, and in my capacity as catalogue editor I organised a photo shoot with Tony on the Singapore Flyer, and Sherman was the photographer - so that's how they met. Then in 2009 I was working with Sherman and Spell#7 on a project which was inspired by certain aspects of Tony's life (Ghostwalking), and because I'm not a filmmaker I pitched to Sherman the idea of doing a film of Tony just answering questions and we got an MDA grant and started filming. Tony's struggle greatly appealed to Sherman and the title Tony's Long March was his idea.

How would you describe Tony in three words?

Funny, Hopeful, Striving

Do you have particular messages / hopes for the documentary?

I'm not interested in 'messages', but I hope people will find Tony as inspiring as we did. In a success-obsessed culture stories of defeat and failure are really important, because most of the time that's what we deal with anyway. How you deal with failure says a lot more about your true character than how you deal with success.

Looking back now, has the experience of filming this documentary changed or affected you in any way?

Completing the film was a really important and emotional experience, because we filmed it in 2009 and 2010 over four or five afternoons, and then we stopped. Sherman was busy with his many projects, I became a father for the first time and started a full-time job, and neither of us were entirely convinced we had enough material for a film. Tony would call me once or twice a year to check when we were going to finish it and I had to keep making excuses. From time to time I'd meet Sherman and we'd discuss what to do, but then nothing was every decided. Finally, Tony died in 2015, and when I got that news I immediately contacted Sherman and said, "We have to finish it." And after all those years of stalling, we figured it out. It was something we had to do for Tony and ourselves. 

On a more personal note, what are your hopes for Singaporean cinema?

More diversity in voices and genres. More risks need to be taken. More value needs to be placed on screenwriting and screenwriters. More, more, more!

Tony’s Long March will be screened in double-bill with Lost in La Mancha as part of the Cinematheque Selects event.

Read our commentary article on the late Tony Yeow, following the Singapore International Film Festival's tribute talk on the filmmaker in 2015.

We also posed a question to the programmer of Cinematheque Selects, Warren Sin on the choice of the 2 films to kick off the Selects showcase series.

What was that the reason for their pairing? Or are there additional parallels to be showcased? 

Indeed. We will start the series with Ben Slater and Sherman Ong's Tony's Long March, a much needed portrait of Tony Yeow in the form of a documentary. Everyone is aware of his involvement with the making of Ring of Fury back in 1973 which amounts to quite a bit of anecdotes and stories. But what Tony was doing after Ring of Fury is equally fascinating to say the least! 

Ben and Sherman did a good job balancing the need to tell Tony's story without being intrusive. Letting Tony's character come to the foreground. Such documentation of Singapore's cinematic heritage is unfortunately rare. One can count with one hand how many such documentaries exist, let alone one that document a key figure whose career coincide with the decline of Singapore's film productions. 

As part of Cinematheque Selects, Lost in La Mancha is amongst a few titles picked by the directors, Ben and Sherman. The parallels are pretty obvious. Both films highlight the precarious nature of the creative process in filmmaking and the dogged attempts by the personalities to fly the flag in the name of cinema. Are there more parallels in pairing the two films together? That is the beauty of programming. We offer the possibilities of connections and readings into the programme but from time to time, the audience will make the connections beyond what we've imagined or planned. Something intangible that the audience will take home with. In that sense, we hope to kindle this form of cinephilia amongst of audiences here.

About Cinematheque Selects

Cinémathèque Selects is a monthly double-bill screening that profiles the boldest filmmakers and most inventive productions from Singapore’s past to its present.

Focusing on diverse aspects of film-making, from directing to producing, script writing to cinematography and art direction, the series uncovers lesser-known local productions and features significant films in Singapore’s cinematic landscape.

Each film screening is accompanied by a conversation with the filmmaker and a second film guest that has influenced the filmmaker on a personal and professional level.

Tickets can be purchased in the following link.

Standard Ticket: $11
Concession (20%): $8.80
For student, senior citizen, NSF, National Museum Volunteer, NHB Staff

Written by Ivan Choong

For the full list of January 2017's 10 films under STOP10, click here.
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