Singapore Noir: Sam Loh Talks Fame and Flesh

If there is an enfant terrible of Singapore cinema, it must be Sam Loh. From the debut that he withdrew in protest of the MDA’s cuts to the midnight screening at film festivals that sold out, he is no stranger to notoriety—he was at one time, both branded pornographer and visionary, and often by the same people.

It is sometimes hard to reconcile the differences between one’s expectations of the man capable of dreaming up works like Lang Tong and Siew Lup, sister works in depravity but also grace, and the easygoing, soft-spoken man one has in front of them. However, do not be fooled by the gentle countenance; one only needs to look in his eyes to see the gleeful gleams that seem to hide the very merry visage of the Marquis de Sade himself.

It only seems fitting that the first issue of SINdie, a publication that has always thrived on an underground whim and a barely restraint sense of mischief, should cast a maestro who shares its outlook as the first cover guy. Here, creative director Alfonse Chiu interviews Sam Loh as he talks film, flesh, and the future of Singapore cinema.

What is your opinion of Singapore films nowadays?

I feel Singapore films now are too sterile. They are too clean, too nice, which reflect who we are as a people just about nicely, but are not terribly exciting to watch. It is pretty much due to this situation that I try to make films that are as entertaining as possible.

I feel that a good example for Singaporean films to follow would be Korean films. Korean films do not reflect the society, but they all have this sense of hyperrealism that gives everything a cinematic quality—the motions, the lights, the sounds. They are portrayals of events neither mundane nor banal; these films are escapism at its best.

To me, films are avenues for people to leave their usual, boring lives behind wherever, which is why I tend to shy away from making films that reflect the realities of life, because what is the fun in showing what everyone lives in everyday? If you watch my films, you will notice that I never shoot any HDBs. I stay as far away as possible from what I call HDB dramas.

To be fair though, the HDB is not at fault here, but where HDBs are involved in films, there are always clichés in plots and shots that are wholly unnecessary. Nowadays, you always see filmmakers go for that slow-mo pan-shot of a HDB landscape, and the ways so many people are just sitting around, mulling over nothing—everything is just so boring, and not reflective of Singapore, I feel.

Singaporeans are not like that. Though, of course, we may be boring and sterile at times, we are not stuck in that mode forever, unlike what some filmmakers would like you to believe.

More, I saw that even students all do the exact same thing, when they want to make a student film. There have not been any noticeable differences in the student films I have seen, in terms of how they represent Singapore, in a long time.

There will always be this very nicely framed shot of an HDB flat, with people sitting in the corners being lonely. There are so many of these out there, it is not even funny anymore. It is a great shock to realize that even our short films are the same now—it makes one want to ask aloud: “What is happening? Can't they just tell a normal story?”

What is your journey as a director like?

I started as a commercial director, way back in the 1990’s. Then, in 1998 I stopped working and went to New York University Tisch School of the Art to study film in an intensive workshop that lasted for a few months, which culminated in a short film or thesis film.

As I was already working, I did not exactly have the luxury of time and money to complete the three-year course. By the time I returned from New York, having made a short film already, I moved away from commercials and dove straight into narrative works. It was a huge transition that I underwent career wise—I broke away from doing commercials completely and did drama.

That was the start of my filmmaking journey.  

Now I shoot TV drama predominantly, and I think that shooting TV dramas is the best training ground for any director to know the whole process of filmmaking from start to finish. One learns how to work with a team, work within a time limit, and work with actors. TV also offers you the chance to work more and gain more practical experiences than any fulltime independent feature director.

If you look at the greats of filmmaking, they all started with TV. Now, with the rise of Netflix, everyone is going back to TV.  A lot of people look down on it but I do not see it that way, one learns constantly and innumerably.

When did your interest in film solidify?

As a child, my childhood was quite normal, though I never quite liked doing normal things. Since young, I felt that film should be radically different from reality; I thought that it is something for the audience to watch, and so we should do things that deviate from what is normal, because everyone knows normal, everyone lives normal. There are two sides to everyone, and I would rather explore the dark side that not everyone dares to acknowledge, than the normal side. There are a lot fewer films that reflect the dark side of humanity than films that reflect a more conventional side.

Making commercials also reinforced my love for film. At its core, advertisements are really just very short story telling. So, owing to the time limit, we would need to get right to the crux of the scenario and bring out the flavor of the scene. This hones one’s aesthetic sense, as well as the ability to make sense of a story in a very accessible way.

Getting back to your question, while I have always been a visual person, it is after my experiences at NYU that I decided to really leave commercial and do narrative drama seriously. The day the production wrapped for the first drama I did after I returned from study, I could not sleep the entire night. I got the feeling that this was the moment that spelled out film as my life calling. It is the best feeling a young filmmaker could feel—to have that palpable excitement keep you up because you just know that it was what you were looking for all these years, something that you found could truly connect to.

Can you describe your artistry?

As I have mentioned, I am a very visual person. When I write scripts, I plot in terms of visuals—the way I describe the scenes in my treatments are almost like novels. I would sculpt my mental images the way a novelist would describe them to you in terms of the little nuances, like what you notice as you enter the room, the scents that permeate the air, the subtle movements from somewhere.

I do not like to write dialogues.  They are boring to me; dialogues will come naturally when the scene is set. It is the best if one can do a scene without dialogues. It is not that spoken words take away from the impacts of the visuals—they help to deliver information in a timely manner—but one shouldn't be at the mercy of words. Much like the early days of silent movies, when they have no dialogues and are all narratives at its purest form, my idea of a best film would be one where the audience can understand everything without needing you to tell them anything.

More, I try not to construct plots with too many characters in them. When one is crafting a story, things other than the bare essentials should not cloud one’s perceptions. Maintaining focus on the core narrative is crucial—if I set up a scenario around three characters, the focus ultimately will be on these three characters.

The key is to not be distracted. Events need to revolve around these central characters. If need be, the narrative must be pared down, because having too many characters are just noises distracting from the main melody. Just have a main crew with a clear motivation, and a clear journey, and audiences will be able to follow and appreciate your film more, rather than get confused over too many subplots and twists.

What is your favorite film?

There is this old Italian classic, Bicycle Thieves, by Vittorio De Sica which I like very much. It is not a silent film but it is very good nonetheless—it was the only film where I cried at the ending. It was a restored version that I watched in a cinema that showed restored classics in New York, and everybody was queuing around the block in winter just to watch it.

To me, the last scene was so powerful, or maybe it was because I was lonely at the time. There was no dialogue; the police caught the father, and the son witnessed it. It is hard to describe, but the way the subtleties conveyed all the emotions of those two was just divine.

What was your biggest obstacle as a filmmaker?

Censorship. While rating systems help, they should be more relaxed regarding certain films, so that they have greater chances of finding an audience. Given a rating like R21, there should not be any censorship: an audience that old can decide for themselves what they want to watch; I mean, they went through national service, they literally held guns and were trained to kill. There is this weird disparity between expectations of these youths as adults, and treating them like children. What gives?

Especially since now that everything is on the Internet unfiltered, there are worst that they can access than what is in the cinema. So, I have no idea what is the trouble with allowing legal adults to select what they want to consume. Already, it is so hard trying to market an R21 film; there are so many limitations! We cannot promote the film in housing estates; we cannot have banners or posters in public space. Even for showings in a theatre like Shaw Lido, only the box office can display the poster. With such restrictions in place, it is even harder to make money from R21 films. I feel that the regulations must be done on a case by case basis, because it is simply not fair to impose such arbitrary guidelines on works that can differ in so many ways, like intent or subject matter.

How do you justify the sex and violence in your works?

They are integral to the story; there is a reason why the characters did what they did, mine are not blatant violence and porn kind of movies. The women in my films are strong female characters who are complex, and who just happen to lean towards the dark side. They just tend to cross into that dark side to do heinous things. For me at least, I would consider those to be the interesting things one watch a film for, to witness someone leave the beaten path and not be limited by anything in society.

How do you find the balance between commercial interest and your artistic integrity?

When I went to Herman Yau's masterclass the other day, the first thing he said was 'make sex and violence, and people will come and see' which made me feel that I might be on the right track.

Above all, I want to make something that is very entertaining, because I do not want people to just go into the cinema and spend and hour or two and twelve dollars to watch a very boring film.

Filmmakers need to understand that they do not make films just for themselves.

The act of filmmaking itself is to look for an appreciative audience, if there is no one watching but you, what is the point? In the words of George Lucas, filmmakers are all entertainers, and are no better than any buskers on the streets performing to get a dime. I thought that made a lot of sense.

As filmmakers, we need people to appreciate our work, to like our work. I thought that it is this balance between commercial interest and art that makes filmmaking as a discipline so beautiful. That is why I never look down on the material aspect of filmmaking; I feel that we as independent filmmakers should not be limited to making art films only.

While there is nothing wrong in making art films for the sake of art, whether one finds an audience is another thing entirely. I was looking at the queue for the Siew Lup screening during SGIFF that sold out, and I saw a lot of new audience—not the usual festival crowd—but audience that actually buy the ticket to watch the film. They looked like the general public, and to me, that was everything because new audiences mean that you are doing something right.

I would rather have this kind of audience than the elitist art crowd who consume films that were made for the sake of awards.

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