Viewpoint

Arthouse cinema loses its shine

The Projector takes over two cinema halls in Golden Mile Tower and will be a permanent arthouse venue when it opens next year. -- PHOTO: PHILLIP ALDRUP
The Projector takes over two cinema halls in Golden Mile Tower and will be a permanent arthouse venue when it opens next year. -- PHOTO: PHILLIP ALDRUP

New indie film cinema The Projector will need all the support it can get

Arthouse film: Once, in Singapore, that phrase implied braininess, worldliness, good taste and most of all, prestige.

Those days are long gone.

Film-maker Anthony Chen, maker of the Golden Horse- and Camera d'Or-winning Ilo Ilo (2013), did not appear too comfortable with his film being viewed as an arthouse work, or a festival favourite, or any of those terms that used to mean a film that has been anointed by the cinema priesthood of critics and juries.

Last year, just before his film opened in Singapore, he had two film posters made. One was in the typically restrained and tasteful arthouse style, featuring the two lead characters, a boy and his domestic helper, looking over an HDB landscape that was drenched in greys and blues.

The second poster made the film look like a knockabout comedy that Jack Neo would make - it had the heads of all four leads atop cartoon bodies, three of them sticking out of a caricature of an HDB flat. On the poster was a critic's quote attesting to the film's huge amounts of "love, humour and heartbreak". It was about as subtle as a carnival.

Guess which one he said he would use in Singapore, and which he would use in Europe and elsewhere?

Last week, a group of design professionals announced they would leap into the risky world of arthouse cinema.

Executives from creative development consultancy and management company Pocket Projects and cross-disciplinary design practice Farm have partnered as the project's managers.

Two defunct halls in Golden Cinema at Golden Mile Tower will reopen next year as The Projector. One hall will be a permanent arthouse venue, with local consultancy Luna Films taking charge of film programming.

It follows in the tradition of past cinemas. After Cathay kicked off the arthouse trend in 1990 with the opening of The Picturehouse, the smell of profit was in the air - the new Restricted (Artistic) or R(A) category of film (soon to be amended to R21) and higher ticket prices for arthouse imports drew other exhibitors. Shaw's Jade Classics and Golden Village's Cinema Europa came along as dedicated arthouse rooms. Later, in 2007, the independent entity Sinema Old School on Mount Sophia launched.

Every one of them would fade. For halls run by the majors, they would be converted to commercial screens. For the independent Sinema, its lease ran out in 2012 and it now exists only as a brand.

Some reasons for their closure are obvious, including piracy, online streaming and DVD purchasing, and the rise of mini festivals of all themes (from now till December, for example, fans can enjoy the German, French and Singapore film festivals, and their combined roster of more than a hundred films).

The National Library has a large selection of arthouse DVDs and Blu-rays in English and other languages which users can borrow at no charge.

There are other, less obvious, reasons. Film fans have been known to write letters of complaint to the Forum pages of The Straits Times if a chain dares to use its arthouse screen for commercial films. This punishes the exhibitor for setting a screen aside; better not to have one at all and treat all halls as general-purpose. No complaints then.

Also, Singaporeans are now less willing to watch an R21 film because it is R21 (for its shock value, titillation, or other novelty value) and will go only if the film has aroused public interest, such as for Lee Ang's Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain (2005).

These days, distributors talk of M18 and R21 ratings as a financial disaster, and will edit a film and resubmit in the hope of a more lenient rating.

So any R21-rated film brought here must be able to push the above-21s out of their chairs and into the ticket lanes. Only a few have that elusive must-see quality. Examples include last year's Palme d'Or winner Blue Is The Warmest Color (explicit lesbian sex), and Oscar nominees Dallas Buyers Club (explicit sex) and the raunchy biopic The Wolf Of Wall Street (explicit sex and drug use).

There is another dirty little secret about arthouse and festival cinema, one that I think has the most relevance to the demise of the arthouse in Singapore.

I have judged the competition sections of a couple of film festivals here, and I have just been to the Tokyo International Film Festival, where I watched, I think, eight to 10 movies in six days.

This is the truth I learnt over the years: The vast majority of festival films are either long-winded, or self-indulgent, or pointlessly esoteric, or juvenile and immature, or just forgettable, or some or all of the above.

I met a Singapore-based independent film distributor in Tokyo. He shook his head when I asked him if he saw anything he could buy. At festivals, you have to kiss an awful lot of frogs before you find a prince, he said.

And for many Singaporeans who have dipped a toe into arthouse only to withdraw in pain, it is a case of "never again". The term "arthouse" has lost its sheen and its reputation in Singapore, if it ever had any, has been eroded by too much junk.

This is why Chen did not want the A-word stigma attached to Ilo Ilo. And this is why this year's horror work The Babadook was shown here without fanfare over its festival status, and this is why the acclaimed French animated feature Jack And The Cuckoo-Clock Heart opened here last week in standard halls, when in the past something like that would have been proudly displayed under the arthouse banner.

I want to give the brave souls investing in The Projector all the help I can as a film correspondent, because they are going to need it. The prognosis for any venue billed as arthouse-only in Singapore is not encouraging, to say the least.

johnlui@sph.com.sg