VIEWPOINT

Singapore film fest makes a strong comeback

Home-grown movie Unlucky Plaza, starring Pam Oei, was an appropriate choice for the SGIFF’s opening film, as was Indonesia’s In The Absence Of The Sun for the closing film. John Woo’s epic The Crossing (above) added glamour to the event. -- PHO
Home-grown movie Unlucky Plaza, starring Pam Oei, was an appropriate choice for the SGIFF’s opening film, as was Indonesia’s In The Absence Of The Sun for the closing film. John Woo’s epic The Crossing (above) added glamour to the event. -- PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION
Home-grown movie Unlucky Plaza, starring Pam Oei, was an appropriate choice for the SGIFF’s opening film, as was Indonesia’s In The Absence Of The Sun (above) for the closing film. John Woo’s epic The Crossing added glamour to the event. -- PHO
Home-grown movie Unlucky Plaza, starring Pam Oei, was an appropriate choice for the SGIFF’s opening film, as was Indonesia’s In The Absence Of The Sun (above) for the closing film. John Woo’s epic The Crossing added glamour to the event. -- PHOTO: SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
Home-grown movie Unlucky Plaza (above), starring Pam Oei, was an appropriate choice for the SGIFF’s opening film, as was Indonesia’s In The Absence Of The Sun for the closing film. John Woo’s epic The Crossing added glamour to the event. -- PHO
Home-grown movie Unlucky Plaza (above), starring Pam Oei, was an appropriate choice for the SGIFF’s opening film, as was Indonesia’s In The Absence Of The Sun for the closing film. John Woo’s epic The Crossing added glamour to the event. -- PHOTO: KAYA TOAST PICTURES

The Singapore International Film Festival, back after a three-year hiatus, closed on Sunday to positive reviews

The Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) is back. And it is looking good.

Ticket sales are up. The percentage of unsold tickets are down. The slate of films was interesting and, best of all, appropriate to our region.

Snafus of the kind that plagued the previous 24th edition were absent. Held in 2011, the hiccups and resulting complaints were the straw that broke the back of the festival, laying it to rest until this year.

And the judgment of the online community about the festival, which closed last Sunday, has been almost all positive.

A typical comment from the SGIFF's Facebook page, from film-maker Kirsten Tan, reads: "You guys ran a tight ship. Well done."

Here are the numbers: This year, 10,000 tickets were sold, or roughly 60 per cent of the nearly 17,000 available.

In the 24th edition in 2011, the ticket take-up rate was 47 per cent; the year before, it was 37 per cent.

And on a more personal note, the press could not have dealt with a more professional and prompt team. Headed by executive director Yuni Hadi, the group, despite juggling the hundreds of tasks that these mammoth events generate, made media relations run like clockwork.

It held numerous advance screenings so the press could get excited about the films, followed up with press conferences and arranged interviews with film-makers. Unless you have worked with other less well-prepared crews, you have no idea how welcome this is.

All this, without reducing the number of films - 147 this year, compared with 144 in 2011 - and with the addition of new venues.

There was scepticism when the festival's resuscitation was announced last year and, yes, some of it came from me.

The reborn festival would be partnered with the government-backed Singapore Media Festival and its related business events, held roughly simultaneously.

There would be several resource-sharing benefits to the partnership, but could the festival that sprang from the grassroots and ran for over two decades as a scrappy independent, often at odds with the authorities for pushing censorship boundaries, keep its fierce spirit?

If scrapes with the censors are anything to go by, it seems that it has. This year, one film, the Filipino entry Porno, a film that deals with gender issues, was withdrawn, in line with the festival's policy of not showing anything that needs to be cut to meet ratings standards.

Tie-ups with the 4th Rendezvous With French Cinema led to actress Juliette Binoche bringing some of her glamour to the SGIFF's red carpet.

With the financial and some organisational help of the Media Development Authority, Shaw Organisation and Marina Bay Sands, the festival brought to the red carpet the team of director John Woo and Chinese actors Zhang Ziyi and Tong Dawei, all part of the period epic The Crossing.

And if anything, the programming choices, headed by festival director Zhang Wenjie, became more Asian and relevant.

For example, the opening film was Ken Kwek's Unlucky Plaza, a made-in-Singapore work that tackles local issues such as emigration and jobs. The closing film was the Indonesian work In The Absence Of The Sun, a love song and cry of anguish over the city of Jakarta, a place with a value system not unlike our own.

Compare this with 2011, when the relevance was tenuous. The opening film was Chinese sex comedy, Red Light Revolution. The event closed with Senna, a biopic about racing legend Ayrton Senna, picked because back then, the festival was held around the same time as the Formula One event.

Two films were cancelled this year, one, the Ethiopian-German drama Beti And Amare, due to "unforeseen circumstances" (usually taken to mean late or non-delivery of prints, or an about-turn by distributors) and Porno, for ratings issues. Both were pulled before ticket sales began, so there was no refund mess to deal with.

In 2011, the situation was much worse. Five films were cancelled because distributors were not paid on time. The prints of four others arrived late.

There were a slew of glitches - out-of-focus projections, prints with large watermarks or simply gone missing; that, along with its financial distress, stained the festival's reputation.

Ms Yuni, in an e-mail interview, spoke on the issues of the festival's current identity and sustainability.

She says that the links with government and private sectors have not diluted the festival's regional focus, and that "with MDA as our host sponsor, we hope to grow our local and South-east Asian film platforms in the years ahead".

I had in the past suggested that the festival shrink its schedule - small is sustainable, I argued.

On the cost of bringing in stars for the glamour factor and reducing its slate of films to save money, Ms Yuni says that experience and passion play a large part in festival sustainability.

"Part of having 24 editions behind us allows us to benefit from both the positive things and difficult times of the festival. We've worked hard to bring back the festival and are grateful for all the support that has made it happen for Singapore."

In a written testimonial, home-grown film-maker Anthony Chen, the maker of the award-winning Ilo Ilo (2013), threw his weight behind the team.

"It's a brilliant comeback... It is the best edition of the festival I've ever seen and I can't wait to see it grow in stature in years to come."

Neither can I.

johnlui@sph.com.sg