The case for a national film centre

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 3, 2013

Ilo Ilo marks contemporary Singapore film's finest hour to date, a surprisingly assured debut feature that has scooped up an unprecedented number of international awards - 14, if you have lost count. It will likely add to its haul at Taiwan's equivalent of the Oscars later this month, the prestigious Golden Horse Awards, where it has six nominations.

Clearly its success is the outcome of certain building blocks of the country's film ecosystem, notably quality film schools and a critical mass of talent that is raising the bar for celluloid production.

Director Anthony Chen is an alumnus of Ngee Ann Polytechnic's film, sound and video diploma course, as is another outstanding young film-maker Boo Junfeng. A third director with his own distinctive style, Royston Tan, graduated from Temasek Polytechnic's visual communications course in the late 1990s; the school has since started a more specialised film diploma.

But Ilo Ilo's modest showing here - it did not quite break even from its two-month run in local cinemas - and the sheer amount of thought and craft put into the movie raise questions about whether Singapore should do more to promote film-making not just as an industry, but also as an art.

Chen's movie, about a Singapore family whose lives are upended by both the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the arrival of their live-in Filipino maid, is anything but commercial. This is evident not just from the final product, with its long takes and slow-burn exploration of family dynamics, but also its painstaking gestation process.

It reportedly took Chen three years to make, and he was meticulous about it. Among other things, he auditioned 8,000 kids before he found first-time actor Koh Jia Ler to play the young son. His first choice for the role of the father was reportedly the character actor-turned-monk Xie Shaoguang. Chen travelled to his monastery in Johor Baru, waited three hours to see him and eventually left without a meeting. He later cast veteran television actor Chen Tianwen instead.

When I caught the film at a weekday lunchtime screening at the Bugis Plus Filmgarde Cineplex in September, I must have been one of only five people in the hall. The $700,000 film, which ran here from Aug 29 to the end of last month, made over $800,000 at the Singapore box office, but needs to make at least $2 million to recoup marketing and other costs.

Some 10 to 20 local films are now produced annually, but comedy king Jack Neo remains the only bankable home-grown film director with local audiences. Audiences for the kind of art films made by Chen or Boo also need to be nurtured; Boo's acclaimed debut feature Sandcastle (2010), a powerful if uneven drama about identity and history, only had a one-print, single-hall release in a cinema here.

The Singapore Film Commission, the main agency funding film, is part of the Media Development Authority, which views film as an industry similar to animation, broadcasting and gaming.

But film here is also an art form with a rich and diverse history that many Singaporeans are ignorant of, going back to the many iconic P. Ramlee and Hussein Haniff films from the 1940s to 1960s. What is needed is an archive for old films that also promotes serious film discourse, which in turn helps to grow both audiences and film-makers.

The Film Commission could take on that role and become the equivalent of the British Film Institute. The latter funds film production and distribution but also has an educational role, operating a film archive and library and publishing the esteemed film magazine Sight & Sound. Or a separate body could be set up to preserve, research and screen classic films, akin to Japan's National Film Centre or the Hong Kong Film Archive.

In its heyday in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF) did a lot to promote film as an art form by showing the best on the regional and international arthouse circuit.

Now that it has gone on hiatus, the National Museum and the Singapore Art Museum have absorbed some of what the festival used to do. The former has a Cinematheque for film screenings and retrospectives. The latter's South-east Asian Film Festival is now in its third year, curated by Philip Cheah and Teo Swee Leng, two of the former forces behind the SIFF.

But the fact is that film screenings are not the raison d'etre of these institutions, and could be scaled back should budgets shrink or directions from the top change.

The SIFF, last held in 2011, was a major enterprise with up to 300 screenings. That kind of scale is much less sustainable now that foreign film DVDs can be easily purchased online or the movies themselves digitally downloaded. How about introducing a film component to the revamped Singapore International Festival of Arts, with the SIFF team coming on board to make it happen?

The SIFF in the 1990s gave me and my peers our first taste of the incandescent and life-changing possibilities of film, beyond mere entertainment. It can provoke and plumb the depths of the soul as much as, or even more than, a novel, play or painting.

There is now a gaping hole where a major platform for art films and film history should be. It is time to address that, or risk losing our most inspired and talented film-makers to other shores.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 3, 2013

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