Where is the audience for local English films?

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 1, 2014

For a brief moment, it looked as if Singapore would have an English-language film culture to call its own.

That there is even a film industry in existence today, many would say, is thanks largely to the 1996 comedy phenomenon Army Daze, a hit that earned $1.6 million on a $700,000 budget.

Those ringing cash registers sent a message: Local films in English hold an appeal for the home crowd, or at least pose no barrier to box-office success.

Two years later, in 1998, that faith was put to the test. Four local films would be released, namely Teenage Textbook, Tiger's Whip, Forever Fever and Money No Enough. Of these, only one, Money, was not primarily in English. However, the comedy starring Jack Neo in his first feature role would be the odd one out in more ways than one, by being the best performer at the box office by ringing up $6.02 million, more money than all the other three combined.

It would be a sign of things to come.

Since that time, the near misses and outright flops make for dismal reading. Here is a sampling of films that feature Singaporean characters speaking mainly in English: Teenage Textbook (1998, estimated budget $500,000; Singapore box office $680,000), Chicken Rice War (2000, $880,000; $400,000), Gone Shopping (2007, $650,000; $28,000), The Leap Years (2008, $3 million; $1 million); Kallang Roar The Movie (2008, $1 million; $93,000) and The Blue Mansion (2009, $2.8 million; $192,000).

The sputtering flame sparked by Army Daze looks to be finally extinguished, if the number of local productions is anything to go by.

By 2011, for example, there were no mainstream feature films with Singaporean characters speaking mostly in English. It was the same in 2012.

Last year saw three local works in English, comprising two micro-budget documentaries Menstrual Man (which played only at non-mainstream venue The Arts House) and I Hugged The Berlin Patient, and Ken Kwek's controversy-plagued black comedy Sex.Violence.FamilyValues.

However, the comedies Taxi! Taxi!, Ah Boys To Men 2 and the Cannes Camera d'Or- and Golden Horse-winning drama Ilo Ilo by Anthony Chen all incorporate a significant amount of English dialogue within a mostly Mandarin story.

Ah Boys was the runaway winner with $7.9 million earned at the local box office, while Taxi! Taxi! took $1.4 million. Ilo Ilo has made more than $1 million locally and more than $2.8 million including international box-office receipts.

This year, the mostly English-language horror film Afterimages is in the pipeline. On the less commercial side of the spectrum, there is the English- Khmer social drama on sex trafficking, 3.50, starring Eunice Olsen, and the United Kingdom-Singapore co-production Mister John, featuring Zoe Tay.

Looking further ahead, the social drama Yellow Bird from film-maker K. Rajagopal will be released next year.

Judging by these numbers, the market here has delivered its verdict: While we love movies from Hollywood or the United Kingdom, we do not want to see locals speak the same language they do.

The film-makers and producers whom Life! spoke to agreed that local films in English are a risky commercial venture and offered reasons ranging from the psychological to the cultural and educational.

Mr Melvin Ang, 50, executive director of production company mm2, who has produced both English-language (Phua Chu Kang The Movie, 2010) and Chinese-language films (Perfect Rivals, 2011) believes that local audiences subconsciously compare the production value of a film with others that use the same language. Local Chinese-language films are therefore judged against those from Taiwan and China, while local English-language films are compared with their Hollywood counterparts.

As China and Taiwan producers tend to spend the same amount on a film as Singapore companies, Chinese-language films, with some notable exceptions, tend to be of the same standard in production values. But there is mind-bogglingly vast cost differences between Singapore works and those from Hollywood.

"The joke in this industry is that the total budget on one of our productions is equal to the lunch budget of a Hollywood movie," he says.

The maker of Ilo Ilo, Chen, 29, adds the point that there is an aspirational purpose to film-watching. Western movies have become ingrained as the gold standard for sophisticated living and local audiences are hard to fool: They can tell the real thing from a pretender, he says.

This is why attempts to graft a Hollywood formula into a Singapore context with an English-speaking cast have mostly failed.

"These films feature characters of a certain class and Eurasian actors eating in posh restaurants... if the audience wanted that, they would watch a Bridget Jones movie or a movie set in New York. Why watch that fantasy set in Singapore?" he says.

Chen cites the romance The Leap Years (2008) as one such attempt at a transplant. The film had a larger-than-usual budget of $3 million, a cast that featured Singapore actress Wong Li Lin, ThaiEurasian heart-throb Ananda Everingham, international star Joan Chen and was based on a Catherine Lim novella.

Mr Daniel Yun, then the managing director of Raintree Pictures, the film's producer, said in a 2008 interview that the "mainstream, accessible and feel-good" movie was an antidote to the trend - true then as it is now - of local movies that were either of the Chinese heartland or English arthouse varieties.

The Leap Years' subsequent crucifixion by critics and death at the box office - a paltry $1 million in Singapore, despite heavy Valentine's Day-related marketing - would sound the death knell for Singaporean attempts at a major-budget, Hollywood-style English-language movie.

Film-maker Ken Kwek, 34, like Anthony Chen, sees the issue as one of authenticity versus inauthenticity, rather than of English versus Mandarin or any other language.

"English is perceived by producers as unpopular with the masses. But that's nonsense, really... In the local context, you could say Ah Boys To Men and Ilo Ilo are also partly English-language films since they include many scenes where protagonists interact in English," he says.

The writer-director of Sex.Violence.FamilyValues and screenwriter of The Blue Mansion says that his films are works in which "words are heightened, but the delivery of accent and intonation must be authentic".

Glen Goei, director of two English-language features, the coming-of-age dramedy Forever Fever (1998) and drama The Blue Mansion, is planning a third feature, Yellow Flowers, which will showcase a multi-racial cast and a mix of languages reflecting Singapore's make-up.

Like Kwek, Goei, 51, says he is strongly driven by a desire to capture on film authentic patterns of English speech in Singapore. But even if this goal is achieved, risks remain in the local market. There is, for example, the more general problem of language ability here, he says.

"It is highly ironic that we are a first-world country where English is the lingua franca and the main language taught in schools, yet local Englishlanguage films do not have an audience. In reality, Singaporeans are not truly fluent in English despite the Government projecting our country as a sophisticated global city," he says.

Forever Fever earned a modest $800,000 on a cost of $500,000, while The Blue Mansion fared less well (as mentioned earlier).

In a previous interview, film-maker Eric Khoo, 48, touched on how crucial - and also how difficult- it was to get the pitch of Singapore English just right on film.

"Singlish will work at times, but then the movie definitely cannot travel," he says. But crisper enunciation will turn off local crowds, who view it as fake. Add to that the problem that foreign distributors baulk at films featuring non-whites speaking English.

"English-speaking audiences in the rest of the world seem to be more receptive to foreign films using their mother tongue," says Khoo.

American Tony Kern, 44, the maker of horror film Afterimages, to be released this year, and 2010's Haunted Changi, is well aware of how difficult it is to satisfy the opposing needs of the local and export markets.

"There are a few characters in Afterimages in whom I wanted to retain authenticity of Singlish, but we tried to neutralise it as much as possible for international appeal," he says.

In the end, he favours the pragmatic approach. For film-makers, English might be a language loaded with risk and the weight of cultural baggage, but if the film's story needs it, then it would be foolish to try anything else.

"Local film-makers should make their films in whatever language they think is necessary for their target audience."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 1, 2014

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