[8 February 2007]
Singapore has had a relatively short history, being colonized by the British in 1819 but not gaining independence until 1965. Since then it has been in a continuous transition. Its desire for a singular identity can be seen in the government’s “Speak Mandarin” campaign, which seeks to replace the multi-lingual “Singhalese” with a common National language reflecting their Chinese background.
The cinematic culture of Singapore is not well known in the West. This has been due as much from Singapore’s own lack of exportable local product as much as the West’s indifference. Until recently, the local film industry was not clearly defined. Several American films were shot in Singapore with local actors, the most well known of these being Peter Bogdanovich’s Saint Jack (1979). But these films were not released in Singapore and a truly homegrown cinema would not take root until the ‘90s with the release of films such as Yong Fan’s Bugis Street (1995) and Eric Khoo’s 12 Storeys (1997), the first Singaporean film to screen at Cannes.
The establishment of the Singapore Film Commission in 1998 allowed more independent filmmakers to gain financing for projects through subsidy and private investment. But even with these changes, the industry has not proved consistent; the relatively small population of Singapore not being a large enough market to make many films profitable. The future seems to require a wider view towards more universal, exportable concepts and international co-financing.
Born in Singapore but now based in LA, filmmaker Djinn returned to his home country to make his second feature film, the powerful and intense drama, Perth, recently released on DVD by Tartan Video. It’s the story of Harry Lee (Lim Kay-Tong), a self-proclaimed “simple man” who dreams only of leaving Singapore and settling down in the “paradise” of Perth, Australia.
He finds out that his simple life has become quite complicated and when he loses his job as a Port security guard; he finds himself with several others, one as a cab driver, the other driving a Vietnamese prostitute, Mai (Ivy Cheng)from client to client for a gang of criminals. Estranged from his gambling addict wife and his adult son, Harry clings desperately to what is left of his dignity. When he decides to buy Mai her freedom, events unfold which challenge the loyalty of his friends and bring Harry to a point of no return.
Perth has invited favorable comparisons with Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic Taxi Driver and indeed, both films feature surface similarities. However, Djinn’s Perth is really a film born out of a more specific cultural background and a haunting protagonist defined much more by his past and his dislocation from his present than the cipher-like figure of Travis Bickle in the Scorsese film.
Djinn continues to live and work between both LA and Singapore and was kind enough to respond to a series of questions, via e-mail, about Perth, the ever changing identity of Singapore, and the struggles of independent filmmaking.
Have you ever seen Peter Bogdanovich’s Saint Jack (1979) with Ben Gazzara as a pimp running a “clean” brothel in Singapore? If so, is there any value in its portrait of ‘70s Singapore?
I like Saint Jack. It’s a great archive of Singapore in that era and an interesting look into the seedy end of life in those days. In fact my producer and I watched the film before we shot Perth. We weren’t looking for any influences from it or anything, but I was rather interested in the way things were shot back then. I intended to have a certain look which recaptured the old days of Singapore (the glory days of Harry’s youth) so Saint Jack was a convenient point of entry for the cinematic look of the period.
I was fascinated by the very specific dialect used in Perth. Could you elaborate on how Singaporeans from the baby boomer generation fit in with the multi-language Singapore of today?
As you said, language plays an all important role in the film. I made the film in a way as a time capsule of a generation in passing. It amazed me when researching the subject that as Singapore changed physically (sometimes right before your very eyes), so too was its human software.
Harry belongs to a generation that grew up before independence and under British rule. His English is accented but rounded despite most likely not completing grade and tempered by his service on the high seas. These days, the Singlish is much thicker and harder to understand.
His cadence is readily recognizable to the older generation. However, when we screened the film in Singapore, it was interesting to us that many of the younger generation could not recognize this accent, anymore.
Then there is also the archaic OG speak by the Big Boss. He uses archaic Hokkien (The majority Chinese dialect in Singapore that has been replaced by Mandarin with the new generation) to convey hidden meaning and commands to his subordinates. I hardly think most Singaporeans even understand the way he speaks these days, even those who have some understanding of Hokkien. This is real gangster code.
Your film seems to depict a conflict between life experience versus institutional education. Harry tells his friend at one point that they are “simple” and in this way seems to suggest that their lack of formal education has left them with no place in modern Singapore. Why has the older generation become so marginalized?
Singapore is a paper-obsessed nation with an egalitarian system that is relatively free of the corruption that plagues many developing (and even developed) countries. It puts an emphasis on giving everyone a close to equal opportunity to get ahead in life. It is also in many ways a neo-Confucian system which venerates the scholar above all-else. Of course, promoting the most able and brightest seems to be in theory the most sensible way to keep the country running well oiled. However, sometimes this over emphasis on paper is at the neglect of life experience. This is a very strong gripe amongst those who may not have the necessary paper qualification but perhaps have more worldly experience that can contribute, too.
Here’s an example to illustrate. Recently I was speaking to one of my film crew who just had a child. She expressed that she was interested in teaching film but realized that it would be extremely difficult to secure a job since having learned most of her craft on the job, she did not have any credentials from film school.
I’m not the most unsuccessful academically (although I come close!) but I can really imagine how someone like Harry can feel unfairly judged and totally out of place in Singapore…his home.
The main characters in Perth seem to all share a common bond through Military service. I understand you were also in the Singapore Army reserve. What was that experience like?
Far from what you might think from watching the film, I actually find it as an important cornerstone for Singapore. Singapore’s military system was based on the Israeli system. It’s very different from mere conscription as our Reserves are actually the frontline. It all happened as Israel was the only country to offer to set up an army for Singapore back in 1967 (we were turned down by Egypt and India).
However there was a problem as our neighbors were majority Muslim, admitting to Israeli army training would have invoked a lot of ill feelings. Therefore they were ‘disguised’ as “Mexican”…so we were supposedly trained by the Mexican army which might explain the training day SNAFU sequence in the film!
What the army had done has been to provide an egalitarian experience whereby people from all walks of life (rich, poor, various races, gay, straight etc.) share a common bonding experience. It is so all encompassing that even the women get to experience it as the average Singapore male is liable to serve ‘til 42 (or 52 for officers).
It’s a galvanizing experience, but it is also one of those ironies as it is the ultimate entrapment. However, looking back at my days in the army, I can only draw a positive experience from it. Without the army, I would not have had such a ready exposure to people from all walks of life. It has become an identity whereby no matter where you are, if you met a Singaporean, they would always talk shop and trade stories/anecdotes about the army. In fact one of the inspirations for the film was derived from my days in the army hearing the ranking NCOs complain bitterly about their lack of paper qualification affecting their promotion prospects. These guys were upset because they felt unappreciated and often times they were passed over in favor of a scholar who, although admittedly book smart, may not have as much street smart as them. And guess what, they wanted to migrate to Perth…(along with the cab drivers I might add)!
The eruption of violence at the end of Perth is actually much more brutal than what Scorsese did in Taxi Driver. The fact that Harry attacks the criminals not with a gun, but with a machete brings the killing to a much more personal level. However, sometimes emotional violence and tension can be just as brutal as a machete blade. The scene in which Harry goes to his son’s wedding was terribly painful to watch. In some ways they seem very much the same; the emotional violence is also a part of the killing and the physical violence is seen in the anger Harry expresses at the wedding. As a director, how do you approach these two types of sequences?
As you rightly pointed out, they are very similar. His attempt to redeem his own ego is doomed to failure as he does not possess the necessary emotional finesse to resolve his familial estrangement.
In the second instance, his fall back plan ends in physical disaster as he recourses to the only language that he has been all along holding back from using, his fist. They’re both equally melodramatic acts and I think of them almost as a faux show rather than the expression of his true feelings. His real feelings are laid bare after the act in his drunken debauchery. Far from a simple man, he communicates best not when he is spouting useless ego stroking empty talk, but when he is quiet.
Perth sets out to look at a flawed character, but commits completely to a detached and controlled cinematic approach throughout. I’m interested to know your views on cinematic storytelling and if you made some rules for yourself before shooting Perth, to insure you didn’t let it get out of control. Are you more intuitive in your filmmaking process or is there a method you consciously employ?
It always helps when you don’t have too many options available and when you are forced to be creative to get the shot. In our case, I certainly missed having a jib that could have got us better angles within the confines of some of the settings.
Essentially however, I tried to keep that “Cinema Verité” feel to it as I wanted the audience to feel as if they were actually there in Harry’s apartment, partaking in voyeurism.
I did call for the wide angle low shot quite a lot, and after a while, it became quite a joke on set with the Director of Photography Goh. He quipped, “Wide Angle Low shot?” with every next set up. But I felt that was what was needed to convey the character’s distorted sense of reality.
Where does the name “Djinn” come from?
I am Peranakan. My Chinese name is Ong Lay Jinn. The first name, Ong, is the surname and Jinn is my personal name. Lay is the generation name. In the army, the Malay boys (I ate at the Muslim cookhouse…food was generally better) used to tease me and call me “Djinn Satan” Djinn is like genie which is a Muslim, or pre Muslim Arabic spirit. So my nickname became Djinn in the army.
It’s also in a way a reaffirmation of my Indonesian roots as my family stems from Palembang in Indonesia. We have been there since the early 17th century. It should be a strong part of our identity but because of the strong pull toward the “Chinese majority” in Singapore, it sometimes gets shunted aside. For example, most of my younger cousins do not speak Malay, anymore.
In the case of the Peranakans, these were Chinese who came out in the early 17th century (Fleeing regime change with the Manchus) and who married the local women (as they could not bring along their own women). Consequently, they adopted Malay customs and developed a unique hybrid culture. However, their principal identity being Chinese, when the Singapore government’s “Speak Mandarin” push came into affect, it unwittingly caused the culture to collapse back into the majority. It effectively forced the next generation of Peranakans to speak Mandarin instead of the Malay Chinese mix of Baba Malay.
It’s given me a sort of Last of the Mohicans complex, so I keep it as my screen moniker to remind me of that part of my heritage fast being eroded away.
What inspired your initial interest in filmmaking? Did you watch many international films growing up?
I never really went to film school. (Did a couple of terms at UCLA extension but money fast ran out). The university I went to in the UK was in Norwich, a city of one million. The city had an old guildhall which was converted into an art house cinema (I think it was called Cinema City) which had fantastic programming! That was my film school.
What films and filmmakers have inspired you the most?
Quite obviously as the film (Perth) is an homage to Scorsese, I am a big fan of his. However, my film taste is quite varied and ranges from early Ridley Scott to Tarantino (“Jackie Brown” is his most personal and my favorite) to Suzuki Seijin, Johnnie To, Lee Tamahori. I think if there is one thing in common with these films is that the characters are always very strong and perhaps that is what I am drawn to.
How did you first get involved in film production?
By accident. I had just quit my job as a civil servant with the Singapore Economic Development Board. They were in the business of promoting a viable film industry in Singapore, then. One of the local producers I met offered me a job as 2nd Assistant Director to Yong Fan (Hong Kong’s John Waters, if you like). He was making a film about transvestites / transsexuals in Singapore’s infamous “Bugis Street”. It all snowballed from there and I learned on the set of a mostly Hong Kong production. The script came after the film – that sort of thing.
As an interesting aside, when I met Goh, the Director of Photography, I realized that he was the clapper loader on Bugis Street, so it was an unexpected reunion 10 years on. Things had come full circle.
What was your award winning short, By the Dawn’s Early Rise (1998) about? How did winning the award for best short at the Singapore Film Festival benefit you?
It was about an old man, a landlord. and WW2 vet in LA’s San Fernando Valley, exploring his encroaching senility. It had nothing to do with Singapore and was 30 minutes long. Some in the selection committee for the festival in Singapore were against its entry. But Philip Cheah (the programmer) and a couple of prominent local filmmakers pushed for it, prevailed, and it won the best short. What was most gratifying for me was actually when it was screened to a packed house of Singaporeans. To hear them laugh at the ironies at the right points was most satisfying. It felt like I did a decent job.
The short film win came at a good time, as Singapore was just starting up a film commission. As an added irony, despite living in LA, film capital of the world, I ended up spending more time shooting out East and jump starting my ‘career’ out there!
A scene from Return To Pontianak
Your first feature, the horror film Return To Pontianak, reminded me of films like Lets Scare Jessica to Death and Deliverance. Shooting this movie on Digital Video put you in the earliest days of the Dogma / digital video movement. What did you learn from making a movie on such a low budget and guerilla like conditions?
This was a no budget effort which I embarked upon whilst waiting for funding for Perth. We doubled the actors as crew and went through three cameras due to the extreme humidity.
It was a horrendous shoot with all sorts of problems. For starters, we realize that sound was always dirty in Singapore. The jungle area we shot in was close to the largest air force helicopter base, so for most parts of the day, we felt like we were really shooting a Vietnam War film (maybe we should have!). But we managed to put together a film which was to become the first horror film made in Singapore in a long time. I think in the end, it taught us perseverance.
Horror is a genre that normally exploits darkness. How difficult was it to create atmosphere and shocks when shooting in daylight?
I had actually intended to make a horror film in daylight. My rational was if you were faced with a supernatural element as powerful as the Pontianak, your horror would not be limited to darkness. As an inspiration, I actually used Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock as a template. It was a spooky / haunting film set mainly in the Oz outback in the day.
The element that got me in that film was the sound. I therefore devoted a phenomenal amount of time creating the film’s soundscape with Kazz (The sound Editor or architect as he would rather be known). Being Japanese Singaporean, he was able to bring about a certain minimal but effective element to the sound he created, but there was nothing minimal about the sound stems!
Basically I told him that I wanted the sound to convey the haunting, as if the jungle had come alive and was cursing the party of nonchalant young ravers from the city, intruding into its primeval midst.
in both Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave, Peter Weir creates abstract, unexplained atmospheres and narratives that seem to suggest that there is something modern man has forgotten about the natural environment around him. Was this something you were also trying to express in your film?
I definitely think there was a lot of the urban world versus the primeval, maybe even a manifestation of man’s quest for his supernatural subconscious. The fact is that we lived in an ultra modern (ultra clean) city, Singapore, but the jungle and the ancient was always next door.
Again there is a generation gap issue here, from kampong hut to modern skyscraper in the leap of a single generation. Yet you can bedeck yourself with all the modern trappings but you can’t escape from where you came from.
The Shaw Brothers are always interesting to those of us who grew up watching “Kung-fu Theater” here in the US. I understand they were responsible for the release of your first film. How did they get involved and were you pleased with the release?
In Singapore, they are only in distribution these days. Their last notable foray into film producing was putting some money into Blade Runner.
When Shaw picked the film up, they were skeptical about its potential. They actually wanted it to do two screens and go straight to video. I managed to convince them to give me four screens (Which is still less than what I estimated it could do.) The day after its release, I met Mr. Shaw and he told me that we were doing really well. We were sold out for almost two weeks.
I believe the film was retitled in the US as Voodoo Nightmare. How did the film do in Singapore? Was it the primary catalyst in raising the funds for Perth?
The film was retitled Voodoo Nightmare by the distributors out here, as they didn’t think the domestic audience here could pronounce Pontianak. It always came out as “Pontiac”. Also, to be fair, nobody (in their right mind) would have a clue what a Pontianak is out here.
I think the subject of “Pontianak” is something I and most Singaporeans have grown up with. It’s our Dracula. They had a whole series done in the ‘60s B&W where the Pontianak flies (the strings can be seen) and comes complete with a Paper Mache nose and everything! So the fact that some insane young filmmakers had attempted a revival of the genre was in itself a strong draw for people to watch the film.
I think it was a good success as it kick-started the idea of shooting horror and folklore in Singapore. In fact, I think we were one of the first films to feature non-majority Chinese subject matter in Singapore and why not? Little known to many Singaporeans, Singapore is at the heart of what is called ‘Pusat Melayu’ (the navel of the Malay world). So I think it opened a lot of people’s eyes to what could be done in Singapore. My only wish was we had a better budget to do it more justice.
How has growing up in Singapore influenced you? Your filmmaking? How have you adapted to living in the USA and specifically, LA?
As a country, we are identity obsessed. Perhaps because of our short history, we have always been insecure with who we are. Moreover, the relentless change that has become synonymous with the country’s miracle growth has ushered in much change to the human landscape within less than a generation. Many of the more recent immigrants come from Myanmar, Vietnam, etc., which challenges the traditional mix of Chinese, Indian, Malay.
However, having spent my years both growing up in Singapore and overseas, I have come to realize that there are certain unique aspects to Singapore and it’s not a total cultural wasteland. For instance, perhaps because of the confine space in which we live in, we tend to mix our language. As can be seen in the film, the English spoken is really a ‘Pidgin” Patois and often times is mixed in with Chinese dialect, as well as Malay, within a single sentence.
Therefore, if I was to point to a unique facet of Singapore which can be called a cultural element, I would definitely think that the language which we use is it. However, the very fact that we have had to make do as Singaporeans with accommodating each other’s language and customs has also made us both adaptable. More so as an important port (and about the busiest in the world), we have always been open to outside influence and change. Thus, when I moved to LA, I had not much difficulty fitting in, having grown up on a healthy (or unhealthy?) diet of US TV shows, anyway (Mr. T, Love Boat, Magnum).
My eating diet was another issue. I have never quite got accustom to the food in LA and as with any Singaporean, we are a food-obsessed nation, which is why my wife and I decided we had to open a restaurant in LA to survive the gastronomic desert that Hollywood is!
In Perth, your lead actor, Lim Kay-Tong, is quite honestly as good an actor as I’ve seen in any country at any time. He reminded me at times of Robert DeNiro, Gary Oldman, and even Toshiro Mifune. What was your relationship with him and how did you come to cast him in Perth?
Kay Tong is a magnificent actor. He is formally trained for stage in the UK and I grew up watching him in theatre. He’s also done half a dozen movies in Hollywood and Singapore but till Perth, he had only supporting roles. Perth is, incredibly, his first lead role in a feature film.
When I first wrote Perth, I was in two minds: whether to use a formal actor like Kay Tong to play the part of Harry, or maybe to use an authentic character off the street (which in Singapore films is very common) I decided on the former mainly because the latter was a wholly uncontrollable element (especially since the character was a violent drunk), and more importantly because the dialogue in the film was all important.
But a number of the supporting cast were actually off the street (e.g., Victory Chelvam, who is a real life taxi driver and AB Lee, who is a street fighter). Their dialogue was less likely to stay on paper. So for Kay Tong to play against them is quite incredible as he needed to control the dialogue.
The funny thing with using Kay Tong was that I was actually hoping that he would have some knowledge of “Method Acting” and I had arranged for him to work in a shipyard for a week to get the right color tan as well as the understudy one of my uncles, who was the prototype to the character Harry. He turned up and told me that he would just turn up on set and act. My heart sank.
However, after two rehearsals with Chelvam and Sunny (AB Lee), he realized that he had to reevaluate his approach and pulled me a side. He told me that he would start drinking heavily as the character demands it. Next day he called up and informed me that he had had a fall off his roof from his night drinking (this guy drinks wine by the bottles).
As a master of understatement, he told me he had hurt his toe rather bad. I turned up and found his foot was broken. The limp in the film is real. No need for method acting!
Apache Ong looks like a real tough customer. How did you control him during the climactic fight scenes? Was Lim Kay-tong concerned?
It was at the funeral for the grandmother of my second assistant directgor, Ellery, when I ran into and immediately cast Apache Ong. Apache was a family friend. He was wearing a lime green jump suit and loafers. I had to talk to him. He had apparently shady connections in Amsterdam and done some time in the big house. But he was also an ex-All South East Asia Shaolin Kung Fu champion (albeit 1972).
The guy was a real handful during the fight sequence, as he could not differentiate between his pretend character and himself. He would constantly devise ways to kill Harry more efficiently. Some of them were rather chilling. In fact, whilst we were relighting for the scene of him pressing the machete down on Kay tong’s neck, he decided to reverse the blade to the sharp side to instill more fear in Kay Tong’s eyes.
It worked! I’m gonna use him in my next film, for sure.
As Singapore keeps changing and adapting, do you find that it is becoming a part of the global world in which there is a healthy cultural give and take? Or is it another example of US cultural imperialism? (i.e., would I find a McDonalds in Singapore?)
You’d find McDonalds, Starbucks, and every next franchise name from the US in Singapore. McDonald’s menu is quite eclectic in Singapore and features some locally inspired concoctions like the Rendang Burger (Coconut Beef Burgers…since, erm, discontinued). Singapore always seems so ‘artificial’ and westernized that tourists often dismiss it as not worth the bother. In fact, you might (as I did) mistake the city for LA transplanted into the orient. It’s as if someone from Singapore came over to LA, saw downtown, and decided that’s what will have down by the waterfront. The John Portman designed hotel in which Harry attempts a reconciliation at this son’s wedding is a good example.
However, the modernity and faceless façade disappears past the surface and if you look behind the seeming comforts of the modern Western façade, you will begin to discover that some older practices still hold sway.
There is immense superstition, and many people still believe in the Pontianak despite being propelled into the 21st century. Our actress Fazlyndah, who was then 16, was given a nail with Islamic / Jawi (ancient Malay) magic script to keep her safe when shooting the film as the Pontianak!
The many prayers which Harry makes to “Guan Kong”, or the Chinese God of War, is another example.
Film crew in Singapore are very superstitious and they made it a point when shooting the climatic scene at a clan association (since there was to be a death involved) to pray to the local house gods.
Someone neglected to tell Apache that the God of War statue was a prop. He made prayers to it and in doing so unwittingly ‘activated’ it. And we were rained out for the night. It was the first time we had to cancel the shoot as the courtyard was wet.
The crew then said that I was probably not sincere with my prayers since they knew me to be rather a skeptic. They found out about Apache and the god of War and I was made to perform prayers to Guan Kong, which I did, as earnestly as possible.
When we re-shot the scenes, the weather threatened all night but held on till 3am when I shouted for wrap. Immediately thereafter, it poured and thundered! Very appropriate. I still have the Guan Kong (brought him along to LA). He’s in the cupboard, somewhere, and I’m hoping he can make rain again cos LA sure is dry!
In the last several decades, Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea have had “new waves” of critical acclaim and international success as the Australian and German film industries did in the ‘70s. Is this something that is possible for Singapore?
It’s difficult for Singapore because we do not have a population base. Secondly we are also open to lots of outside influences and as a small nation, we are always outward-looking. Amazingly, we probably show the largest selection of films per capita, and have the highest per capita film going audience in the world.
Moreover in Singapore, after distribution and exhibition cut, the Filmmakers are lucky to come away with 25 percent of the film’s revenue, which means you have to make a return of three times your budget to break even. Considering Singapore is the major market for Singapore films and the market is not big, the industry is really killed off at birth.
The current generation of filmmakers (myself included) are looking towards co-productions with other countries. This could be interesting, but the fear is that the more personal films from Singapore might get lost.
I know you are not strictly a “genre” filmmaker, but would an offer to direct something highly commercial here in the US be something you would welcome or fear?
Commercial is good. At this stage, I just want to feed the stomach (literarily and figuratively!) although I will always have a heart for stories revolving around Singapore. But since I am in the US, it makes sense for me to consider projects here. I’ve always wanted to do a project about the 442nd.
I think my main focus is to continue building relationships. It really doesn’t matter to me what the outlet is. In the end it’s a people business. I’m not a great self-promoter, and it’s taken me a quite a while just to build to this stage. And it’s built really on a foundation of relationships, working with people in stages.
Put it this way: when I first tried to market Perth, industry insiders told me it would never get distribution. These were season professionals, so I had no reason not to believe them. But I persevered (something I learned with Pontianak), and it took us a year plus before we turned things around and won some good awards in Lyon and Hong Kong. I cold called Tartan and several other distributors, and Tartan were able to see not just a film worth distributing, but a relationship that could be developed. That’s something quite important. I have the same thing with Shaw and I think it helps in the long term.
I’ve never tried Vietnamese food before. If I find myself in LA and stopped at your restaurant, what meal would you recommend?
It will be the Specials. Most people who come into an Asian restaurant always expect the Specials to be some sort of discount food. In our restaurant, they’re the priciest because they’re the best.
My wife’s family hails from Danang in central Vietnam. They were less sinicised than the North and the South, and the food tends to incorporate a lot of influence from the original indigenous occupants of the land, the Cham. The Cham were a Malayic state that survived in modern Vietnam until very recently. Lots of the dishes from central Vietnam incorporate ingredients and flavors that I am accustomed to with Malay based cuisine. The food is more pungent and much spicier…more character!
* * *