A Programmer's Chronicles 17, September 2007
by Gertjan Zuilhof
Let’s start with a cliché. Singapore is a clean city. Very clean. Many people regard it as a little too clean, not least among them the local film makers. Here in Singapore, clean means a very efficient cleansing department and huge fines on littering and peeing in public, but it also means very strict censorship.
That censorship is not just intended to prevent primary-school children receiving a premature course on the ins and outs of anal sex, but also to smother any political opposition. Politicians from the wrong party are put under house-arrest, are ruined by legal procedures or arrested and locked up on any pretence. There’s more than one book waiting to be written about Singapore and politics.
The film Singapore Rebel by Martyn See (2005) sketches a portrait of the wayward politician Dr Chee Soon Juan. He was judicially sidelined and the film maker didn’t get off scot free either. A great country. Or a great city state, as the small yet wealthy and over-organised Singapore is called.
First and foremost, censorship always has a political motivation, but the argument for applying censorship is always sex. Perversion. Lust for the deviant and the desire to try something more exciting that peeing in public.
The most talented Singaporean film maker at this time is Royston Tan. His controversial first feature 15 ran into the wall that has been erected to keep the unclean out of Singapore. The number of cuts imposed by the censor is almost countless. In the film, 15-year-old kids pour out their hearts and speculate about things they would like to but probably never had a chance to do. Tan hit back humorously and succinctly with the short Cut, a satirical musical in which he apparently sings the praises of the woman who heads the censorship organisation. A diminutive and uncensorable masterpiece that was probably not even seen in the desk of the Singapore censors. Praise (be it meant or not) is not easy to censor.
And then we have Sun Koh. She is the idiosyncratic and pleasanly crazy new hop eof independent film in Singapore. Sun Koh came to Rotterdam last year with the horny Bedroom Dancing. A short fuck film. Not pornography, but at least as titillating. The film was based on a true story. A man was arrested for masturbating in his own house. One of his neighbours had seen him and reported him. Yes, a great city state. Sun Koh invented the love life of the arrested man down to the smallest details and made a debauched film that can only be described as an ode to physical love.
And then Sun Koh decided to combat even more cold in her Singapore. As we said, Singapore is wealthy and also supports the arts. Even film. Although this support is modest. She says that this drives young independent film makers apart. It turns them into small beasts of prey who wait for their chance of getting a grant in isolation. They looked jealously across the border to Malaysia where a real film movement blossomed that found strength in cooperation. This involved directors producing or writing or editing for other directors or even giving each other their prize money. The names are now familiar, but it’s always good to repeat them: Amir Muhammad, James Lee, Yasmin Ahmad, Ho Yuhang, Deepak Kumeran Memon, Woo Ming Jin, Liew Seng Tat and the 2007 Tiger-Award winner Tan Chui Mui.
Sun Koh wanted that in Singapore too. She may have realised that you can’t artificially force a cooperation born of necessity as in Malaysia (where excluded Chinese Malaysians especially seek support from each other), but Sun Koh is not the type to be stopped by realism or even by wise counsel.
She put together a plan to form a kind of collective with six other directors alongside herself. She dreamt of a feature that would be realised by seven directors. The title was to be Lucky 7. Not an omnibus of short films, but something with a little more cohesion and maybe also a little more difference. She returned to the now honoured principle of the Cadavre Exquis; a surrealist artistic parlour game with the participants unknowingly continuing where the other left off. An avant-garde principle from a human lifetime ago. Just like all games, the game has ruled that so you can play it well or with pleasure.
One of the rules here was that Sunny Pang, the protagonist of Bedroom Dancing, would also play the leading role in all the parts. That was a good idea because his melancholy gaze and characteristic long hair bring the parts together. She was also of the opinion that all the directors should and take part in all parts of the film in all conceivable crew functions. They did so and so their names also have to be included: K. Rajagopal, Boo Junfeng, Brian Gothong Tan, Chew Tze Chuan, Ho Tzu Nyen and Tania Sng. Rajagopal was responsible for catering for all the parts and this brought him an honourable mention.
I saw the rough cut of Lucky 7. I didn’t have to think for long before writing to Sun Koh that she was welcome in Rotterdam.