6 May 2006

Tan refuses the status quo

By Ian Grayson

Film-maker shines spotlight on grittier side of Singapore.

(CNN) -- With its gleaming office towers, spotless streets and affluent population, Singapore prides itself as a model of economic and lifestyle success.

Under the watchful eye of its conservative government, the small city-state has blossomed into one of the most powerful commercial centers in the Asia-Pacific region. Thanks to this, residents enjoy a standard of living the likes of which those in nearby countries can only dream.

Singapore's strong economic and conservative social environments make the work of Royston Tan particularly interesting. The young film-maker has risen to international prominence by shining a light on some of the less palatable areas of Singaporean society.

In 2003 Tan released "15," a feature-length film that follows the lives of a group of youths living on the city's societal fringes. Cast adrift from both authorities and their families, the youths spend their days roaming the streets, taking drugs and searching for some meaning in their lives.

The cast of "15" comprised real street kids -- rather than professional actors -- adding a further layer of authenticity to the final product. Tan used his experience in music video production to create a film which is fast-paced and provides a unique insight into a world few middle-class Singaporeans would even admit exists.

The release of "15" attracted the attention of the country's strict censors who demanded Tan remove some of the more graphic elements in his film. Although determined to resist interference in his work, he eventually agreed to more than 20 cuts.

Although it altered the final product, the film still clearly shows the challenges and problems faced by a group of young people usually ignored by the majority of Singaporeans. Tan's original desire to display the unattractive underbelly of the country's society was achieved.

The high-profile tussle with the censors also helped to cement Tan's position as a creative and uncompromising film director. He now has more than 35 awards to his name and has directed a total of eight short and feature-length films.

"I was depressed for five or six months after the whole '15' thing," Tan said in an interview during the months after its release. "So I channeled my anger and frustration into another film. If you can't solve a problem you have to laugh it off."

His response was "Cut," a short, fast-paced film that pokes fun the Singapore censors and the attitudes they have to anything which fails to conform to their conservative views. "Cut" became something of a cult hit on the international film festival circuit.

Tan's success shows how an individual's determination and unwillingness to accept the status quo can generate big results. By looking at subjects in a fresh and open way, he believes it's possible to create films that provide society with an important, alternative view of itself.

While the director's latest creation, "4:30," is very different from the gritty and somewhat depressing "15," it also offers insight into the human condition.

The film, which examines the relationship between an 11-year-old Chinese boy and a Korean man, is quiet and reflective. A big hit at the recent Singapore Film Festival, it has served to cement Tan's position as a leading young director with an acute ability to observe the world and translate those observations into captivating cinema.

"To me, art that is not real is not art," Tan has often said during his rise to international recognition. His films are evidence that this view is more than just words, but ingrained in everything he creates.

Tan's willingness to push the boundaries of what is considered proper in his home country should be inspiration to other young movie makers around the world. By holding a mirror to society, challenges can be seen in a different way and a better future crafted for everyone.

Remember the time you paid 10 dollars, or whatever the going rate is now, to see that new movie..and then there were suspiciously disconnected scenes..and then you bought the DVD and couldn't believe how you got ripped off by Golden Village? I certainly remember the time I went to see Doom. And even though the film was pretty much crap to begin with, I couldn't at first believe what I was seeing and hearing. Because while the Rock's lips were definitely mouthing "motherf***er", the audible voice was saying..."dummy". I spent the next hour and half in a mix of emotions; surprised, confused, then very amused, and finally pissed off and contemplation of how to get my $10 back from the box office. I was pissed that not only had I had to put up with the Rock's very bad acting as it was, but at the fact that censors had taken it upon themselves to salvage this bad film into a comedy by substituting the hardcore profanity with childish-like dumbed down vulgarities. Whatever there was left of the film that could be taken seriously, the censors certainly killed it.

I believe the people running around with scissors don't really have any clue as to the perceived effects of censorship by those who view the films. While my bad experience with Singaporean cinema may be seemingly trivial, I believe it reflects a much greater problem of censorship. It will always imply that citizens of any age are not mature enough to handle graphic, violent, sexual, explicit or any form of material that does not fall within the boundaries of morality set out by the government. At the same time it is a reflection of the censors' gross lack of understanding of society and film culture. But more importantly, in many cases film-making is inextricably tied with entertainment and art. Whether it's Steven Spielberg's latest Oscar winner or a local-made documentary. The slightest intervention by the scissors of censorship have the ability to completely destroy films and the messages they try to relay. It kills free expression. It kills art.

And to that, I wonder what exactly is Singapore's definition of art, after having invested all that money on the two "durians"... and if the sky really is the limit for home-bred artists.


jOlYnNN said...

Sad to say, I really got a bad feeling for WP. So far, quite a few frends told me that they voted PAP.

And a family infront of me were discussing about the serial no. behind the voting card. So i guess, they've been intimidated by the no. and submit to pap eh. :D

Hope it doesnt represent anything. :D

Matilah_Singapura said...

"There is no one alive who is Youer than You", said Dr Seuss.

"Art" comes from the individual uniqueness and his weltanschauung... it is personal.

The Statists Of Singapore presume that they are the arbiters on what individual expression should or shouldn't be.

The Thought Police control art and expression. No dissent. Stay in your box. And speak in the "approved" way - there's my way or the highway.

No wonder the music sucks. :-)