One Small Voice: Eric Khoo

Published on 18 August 2015

Will Singapore cinema’s Golden Era ever be revived? Film-maker Eric Khoo thinks not.

Back in the 1950s, Singapore cinema catered to the whole of Southeast Asia. Shaw Brothers and Cathay-Keris were churning out loads of films — it was incredible — and these were commercial films. It was a viable profit-making industry. Film-makers stayed in bungalows along Stevens Road and drove Mercedes-Benzes. Some of their budgets back then were more than the budgets we are working with today. The Golden Era was our own version of Hollywood!

But I heard from people in the industry that some of the crew now work in gas stations, they’re forgotten. So when director Royston Tan approached me to be part of 7 Letters [a showcase of seven films by seven Singapore directors], I made Cinema, which is about nostalgia and pioneers. We have to, in a way, thank them because they paved the way for us.

These 1950s films, largely in Malay, travelled the region and made huge profits at the box office. Unfortunately, the industry somewhat died with Singapore’s separation from Malaysia in 1965.

We will never get back to the Golden Era of Singapore cinema. Back then, times were simpler. Now, there’s the Internet. Young audiences want blockbuster movies — Fast & Furious, Jurassic World — and we can never compete with Hollywood, with their 3D special effects, big-budget films. Audiences would rather see those because it’s more value for money. But a lot of stuff we can’t do here because we don’t have the expertise or budgets.

If we try to do action films like Hong Kong, we will look like Mickey Mouse. Try doing a special-effects film! Firstly, you’re not going to get a US$150-million budget. Comedy cannot sell — too local. Horror, can. The other being sweet love stories with heart, like the Taiwanese film You Are the Apple of My Eye.

What I would love to see is a breakout film: a budget of S$500,000 to net US$30 million at the box office! You can see these numbers in the horror genre. Like Insidious — made for under US$1.5 million, but grossed over US$100 million at the box office. These kinds of films are easy to shoot and not expensive to make.

Today, we’re trying to create some kind of film industry here. All I’m into now are quality works from independent film-makers. If we can keep churning out good films that are seen at international film festivals with foreign distribution, there’s still something to smile about.

After directing Mee Pok Man (1995) and 12 Storeys (1997), I took a seven-year break to produce the films of other film-makers because I felt we had to create more people for this industry. My company, Zhao Wei Films, represents a few directors including Anthony Chen, Boo Junfeng, Brian Gothong Tan, ND Chow and Kirsten Tan, a young New York-based film-maker you should definitely watch out for — she’s a genius.

My hope for Singapore is that we can make some films that will gross huge amounts of money internationally. Then the spotlight will be back here again. What we need is just that one film. And I have a feeling it’s going to be a horror film. I think that’s our best bet.

Eric Khoo is an award-winning Singaporean film-maker and Cultural Medallion recipient who helms Zhao Wei Films and Gorylah Pictures. He’s been credited for reviving the Singapore film industry and for putting Singapore on the international film map with his feature film, Mee Pok Man (1995). He’s also the first Singaporean to have his films invited to major film festivals in Berlin, Venice and Cannes. Khoo was President of the Jury at the Rotterdam International Film Festival and the Hong Kong Asian Film Awards in 2012. His short film Cinema is part of 7 Letters, an SG50 showcase by seven directors (www.7letters.sg).

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