Profile: Royston Tan

Published on 15 September 2015

A parking attendant reaches for her dreams in 3688, film-maker Royston Tan’s latest offering.

BY daphne ong

Ask any Singaporean about homegrown film-makers and Royston Tan’s name will likely crop up. Not only is he a mainstay among film aficionados, he is also a household name, thanks to his successful full-feature films like 881 and 12 Lotus, both focused on the colourful getai scene.

Long before making his mark among film-goers in 2003 with first feature 15, Tan was already churning out short films and music videos from as far back as 1995, when he was still a student. As he recalls, his entry into the world of film-making was the result of less-than-stellar grades.

“I was terrible at school work,” says Tan. “I just needed to pass one more O-Level subject to qualify for polytechnic. My school principal and first inspiration, Mrs Ng-Gan Lay Choo, pushed me to take film-making as an elective and personally coached me.” Why film-making? “Mrs Ng told me, ‘You’re always talking in school — you must have a gift for storytelling!’ ” says Tan with a laugh.

Even as a student in Temasek Polytechnic, it was struggle and failure that led him to film. “I wanted to be a graphic designer, but I had a phobia of computers. Then, one day, I picked up a camera, started shooting and found it very instinctive, almost like it was part of my body. I started joining contests and winning awards. This assured me that for once in my life, I was good at something.”

The 2002 Young Artist Award recipient certainly has much to show for it: clinching more than 40 film awards and securing a place among the pantheon of Singapore film-makers, including his mentor and film veteran Eric Khoo.

In his films, Tan often takes a microscopic look at the Singapore scene, finding the extraordinary in everyday life. This year alone, he has been in the limelight with 7 Letters, a well-received collaboration with six other Singapore film-makers, and the viral MediShield Life music videos in Hokkien, Cantonese and Teochew.

Fans of Tan’s work can look forward to his latest feature film 3688. Inspired by legendary Taiwanese singer Feng Fei Fei and saddened by her passing three years ago, Tan co-developed a script paying tribute to her songs through the eyes of ordinary Singaporeans. The Mandarin movie tells the story of young parking attendant Fei Fei torn between her dreams of becoming a singer like her famous namesake and supporting her elderly, dementia-stricken father who goes missing on a very important day of her life. Celebrating Singapore’s everyday heroes with a generous dose of musical nostalgia, the film stars singer Joi Chua in her big-screen debut, rapper Shigga Shay, veteran songstress Rahimah Rahim and getai legend Liu Ling Ling. With nostalgia and heart-hitting Singapore stories in the mix, Tan may be looking at yet another box-office hit.

3688 opens 17 September at Golden Village cinemas.

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