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Neo's two-part film (above) took two years to write because of the amount of research that had to go into it, including going to Ipoh to shoot in a real kampung.
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Neo's two-part film took two years to write because of the amount of research that had to go into it, including going to Ipoh to shoot in a real kampung.
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Neo's two-part film took two years to write because of the amount of research that had to go into it, including going to Ipoh to shoot in a real kampung (above).
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Khoo says that the international version of In the Room (above) is the same duration (95 minutes) as the one that was seen at the Singapore International Film Festival - with no cuts - with the main difference being that some "effects" have been added.
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Khoo says that the international version of In the Room is the same duration (95 minutes) as the one that was seen at the Singapore International Film Festival - with no cuts - with the main difference being that some "effects" have been added.
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Chapman To (above with co-star Aimee Chan, far right) chose to work here after being intrigued by the talent he saw in the region when he made a cameo in The Wedding Diary 2 (2013).
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Chapman To (above) chose to work here after being intrigued by the talent he saw in the region when he made a cameo in The Wedding Diary 2 (2013).

Home box office

The local box office is set to heat up as Singapore films get off to a flying start in 2016 with three openings this month: Jack Neo looks to retain his title as the nation's favourite filmmaker with the two-part nostalgic family drama Long Long Time Ago, Eric Khoo's steamy In the Room finally gets the nod from the censors, and Hong Kong actor Chapman To makes his directorial debut here with festive comedy Let's Eat.
Feb 5, 2016 5:50 AM

Good ol' kampung days

WHILE making his latest film, Long Long Time Ago, Jack Neo rediscovered the kampung boy inside him. The 56-year-old grew up in Kampong Chai Chee during the 1960s and teared up the moment he shot the first frame of the two-part period family drama. "I cried when I looked at the monitor (of the camera) because I thought I saw my (old) house again," he shares.

To say Long Long Time Ago is a labour of love for Neo would be an understatement as he went to great lengths to make everything look, sound and feel as authentic as possible. Set against the backdrop of the birth of modern Singapore, the two-part film took two years to write because of the amount of research that had to go into it.

This included going to Ipoh to shoot in a real kampung, taking six months to hand-make some of the props, and finding a cast that could handle the variety of Chinese dialects in the script naturally. "Nobody spoke Mandarin back then so we had to look for actors who could speak Hokkien, Teochew, Hainanese and Cantonese," Neo says, "We had to pass on some people even though they did very well during the audition because they couldn't speak any dialect!"

Another challenge was trying to make mundane kampung living look interesting on the big screen: "It's not easy to make everyday life look exciting," he adds. Hence, the plot includes dramatic moments like a giant snake fight scene that takes place during the infamous flood of December 1969, where water levels rose to chest level and even as deep as two metres when it rained non-stop for a day.

Lest anybody accuse Neo of exaggerating, he claims there is a certain truth to that particular action sequence. "I have seen snakes swimming in water during floods because, like humans, animals will also try to run away (from a calamity). Somebody once told me there were even crocodiles," he says.

Besides, kampung living might be fraught with more dangers than one would imagine. "There were a lot of stray dogs and my mother was bitten by one before," Neo reveals. "And where I lived, I had to walk through a little forest before reaching my house and somebody once told me there was a 12-foot snake on the loose - that's quite scary for a child!"

He also admits because a younger generation of Singaporeans has not experienced such a lifestyle before, they might feel slightly disconnected from the film. But he went ahead because he felt it was important to capture a snapshot of our heritage for posterity before it is completely lost.

"Singapore has changed so much and is now a city with tall buildings - we now live in HDBs so that kampung spirit is gone and I do miss that because it brings back a lot of memories which our youngsters might not know about," Neo says. "But as a country, I think it's also important that we progress."

By Dylan Tan

READ MORE: Neo's winning box-office formula, Cinema


More erotic than Fifty Shades of Grey

AFTER a censorship-related setback, Eric Khoo's erotic anthology In the Room is going to be in the house - given a commercial release in Singapore with an R21 rating. The film, a collection of six short stories about the guests and goings-on in a single hotel room through six decades, is set to start its run on Feb 25, barring any last-minute changes.

In the Room premiered at the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) in December last year, then ran into a roadblock when the Media Development Authority (MDA) asked for two sex scenes to be cut before it could be given the R21 rating and shown in local cinemas.

Subsequent discussions between the MDA and In the Room distributor Distribution Workshop have resulted in the current situation where the film's international cut (the commercial version to be released in other countries such as Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong and France) will be shown locally. In France, where it will be released this summer as Hotel Singapura, the film has been given a 15 rating. By comparison, Fifty Shades of Grey was given a 12 rating in France, says Khoo.

According to him, the international version of In the Room is the same duration (95 minutes) as the one that was seen at the SGIFF and also at several other film festivals (including Toronto, San Sebastian and Busan), with the main difference being that some "effects" have been added. "The great thing with a digital film is that there are lots of ways to make it feel different," says Khoo. "I'm just so happy that it will be played uncut," he adds. "My philosophy is that all films given a R21 rating should not be censored - we are the only country in the world with a 21 rating."

In the Room is not the first Eric Khoo film to attract the attention of the censorship board. His debut feature Mee Pok Man (1995) was tagged with an R(A) rating while 15, a 2003 film directed by Royston Tan that was produced by Khoo, was passed R(A) after undergoing major surgery with 27 cuts. Khoo's 1994 short film Pain was banned here because of its sado-masochistic theme but the ban was eventually lifted, after the film won several awards on the festival circuit.

In the Room was shot over 10 days in 2014 on a sound stage at Infinite Studios. Two identical 'hotel' rooms were built so that the crew could shoot in one room while the other was made to represent the look of a different decade. Khoo would shuttle between the rooms.

"It's been a long journey - it feels as if I've time-travelled," he says. Now that In the Room is nearing the end of its own journey, Khoo can focus on other things. Next destination: the Berlin International Film Festival, where his food-centric telemovie Wanton Mee will screen next week. "Right now, my whole mind is just preoccupied with the next film," he says.

By Geoffrey Eu


Co-productions widen reach, draw stars

LOCAL fans of Hong Kong superstar Chapman To can take heart that when he decided to make his directorial debut, the 43-year-old chose to do it with a Singapore-produced film.

The Chinese New Year festive comedy Let's Eat even looks like something that could have come out from his native home as the ensemble cast includes fellow Hong Kongers such as beauty queen Aimee Chan, veteran television actor Lo Hoi Pang and To's regular co-star Fiona Sit.

Local comedians Mark Lee, Henry Thia and Patricia Mok all have roles in the film as well.

Producer Lim Teck, who is also managing director of homegrown production and distribution company Clover Films says To chose to work here after being intrigued by the talent he saw in the region when he made a cameo in The Wedding Diary 2 (2013). That led him to return to star in last year's King of Mahjong, which became such a big hit in Malaysia, it even out-grossed Jack Neo's Ah Boys to Men 3 there.

It was enough to convince Lim to reunite the team again for Let's Eat, which To also stars in. Clover Films is behind all three films which are co-productions with Malaysia.

"We cannot just look at the Singapore market," says Lim, who adds that Neo's films typically tend to dominate box offices here so working with a cross-border partner gives his company "a fighting chance to do well in at least another region".

He shares that Clover has been enjoying a good run in Malaysia in the last few years - "The cost-to-revenue ratio is quite healthy" - but would not rule out the possibility of collaborating with other countries if the project is right.

Besides widening the potential reach of a film - Let's Eat is currently screening both here and across the Causeway, and will open in Hong Kong next month - co-productions are also beneficial for a young film industry like Singapore's.

To brought along highly acclaimed art director and costume designer Irving Cheung, who was nominated for a Hong Kong Film Award for her work on horror film Rigor Mortis (2013), to work on Let's Eat. "We got to learn a lot as she brought a lot of fresh ideas with her," says Lim.

For To, working here is also an opportunity for him to ply his trade elsewhere in the world after being silently blacklisted by China for showing his support for the pro-democracy Occupy Central protests in Hong Kong two years ago.

Although Lim says he is unable to comment on the matter, he notes that To has been producing a lot of films since, including last year's award-winning psychological thriller Sara.

"Chapman is definitely looking to go beyond just acting," Lim states.

By Dylan Tan