Whole new take on S'pore films

Forget crass heartland comedies and gratuitous shots of Marina Bay Sands and the Merlion. Three homegrown directors make you rethink what local films are all about with a showcase of their edgier works next week at the Singapore International Film Festival

Published Thu, Nov 27, 2014 · 09:50 PM
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Intoxicating brew of sex and violence

By Dylan Tan



SEX, violence, nudity, repeat. Sounds like something out of a Category-Three-rated (s)exploitation flick which was a mainstay of Hong Kong cinema during the Nineties? Not quite. Instead, it's the eyebrow-raising trailer of Lang Tong, a raunchy new local thriller that will make its world premiere at the upcoming Singapore International Film Festival.

Directed by Sam Loh, the film is his second feature after 2004's Outsiders, which was also selected to debut at the Fest but was yanked after he did not agree to screen it with cuts. That experience, however, didn't make Loh think twice about watering down the raunchier elements of Lang Tong, which means "nice soup" in Cantonese.

"I just went for it and didn't try to self-censor at all," admits the 46-year-old when asked about the extremely NSFW ("not safe for work") trailer which features plenty of bare breasts and sex scenes. To his relief, the film has been passed uncut. It caught him by surprise, in fact. "To be honest, I really didn't expect it to be passed, (so) I guess you can say that censorship here has changed a bit from 10 years ago when I made Outsiders."

Even if it had been banned, it wouldn't have thwarted Loh's plans for the thriller which stars darling of the local indie film scene, Vivienne Tseng. That's because the freelance TV director - who has more than 15 years' experience working on the small screen and whose credits include series like Cold Blood and Code of Law - wasn't thinking of a local audience while making it.

Instead, he reveals Lang Tong is meant for genre fans like himself looking for something other than the usual Hollywood blockbusters, and he has always planned to release it in territories like Europe and Hong Kong.

Also, he feels the industry here is too small, so it would be better for local filmmakers to set their sights beyond Singapore. "Most films have only a two-week run - that's cruel and usually barely enough to cover the (production) cost!" exclaims Loh, who raised Lang Tong's S$500,000 budget independently.

Inspired by Japanese auteur Takashi Miike's Audition (1999) and indie Hong Kong director Fruit Chan's Dumplings (2004), Lang Tong's deliciously (pun intended) twisted plot takes cues from both cult slasher flicks and revolves around sex, betrayal, murder and bak kut teh (pork rib soup). It is also part of a planned femme fatale trilogy which Loh hopes to complete by next year.

Conceived and written seven years ago, he defends the sex scenes and nudity as being integral to the plot and not there to just titillate the audience. He also had to audition countless actresses before landing daring newcomer Angeline Yap, who was willing to take on the challenge of dropping her clothes for the camera. Incidentally, she also has a role in Jason Lai's Ms J Contemplates Her Choice (see other story below).

Loh adds Lang Tong is also a reaction to local cinema, which more often than not tends to be "too safe". He explains: "There are too many similar heartland comedies and dramas, and I personally feel there is a need for other kinds of films - in my case, a (local) Chinese-language genre film that has never been made or seen before."

Although Loh acknowledges he's taking a huge risk by dabbling in something that has never been attempted by anybody in the local film industry, he hopes what he's doing will eventually open doors for other filmmakers like himself to dare to try something out of the norm.

"Different filmmakers should do different things . . . My hope for Lang Tong is that it will let the international film world know that Singaporeans are capable of making high-quality films and something other than just (commercial heartlander) movies."

"Lang Tong" will be screened at the National Museum of Singapore on Dec 13 at 11.30pm. Tickets at S$12 available from Sistic. For more details, check www.sgiff.com

Tough choices - with dreadful consequences

By Rachel Loi



IF YOU had to choose, whom would you execute: A prostitute or a loan shark? An overcharging doctor or a corrupt politician? Either way, someone must die with each decision you make.

With that dark premise in his debut feature film, director Jason Lai's Ms J Contemplates Her Choice is what he describes as a hybrid of thriller and social drama.

The movie follows protagonist Jo Yang (Kit Chan), who is forced by an anonymous caller to make the aforementioned decisions while guest-starring on a radio show hosted by Ken Casey (Bobby Tonelli). When her decisions turn up corresponding dead bodies, it sparks a public outcry as well as a series of events that affect both her and her family.

Lai, who also co-wrote the script, explains that the plot was a result of his personal interest in exploring the philosophy behind the decisions that people make.

He says: "Life is a sum of all the choices you make. Everything can be framed in terms of a choice. Every day when I read the news, I realise that many things about society are the result of someone's choice."

Although this is his first big-screen effort, Lai is known for his award-winning short films, as well as directing and producing TV shows and documentaries for networks such as National Geographic and History Channel.

He traces the idea for Ms J back to about three years ago, when he first came across British philosopher Bertrand Russell's quote: "Life is nothing but a competition to be the criminal rather than the victim."

Intrigued by the choice that the quote presents, Lai started writing a script inspired by actual happenings in Singapore, and eventually gathered enough material for a 90-minute feature. While the story took shape quite naturally, luck and careful coordination helped him land busy local stars like Chan and MediaCorp actress Xiang Yun (who plays Chan's sister in the movie).

However, Lai cautions that audiences should not go into the cinema expecting a template thriller, because his movie behaves nothing like it. All he will reveal is that there is no classic three-act structure with a clean ending.

It's all part of the risk he decided to take when he was given a grant by the Singapore Film Commission, says Lai, who previously studied film at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

He explains: "I've been making TV programmes for close to 20 years, and although now the line between the two mediums is blurring, I feel that TV is first and foremost about entertainment. Film is an art form, so I believe it has to say something about life, or maybe reveal something about the universe."

Eventually, he hopes the film will be able to reach a wider audience by receiving a general release next year, he adds.

"Ms J Contemplates Her Choice" (rated NC16) premieres on Dec 6. Tickets for the movie are sold out. For more information, visit sgiff.com

Raunchy fun with condoms in a fine city

By Lisa Fratini


HOPING to test the boundaries of Singaporean films and their audiences is what drives director Han Yew Kwang, who debuts his film Rubbers next week.

A sex comedy - not a genre that local film directors have really explored - the film has three different arcs, all involving condoms and their role in creating hilarious and sometimes racy situations. The stories unfold on Valentine's Day (naturally) and involve a couple struggling to reconnect after 20 years of marriage; a 40-year-old single woman looking to seduce a younger man; and a young playboy who refuses to wear condoms.

Deciding to make a comedy about sex was a no-brainer for Han. He explains: "So far I've only made romantic comedies, but I haven't made action comedies, horror comedies or sex comedies. A sex comedy, in terms of logistics, was more realistic for us to make."

When he couldn't raise funds from sponsors or companies, he turned to crowdfunding, raising US$9,000. Over the course of two years, he and his team worked sporadically on the film, sometimes stopping the process to work on raising more funds necessary for the film.

It was Han's dedication to creating something never seen before which kept him and the crew going. "It's something new. There aren't any locally made sex comedy films, so I wanted to show people how you don't always have to do the same things."

Even though the usually taboo topics of sex and condoms are rarely portrayed in local films, the director notes: "We wanted to do a story about condoms. So we talked to a lot of people to get their stories, and from there we came up with these three storylines."

While the film topic is explicit, Han assures that the film actually reveals very little. "We don't really see any nudity. We've filmed it in such a way that somehow there is always something blocking the strategic body parts, and sex is used in a very comedic way in the film."

Filming a sex comedy was so new to Singaporean cinema, that even the actors struggled initially with filming sex scenes. "The filming involved a lot of acting out sex scenes, so some in the cast weren't very comfortable in the beginning. But as filming went on, they opened up more."

Hoping that, like his cast, the public will also eventually open up to the idea of a movie revolving around sex and condoms, Han is aware that sometimes, despite wanting to push boundaries, you have to know your limits.

"Rubbers" premieres on Dec 12. Tickets for the movie are sold out. For more information, visit sgiff.com

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