History of Cinema in SINGAPORE

Historical overview

Singapore was founded as a British trading colony in 1819. It joined the Malaysian Federation in 1963 but separated two years later and became independent. It subsequently became one of the world's most prosperous countries with strong international trading links (its port is one of the world's busiest) and with per capita GDP equal to that of the leading nations of Western Europe.

History of cinema from 1896-2000

In the mid-1930s, two film empires were founded in Singapore. The first of these was Loke Wan Tho's Cathay Productions, with studios in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and, eventually, Hong Kong. The second was the Shaw Brothers studio, founded by the legendary brothers Run Run and Runme. According to legend, the Shaws began with second-hand equipment they had found in an abandoned building in Shanghai; from this, they built an empire that included film studios, distribution networks, and theaters.

Both studios relied, especially in the early years, on Indian directors remaking films they had already made in India, replacing Indian actors with locals but keeping the scripts largely intact. Even though they were recycled, these films, heavily laden with song and dance numbers, proved quite popular with local audiences, and had an important influence on later Singaporean films. Unfortunately, the booming success of these two fledgling film studios was cut short by World War Two.

The Japanese Occupation ended in 1945, and within a few years, the cameras were turning in Singaporean motion picture studios once again. In spite of the success of the measures of the British government (which returned after the war) to control film content, thus rendering movies fairly bland, by 1950 Malaya led the world in per capita film-going. It was also during these post-war years that a truly indigenous Malay Malaysian film industry emerged.

The first important post-war film studio in Malaya was Malay Film Production Ltd, established at 8 Jalan Ampas in Singapore by the Shaw Brothers in 1947. In the 1950s, as in the pre-war years, they imported Indian film directors to Singapore, who remade Indian films as Malay-language films. This would prove to be a major influence on Malay films, which even today are similar to Indian films in some important ways (including the predominance of songs and romantic stories, as well as clichéd techniques). Malay Film Productions was soon followed by Cathay-Keris Productions, the result of a merger of Cathay Productions and Keris Productions, with production facilities first in Singapore?s Tampines and later on East Coast Road. The first film of the new company was Buluh Perinda in 1951.

In 1947, Loke Wan Tho returned to Singapore, reclaimed his Cathay building and embarked on an ambitious plan to rebuild the local film industry. He signed a joint-venture partnership with J. Arthur Rank Organisation and formed a company, Caravan Films, which sent mobile film units into remote rubber estates, factories and villages. Using the slogan "Cathay for Comfort", he aggressively expanded his chain of cinemas from Penang to Singapore, Thailand and Borneo. He also set up studios to make films to feed into his chain of cinemas, for, in the fifties, Malayans were the world's most avid per capital moviegoers. In 1953, Wan Tho plunged into the making of Malay films to directly challenge his Shaw Brothers rivals who had till then cornered the market. Wan Tho partnered with the owner of Keris Films, Ho Ah Loke, to set up Cathay Keris Films to make their first Malay movie, in colour - Buloh Perindu. He even visited studios in India to learn firsthand how movies were made and invited Hollywood personalities to coach his stars. In his studio system, he encouraged everyone to compete with one another, director with director, producer with producer, actor with actor, so as to bring out the best in everyone. Focusing on stories from the Bangsawan and Malay folklore, Cathay Keris released about 10 films a year. In 1960 it produced its first Chinese film, The Lion City.

The decade of the 1950s is generally regarded as Singapore's (and Malaysia's) "Golden Age" of filmmaking. Production increased, as both Malay Film and Cathay Keris released a film every month. More Malays entered the film industry, and Malay film genres began to emerge and develop at this time. Of course, the musical, inspired by both bangsawan and Indian cinema, flourished. But even more interesting were the crime dramas (inspired by Chinese films and the dark, cynical Hollywood crime films known as film noir) and the horror movies. Films of the latter genre featured such indigenous Malay characters as the pontianak (vampire), the polong (an unfortunate creature with his intestines trailing behind his severed torso) and the talking mouse deer, and were inspired by local beliefs, legends and superstitions as much as they were by old Hollywood horror films.

But even more than these genre films, the public flocked to local cinemas to see the newest films featuring their favorite film personalities. A number of popular movie stars emerged at this time, including, of course, the greatest figure in Malaysian film history, P. Ramlee. Ramlee was by far the chief asset of Malay Film Productions, and his influence at the studio was profound. Ramlee was discovered singing in a nightclub by director the Indian director B.S. Rajhans, who cast him in the film Cinta (Love) in 1948, as the villain (he also sang for the hero). Although he had a very good singing voice, he was considered ugly, and was cast as the villain in all of his early films. He also worked on films in a number of other capacities, volunteering for any work and learning all aspects of filmmaking.

Ramlee eventually was given major roles as the hero, and achieved a macho look that was widely imitated by young Malay men. In 1955, he finally got a chance to direct a film, Penarik Beca (The Trishaw Puller). This film was very successful, both artistically and economically, and led to Ramlee"s career as Malaysia"s most successful director as well as actor, writer, songwriter, and singer.

Almost a one-man production crew, Ramlee wrote scripts, wrote songs (both music and lyrics), sang, acted in movies, and directed; almost everything, in fact, but run the cameras (although there is evidence from his films that he probably specified camera angles and lighting plans)! His films, especially the comedies, were very popular among the not only the Malay population of both Singapore and peninsular Malaysia, but much of the Indian and Chinese audience as well.

Just as a sports team can sometimes begin to take on the personality and character of its star athlete, Malay Film Productions came to be "Ramlee-fied", and his influence could be seen throughout the studio"s products. A great number of these films featured the direct participation of Ramlee, but even many of those that didn"t showed the impact he made on the studio. In other words, the characteristics of his films became the standard for Malay Film Productions.

The majority of his films are contemporary comedies or melodramas, and were filmed partly on locations in Singapore (an especially interesting example is his 1961 comedy, Seniman Bujang Lapok, known in English as The Nitwit Movie Stars, with its scenes of filmmaking at the Malay Film Productions studio). Over time, contemporary comedies and melodramas became the norm at Malay Film Productions. These comedies and melodramas also tend to contain social criticism, although this aspect is usually not fore-grounded. For example, the Singapore of Ramlee and the other Malay Film movies is almost totally devoid of Chinese. Just as African-American filmmakers of the 1920s-1940s made films featuring an almost completely black America, Malay Films feature a Singapore in which racial difference, and the tensions it sometimes brought, did not exist. Certainly there were exceptions, but most of these films were made primarily to entertain, and social commentary seldom was aimed at ethnic, racial, political or religious conflicts. Criticism tends to be directed more at class conflicts, especially those class conflicts that resulted from the tension between the kampong and the city. City life is dangerous, and city women are even more dangerous, in these films. A kampong boy could make it in the city, but only if he retained kampong values, and, preferably, married a kampong girl. (The kampong girl was better off just avoiding the city altogether!)

Malay Film Productions did, of course, sometimes make films in other genres. The majority of these, however, are period pieces that were, like other films at Malay Film, "Ramlee-fied". In other words, they are often historical fantasies in which Ramlee (or another leading man) is featured in a comic role (Ali Baba Bujong Lapok [P. Ramlee, 1961] is a good example of this kind of movie). Even the horror movies at Malay Films, such as Anak Pontianak (Vampire Child; Ramon A. Estella, 1958) and Ramlee"s Sumpah Orang Minyak (The Oily Man; P Ramlee, 1958) tend to be less serious than those of Cathay-Keris, and are much more playful with these Malay myths.

Cathay, unlike the Shaw brothers, relied, in addition to the foreign films it distributed, to a great extent on films made at its Hong Kong studio. These films were made mostly in Mandarin, but sometimes, especially in the early years, in Cantonese. In 1997 Cathay re-released three of these Mandarin films -- Our Sister Hedy (Tao Qin, 1958), Her Tender Heart (Evan Yang, 1959) and Mambo Girl (Evan Yang, 1957) -- revealing the inventiveness that became a standard feature of subsequent Hong Kong movies.

Back home in Singapore, Cathay-Keris made movies in Bahasa Melayu. It lacked a star of the magnitude of P. Ramlee, although leading ladies Maria Menado and Rose Yatimah were quite popular, as was comedian Wahid Satay. Cathay-Keris did, however, boast of at least one outstanding film director. Unlike the small, personal films of Ramlee, the films of Cathay-Keris"s Hussein Haniff used a much a larger canvas, often featuring large battle scenes filmed outdoors (but with limited resources) with what look like fairly large numbers of actors and extras. Instead of contemporary subjects, Haniff worked with historical stories, setting his social commentary and criticisms in Malaya"s feudal past. As seen in Hang Jebat (1961) and Dang Anom (1962), the films by Haniff that were shown at the 1997 Singapore International Film Festival, he was a master of mise-en-scene -- scenery, precision acting, lighting -- as opposed to Ramlee, whose chief concerns were camera work and the emotions expressed by the human face and voice.

Although not directed by "big name" directors such as Ramlee and Haniff, the genre films, especially the horror films, made by Cathay-Keris were popular and worth seeing even today. Better remembered than the more prestige films are such Malay-language horror films as Sumpah Pontianak (Vampire"s Curse; B. N. Rao, 1958), and Orang Minyak (The Oily Man; L. Krishnan, 1958). These films, based on Malay mythology and legends, all seemed quite scary when they were seen in theaters at the time of their release. Now, they are just as entertaining, but maybe not quite as scary, and a little funnier than they were intended to be (although humor, as well as songs, were an important part of the genre), and not quite what we regard as realistic.

Because Cathay-Keris, unlike Malay Film Productions, lacked a strong presence like Ramlee, it tended to rely more on a diversified product line. What its films tend to have in common is a reliance on history and/or Malay myths, and they tend to take this history and these myths more seriously than do the movies of Malay Film. In order to see how these differences are manifested in specific films, we can take a closer look at two films dealing with the same story.

The story of Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat is a based on real incidents that occurred more than 500 years ago, and the legend has been told many times in many media. Friends from childhood, Tuah and Jebat learned martial arts together and eventually became guards of the Sultan, with Tuah as the chief guard. Tuah"s enemies at the Sultan"s court frame him; they trick Melur, his girlfriend, into becoming one of the Sultan"s concubines, in order to be closer to Tuah. Although Jebat urges Tuah to rescue Melur, Tuah refuses, as his loyalty to the Sultan is much more important to him. After Tuah explains this to the grief-stricken girl, the Sultan sees Tuah leave Melur"s room. Convinced that Tuah has been having an affair with one of his concubines, the Sultan orders him beheaded. However, the Sultan"s Captain General, whose life was saved by Tuah, cannot bring himself to kill Tuah, and hides him in the prison. Enraged at the injustice done to his best friend, Jebat runs amok in the palace, vowing to take revenge and kill the Sultan. The Captain General reveals to the Sultan that Tuah is still alive; the Sultan forgives Tuah, and orders him to kill Jebat. Still loyal, Tuah obeys, and kills his best friend.

In 1951, Malay Film Productions filmed the story as Hang Tuah, the first color film made in Malaysia. In some ways, the film is not typical of the products of Malay Film. It is based on a historical subject, and surprisingly, such an important film was not directed by Ramlee, but by Phandi Majumdar. It is typical, however, in that it features Ramlee in the starring role, and in that it "Ramlee-fies" the story to a certain extent. Although it remains relatively faithful to the story, especially in that Tuah is seen as right, it was filmed as a musical, with Ramlee singing when he isn"t fighting. Also, the emphasis is very much on romance; Ramlee spends much of the early film courting Melur, and a great deal of the middle portion seducing a princess of a neighboring state, only to finally tell her that he convinced her to run away with him only so she can marry the Sultan (he gives her a magic betel leaf to make her forget him). The inconsistencies and seeming amorality in the character of Tuah, like so many other inconsistencies in Malay films, especially those based on history or legends, are simply accepted by the audience. And, although Hang Tuah wonders aloud at the end of the film, "I wonder if I did the right thing," there is little to indicate any awareness on his part, or on the parts of any of the characters, of the questionable values expressed by the film. In fact, even Hang Jebat understands why Hang Tuah must kill him.

The same story was filmed by Cathay-Keris in 1962 as Hang Jebat. Not surprisingly, the film was directed by Hussein Haniff, as this is exactly the sort of movie in which he specialized: a historical epic based on a Malay legend, one which was taken very seriously by Malays. As is indicated by the difference in the titles, Haniff clearly meant for his film to be different from Malay Film"s version. Haniff emphasized fighting and downplayed music and romance, in an effort to impart his film with a sense of seriousness and drama. Instead of merely reinforcing popular beliefs regarding the correctness of Hang Tuah"s actions, Haniff sought to emphasis Hang Jebat and what Tuah"s disloyalty to him might mean. Although technically excellent, Hang Jebat tended to leave audiences cold; Hang Tuah"s confirmation of accepted values, coupled with songs, color and a popular leading man, made a much stronger and lasting impression on audiences.

These two films help illustrate how Singapore"s two studios both conformed to a model of filmmaking that audiences recognized as "Malay film". They also illustrate the ways in which the two studios sought to differentiate their products from one another, in an effort not only to sell their own products and mark off their "territories", but also to respect the boundaries set by the other. In other words, Malay Film Productions and Cathay-Keris established product lines that were not only differentiated, but also complemented one another. In this way, each could capture a sufficient share of the market to survive"at least until Hollywood and Hong Kong came along and took it all.

Fortunately in 1995, Jaytex Productions spent S$2 million dollars to do 'Bugis Street', a nostalgic film set in Singapore in the 60s. In the same year, Eric Khoo, then a student who just graduated from polytechnic, made his debut 'Mee Pok Man' with S$450,000. It claimed an award in Hawaii. Seeing that the scene has heated up, Cathay began productions again, churning out 'Army Daze' in 1996. It made S$1.6 million dollars. This was definitely a confidence booster for filmmakers and soon enough in 1997 we saw Eric Khoo's second film '12 Storeys' and Lim Suat Yen's 'The Road Less Travelled'. The Singapore government decided to be supportive at last, and set up the Singapore Film Commission to promote the industry in 1998.

In 1999, Jack Neo's "Money No Enough", a Hokkien comedy, broke all records by getting S$2 million in box office. "Forever Fever", a hilarious film about the 1970s when John Travolta's "Saturday Night Fever" hit Singapore, was the debut film by Glen Goei. Miramax Films saw great potential in this local film and has bought the distribution rights to it. Encouraged by this news, mayn others followed suit. In the making are Victor Khoo's "No Strings Attached" and Jonathan Foo's "Teenage Handbook". Team member Chow Lee Ling will be an extra on the set of "Teenage Handbook".

At the dawn of the new century the cinematic sun is rising in the east. Singapore films do well at the box office, in 2002 two local productions held top ten spots "I not Stupid" by Jack neo and "The Eye" a horror flick by the Pang Borthers. With the founding of the Singapore Film Commission and the local film festival held annually the Singaporean cinema is quicky gaining back its lost territory to Hollywood and Hong Kong.

Text (mainly) derived from an article of the National University of Singapore

Cinema links from SINGAPORE

Cathay Cineplexes Site of another major cinema complex including a ticket service
Golden Village Site of a major cinema complex including a ticket service
Shaw Corporation Home of the original Shaw brothers studio
Singapore Film Commission The Singapore Film Commission (SFC), a government agency, was set up in April 1998, in response to the rapidly growing Singapore film industry
Singapore Film Society The Singapore Film Society has been conceptualizing, sourcing, programming, marketing and managing a year-round line-up of quality film screenings that now averages over 200 movies every year.
Singapore International Film Festival To encourage excellence amongst Asian filmmakers, the Festival introduced the Silver Screen Awards in 1991.

Loke Wan Tho

Runme Shaw

Runrun Shaw

Alhambras Theatre

P Ramlee

Pang Brothers

Jack Neo

Eric Khoo

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