March 8, 2017 2:00 pm JST

Singapore reinvents itself as regional film hub

Foreign and local interests see growing potential in the former bastion of conservatism

PETER GUEST, Contributing writer

K. Rajagopal, director of "A Yellow Bird," a Singaporean film that aired at the Cannes Film Festival (Photo by Peter Guest)

SINGAPORE -- While working most nights in a hotel in the early 1990s to subsidize his acting career, K. Rajagopal found himself mixing with Sri Lankan refugees, people-smugglers and other nocturnal inhabitants of Singapore's Little India district.

Their stories inspired him to make his first short film, "I Can't Sleep Tonight," which won the special jury prize at the 1995 Singapore International Film Festival. His next two films, which also focused on minority communities and marginalized people in Singapore's well-concealed underbelly, picked up the same awards in 1996 and 1997. And then he went quiet for more than a decade.

"There was no way I could make a feature," said Rajagopal, a baritone-voiced bear of a man, in an interview in his producer's tiny office near Little India. "There was this lack of resources. Fear. Insecurity. That really stopped me from continuing."

Rajagopal has been tempted out of his retirement, this time as a director -- albeit reluctantly -- to great acclaim. His first feature since returning to the industry, "A Yellow Bird," was screened during International Critics' Week at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, one of two films from the city to make it to the world's most prestigious movie event.

"It's good that Singapore films are being recognized on international platforms... It'll help a whole generation of filmmakers, because it'll show we're worth investing in, we are worth giving it a shot," he said.

Both films that Singapore sent to Cannes tackle subjects that would once have been, if not taboo, then controversial in the notoriously conservative country. Boo Junfeng's "The Apprentice" examines the death penalty from the perspective of a trainee hangman in the city-state. Rajagopal's "A Yellow Bird" explores the racial discrimination experienced by Singapore's ethnically Indian minority, in an unremittingly bleak portrayal of the city's seedier side, the result of his attempts to answer longstanding questions about his own identity.

"Half the film was vulgar, there was a lot of vulgarity, a lot of racist dialogue about Indians and Chinese," Rajagopal told the Nikkei Asian Review. Racial harmony is a complex, sensitive topic in Singapore. Making statements that can be interpreted as undermining relations between races or religions can result in severe penalties, and many people simply avoid the topic -- although, as Rajagopal said, younger Singaporeans are increasingly willing to confront racism on social media.

State-funded efforts

Perhaps surprisingly, his film -- like "The Apprentice" -- was part-funded by government grants, through a program run by the Infocomm Media Development Authority, which is charged with both promoting and regulating Singaporean film, TV and internet content.

"I think all media regulators get a bad rep, period," said Angeline Poh, IMDA's assistant chief executive for content and innovation. "The reality is that it's as much about the topic as it is about the treatment. It's how the topic is represented and the kinds of conversations it's promoting within the community. If it's not helpful in bridging, if it's inciting more discord within the community, then ... we'd be questioning why would we want a film like this."

IMDA is at the forefront of the government's desire to make Singapore a destination for the global film and TV industry, and to turn the city -- better known among investors as a stable hub for the unsexy finance and logistics industries -- into a creative force. Part of that has been promoting Singapore as a filming location, essentially as a backdrop, for big-budget movies; the other is to develop home-grown talent.

To date, the former mission has resulted in "Equals," a science-fiction film produced by Ridley Scott's Scott Free Films, and Fox Pictures' "Hitman: Agent 47," a computer-game adaptation that made the most of Singapore's dramatic architecture, but was critically panned. Making "Hitman" meant closing off roads, securing overflight permits for helicopters, and working with government agencies who were unaccustomed to the demands of Hollywood film crews.

"It's probably a walk in the park when it comes to New York, but for us it was the first time we had done something like that, so it was capability-building," Poh said. "We had to find a place where they could blow up an aircraft engine, how could we close down Changi Airport, one of the most heavily-used airports in the world? That was a really challenging shoot for us ... We were joking that maybe we should just stick to rom-coms going forward. But when you look at the payoff for the industry, it was tremendous."

IMDA hopes that big-budget productions, like "Hitman," as well as a slate of co-productions with international studios, will pass on skills and experience, and drive the development of a local industry with the capacity to export to global markets.

For now, the main focus of that effort is Infinite Studios. The slate grey warehouse that hosts the company's sound stages is part-hidden by hoardings within a circle of grass and scrub on the edge of Singapore's media cluster, in the island's west. Across the way is a ship-shaped glass and steel confection which houses The Sandcrawler, an outpost of Lucasfilm where elements of the special effects for the recent Star Wars film were produced; MediaCorp, the state-backed broadcaster, has its studios nearby; among other international operations, Globecast, The Discovery Channel and Turner have suites in Infinite Studios' office block.

Niche sector

The facility is the largest in Singapore by some measure, and, say industry members, the most sophisticated. Launched in 2014, it has begun to carve out a small, but significant, niche in the international film business.

Infinite has two soundstages in Singapore -- one 18,000-sq.-foot (1,700 sq.-meter) barn, and a smaller, 10,000-sq.-foot (900 sq.-meter) space -- set in what the energetic Chief Operating Officer Freddie Yeo thinks might be the smallest lot in the world. In space-constrained Singapore, real estate is gold dust, and the whole facility is engineered to precise specifications; there is just enough space on the service road to bring in a truck and turn it around. The company has a larger lot on the nearby Indonesian island of Batam, where it has rows of classically styled Southeast Asian shophouses on an outdoor set.

The smallest soundstage has recently been block-booked until 2018 to film a local English-language drama series, which has relieved some of the pressure.

"When I locked that deal, it helped me sleep two hours better. I still needed to think about the other four. Because this is a pain. You're carrying assets," Yeo said. "There's just not enough volume ... I'm not in a market like in the U.S., where [TV series] CSI goes into a studio and blocks it out 70% a year for 15 seasons. Singapore hasn't reached that level yet."

To make up the shortfall, the larger Singapore soundstage has hosted car launches, corporate events, even rave parties. Yeo believes that business is going to pick up, however, as more money flows into the region for content. Infinite was a partner in HBO Asia's first two films, and is working with Netflix as it commissions local shows to help the U.S. TV-on-demand service boost its expansion into Southeast Asia.

Yeo believes that Singapore needs to look to its immediate region as a market and for creative collaborations. The economics of film mean that a title is expected to break even in its home market; in tiny Singapore, that limits the size of budgets, which is exacerbated by the cost of space and living for local talent. Instead, the country should cultivate cross-border relationships, to think in terms of: "Made by Singapore, not 'Made in Singapore'," and to find stories that will resonate among audiences in the region.

"Let's not talk global at this juncture, let's talk about the markets of Indonesia, Thailand, Indochina, combined. That's half a billion potential audience. That's bigger than America," Yeo said. "If we can't get it right within our region, then let's not talk about global."

The promise of the big bucks to be found in Western markets is seductive, however -- doubly so in a country whose identity, while Asian, is influenced by a heavy dose of Westernization. English is the language of daily business and politics, making it too easy to look to English-language markets as the natural home of Singaporean films.

"Over the past couple of years, I'd go to pitches, and people would ask: 'How can you make this go international?' The whole idea would be that we'd cast all these different people. They'd speak American English," said Li Lin Wee, a writer, director, producer and lecturer in screenwriting at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University. "It really is a double-edged sword."

For films to travel well, they need "a cultural sell," Wee said. South Korean, Japanese and Thai films have recognizable themes and visual languages that root them in their domestic culture. For Singapore's sometimes chameleon-like identity, that is a challenge -- one which Wee met head-on in her 2007 feature, "Gone Shopping," which follows the lives of characters adrift in the country's malls and department stalls.

"I feel that we should embrace the fact that we are quite Westernized, we are quite homogenized," she said. "The space of the mall is really our Grand Canyon. It's really like the last frontier."

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