Tuesday, July 05, 2005

S'pore make amends with film retrospective

After decades of weaning its population away from potentially decadent forms of popular entertainment, the Singapore government is now promoting local pop music and films, on its own terms, of course.

Excerpt of report published in the Straits Times, July 5, 2005

See Singapore morph from bucolic rural backwater to buzzing urban metropolis next month.

Screen Singapore: A Festival Of Singapore Films celebrates the nation's 40th birthday with a celluloid feast that serves up 31 feature films and 14 short films.

The programme runs the gamut from classic P. Ramlee films to controversial new offerings like Royston Tan's gangster movie 15.

The main attraction is a long-lost film from 1973 called Ring Of Fury. Directed by Tony Yeow and James Sebastian, it stars Singaporean karate master Peter Chong. But it was banned because of the storyline, which deals with a hawker facing extortion from a gang. It is receiving its Singapore debut 32 years after the fact.

Peter Chong from 70s homegrown flick Ring Of Fury, Straits Times, July 5 2005 Posted by Picasa

Organised by Phish Communications, the festival is sponsored by the Singapore Film Commission and the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts.

Click here for the list of films to be shown at Screen Singapore. (Note that there are no local films at all from the eighties)


Martyn See said...


Published July 1, 2005

Smash! Bang! Pow!
That's what cult cinema in S'pore is about. GEOFFREY EU looks at independent cinema in S'pore in the 1970s

ON the front cover of an anthology of B-movies called Mondo Macabro: Weird & Wonderful Cinema Around the World, there is a picture of a young woman dressed as a nun and looking decidedly un-angelic - instead, she's toting a four-barrelled shotgun and ready to rumble.

Cult heroes: Doris Young as Cleopatra Wong and Peter Chong in Ring of Fury
In the world of cult cinema, it is an iconic image, immediately recognisable by fans (including the director Quentin Tarantino, a self-confessed movie nerd) as a still from Cleopatra Wong, a cheesy, low-budget cult classic about a high-kicking, hotpants-wearing Interpol agent on the trail of a counterfeiting gang. From an international perspective, it remains one of the best-known Singapore films ever made and is still screened regularly on the cult circuit.

The 1977 film - and a handful of other films like it - once had the potential to spearhead the independent cinema movement in Singapore and spur it on to greater heights. It starred an 18-year-old Singapore actress named Doris Young, who under the screen name Marrie Lee was touted as a female counterpart to the late Bruce Lee. In reality, the movement - which marked a distinct departure in style from the staple diet of studio films churned out by the likes of Shaw and Cathay-Keris - sputtered to a halt by the end of the decade, but for a brief period in the 1970s, filmmaking in Singapore was a showcase for innovative and exciting local talents.

Next month, Cleopatra Wong and an earlier, never-before released movie called Ring of Fury, will be among some 31 feature films and 15 shorts shown at Screen Singapore, a month-long smorgasbord of local cinema from 1955 to 2005. According to Raphael Millet, the French Embassy's cultural attache and the curator of the festival, films like Cleopatra Wong and Ring of Fury offer much more than simple entertainment.

'They are good B-grade movies that have high historical document value,' says Millet, who is writing a book on Singapore cinema. 'It was a time when almost nobody was shooting here, and they capture Singapore during the modernisation process - that's why they don't deserve to be lost.' He adds: 'The movies were independently produced and reflect a very fine cinematic spirit and attitude. Nobody takes the films seriously, but they are interesting if you look at them with the right perspective.'

Another reason that the 1970s-era films are worthy of attention, says Millet, is that they are action-oriented, deal with modern themes and herald the use of both English dialogue and colour photography. Prior to this, the studio films were shot primarily in black and white. 'These films were Asian without being regressive,' he says. 'For a country like Singapore, they are considered progressive and highly innovative.'

Anyone familiar with the first Bruce Lee films - such as The Big Boss and Fist of Fury - will be instantly aware of the style and mood that Cleopatra Wong and Ring of Fury were attempting to capture. To a large extent, they were inspired by the Bruce Lee Phenomenon.

Tony Yeow, writer and co-director of Ring of Fury, was working as a television producer in Hong Kong when he met Lee, who was at the height of his fame. 'I was inspired by the man and wanted to do something dedicated to him,' says Yeow. 'The Bruce Lee craze had hit Asia and I had an idea to do a local Bruce Lee film.'

Ring of Fury was shot entirely on location in Singapore on a shoestring budget of between $80,000 and $100,000, says Yeow, but it was banned here because the authorities objected to its subject matter - it was about a food seller who refuses to pay protection money to a gang of thugs and who exacts revenge when his mother is murdered.

Yeow says the story was based on real-life observations. 'Filmmakers have a social conscience. When we see something happening, we have something to say.' Ring of Fury was given a new lease on life when it was picked by Millet for the Paris Asian Film Festival last year. The positive reaction to the film, which was dubbed in Mandarin and stars Singaporean karate expert Peter Chong, was the catalyst for mounting Screen Singapore.

Chong, an Eighth Dan black belt holder, was running a karate school and was approached to do the movie. The gangster parts were given to instructors from various martial arts schools and the fight scenes - which impressed filmmakers in Hongkong - were more or less real. 'We were told to fight from here to there, and that was it,' says Chong, 65. 'The fighting was real and there was no choreography.'

Chong says that many of the locations - including underground tunnels in Labrador Park, a granite quarry in Bukit Timah, Clementi Hill and a fish farm in Punggol - are either inaccessible or no longer exist. 'When the film was banned, everybody became a bit demoralised,' he says. It was the end of his brief movie career. 'Looking back, it was good fun, even though we got injured now and then. We had some pretty good fights.'

Doris Young, who starred in three Cleopatra Wong films (after Cleopatra Wong came Dynamite Johnson and The Devil's Three, which were filmed in the Philippines), was working as a receptionist in a Shenton Way nightclub when she answered a newspaper ad that inquired, 'Are you smart, sexy and seductive?' A joint Singapore-Philippine production was looking for someone who could ride a motorbike. She auditioned in a miniskirt and boots and got the part.

She was given the Marrie Lee screen name to imply an association with the late Bruce Lee. 'Some fans thought that I was his younger sister,' she says. From the start, her films, co-produced by Singaporean Sunny Lim and (apart from the first one) directed by Filipino Bobby Suarez, were targeted at an international audience. Scenes were filmed in English (although the voices were dubbed) and post-production was done in Hollywood.

Young, 46, now says that for 20 years after her movie career, she cringed every time she watched her screen persona. Nowadays, she's a lot easier on herself, but she will never forget the local critic who wrote rather uncharitably that she was 'Cleopatra Wrong'. She remembers fondly the crowds who gathered to watch the action at different locations like Sentosa, the Chinese Gardens, Plaza Singapura and the Seaview Hotel.

Despite having to perform stunts like jumping through real glass and dangling in the air from a helicopter and shooting for up to 48 hours without a break, she says the experience was both interesting and memorable. 'We have the potential to make international films,' she says. 'We have foreign as well as local talent and we know the business - we just need someone to guide us.'

According to Philip Cheah, director of the Singapore International Film Festival, independent cinema in 1970s Singapore is defined by fewer than 10 films, including the three Cleopatra Wong films, Ring of Fury, Two Sides of the Bridge (a 1976 Mandarin-language social drama about differences in life between Singapore and Malaysia) and Saint Jack (1979), a Peter Bogdanovich film which was banned here because it portrayed the seamy underside of Singapore.

Cheah says the freewheeling spirit of independent filmmaking in those days was such that it could have spawned a B-movie industry to really put Singapore on the cinematic map, especially since many great filmmakers cut their teeth in independent cinema. 'But of course the filmmaking environment was too stuffy,' he says, and we are left to ponder on what might have been. 'We had a film industry then, but we let it slip away.'

'You enjoy Ring of Fury for its representation of a physical side of Singapore which is now gone,' says Cheah. 'These are also very physical films - actors actually did those stunts. These films are so freaky that they are timeless classics and that's why Tarantino loves Cleopatra Wong - if the filmmaking passion is there on screen, someone watching it will feel it.'

He adds: 'It's not high art - to do trash cinema, it's the imaginativeness of the improvising.' Ironically, the producer of Saint Jack was Roger Corman, the acknowledged king of the B-movie genre. Cheah likens Cleopatra Wong producer Sunny Lim to Corman. Lim made two more films - Bionic Boy and the Cleo Wong vehicle Dynamite Johnson, featuring pre-teen Johnson Yap as an early-day spy kid with bionic qualities and martial arts chops - before moving to Malaysia, where there were fewer restrictions on filmmakers.

Ben Slater, a Singapore-based writer who is researching a book on the making of Saint Jack, says it's curious how the film has slipped under the cinematic radar for so long. 'It's a really great film, made with strong help from local talent,' he says. 'Ironically, local filmmaking slumped after the 70s but potentially, Singapore had well-trained and professional film crews to support the industry.' He adds, 'Saint Jack captured Singapore in 1978, when it was moving from a post-colonial port town to a future metropolis.'

Three decades on, that sense of place and time - not to mention a uniquely Singaporean B-movie sensibility - can be seen in films like Cleopatra Wong and Ring of Fury. Says Ring star Peter Chong: 'Go and see the film - just imagine how different Singapore was - and how young I was then.'

Cleopatra Wong, Ring of Fury and other cult classics can be seen at Screen Singapore, which runs from Aug 1 to 3. It is organised by Phish Communications and the main sponsor is the Singapore Film Commission. For more information, visit www.screensingapore.com.

Anonymous said...

Hey my dad was one of the 2 directors. That is James Sah Pah Tien - this was actually a sinofied version of James Sebastian, a Singaporean of Tamil descent. I remember conversations at the time, and the view was that Chinese audiences would not watch a movie directed by a non-Chinese! Mr Sebastian now lives near Sydney.
I was a kid when filming was underway (1971-1972, and then after bad reviews from the PAP government censors in 1973). Even as a 10 year old it was patently clear that the PAP government did not want to encourage any film industry - guess it saw a flourishing community of artists as a potential point of criticism.

Our house was full of the props. In fact I had the papermache 'iron' mask in my room for about a year!

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Anonymous said...

Hahahah. Cleopatra Wrong. How appropriate!