Latent Images: Film in Singapore

Latent Images: Film in Singapore is one of the few books on the history of the film industry in Singapore. The authors are a husband-and-wife team. Jan Uhde is a Canadian professor from the Film Studies at the Department of Fine Arts, University of Waterloo, Canada. Yvonne Ng Uhde is an independent researcher who writes for the International Film Guide.

Students of film and media studies will find the book a valuable resource. Appendices include bio-filmographies of important Singapore filmmakers like Jack Neo, statistics from the Singapore International Film Festival, and a comprehensive list of films produced in Singapore from 1927 to 2008.

Cinephiles will also be drawn to the book. The book has interviews with industry professionals and filmmakers like Eric Khoo. It is also well illustrated with photos of film personalities, theatres, old studio equipment, advertisement posters for films as well as scenes from films.

The book has ten chapters organised into three main sections. The first section (chapters one to three), positions the nation’s cinema in its wider geopolitical and historic contexts. Section two (chapters four to six) examines film production from 1991 to 2007, including issues like censorship. The last section (chapters seven to ten) discusses the development of the film exhibition, the Singapore International Film Festival, as well as the role the government plays.

In the first chapter, we read about the concept of national cinema. When in 1930, indigenous film production began, Singapore was still part of the Straits Settlement under British rule. Film production was a multi-cultural project. Shooting was done mainly in Singapore. The producers, distributors and exhibitors were mainly Chinese. Shaw Brothers imported most of the film-making know-how from India. The first group of directors were from India. The film stars and cast were mainly Malays. They learnt from the Indians to become cameramen, editors and directors. P. Ramlee and Hussein Haniff went on to direct good movies. Most of the movies made before 1965 were in Malay and on Malay subjects.

Globalisation influenced the film industry. In the 1970s, filmmakers from the Philippines blended Western and Asian influences like fast action, James Bond, martial arts and English dialogue. Co-productions between nations began. Shaw Brothers established a production studio in Kowloon, Hong Kong. One of the movies made was “The Opera Boat in Singapore”, a Chinese musical comedy shot in Singapore. Cathay took over a Hong Kong film supplier, the Yung Hwa studios. Golden Harvest which was formed in 1970, partnered with Australia’s Village Roadshow in operating the Golden Village Multiplex.

From chapter two, we learn more about the golden age of Singapore cinema; Shaw Brothers and Cathay Organisation; the prominent actors, actresses and films. We learn the reasons for the industry’s decline at the end of the 1970s. The third chapter reveals Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s pioneering course in film and media, the development of television in Singapore and the founding of the nation’s full-time film studio, MediaCorp Raintree Pictures.

Chapter four, the longest chapter, discusses most of the feature films produced from 1991 to 2007. The films are presented chronologically. We see the upward trend in quantity as well as quality. The film revival began in 1991 with “Medium Rare”, which was not a remarkable film, but it started the ball rolling. In 1995, “Bugis Street” became a box-office success. Films like “Army Daze” and “Money No Enough” followed.

Chapter five is on short films, while chapter six is on censorship. It is not confined to censorship in Singapore. We learn about unofficial censorship or manipulation. For example, in the United States, foreign films can be tailored to conform to local values and tastes. Particularly affected are the Japanese anime which are dubbed into English.

Chapter seven deals with the growing sophistication of the nation’s audiences, and how people watched films in the past as compared with today’s movie-going experience. When the movies first came to Singapore, there was no proper place to exhibit them. The first public screening in 1902 was done in a tent. Just a few decades ago, most cinemas were spartan buildings, some without proper sanitary facilities. On the technical aspects, there were poor projection and sound systems. Today our cinemas offer a very enjoyable experience, with love seats for people who pay more. The latest development is the rise of repertory cinemas.

From chapter eight, we learn about the huge impact the Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF) has on the film culture as we read about each festival year. The inaugural year was 1987. 1990 was a crucial year as the SIFF was granted accreditation by the International Federation of Film Producers Association. 1991 was an important year for Singapore and Asian cinema because the SIFF introduced the Silver Screen Awards for Best Asian Feature Films and Best Singapore Short Film.

Closely related to the efforts of the SIFF are activities of bodies like Singapore Film Society and art houses like the Picturehouse and the Substation. Chapter nine fleshes out their activities which include holding discussions and educating their audiences.

The final chapter is on the government’s changing attitude to media and film, its ambition to make Singapore into a “global media city” and the establishment of Singapore Film Commission and Media Development Authority.

This book is the pioneer reference of Singapore cinema. It is an essential reference work for anyone interested in Asian cinema and popular culture in Southeast Asia.

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