Iranian and Asian Films Soar at Censor-Strong Singapore
by Christian Gaines
Great theaters, good attendance, an exhaustive program of thoughtful
films and a commitment to the art of Asian cinema has made the
Singapore International Film Festival (17th April - 2nd May, 1998) one
of the most important in the region.
Perhaps more than any other film festival in Asia, the SIFF likes to
consider itself a festival of record for Asian film. However, because
Singaporeans like to complain that "no good films ever come to town"
(which is true), the film festival has a lot to measure up to, and must
also provide hometowners with a one-shot smorgasbord of world cinema.
Although facing the inevitable funding cut-backs and sponsorship
challenges being felt by film festivals across Asia as a result of the
current economic crisis (how I can write anything to do with Asia
without making this reference I don't know), Singapore opted to mount
one of its most ambitious editions this year, with over 250 films across
a two week period. Veteran Film Programmer Philip Cheah hit festivals
in Cannes, Vienna, Hawaii and Iran among others to cull a truly
comprehensive selection which combined well-tested festival fare with
some newer selections and retrospectives from Southeast Asia. Limited
screens and a sprawling program, however, meant that most films were
shown only once, which presented a problem for some.
The SIFF was bookended by films that are provocative by Singaporean
standards. To open, Takeshi Kitano's current "Hana-Bi" and to close,
Wong Kar-Wai's "Happy Together," with both the director himself and cult
cinematographer Christopher Doyle here to represent the film. The
film's content is enough to get the film banned here ("Happy Together"
was recently banned in Korea where, according to an official statement
"it was not relevant to the lives of the Korean people.") Apparently,
they feel the same way here in Singapore, and even Doyle's and Kar-Wai's
blistering attack on Singapore's Board of Film Censors at the press
conference on Saturday will not be enough to stimulate a commercial
Singapore's government has struck a deal with the three million souls
living in this tiny city-state: no drugs, no crime, no poverty, no
homelessness, no unemployment and a guaranteed standard of living in
exchange for. . . well, smoothly-enforced censorship. Films that are
routinely expurgated of nudity and swear-words for commercial release
are rated R(A). This means Restricted (no one under 17) and Artistic
(we're only letting you see the film at all because apparently elsewhere
in the world it passes as art).
Although films in the festival are spared the censor's shears and
language, nudity and other depravities are mostly left intact, every
single film considered must be seen by the censor board and rated. If
deemed necessary, the board will ban a film from the festival. In many
ways, Singapore is run like a cozy, well-heeled boarding school. The
facilities are top-notch, everyone's privileged to be there, but rules
That being said, this is a festival which has really made a commitment
to nourishing Asian film, and this is perhaps most reflected in the
glitzy Silver Screen Awards, a slick awards show annually televised on
TCS, the largest TV station in Singapore. The big winners seemed to be
the Iranians that evening, with the jury picking Majid Majidi's
"Children of Heaven" from an ambitious crop of 15 Asian films for the Best
Film in the Asian Feature Film Category. Two awards also went to Jafar
Panahi's "Mirror", with the UOB Young Cinema Award (for a first feature) going
to Ho Ping's stylish traffic-angst picture "Wolves Cry Under the Moon" from
Taiwan. Best Actor went to Sunny Chan in Stanley Kwan's latest "Hold
You Tight" with the Best Actress nod going to Nita Fernandez in Sri Lanka's
entry "Walls Within."
Singapore also fields a NETPAC/FIPRESCI jury, who elected to give
Stanley Kwan's "Hold You Tight" a Special Mention. But it was prolific
Filipina director Marilou Diaz-Abaya's remarkable film "In the Navel of
the Sea" which garnered their top award. Diaz-Abaya also had "Milagros"
in the festival, and is currently completing post-production on perhaps
the most eagerly anticipated film in Philippines film history: "Rizal,"
the story of the famed revolutionary Jose Rizal who led Filipinos to
victory against the Spanish colonialists a century ago.
Singaporeans also hold their own fledgling film industry in high regard.
Filmmaker and local celebrity Eric Khoo (whose film "12 Storeys" played
in Un Certain Regard in Cannes last year) was on hand to present the
Singapore Short Film Category, which was picked up by Ong Lay Jinn's "By
the Dawn's Early Rise."
The 11th SIFF also featured an ambitious program of out-of-competition
fare, including a strong Indian lineup in the form of "Private
Detective" directed by Rajat Kapoor, and the bazaar but intriguing "The
Square Circle" by Amol Palekar. Again, Southeast Asia was well
represented, with Dang Naat Minh's "Hanoi Winter 1946" (Vietnam); "Ten
Girls from Dong Loc" (Vietnam), Thailand's top-grosser last year "Dang
Bireley's and Young Gangsters," the remarkably assured "Fun Bar Karaoke"
(Thailand) and two premieres from Malaysia "From Jemapoh to Manchestee"
(canceled from the program last year and completed just in time for this
Nods to British Cinema, French Cinema (including the 12 picture
retrospective from 50 years of Cannes that's been going around lately)
and US Independents were also up on the screens, but it was perhaps the
special section on Asian-American filmmakers that attracted the most
attention. Rene Tajima-Pena, Chris Chan Lee and Jon Moritsugu were on
hand to screen their works and tell everyone they just wanted to be
treated like filmmakers, not necessarily Asian-American ones. In a nod
to the censors, Moritsugu's cult classic "Mod F*** Explosion" was simply
called "Mod Explosion." (Don't even think it.)
[Formerly a Sundance programmer, Christian Gaines is now director of the
Hawaii International Film Festival.]