July 25, 2005

Article at Wall Street Journal

A Window on Singapore's Past

MOVIE-GOERS in Singapore next week can catch the long-anticipated premiere of "Ring of Fury." Set in the early 1970s, when Singapore as a separate state was less than 10 years old and still a little rough around the edges, the locally made film is about an ordinary man who learns kung fu to take vengeance on gangsters who killed his mother.

One side note about the movie: although it's being shown for the first time to the public on Aug. 3, it isn't just set in the early '70s -- that's when it was made, too. The film, directed by Tony Yeow and James Sebastian, was banned from theaters on its release. "Police were trying to smash down gangsterism," says Raphael Millet, cultural and audiovisual attache of the French Embassy in Singapore, of that time in Singapore's history. "It was banned because it portrayed very active gangsterism, plus someone resorting to self-defense instead of going to the police."

This long-awaited debut is one of more than 30 films showing in next month's Screen Singapore festival. Timed to coincide with celebrations of the city-state's 40 years of independence, the festival charts Singapore's physical and social transformations over the years through the lens of locally produced or directed films.

"They're going to celebrate 40 years of history," says Mr. Millet, initiator and curator of the festival. "And what's the best way to get a feel of what it was like in the past? Cinema."

Of course, films don't always provide the most historically accurate view of a place. Singapore in the mid-'60s, for example, looks downright groovy in "Jefri Zain -- Moves in a Flash," a 1965 Singaporean/Malay version of the James Bond series. ("My name is Zain -- Jefri Zain.")

And whether any sign of Singaporean national identity can be gleaned from the films is open to question. Many of the earlier works selected for the festival, especially ones made before the city-state's independence from its northern neighbor in '65, are spoken in Malay and put together by Malay, Indian and Filipino directors.

Also open to question is whether Singapore, since 1965, has had a real film industry. The city played a role in Malaysia's early industry, but that was while Singapore was part of the Federation of Malaysia. Censorship and a lack of business interest stymied movie efforts in the '70s, and few if any locally produced films came out of the '80s, says Ben Slater, a local film curator and writer working on a book about the 1979 locally shot film "Saint Jack," by U.S. director Peter Bogdanovich.

The mid-'90s saw an independent scene emerge, but it ekes out only a handful of movies each year and is "struggling to keep the momentum up," says Mr. Slater, who adds that while censorship levels have eased, films that are "close to home" come under more scrutiny.

Nevertheless, the festival's collection of films should provide interesting glimpses into the city's development. "Chinta Kaseh Sayang," a 1965 work by Hussain Haniff about an ignored housewife finding excitement outside her marriage, shows a Singapore rapidly modernizing in the year of its independence. In "Ring of Fury," where rural means good guys and urban means bad guys, scenes of the Singapore countryside and kampong-style villages are shown. By the time of Royston Tan's "15," a 2003 film in Mandarin about teenagers who have fallen outside the system -- acclaimed abroad but edited by censors before being shown at home -- the city-state as we know it today appears.

Collectively, the films promise to "show a city and a country changing and evolving and developing," says Mr. Slater. "Singapore is fairly distinctive in its racial mix and its island-nation status. I imagine it will be very interesting . . . to observe the way the country has changed."

-- Screen Singapore, Singapore, Aug. 1 to 31; various times and venues. Admission: S$8 a movie. Tel: 65-6344-2953. Web: http://www.screensingapore.com

(c) 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.