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October 23, 2006

Book: Singapore Cinema
Reviewed by: Benjamin McKay

There are a large number of exciting revelations in Raphael Millet's beautifully produced work on the history of cinema in Singapore, not the least of which is the fact that the first film actually shot locally, A Day At Singapore, was produced by Georges Melies all the way back in 1913. Singapore has always had a love affair with the movies and this significant and handsome contribution to our understanding of that affair is a welcome addition to the small amount of literature on Singapore cinema and also on Malay language film production. Millet has not merely distilled the current scholarship for a general readership, but he has added to it.

The author takes us on a chronological survey of cinema as experienced and produced in the island state, from the first rudimentary screenings in 1902 to the works of Eric Khoo, Royston Tan and Raintree Pictures today. Along that journey we get a sense of the development of the city as a global entity and as a site for a distinguished yet uneven film history. This book is a meticulously researched and beautifully illustrated reference work. While not an academic study, and sadly lacking in footnotes and acknowledgements of original sources, it is nonetheless an important addition to our understanding of Singaporean cinema. The book does however have a lovingly assembled filmography, complete with synopses and detailed credits as well as a thorough bibliography and webliography.

Divided into phases of local film history, "Early Days 1902-1945", "The Studio Era 1947-1972", "Decay and Oblivion, 1973-1986" and "From Survival to Revival, 1987-2005", the narrative unfolds alongside an awareness of the changing city that shaped the industry and consumed the cinema. Having been granted access to the holdings of the two major studio collections, Shaw's Malay Film Productions and Cathy-Keris, Millet has also alerted us all to the lost films of Singapore and Malay film history and to the need for further research and analysis on what does indeed remain from that cinematic legacy.

Building upon the foundations set by Yvonne and Jan Uhde in their earlier book Latent Images: Film In Singapore (Oxford, 2000), and having gained access to a remarkable collection of stills and photographs, Millet has taken a very interesting approach to his subject insofar as he has restored to the narrative of Singapore cinema the important place of Chinese film production - both local and imported - and detailed the manner in which Malay language films from the two major studios during the twenty-five years of their golden age complimented the broader cinematic consumption of Singapore. That they also produced in excess of 300 motion pictures for the wider Malay world is of course a matter of fact, but that they were also a part of a more holistic consumption of cinema may be a point that has been ignored in the wider scholarship.

Millet has no problems attributing to Singapore the legacy of their Malay motion picture past - a point I raise only to highlight the sometimes vexed and complex nature of contemporary cultural "ownership" of that legacy that exists at least in rhetoric between Malaysia and the island republic. The period of "decay and oblivion" that followed the demise of the studio system is interesting for we see the eventual abandonment of the city's links to Malay culture onscreen and its subsequent projection of a multiethnic, but predominantly Chinese Singaporean culture in its later renewal.

Written in an authoritative but sometimes anecdotal tone, this book covers many of the leading characters of Singapore (and Malaysian) cinema history - the Shaw Brothers, Loke Wan Tho, Ho Ah Loke, B. S. Rajhans, L. Krishnan, P. Ramlee, Hussain Haniff and Maria Menado. It does however restore to the story some figures that have often been overlooked such as the great Filipino contributors to Malay cinema such as Ramon Estella, Eddy Infante, Rolf Bayer and Lamberto Avellana. This is an important legacy along with the acknowledgement of the relevance of a filmmaker like M. Amin, who is sometimes neglected critically alongside such luminaries as P. Ramlee.

The period of "decay and oblivion" does reveal some rather cult-like gems with films such as They Call Her. Cleopatra Wong (George Richardson, 1978) and Ring of Fury (Tony Yeow and James Sebastion, 1973) being restored to their place within history. The book mentions how the films themselves stand as documentary records for a fast-changing urban nation and for the importance of these texts as historical documents in their own right.

While Millet clearly seems to have enjoyed his immersion in the vast legacy of Malay cinema from the 1950s and 1960s he does not dwell too long on any critical analysis of the films. While such analysis requires a lengthier study, he does focus in more depth on the post-renewal filmmakers and deserving space is accorded to the likes of Eric Khoo, Jack Neo, Raintree Pictures and the diverse and talented pool of independent filmmakers and short filmmakers. Experimental work is not ignored either and a brief section covers works by Victric Thng and Ho Tzu Nyen. Martyn See and Tan Pin Pin are the sole representatives of documentary, but the quality of their work makes up for their rather isolated position within the narrative.

There are some films and filmmakers that perhaps required more emphasis and some that could have been accorded less coverage, but that is a personal preference and overall I think Raphael Millet has done a good job in apportioning work and artists to their rightful place within the broader Singaporean story. It is of course, easier to do that with historical hindsight and I look forward to looking at more contemporary history again in a decade or so to see whether filmmakers such as Djinn warranted the somewhat lengthy space that he was accorded. I hope that my doubts are proven wrong, but only time will tell. However, Millet should be congratulated for restoring M. Amin to his rightful place within the history of Malay language cinema and for his contribution to the Singapore cinema story.

Singaporean history has been a complex and often contested terrain during the period that cinema has reigned over it as its most passionate and consumed form of public entertainment. That contestation is perhaps evident when you survey the film history itself - a national history whose cinematic output and consumption encompasses films as diverse as Penarek Becha (P. Ramlee, 1955), Pontianak (B.N. Rao, 1957), Liu Lian Piao Xian (aka: When Durians Bloom, Chow Sze Luk and Ng Dan, 1959), Noor Islam (K.M. Baxter, 1960), Saint Jack (USA, Peter Bogdanovich 1979), Mee Pok Man (Eric Khoo, 1995), Forever Fever (Glen Goei, 1998), I Not Stupid (Jack Neo, 2002) and Royston Tan's 15 (2003). Whether it has meant the development of a truly national cinema remains to be assessed, but Raphael Millet's colourful and well-assembled contribution to our understanding of Singapore cinema provides a very useful reference tool as well as giving Singaporeans a book that captures something of their often-forgotten cinematic legacies.

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