Award-winning director of offbeat films such as Gone Shopping and Forever, Wee Li Lin’s documentary short Singapore Country for the Singapore Memory Project trails the star-spangled life of home-grown country music singer, Matthew Tan. Take a trip down memory lane as Li Lin turns the spotlight on the Uniquely Singaporean facets of a kampong-boy-turned-country-singer’s fascinating story.
At 23, her first short film Norman on the Air won a “Best Director” award at the 1997 Singapore International film Festival. When the National Library asked Wee Li Lin to make a short film for the Singapore Memory Project, she was pleasantly surprised by the support that her pitch of featuring a Singapore country singer has gotten. The resulting film features Matthew Tan, a revolutionary country singer in the 70s, and his extraordinary tale of making it big in America and yet still remaining very much Singaporean.
Our Arts librarian, Michelle Heng, finds out more about the film and its film-maker.
Michelle Heng (MH): Are you a fan of country songs? If so, what do you like about this genre? What kind of music did you listen to when you were growing up?
Wee Li Lin (WLL): When I was young, country music was the dominant music in my house and in the car because my father loved country – Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Kenny Rogers, Glen Campbell and of course, Matthew and the Mandarins. So in my youth, I resented country music because I didn’t get to listen to what I wanted (Boney M and Donna Summer). I just wanted to be different from my parents, so I would say things like “I hate country music! Yuck!” But the truth was, I really liked some of it but I would never admit it at that time.
As I got older, I really liked the Dixie Chicks, Shania Twain and Emmylou Harris. But of late, my intake of country music has increased as there are many contemporary country bands and artistes making really great music: Lady Antebellum, Sugarland, The Band Perry, Rascal Flatts, Brad Paisley and Jason Aldean to name a few. I’ve also always been a huge Mark Knopfler fan and I think he’s somewhat country (even though he’s Scottish). He’s cut albums with Chet Atkins and Emmylou Harris to prove my point.
So, the answer is yes! I am a fan of country music.
MH: What were your thoughts when the National Library approached you to do a short-film of a “self-reflexive” nature touching on national memory, identity and a sense of belonging?
Matthew is a very special guy and he has an unusual story. I really didn’t know how NLB would react to my pitch, but they were very supportive from the get-go, they (NLB) recognised that the musical story of Matthew is extraordinary and inspirational. I’m honoured that they have embraced the documentary and it will be part of the “Singapore Memory Project” and more importantly, that they honour Matthew for the national treasure that he is.
Matthew pursued an art form so (seemingly) far removed from his own world and made such an impact in America and Singapore. He represents to me what I think Singaporeans are: culturally adaptable and culturally adventurous. We adopt and borrow what (as individuals) speak to us and make it our own. Some say this makes us confused but I think it makes us unique. I mean, Matthew has four hit albums, a hit song, a huge fan base and a period in Nashville which had even the greats talking about him. Off stage, he still speaks and acts like a humble Kampong boy, but on stage – he’s a country-singing star. He straddles both worlds comfortably and is just – himself. Matthew once told me how much he resented emcees going on stage and shouting “Yee-hah” before he would perform as they are missing the point – he’s right, he’s not some hokey imposter, he‘s an artist!
MH: How did you become interested in filmmaking and what do you remember about your inaugural film? What do you think was the defining moment in your filmmaking career?
WLL: I first became interested in film while I was doing my undergraduate studies in America. I went to a Liberal Arts university which didn’t offer film as a major and I was doing visual arts and some theory studies but I took one experimental film class and thought it felt very good to me. Then I went to NYU Tisch to do “Sight and Sound”, an intensive filmmaking production course for a semester and that sealed the deal. I still graduated with a non-film degree but when I came back to Singapore I started making my own short films and working in the television industry to keep the fire going and to keep learning.
The first short film I made after coming back to Singapore in 1996 was called Norman on the Air. I wrote, directed and produced it for a budget of $6,000, used non-actors and had some friends and professionals in the crew. It was so much fun, a lot of hard work, some pain but not much anxiety as I had no expectation for it to win anything or go anywhere. I just really wanted to tell this story and keep the fire going. But it did end up winning a “Best Director” award at the 1997 Singapore International Film Festival and that was the defining moment in my filmmaking life. I was 23 and some people thought I had something interesting to say and that I had some talent, so I thought: Okay, I can do this, I can try to make this work for myself. Downside is that the anxiety set in after that.
MH: Cowboys and country music seem to be rather remote from our national identity/memory. How did you manage to weave the two disparate elements into the tapestry of a documentary short for the Singapore Memory Project?
WLL: On the contrary, I think Matthew, his music and in particular, his hit song “Singapore Cowboy” is of great importance to many Singaporeans of a certain generation and made an impact on the younger generation like myself who grew up on his music and actually got to watch him perform.
Matthew’s such a unique individual and he has had such a great musical life story that it wasn’t too hard to get something interesting out of him. And with so many wonderful archive photos available, it’s really been a trip down memory lane for his fans who’ve watched him perform at the hotels during the 70s and 80s. It was harder to decide what had to go for this piece, as there was a time limit. So I decided to largely focus on the genesis of the song “Singapore Cowboy” this time round, but I hope to make a longer more comprehensive documentary about Matthew down the road.
MH: Is it true that your father was a friend of Matthew Tan? How did you get interested in this musician and his songs? When was the first time you got to meet him or saw him performing?
WLL: Yes! My parents knew Matthew from a young age and they even sent him off at the airport when he flew to Nashville in the late 70s.
I met Matthew when I was a young kid and I remember that he kind of resembled my father in some ways – he had a broad face framed by black horn rimmed glasses. And my father was an amateur musician who liked to play and sing country music. My father used this to his advantage and fooled me that HE was in fact Matthew. I was a bit confused and sort of believed him, I was just a kid after all!
Nowadays, my folks still go and listen to him play when they can and he’s performed at their private parties on many occasions.
Matthew told me that Country Music fans are extremely loyal and stick around for years to come, I guess my parents are proof of that!
MH: Can you tell us more about your upcoming film, Singapore Cowboy?
WLL: My feature film project Singapore Cowboy is inspired by Matthew’s life but it’s largely fictional. I was not interested to write a biopic; I wanted creative license to write something of my own. However, I do want to use Matthew’s song “Singapore Cowboy” for the movie and get Matthew on board as a musical consultant and possibly a cameo!
I started working on the script in September 2010 and I’m into my fifth draft now and it’s going well. The story centres on Sunny, a Singaporean family man who suffers a head injury and becomes a singing, walking, talking John Wayne-wannabe who runs off to Nashville to recapture a dream he once had.
So, to answer your question, no, none of this actually happened to Matthew! He is pretty sane and grounded. Though I think there is a part of him that really wants to go back to Nashville and I certainly fed off that energy when I first interviewed him in early 2010 and that rubbed off on the character’s (Sunny’s) journey.
The film is in the early stages of development and I’m planning a trip to Nashville next month (April) and am pretty excited about that.
MH: You once mentioned in an interview that your films “are not perceived to be very ‘Singaporean’”? Do you think that’s true and is there any pressure to produce films infused with a ‘Singaporean flavour’?
I have to trust my instincts first and foremost and serve the story and character I want to communicate, create a mood, a feeling – these are all hard enough (I feel). I’m learning, I’m growing and I’m still making work – that is the goal of my creative life. Some people say that my films are very local and some say they are not local at all and basically, I’ve had all sorts of comments good and bad thrown my way. I’ve got to take what helps me get on my goal and tune out the rest.
MH: Finally, if you had the chance to populate a time capsule to be opened 100–200 years from now, what would you put in it?
I would put a hard disc containing all my films and my husband’s films, a family album so my great-great grand kids can have them and several choice selections of Cathay Keris and Shaw Brothers movies set in Singapore on 35mm reels. And I’d also put in several vinyls of great Singapore music including of course, Matthew and the Mandarin’s entire collection. A mint 35mm projector and vinyl player should be thrown in too. Who knows what those will be worth in 300 years!
“Singapore Country” premieres on 30 Mar at www.SingaporeMemory.sg, and at our first Block Party at Toa Payoh, where you’ll be also experiencing other commissioned works by the Singapore Memory Project
National Library (Arts)