Ken Kwek: Homegrown Movie Magic

Posted by on May 29, 2015 in Memento | No Comments

Growing up as a teenager and watching local films inspired Ken Kwek to become a filmmaker in Singapore. Looking back, he says he was moved not only by the films themselves, but by the people who made them too.

I was 15 years old when Eric Khoo made his first movie, Mee Pok Man.

By then I had developed an enthusiasm for the movies, having benefited from a diet of bootleg VHS tapes and VCDs smuggled across the Causeway by my Malaysian classmate, Looi.

In the 1980s and 1990s, videos were recorded on VHS tapes. Photo credit: Allan Foster/Flickr

In the 1980s and 1990s, videos were recorded on VHS tapes. Photo credit: Allan Foster/Flickr
 

Looi, a movie fiend who brought A- and B-grade masterpieces such as Trainspotting, Pulp Fiction and Showgirls  – movies we were legally too young to watch in cinemas – was simply not able to get his resourceful hands on a pirated tape of Mee Pok Man.

Two years later, nearly free from the shackles of childhood, I finally saw my first Singapore movie, and again it was Eric Khoo, but with 12 Storeys.

 

The box of memories

I found the ticket stub recently in an old box of things, an old shoebox of half-forgotten memories. The shoebox contains a weathered diary.

In the diary, my younger self revealed that I saw 12 Storeys with a girl and that, in fact, it was our first date. My younger self also had this to add about the film: “A great movie, miserable enough, but I laughed at a lot of things as well.”

Clearly the film’s comical view of human suffering touched me even then, but now I wonder if it was not also a horrific choice for getting a date – a first date – into a romantic mood.

In any case my younger self, who glorified and dismissed movies with equal ingenuous zeal, would finally get my hands on a copy of Mee Pok Man but admire it rather less than 12 Storeys.

This was my first Singapore movie I watched, with a girl on our first date.

This was my first Singapore movie I watched, with a girl on our first date.

It would be years before I appreciated Mee Pok Man’s true value; not as an inspirational film but as an inspirational work that transcended the medium.

Twenty years after missing Mee Pok Man in the cinemas, I find it fantastical to be working beside my mentors in the small, but now undeniably present, film industry of Singapore.

For most of us who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, movies were these great big things made by other people living in other countries. There was no film industry in Singapore and no film schools, at least not till 1989. Movies came from places like Hollywood, Bollywood, South Korea and Hong Kong.

Movies were made by names like Woo, not Khoo.

Eric Khoo’s success with Mee Pok Man and 12 Storeys conveyed a simple and powerful idea: that it was possible for a Singaporean to make a movie; to tell stories about his city and put it up there on that big, magical screen for everyone to see.

If Khoo can do like Woo, then I, too, can do.

 

Gems to cherish 

That spirit must have carried through for the directors Glen Goei and Kelvin Tong, who made Forever Fever and Eating Air in 1998 and 1999 respectively.

At the fin de siècle (end of the century), I had just about completed the Beckettian (bleak) rite-of-passage that many Singaporeans call National Service. Soon after, perhaps as fate would have it, I landed an internship at The Straits Times and was assigned to its entertainment section. One of the writers I reported to was the paper’s film reviewer, Kelvin Tong.

For most of us who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, movies were these great big things made by other people living in other countries.

He was a busy fellow and the newsroom was a busy world. Just 27 years old then, he would occasionally take time off to promote Eating Air, which he co-directed with Jasmine Ng. Eating Air was a gem of a film; a love story with an unforgettable end, filled with youthful fire and rebellion, and set to a cracking soundtrack.

Kelvin Tong was not only an inspiring filmmaker but an inspiring person, a man with a frenetic imagination and intelligence, who introduced me to Dogme films and the best of 1990s Korean cinema. We lost touch for many years after just three months of interaction in the newsroom.

As for Glen Goei, I did not know him personally back then. He was already a big name, the guy who had performed on London’s West End in ‘M. Butterfly’ and who had by now, directed a hit film that had been picked up by Miramax Studios.

Forever Fever was a constant reminder that a good Singapore English-language film was a rarity to be cherished rather than a financial risk to eschew.

Forever Fever was a constant reminder that a good Singapore English-language film was a rarity to be cherished rather than a financial risk to eschew.

Like Eating Air, Forever Fever was a romance, a tale of adolescent desire thwarted by parental authority within a rule-ridden society. Unlike Eating Air, Forever Fever was an English-language film.

In a local industry where commercial output was dominated by Chinese-language films, Forever Fever became a constant reminder that a good Singaporean English-language film was a rarity to be cherished rather than a financial risk to eschew.

I saw both Eating Air and Forever Fever in the cinema, and again there are ticket stubs in my old shoebox – artefacts of Singapore’s film history before there was a Singaporean film industry to speak of.

I flipped to the pages of my diary that coincided with the dates printed on the ticket stubs of Forever Fever and Eating Air, and this time there were no one-line reviews of the films. Instead, there were reams of heartbreak and the angst of coming-of-age. Also, the grimness of National Service and some confusion about religion. The girl I took to watch 12 Storeys on a date was gone too.

A snapshot of an excerpt from my diary after I watched 12 Storeys.

A snapshot of an excerpt from my diary after I watched 12 Storeys.

Perhaps, because Eating Air and Forever Fever spoke to me so perfectly at the time, there was no need for words.

 

Times of importance

It was through a chance introduction by another ex-colleague at The Straits Times that I met Glen Goei in late 2006, at a social gathering at his house.

We became friends. Two years later, it was he who encouraged me to write my first screenplay; a full-length satire entitled The Funeral Party. The film, later renamed The Blue Mansion, was Glen Goei’s first film since Forever Fever.

The movie was not a commercial hit but it was critically well-received. I spent a couple of weeks on set in Malaysia and in the process, got to know some of the finest actors working in Singapore. However The Blue Mansion’s biggest impact on my career was that it precipitated a call from another filmmaker who asked me to co-write his next film.

Incredibly, 10 years after Eating Air, I found myself being re-acquainted with Kelvin Tong, now a full-fledged director with more than ten feature films and TV series under his belt. We co-wrote several scripts that were produced –  films like Kidnapper (2011) and It’s A Great, Great World (2011) – and many others that were not.

Writing scripts are part and parcel of film production.

Writing scripts are part and parcel of film production. Photo credit: Joe Flood/Flickr

As I adjusted to the life of a fulltime writer-for-hire, I filled many seemingly unpaid hours watching Kelvin Tong spearhead his production, fight for scarce financing, push through from script to screen, to sales. He showed me how hard it was to make a movie but he also showed me how hard it was not to.

These days, even when I am not working directly with Kelvin, my projects tend to involve the team he has built with his incredible co-producers Leon Tong and Kat Goh under their label, Boku Films. They are a kind of family to me, a family of Quixotes tilting at windmills.

 If Khoo can do like Woo, then I, too, can do.

Twenty years after missing Mee Pok Man in the cinemas, I find it fantastical to be working beside my mentors in the small, but now undeniably present, film industry of Singapore. I am indebted to Kelvin Tong for his nurture, Glen Goei for his influence, and Eric Khoo for making Mee Pok Man. But most of all I am indebted to Looi – my personal pirate and fellow film fiend from high school – who got me hooked in the first place.

 

All words and photos by Ken Kwek, unless otherwise stated.

Published by the Singapore Memory Project

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