In a country where the staple cinematic diet is mainstream blockbusters, the Singapore Chinese Film Festival is slowly establishing itself as a refreshing alternative by offering cinema-goers bold, experimental and thought-provoking Chinese-themed films.
Held from April 28 to May 7, the SCFF returns with two new segments – a compilation of Singapore short films by up-and-coming directors, and digitally restored Chinese classics.
The fifth renewal of the festival boasts 45 films across four categories – Chinese Panorama, Documentary Vision, Chinese Shorts Showcase and Restored Classics. One of the major highlights is a rare screening of Love and Duty, a 1931 silent movie starring late, great Chinese actress Ruan Lingyu. The black and white romantic drama was long thought to be lost until a print was unearthed in Uruguay in the 1990s and sent to the Taipei Film Archive where it was eventually restored in 2014.
“Last year we screened Centre Stage starring Maggie Cheung and the response was very good. So this year we decided to screen the real Ruan Lingyu,” said Foo Tee Tuan, a co-director of the festival. The Stanley Kwan-directed Centre Stage (2008) is based on the tragic life story of Ruan Lingyu.
Love and Duty will be screened as the finale during the closing ceremony. Ruan plays Yang Naifan in the film, a young woman who is forced into an arranged marriage by her parents. Yang reunites with her first love several years later and decides to elope with him, with disastrous results.
This year’s slate of Singapore short films features five stories that coincidentally revolve around the theme of “family.” This includes the world premieres of Paper House, an intimate portrait of a family set against the backdrop of a traditional Chinese funeral. There is also Lullaby, about a neglected grandmother and the touching relationship she forges with her grandson.
Surprisingly for a country known for its strict censorship laws, the SCFF has seen only one film that required a cut since its launch in 2013.
“The film censors have been kind to us. Out of the five years, only one film in 2014 that required a cut was withdrawn from the festival,” Foo said. Under Singapore’s Films Act, all films distributed and exhibited in the island nation must be submitted for classification and certification with the exception of certain categories such as karaoke, children’s programs and sport.
Boundless was eventually shown uncut at a Singapore Film Society event after an appeal by the other festival co-director David Lee.
Censors also passed the Hong Kong’s omnibus Ten Years uncut for the festival last year, despite “dragging on until quite late,” according to Foo. The sociopolitical omnibus imagines a dystopian Hong Kong in 2025 that is tightly controlled by China. The controversial film drew the ire of Beijing after it swept the board at last year’s Hong Kong Film Awards.
A celebration of diversity
While Singapore has other Chinese film festivals, all of them focus on a specific country or genre.
By showcasing pan-regional Chinese productions that include films from Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Macau and elsewhere, SCFF’s organizers say they aim to plug the gaps in the screening of quality Chinese films.
“The films must be Chinese films in Mandarin or Chinese dialects and the main cast or director also need to be ethnic Chinese. In that regard, our selection criteria is even more stringent than the Golden Horse Awards,” Foo says with a smile. Taiwan’s annual Golden Horse Awards are considered the pinnacle for Chinese-language films.
“For our Chinese Panorama segment, we try to select films that are made in the past two years. Additionally, we screen films that have never been commercially released in Singapore, with a few exceptions,” Foo says.
The Chinese Panorama segment is a permanent category showcasing award-winning and independent features from various territories.
Emphasizing that diversity is important, Lee says. “We have a diverse selection of films. These include films that are popular in their home countries but have not been commercially released in Singapore, such as Trivisa, Godspeed and 52Hz, I Love You.”
Other than screenings, there will also be four panel sessions covering various aspects of filmmaking.
Among the panelists is Wong Chun, director of Mad World, which won best film at the Osaka Asian Film Festival this year. Also making an appearance is Li Nien-hsiu, who was nominated for a Golden Horse in the editing category for her work on Hip-Hop Storm.
When asked about the challenges of organizing a film festival, the co-directors cited budget and manpower as key issues. The festival is run by a lean team of 10 from the Centre of Chinese Studies, Singapore University of Social Sciences and Singapore Film Society and receives no government funding. Private organizations cover the bulk of the running costs along with injections from the university.
“Some films do charge a lot for each screening and we have a limited budget,” says Lee.
While Infocomm Media Development Authority, the country’s media regulator, provides marketing assistance to help companies defray the costs of overseas travel and marketing of content at certain events – that funding criteria does not apply to the SCFF.
“The funding criteria mostly applies for Singaporean directors traveling overseas. Most of our cost is in bringing overseas directors to Singapore, which the government can’t fund,” says Lee.
The total cost of the festival is a low six-figure sum, the bulk of which goes to film licensing, travel expenses for visiting guests, venue rental and manpower. Nonetheless, despite these challenges, the festival has managed to scale up significantly from the 10 films shown in the inaugural SCFF.
The festival has also attracted a diverse crowd ranging from tourists, new immigrants to cineastes and those interested in Chinese culture. Last year, it drew a record 5,500 people with 22 sold-out screenings.
In the future, the co-directors hope to implement a short film competition and increase the number of regular categories.