Royston Tan: Something to remember

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Singaporean filmmaker Courtesy of Royston TanRoyston Tan’s biggest fear in life is losing his memory. He is afraid that one day his brain will give up on him and he won’t be able to remember a single thing.

That is why he makes films. If ever that uneventful day occurred, he said, his films could be played to him in hospital.

“[My biggest fear] is not cancer, or anything else, but that I may lose my brain. In each of my short films, there’s a story. But there’s also a personal story behind it. I want to remember all of this,” he said.

His latest short film project is Ah Kong. Commissioned by Singapore’s Health Promotion Board, the film focused on the issue of dementia. Tan said he had to confront his fear during his research while he talked to people with dementia.

An award winning filmmaker, Tan is one of Singapore’s most prominent directors. His famous short film on Singapore’s street gangster youth subculture, 15, which became a feature-length film, transformed him into a sort of Singaporean cult icon. In 2004, at the age of 28, he entered the list of Time’s Asian Heroes for pushing the creative envelope of Singapore’s cinema.

Jakartans were delighted when they had the chance to see his short films, selected by Tan himself, at the 9th Q! Film Festival. His films were screened for two nights on Sept. 25 and 26, before the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) brouhaha, in which the radical Islamic group rallied in front of the venues demanding the closing of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, Bisexual)-themed film festival.

His film screening showcasing four of his short films were packed. Tan also said he could hear the audience sobbing as they watched. A good thing, he said, as that meant his films touched them. He also noted that Jakarta was the only place in which he received long emails from people after his film screenings. He received emails after the screening of his musical 88 at the 2008 Jakarta International Film Festival (JiFFest), and the Q! Film Festival was not that much different, he said.

The Jakarta Post met up with Tan recently before his departure to Malaysia. Busy as a bee, the young director will soon be film-festival hopping to Japan, Korea, France and Germany. “I’ll be away from Singapore for five weeks,” he said.

Sitting over a glass of cream mocha, he talked about his passion for short films and brushes with his country’s censorship board. One short film screened at Q! was Cut, a hilarious short film lambasting Singapore’s censorship body. Tan made Cuta year after the censorship board cut 27 scenes from his feature film 15.

Tan said that despite the country’s strict censorship policy, he did not expect 15 to receive such a heavy hand. An honest depiction of Singapore’s fringe society, Tan said the film was important for Singaporeans. Tan likened the scene cuts to having delivered a baby in hospital only to be told that the baby was evil and had to have its arms and legs amputated.

The film 15 has received many awards and has been screened all around the world. It was screened once in Singapore, in which it was sold out in 45 minutes, he said. “It shows that Singaporeans are very curious about what is real. It’s a shame that authority refuses to admit that,” he said.

“I just feel that censorship is outdated,” he said, adding that the Internet era could not stop anyone from accessing information. For Tan, censorship only deprives people from discussion. “Witholding content deprives people of knowledge. Through distributing more content, you make them think and reflect on what is right and wrong,” he said. “Let people make a choice.”

With four feature films and 25 short films to his name over his 14-year career span, Tan said he aimed to express what he wanted to say through his works and re-introduce to Singaporeans what was “rightfully theirs”. “Sometimes in the midst of shaping the country, certain things are filtered out. I think what is missing is our real identity”.

Tan’s films are mostly social realist films as well as several experimental ones. For 15, he hung out with Singaporean teenage gangsters for one year before shooting.

His observation skills come from being a misfit, he said. Growing up in a kampung, Tan said he was one of the last to move to Singapore’s housing estates. He said the experience of moving from the kampung to apartment blocks was traumatizing as a seven-year-old.

“So my childhood was different. I grew up with animals. I grew up with people and nature — and [with] people who are generally making do with what we have in the environment. And when I went to elementary school, I realized that the way people did stuff was different,” he said.

Tan said he had trouble communicating with people, and spent a lot of time alone talking to his imaginary friends. He would quietly observe the people around him, he said.

He found his life path as a filmmaker at the end of secondary school. He took video-production class and soon found himself borrowing the camera over again.

His newest project premiered in Sapporo on his birthday, Oct. 5. The 3-D film titled Fishlove is a tribute to Hiroaki Muragishi, the actor of Tan’s experimental award-winning short film Monkeylove. Muragishi died in 2006 in a swimming accident in a river in Kouchi, Japan. The actor played an orange simian in search of his stolen heart during the cold Japanese winter. The monkey could not remember who stole his heart, walking through the snow to ask the mountain for clues.

“I wanted to make this film Fishlove to commemorate [Muragishi]. It’s a story about a fish that kept having memories about him walking through the snow,” he said.

Tan said he would give the film to the actor’s mother. “His mother said, ‘When my son gave me a copy of the short film I was joking with him, laughing. Because why would my son give me this funny film about him being a monkey to me? I just laughed. But now that he has passed away, I know it is to remind me that inside the film he’s always alive’.”

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | People | Thu, October 14 2010

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