Royston Tan with co-directors Eva Tang and Victric Thng. Photo: Objectifs
As the enfant terrible of Singapore cinema in the last decade, Royston Tan made a string of memorable, critically acclaimed feature films which propelled local movies into the limelight.
‘15’ (2003), ‘4:30’ (2006), ‘881’ (2007) and ‘12 Lotus’ (2008) set the stage for a young, fresh, angry, showy, sometimes commercial, most times art-house quality of cinema here which no filmmaker since then have, arguably, managed to match in an equivalent burst of creativity.
Tan is back with ‘Old Romances’, his new documentary of places, nostalgia, and moments from the golden trove of many memories, both past and present, which made this land not so much uniquely Singapore, but more a home of Singaporean uniqueness.
The Tanjong Pagar Railway Station canteen. An old-fashioned beauty salon at East Coast Road. The crocodile farm at Upper Serangoon Road. A provision shop. Temples. A record shop still selling cassette tapes. Even the bus interchange anchoring a neighbourhood. These are, and were, special sites where souls were born, spirit was grown, emotions were experienced and lives were lived in ‘Old Romances’. Some of these people who share their memories in the documentary will be reliving them at the screenings. Old Romances will be screened this weekend
Tan, 36, talks to inSing about the upcoming occasion, all that has transpired with him, all he has witnessed, overcome, thought about, and all that will, okay, maybe ideally happen to him eventually.
Tell us about ‘Old Romances’.
‘Old Romances’ is the sequel to ‘Old Places’ which was a documentary first shown on TV on the eve of National Day in 2010, and is the highest rated local documentary on TV that year. Back then with ‘Old Places’, we got people to call in by phone to tell us about old places in Singapore that mattered to them. The co-directors and I decided that our journey didn’t end there and continued to explore other places that might disappear. In fact, a good 40 per cent of what was featured in ‘Old Places’ don’t exist anymore. So, there was an urgent need to shoot ‘Old Romances’. In Mandarin, ‘Old Romances’ is called “laochin ren”; attachment to a place is a form of “love”. ‘Old Romances’ isn’t just about nostalgia; it’s a love letter written to all our beloved old places from Singaporeans of all walks of life.
A still from 'Old Romances'
What’s the difference between ‘Old Romances’ and ‘Old Places’?
In ‘Old Places’, everybody talked about how much they loved the places in the show; there wasn’t so much depth. But this time with ‘Old Romances’, we went much more in depth. For instance, if there’s a temple, we wanted to know what’s so special about it. We featured a temple where a lot of mah chieh (old women) went to recite their vows. And we actually found a person who’s still alive to recite the mah chieh vow for us. Memories reside everywhere. It could be in a neighbourhood street, a corner, a park, a provision shop and this time, even a dying trade. We’ve included the craft of metal welding for kopitiam utensils and the intricate art of Peranakan beading.
‘Old Romances’ trailer
Why talk memories through the phone? Why not a narrator?
We didn’t want to pick up a mic and just do an interview. We used phone recordings because it’s like we’re chatting with the person. As he tells us about the specialness of a place dear to him, we want it to sound as if you’re a friend of that place as well as a friend of his. We’ll film the place and the items of personal history that person is willing to share. In this way, we collect little pockets of memories in little stories in one single film. There’s something very sexy about a phone conversation. It’s personal, it’s intimate, it’s honest, and the voice itself is also very raw.
Which was the segment that connected with your team the most?
Surprisingly, it’s the Miss Community Centre beauty contest organised by the PAP in 1979. The lady in ‘Old Romances’ who took part will be attending our screening as a special guest. She introduced us to the hair salon where she styled her hair for the pageant – Carnival Beauty Salon at East Coast Road. The salon is still there and hasn’t changed a bit. She showed us photographs and newspaper clippings from all those years ago. I thought that if we don’t document this priceless story, then twee bu chi zhi chi (“cannot forgive oneself” in Mandarin).
A KTM Railway stop
After ‘Old Romances’, are there still other memories left?
There are. We can still do one final episode. As filmmakers, it’s very technical. We just go there and shoot. But I don’t know if emotionally, we can still handle this. We’re racing against time to film whatever we need to film. It took two years to make ‘Old Romances’. But when we saw the finished product, the feeling was incredibly sentimental. Everybody went silent because there were things that would never come back again. In our trailer, we said that the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station will be coming back in our screening. But the real train, etched in the memories of so many hearts and souls, is never ever going to come back. Never again.
How does a young filmmaker like you, only 36 years old, feel so nostalgic?
I’m somebody who likes to escape to his childhood because that’s the most memorable part of his life where life was very simple and everything was organic and real. I realise that every 20 years or so, Singapore does a major renovation. A very big facelift. A German journalist came to interview me for ‘Old Places’. He insisted on going to the place where I grew up at Lorong Chuan although I told him that there’s no such place anymore. When we went, he was shocked to find an empty space; just fields and the CTE. There are no traces of my history. I cannot remember anything at all. It made me question what is home. If we don’t have a sense of belonging anymore, then what is the significance of a country? Is it a casino? Is it just all these rah rah things that are happening? It isn’t.
Your last feature film was ‘12 Lotus’ four years ago. Everybody has been waiting for your next big one. Where have you been?
Well, I’ll be very honest with you. My luck hasn’t been very good. There were two projects that were supposed to happen. But they got canned. So I wasted two years of my life writing the scripts. But I guess that’s a good thing because my new script, ‘69’, won a big prize at the Pusan International Film Festival. First time for a Singapore script. So right now we’re in talks with our Taiwan partner to film it. It’ll be shot entirely in Taiwan.
Is ‘69’ going to be your next film?
Yes. There will be a lot of nudity. It’s about a man who’s clinging on to a hope that his wife who had disappeared in an accident will come back again. I hope to shoot next July in Taiwan. We’re waiting for a particular important actor to agree to take his clothes off.
Do you miss the glam and hype of a commercial hit such as ‘881’?
No. Since day one with ‘881’, I’ve been very careful because when you go up, you have to be prepared to come down. I was an indie character nobody recognised. But after ‘881’, I go to coffee shop, public toilet, swimming pool, everybody start snapping pictures. Very scary. I had to rethink and resist because it’s really very easy to be lost in it. I keep telling myself – I’m a filmmaker and every project is different. For example, ‘Old Places’ triggered off a lot of things in me. I could tell stories that people wanted to hear. I could go back to basics and start telling simple things that mattered to me.
The Singapore filmmaking scene of today – with the new input of horror, drama, young romance, modern comedy – practised by a new breed of directors. What do you make of it?
To be very honest about it, a healthy film community in Singapore should have a mixture of arthouse and commercial films. But if the equation is like 80 per cent commercial movies and very little arthouse, then I will be very worried. Then we might fall into the situation of what Hong Kong cinema is going through. Right now, our filmmakers seem to be heading towards a coffee-shop style of telling stories. Sooner or later, the audience will get tired. You need different genres, but it’s still important to have diversity to create an exciting mixture like what we had back in the years 2002 to 2005 (‘I Not Stupid’, ‘15’, ‘Perth’, ‘The Maid’, ‘Be With Me’). And it’s important to have more independent films as everything is about money now. There is usually a “formula” if your first movie is a commercial one. Once you exhaust that formula, then what will take you to the next stage?
Is Roystan Tan still the Angry Young Man or has he actually mellowed with age?
I think I’ve gotten a lot smarter (laughs). I’ve learnt how to be subversive and critical without being too outright about it. After ‘15’, I realized that there are other ways to be critical about an issue. I think you just mature and learn how to maneuver your way to get things done the way you want it.
We are now having a National Conversation to ask what’s the vision of Singapore that we want to see. What is Royston Tan’s contribution to the National Conversation?
I panic every time there’s an upgrading of some kind because they just upgrade the whole place to become something that we don’t recognise anymore. I want to bring out the fact that it’s important to preserve and also conserve at the same time. Don’t just preserve the outside but inside. Let’s give a little bit of space to remember for the next generation. If not, everybody would treat this place like an MRT station. Our memories and our roots are very important. For example, the Chinese dialects are already dying out. With that silenced, comes the silencing of our stories, culture and beauty. We eat Hokkien mee, but will we even know why it’s called Hokkien mee next time?