I met Eric Khoo the morning after the screening of Be With Me and Tatsumi. He proved to be an engaging character and generous with his time. Rather than a formal interview, we had a discussion based around a few prompts I made. He said that he was familiar with Japanese Cinema in the late 1940s (e.g. Kurosawa and Ozu) and that he was aware of how similar some of the scenes from Tatsumi’s manga were to scenes from the films of that period – in fact it was the cinematic quality of Tatsumi’s work which was one of the attractions for a filmmaker. When we discussed anime, Mr Khoo said that he wasn’t that impressed by most anime, even those from Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, except for perhaps Princess Mononoke and Ponyo because they at least seemed to have some real drama. When I pressed him he agreed that there was certainly something to be said for Graveyard of the Fireflies (Takahata Isao, 1988, Studio Ghibli) in which we see the terrible impact of the fire-bombing of Kobe by the Americans towards the end of the war. Not surprisingly the boy in this film is shown in similar ways to Tatsumi as a young teenager only a few years later.
I suggested that Be With Me had been seen by some critics as reminiscent of the work of the Taiwanese directors Edward Yang and Hou Hsaio-hsien and we discussed how some elements of the film, such as the ‘presence’ of the dead wife, drew on aspects of Chinese culture that might not be easily accessible to Western audiences. I asked Mr Khoo if he felt like a filmmaker of the Chinese diaspora in Singapore and whether he felt connected to the industries in the Three Chinas. He answered this by saying that really he didn’t have that much connection with these industries. He recognised that the Taiwanese industry had revived a little recently but didn’t think that there were many opportunities yet and he said that he thought the Hong Kong industry was dead with all the main players moving towards mainland productions. Obviously the mainland industry is booming but he thought it was very difficult to break into Chinese distribution. He followed this up by commenting on the state of Japanese Cinema. He was quite pessimistic and suggested that only older people went to the cinema in Japan. On the whole he was more interested in what was happening in South Korea. Later he revealed that his wife was Korean and his daughter was fond of K-pop. I queried whether the hallyu (the ‘Korean wave’ of media products sweeping across East Asia) wasn’t running out of steam. He assured me that it wasn’t and that the influence was everywhere.
At this point the conversation moved on to my second question: did he see himself as a ‘festival film’ producer or did he think that it was possible to move into commercial film distribution? I realised later, when I had done more research, that this was rather a naïve question since Eric Khoo is already established as both a festival name and a successful producer of films in Singapore, including genre pictures. He feels that currently in Singapore there is a real opportunity to build an industry. He referred back to the industry of the late 1940s–1960s in colonial Singapore and Malaya when the Shaw Brothers and later Cathay-Keris ran commercial studios that were Chinese-owned with Malay actors and Indian directors and technicians. Recently, changes in local tax regulations have encouraged Singapore-Malaysian co-productions (see my earlier posting on Chinese-Malaysian productions). There is now a strong production base in Singapore but with only a small population (5 million), commercial filmmaking is limited – but add in the growing Malaysian film market (within a country of 28 million) and commercial production looks viable. Eric Khoo’s production company Zhao Wei Films has just completed a ‘military horror’ film 2359 which Khoo has executive-produced. (Singapore has conscription for national military service and there are a number of local productions which reference this experience for all young males.) 2359 opens in Singapore and Malaya next month. Horror is one of the most popular genres in the region with both Thailand and Indonesia producing horror films, some of which are also shown in Malaysia. As well as acting as Executive Producer on commercial productions like this, Eric Khoo has also helped the other Singapore ‘name director’ on the festival circuit, Royston Tan, make his films through Zhao Wei. We reported on Sandcastle (Singapore 2010) by Boo Junfeng, another film exec-produced by Eric Khoo, from last year’s London Film Festival.
Singapore and Malaysia together constitute a film culture with three different language bases. Eric Khoo’s 2008 film My Magic features a central character from the Singapore Tamil community and it did receive a release of sorts in India – although it was difficult to organise. What seems clear though is that despite the enormous presence of India and China as major players, there is space for a regional industry in South East Asia and that it is possible to straddle the different worlds of the international festival circuit and the regional commercial market. It would be good though if filmmakers like Eric Khoo could get wider distribution deals for their festival films and via DVD and online were able to get local genre productions into more markets. Let’s hope that Tatsumi leads the way.