How long does it take to develop a unique national culture? Perhaps the answer can be found in Singapore. The “Lion City” has been independent for just half a century and maybe, judging from the splash the country has made at international film festivals in the last couple of years, its film directors have found out just what makes the culture of Singapore special. From May 12 to 20, you can get a shot of Singaporean cinema at the Sintok Film Festival in Roppongi, Tokyo.
The nonprofit event has been on hiatus since its debut in 2009, where festival director Yumi Matsushita and a group of volunteers drew almost 1,000 guests to the cinema. Japan-born Matsushita spent three years at school in Singapore in the late 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2008, when she met one of Singapore’s most prominent directors, that she started to notice Singaporean cinema.
“I learned that something interesting was going on in Singapore, so I went there and talked to directors and people in the movie business, finding interesting talents,” she tells The Japan Times. “No one was promoting films from Singapore in Japan at that time, so I thought, ‘Why not me?’ “
Matsushita is arranging the 2012 festival with three others, plus a dozen volunteers who are helping out with translation and projection.
The Singaporean film scene only really kicked off in the ’90s — the oldest film on the Sintok program, filmmaker Eric Khoo’s short “Pain”, is from 1994. But most of the films are from the last two or three years, when it seems the directors have started to deal with unique Singaporean issues, says Matsushita. The films deals with issues such as language barriers, military service, censorship and city development.
“I think the films have become more original in the last couple of years,” says Matsushita. “Directors like Royston Tan have started to look into their own identity and culture instead of mimicking idols from abroad. Singaporean films have slowly developed their own style.”
Sintok (the name is a contraction of Singapore and Tokyo) showcases a very wide range of films. You can catch blockbuster comedies, art films, shorts and documentaries — a lot of them several years old. Matsushita explains that one reason for this variety is that the festival wants to give the audience a better understanding of what people in Singapore enjoy.
“The loud, flashy comedies do exist in Singapore, but almost nobody outside the country knows of them,” she says. “Mostly people know of the more arty films that are featured at the international film festivals.
“We took the older films in for both PR and artistic reasons. Some of them still haven’t been distributed in Japan, so maybe they can get sold (after appearing at the festival). And the artistic reason is that I think it’s important for the audience to see the development Singaporean films have gone through.”
One of the main draws of the festival are the films by Tan. The 35-year-old may be the brightest star in Singapore’s movie business, and his quirky 2007 musical “881” was the second film from Singapore ever to be released in Japan. Sintok 2012 features several of his works, among them “881” successor “12 Lotus” and a special cut of “15: The Movie.”
“We are showing a 35-mm copy of the film,” says Matsushita. “The Singapore censorship board made 27 cuts to the movie, but the movie has been stapled back together for the festival. That means you can hear crackles in the sound every time a clip was cut and reinserted.”
Tan is famous for his battles with Singapore’s censors. His short film “Cut,” also on the programme at Sintok, is an ironic 10-minute musical devoted to an unnamed lady from the board of censors.
While Tan is the biggest name, film geeks will find pleasure in discovering some of the younger directors, many of them screening for the first time in Japan. Sintok features a large selection of short films from up-and-coming talents. One of the goals of the festival is to promote newcomers to the Japanese audience and film industry, but Matsushita admits this could prove difficult.
“Right now, people just don’t know about Singapore’s film scene here,” she laments. “So far there is not enough demand to get the films distributed widely. But the interest is definitely there.”
Sintok Film Festival runs May 12-20 at Cinem@rt Roppongi, Tokyo. All films except “881” and “4:30″ are in English or have English subtitles. Day tickets are ¥1,300.; tickets to the opening screening, including a buffet and special guest appearances, are ¥3,500. For more information, visit www.sintok.org.