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Going out to catch a Singapore movie in the cinemas? The good news is that this year, there will be more movies with local faces, places and situations compared with last year. The catch - as has been the trend over the last few years - is that most of them hawk all-too-familiar concepts.
Notwithstanding a slate this year that is awash in formulaic horror flicks and broad comedies, there will be a few works from Singapore-based film-makers going off the beaten track. Documentary about menstrual pads for the poor, anyone?
In the coming months, local production houses look likely to pitch up to 16 films to operators of mainstream cinemas. If all of them are taken up, it will mark a slight increase on the dozen that hit the screens last year.
Even after shedding the esoteric dramas and documentaries from the list - works less likely to get a theatrical release - there are still a dozen films remaining. This is a healthy number and follows on from three years of steady numbers, proving that the slump of 2009, when only six local movies made it to the big screen, was an aberration.
More local films had been making it to cinemas before the 2008 financial crisis scared investors off. Fear also made cinema operators wary of local products, leading to a sharp drop the following year.
Jack Neo's Ah Boys to Men will return for a sequel in 2013
The commercial giant this year has to be Ah Boys To Men II, the second part of the box-office record-breaking film that opened last year. Directed and co- written by Jack Neo, the first part of the comedy about Singapore Armed Forces recruits earned $6.03 million, edging out the Neo-starring Money No Enough (1998), which made $6.02 million.
The focus in the second movie, to be released next month, will move away from the morality tale of the ungrateful son and bad soldier Ken (played by Joshua Tan) to become an ensemble comedy featuring members of the recruit platoon, promises Neo.
It is not just the shaven-headed boys of Ninja Company who are coming back. So are Weijie and Zhixin, the couple played by Malaysian singer-actor A-niu and Hong Kong actress Elanne Kwong at the centre of last year's hit romantic comedy, The Wedding Diary. The sequel to the poor-man, rich-girl comedy, to be released next month, takes on a sitcom flavour: The couple are hit with money woes and the sudden appearance of Reese (Taiwan actress Cynthia Wang), who claims to be Zhixin's half-sister.
The Wedding Diary 2
The film, a Singapore-Malaysia production, carries into this year a trend that began a few years ago: The growing involvement of companies north of the Causeway. These firms, including The Wedding Diary 2 investors Golden Screen Cinemas and Asia Tropical Films, see Mandarin speakers in both countries as one audience, united by taste.
Because of their production expertise across the Causeway, Singapore film- makers now make a beeline for locations in Malacca, Penang and Kuala Lumpur, where crew costs are lower.
Also making their presence felt more strongly this year: regional cable television channels. Fox International Channels and Star Chinese Movies, hoping to add original content to their libraries and lustre to their brands, have invested in the A-niu movie.
This week sees the return of comedian Gurmit Singh to the big screen, his first in a starring role since the critically drubbed and viewer-snubbed PCK The Movie (2010) which, even by the generous standards of Singapore slapstick, was deemed terrible.
Will Singh reclaim his big-screen credibility in Taxi! Taxi!? There is a chance he will, mainly because he will have to drop the mugging he adopts when he plays his trademark character, the boorish contractor Phua Chu Kang.
Mark Lee and Chua Enlai in Taxi! Taxi!?
In this odd-couple comedy, opening tomorrow, Singh plays a mild-mannered professor-turned-taxi driver and everyone's favourite Ah Beng Mark Lee plays his cab-driving mentor who happens to be, yes, an Ah Beng.
With horror such a staple of Singapore cinema, this year's crop of only two supernatural thrillers feels like an oversight.
Last year, there were at least three local films with "ghost" in their titles - Ghost On Air, Greedy Ghost and My Ghost Partner. This year, just one film claims that word. Ghost Child (formerly called Inside The Urn) is co-produced by Gorylah Pictures, which delivered the hit 23:59 (2011), based loosely on spooky tales popular with local military recruits.
Ghost Child, dir. by Gilbert Chan
The same director, Gilbert Chan, helms the new flick from a script by Tan Fong Cheng. Like Chan's earlier film, Ghost Child seems to be woven from local myths. This time, the scares come from a toyol, an imp-like creature found in regional folk tales. It is scheduled to start spooking viewers in March.
August will see the release of horror compendium Afterimages from director Tony Kern, a creepshow specialist who delivered the commercially well-received Haunted Changi (2010).
Like Changi, a found-footage scarefest about documentary makers who explore the shell of the former Changi Hospital, the new film is self-referential. A group of film students receive gifts of footage from the underworld. The shorts from Hell make up four stories in the compendium while the fifth deals with the aftermath. The price the students pay, it can be surmised, is rather steep.
Two coming-of-age movies on the roster show that mainstream Singapore films are more than just about ghouls, slapstick or combinations thereof.
Writer-director Chai Yee Wei (Blood Ties, 2009; Twisted, 2011) takes a break from horror to make That Girl In Pinafore, a drama about the 1990s heyday of the xinyao folk music movement and its place in the lives of four teenagers.
While its premise sounds mild, Chai is, in his own way, blazing a trail. Instead of relying on members of the tiny group of bankable names - actors such as Lee, Henry Thia, Richard Low and Fann Wong - as most Singapore films seem to do, he has opted to cast relatively unknown actors, among them Julie Tan and Jayley Woo (who also appears in Ghost Child).
The film's synopsis also suggests that it will tackle themes outside the norm for youth dramas, teen pregnancy among them. There is no confirmed release date for the movie.
The second movie about the pains and pleasures of growing up is 3 Peas In A Pod, the second feature by one-woman film dynamo Michelle Chong. Her claim to fame before her hit comedy Already Famous (2011) were the goofy characters she played in the satirical Channel 5 news show The Noose.
The multi-hyphenated Chong (writer- director-producer, for starters), like Chai, is quietly breaking with tradition.
For one thing, most of the film's dialogue will be in English. It will be set and shot almost entirely in Australia.
She is thinking big: She aims to release the film not just in Singapore and the immediate region but also in Korea and the United States.
With that in mind, the two leads playing the men in a love triangle are Calvin Chen, a member of Taiwanese boyband Fahrenheit, and Alexander Lee Eusebio, a former member of South Korea's boyband U-Kiss. The female lead, playing the object of the boys' attentions as they travel Down Under, has not yet been found.
Shooting starts in March and the film is expected to be released towards the end of the year.
Will Chong's film live up to the sum of its carefully assembled pan-Asian parts? The gambit is a lot riskier than it sounds.
Last year, two multi-national films made with Singaporean participation tried to take the "little bit of everything for everyone" approach, only to end up in the crosshairs of critics compiling their year-end worst-of lists.
One was the English-language action-horror flick Dead Mine, co-funded by HBO Asia and shot on Infinite Frameworks' Batam soundstage. The other was the shark-versus-humans creature feature Bait 3D, partly funded by Singapore's Media Development Authority, featuring actors Adrian Pang and Qi Yuwu.
While the latter film received raspberries from critics here, it took in enough money in Europe and China to warrant a sequel, according to industry reports.
Chong can take comfort from this. Peas might have a geographically indeterminate feel that might not sit well with critics or viewers here. But as Bait 3D shows, elsewhere in the world, a bigger - and perhaps much more receptive audience - awaits.
This article was first published in The Straits Times on January 2, 2013. Go to sph.straitstimes.com/archive/sunday/premium to read similar stories.
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