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.
'My Magic', Eric Khoo's 2008 film features a Singapore Tamil character. It played later in the Films From the South 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.
Tatsumi is a rather wonderful film that was released domestically in Singapore after winning plaudits at various festivals. It’s an unusual animated film that successfully manages to combine a biography of a Japanese manga author with representations of several of his stories to produce a coherent narrative. But as director Eric Khoo remarked after its screening here in Oslo it still has to go to the Tokyo International Film Festival and that will have a bearing on how the film fares in the Japanese market. It’s due out in the UK in January 2012 via Soda and international sales are stacking up via the German agents The Match Factory.
The Oslo screening was accompanied by an exhibition of the original artwork used in the film and introduced by Eric Khoo himself.
Eric Khoo introduces his film with some of frames from the exhibition visible behind him.
Eric Khoo was once himself a comic book artist but he had not thought that he had the patience to undertake an animated production . . . until he read the autobiographical manga, The Drifting Life by Tatsumi Yoshihiro published in 2009. See this website for previews of Tatsumi’s work in new Canadian published editions. Tatsumi (born 1935) became associated in Japan with a new form of manga dealing with much more realist themes and named gekiga, a term Tatsumi is said to have originated and which was taken up by some other writers. This might be seen as similar to the development of ‘graphic novel’ as a term in North America. Khoo’s problem was that he didn’t speak Japanese and he knew he must get full co-operation from Tatsumi himself. He managed to arrange an interview via a friend at Fuji Film and managed to convince Tatsumi that any film that he made would be faithful to the Tatsumi drawing style.
To produce the film, Khoo’s company Zhao Wei films worked with Infinite Frameworks (ifw) a company based in Singapore and the Indonesian island of Batam (only 40 miles away by fast boat) with whom Khoo had made several previous films. This local co-operation produced Tatsumi relatively quickly and inexpensively – without sacrificing any quality. They developed a very simple animation style that used Tatsumi’s original drawings as a model but also colouring some of the earlier black and white outlines. In this YouTube clip, Khoo and the animators explain how they approached the task (beware it is also an ad for Intel and Hewlett-Packard!):
Tatsumi was a young teenager in the immediate post-war period in Japan under the Allied Occupation. His first success as a manga story-teller came early and he was inspired by both competition from his brother and by meeting one of the leading manga/anime figures of the day Tezuka Osamu. But eventually Tatsumi tired of what he felt were the constrictions of manga aimed primarily at children and he developed the gekiga form in the late 1950s. Interestingly he returned to his memories of the immediate postwar period in his new work. Stories such as ‘Hell’ (the aftermath of the Hiroshima bomb) and ‘Goodbye’ (about a prostitute whose clients are American GIs) set up a tone that is also present in more contemporary (i.e. 1970s) stories about alienation from work and family in ‘Beloved Monkey’, ‘Occupied’ and ‘Just a Man’. I’m fascinated by these two periods of Japanese Cinema (and literature) so I found these stories – and the surrounding material relating to Tatsumi’s struggles to get them published – very engaging. It will be interesting to see what kinds of audience reactions the film gets on its international release. I would hope that it would receive as much attention as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, but I think that film has a much more recognisable story and theme. I would urge you to give Tatsumi a go. I’m sure that you will recognise some of the images from Japanese Cinema and then find the story of Tatsumi the artist as interesting as I do.
Chiew Sung Ching plays the lonely old shopkeeper in 'Be With Me'
Eric Khoo is one of the featured directors in the festival with three of his films showing. He’s one of the most important filmmakers in Singapore – arguably the most important as he operates across film and television with his own production company and has produced films for younger directors as well. To some extent he has been a ‘representative’ of Singapore Cinema with screenings at Cannes and festivals around the world. The first of the films to be shown in Oslo was Be With Me, shot very quickly in just 16 days on HD on location in Singapore. The film was inspired by the true story of Theresa Chan, a woman who lost both her hearing and her sight as a child, but who was able to learn to speak and write in English, as a second language. The film weaves her story (she was born in 1943) into a fictional narrative involving three other sets of characters. As the Production Notes explain, Ms Chan’s story stands for ‘Hope’ and the other two ingredients are ‘Love’ and ‘Destiny’. All three stories involve a sense of the need for a loving relationship. In one an overweight and lonely security officer pines for a beautiful women he sees every day near his apartment and endures an abusive relationship at home at the hands of his father and brother. In the second a young woman develops an intense emotional and sexual relationship with a high school girl and is devastated when the affair ends. The Teresa Chan character is shown teaching and writing her memoir. Her social worker’s father meanwhile is trying to come to terms with his wife’s illness and eventual death. Ms Chan urges the son to visit his father more often and eventually she becomes part of the relationship, accepting the wonderful food the father cooks.
Be With Me is a simple but profound film which I found deeply affecting. It has very little dialogue and tells its story through carefully observed scenes augmented by text messages (between the teens) and Teresa’s typed memories and thoughts expressed through subtitles (and her speech which though subtitled is perfectly decipherable). I realise that I didn’t even notice how much of the film was in English. (This is actually an issue when a critically successful film like this is considered as a possible contender for a ‘Foreign Language Oscar’.) Some of my favourite scenes dealt with food preparation and I was especially taken by what I think was a dish of kailan (Chinese broccoli) expertly carried out by Ms Chan. In a later Q&A session Eric Khoo said that he would one day like to make a film all about food and eating, a compendium of short stories, a kind of ‘Food Actually’ (riffing on the Richard Curtis film title).
In some ways the style of Be With Me is like a form of neo-realism (using non-professional actors) with long takes but a nonlinear narrative and a strong sense of detachment since there are relatively few other people in any of the shots. The generally realist feel is broken by two fantasy ideas. The security guard imagines giving a beating to a neighbour who abuses his son and in the scenes with the lonely shopkeeper we see his dead wife in several scenes since remains in his thoughts even though she is gone. The visible presence of the ghosts of close relatives is not unexpected in Asian fictions. The film cuts between the three stories, which do finally intersect, in what is becoming a familiar structure on the festival circuit. The actual mechanism which brings the three stories together is perhaps the weakest part of the script, but I think it is necessary to make the link between very different lives. With this film and descriptions of his other titles I take Khoo to be interested in ‘real’ characters in family situations, so I was intrigued as to what he would do with his new film Tatsumi, a biopic/’literary adaptation’ in the form of an animated film.