Everyone has to start somewhere!

August 25, 2022, 2:39pm

Selected films from the Singapore Video Competition 1985, 1986 and 1988

by Chew Tee Pao, Archivist

In 2013, the National Museum of Singapore (NMS) commemorated the 10th anniversary of Singapore Short Cuts, a popular annual local short film showcase that NMS had been programming. It paid tribute to the pioneering efforts of the Singapore Video Competition (SVC) with a one-time special screening that featured a selection of the winning entries from 1985 to 1988. Although it would have been the first time that these films saw the light of day since their respective years in the competition, audiences were provided with very little information about the source of the films.

The Singapore Video Competition began in 1983. It was the first national short filmmaking competition organised by the Singapore Cine & Video Club and the People’s Association, providing a platform that featured some of the early and first local works of now-prominent figures in the local arts and film scene such as Eric Khoo, Haresh Sharma and Jack Neo. In 1991, the Singapore International Film Festival launched its Singapore Short Film Competition.

In 2020, the Asian Film Archive (AFA) while researching for short films made in the 1980s, found out that the works screened in the 2013 NMS programme were digitised from several VHS (Video Home System) tapes in the Lee Kong Chian Reference Collection of the National Library. Within the library’s collection, only the prize-winning entries from the open and amateur categories of the years 1985, 1986 and 1988 are available. Entries from the rest of the editions were not found. Unfortunately, not all the digitised files of the videos for the NMS presentation were retained.

Photo of a VHS Tape

At the 3rd edition of Singapore Shorts in 2021, the AFA launched an appeal for the submission of short films produced in the 1980s. After several months, this call yielded no results. It became evident that the prize-winning entries of the SVC that survived on second or third generation VHS copies were a key starting point to understanding the works coming out of the decade of the 80s.

With the support of the former President of the defunct Singapore Cine and Video Club, Mr. Michael Fu, and the People’s Association, the AFA carried out a full re-digitisation of the VHS copies loaned from the National Library. 33 titles comprising of narrative and experimental shorts, educational and observational documentaries, essay films, and music videos formed this collection.

As digital video editing software only came about in the late 1980s for commercial productions, the filmmakers who used the VHS (a consumer-grade product) as a recording format, relied on linear editing. This involved manually transferring segments of video and/or audio from raw footage tapes onto a record tape using two or more VCR players. Film editing has come a long way.

Reviewing the films was an enthralling experience. I was born in the mid-1980s, so it was rather enlightening to realise that there was already a movement in 1980s short filmmaking with the filmmakers concerned about local issues such as the plight of the aged, the environment, labour problems, mental health, sexuality, and societal expectations. Many were highly conceptual, socially conscious, and ahead of their time. 

Unfortunately, many of these films cannot be screened. Due to the condition of the aged and deteriorated VHS tapes, severe tracking issues and malfunctions such as skips and fuzziness that occurred during the digitisation process. This is a plight for many magnetic tapes as the data quality erodes over time.

Examples of malfunctions that impacted the image and sound on several films.

While making the selection of a diverse line-up of films that would ensure a smooth and pleasant viewing experience, I had the privilege to reach out to the filmmakers and the people who were involved in the productions more than 30 years ago to learn more about these works.

The Garden

Screenshots from The Garden (1986). Meng Ong got permission to film at a small Chinese temple along Upper Changi Road where he used to live, and its outdoor garden became the focus of the story.

As a teen, Ong Ann Meng (better known as Meng Ong) became inspired to make The Garden (1986) after reading the books and screenplays on the films of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman at the former National Library. It was his second short film and he produced it with the prize money he won from an earlier edition of SVC with his first short, News from Frankie (now a lost film). He enlisted the help of his brother who played the provocative stranger and his brother’s female friends, who played the pair of sisters. Ong’s sister narrated the film.

Having not seen a single Bergman film before at that time, Meng shared he was fascinated in attempting to emulate Bergman’s exploration of religion and sexuality in his works based on what he understood from the texts. Meng Ong went on to win numerous awards for his short films at the Singapore International Film Festival between 1991 and 1993. His debut feature, Miss Wonton (2001) where he continued exploring female-oriented stories, won the FIPRESCI Prize at the Locarno International Film Festival.

Being a Woman & City of Masks

Jack Neo’s first foray into filmmaking was a female driven film, Being a Woman (1986), way before Ah Girls Go Army (2021) came along. The unofficial music video played to the same-titled track by Taiwanese 80s songstress Lin Ling, tells the story of a tomboy who tried to change herself to please her boyfriend but was rejected for a more feminine woman. In an article on 23 October 1986 in The Straits Times, a 26-year-old Jack Neo who was already a familiar part-time comedian and compere at Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC), expressed that he chose to produce the film as a music video as it was “easier to dramatise”. He had used the song to make a point about women standing up for themselves in failed relationships. He also shared that the music video helped kickstart his interest in directing for film and television.

Screenshots from Being a Woman (1986). The talents who appeared in the music video were Jack Neo’s colleagues from the Singapore Armed Forces Music & Drama Company (MDC). Parts of the video were filmed at the former Central Manpower Base in Tanglin Camp on Dempsey Road using a VHS camcorder acquired by the MDC in 1985.

After making Being a Woman, Jack Neo became a frequent participant in the SVC and took home prizes for his subsequent short films (that are considered lost). In 1988, he created another unofficial music video titled City of Masks using local veteran musician Lee Wei Song’s original song from his 1987 debut album. Lee was also casted in the film. It was an opportune collaboration as Neo was Lee’s officer during the latter’s National Service at the MDC and were both becoming active within the local entertainment scene.

I managed to reach out to Lee Wei Song. Pleasantly taken on a nostalgic road, Lee shared with me that he had won the male category in the singing competition “Talentime 1985/1986”. At his first recording contract, he wrote the upbeat title track in 1987 describing how a jaded man lost his way in life and conformed to the behaviour of a materialistic and pretentious society.

Screenshots from City of Masks (1988). The music video starred a young Gurmit Singh.

A Day With Labourers

Before local films like Ilo Ilo (2013) and A Land Imagined (2018) were made to depict the lives of foreign domestic helpers and migrant workers, filmmakers such as J.R. Kamble, who was an Indian immigrant, was already concerned with the livelihood of migrant construction workers in 1980s Singapore. The workers were employed for the tunnelling works and construction of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system. I managed to contact Fuziah Taha, who was the narrator for the film. She and Kamble were colleagues at the Educational Technology Division of the Ministry of Education (MOE). Fuziah has done numerous narrations for MOE, TCS and SBC (now Mediacorp). Rewatching the film, she remembered distinctively that she agreed to take part in Kamble’s independently produced A Day with the Labourers because she shared his sentiments on the importance to highlight the contribution of foreign labour towards Singapore’s development. The film’s underlying message in addressing class inequality and the hidden vulnerability of migrant workers continues to eerily resonate and be depicted in local films and documentaries today.

Traveller

Screenshots from Traveller (1985). The documentary featured actual interviews and interweaved staged sequences hosted by a Caucasian with a 1980s chevron moustache.

Related to the transience of everyday life, another film from the 1985 SVC that struck me was a documentary that was satirically styled as a travel infomercial. Traveller was produced by ‘Choo Hoh Yim’, that I later discovered was the birth name of veteran local actor, Zhu Houren – known for his classic roles in MediaCorp dramas like The Unbeatables (1993). Zhu made his directorial feature debut in 2003 with the Mandarin film After School, but little is known about his filmmaking career before he became an actor. Through his son Jonathan Choo, who is an accomplished filmmaker, I learnt that Zhu had returned to Singapore from Hong Kong in 1983, where he worked as a script supervisor. That same year, Zhu began volunteering at a social service agency and wanted to test out his new filming equipment. With a colleague, they headed to the streets to capture some images of tourist activities in 1980s Singapore. The footage they recorded eventually evolved into the idea of making the light-hearted documentary that parodied but thoughtfully captured the phenomenon of Western backpackers travelling in Singapore and Southeast Asia during the 1980s.

Feathered Friends

Screenshots from Feathered Friends (1988). The film documented sightings of birds at places such as Senoko (Sungei Sembawang) and Khatib Bongsu.

It intrigued me to learn that in 1988, a bird-watching group produced the nature documentary Feathered Friends to highlight some of the over 300 species of birds that were native to Singapore and to voice its concerns on the diminishing avian population due to Singapore’s urbanisation. Narrated in a David Attenborough style, the film showed a side of Singapore I hardly knew. Although I could not reach the producers (Rexon Ngim and Ong Jong-keg), my research led me to discover that both gentlemen were members of the Singapore branch of the Malayan Nature Society (MNS) bird group established in 1954. The group published Singapore Avifauna, a monthly bulletin that began in 1987 to document noteworthy bird sightings in Singapore and the surrounding region. The Singapore branch of MNS was reformed and renamed as the Nature Society (Singapore) in 1991. The bulletin ceased in 2010 but the society continues to issue its monthly Singapore Bird Report till this day.

Cover of the bulletin (June 1988).
Source: Nature Society (Singapore) website

Stranger Danger

Another whimsical piece that was part of the SVC in 1986 was an educational film for children performed using hand puppets. Siblings Jack and Jill teach one another about stranger safety and crime prevention. Stranger Danger was produced and filmed by 20-year-old Gilbert Yap, who came from a family of videomaking buffs. Working as an assistant video producer at one time, he helped the Crime Prevention Branch record a live puppet contest. He became attracted to the story told in poetry form that warned children to beware of strangers. He decided to produce the film for the competition with the help of five girls from the Methodist Girls’ School.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Speaking of the family of videomaking buffs, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – a winning entry of SVC 1985 was produced by Gilbert Yap’s 15-year-old sister, Belinda Yap, the year before Stranger Danger. Quaintly narrated and thoughtfully weaved with stock footage, the short film is a creatively homemade, truncated live-action interpretation of Walt Disney’s 1937 same-titled animated film. Belinda shared that she had been inspired by a live staging of Snow White by her schoolmates at Marymount Convent School and decided to make a film of it. Featuring an all-female cast from Secondary Class 3A and proving no story is too big to tell, this film is one of my personal favourites from the collection, for being audacious and made with heart.

Screenshots from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1986). Parts of the narration and dialogue is reminiscent of the 1937 Walt Disney film. The girls from Marymount Convent School made the most with the DIY props and costumes.

As I was finalising the line-up for the programme, I chanced upon some other entries on the National Library’s catalogue that revealed several standalone titles associated to the names that I recognised to be the SVC participants, but which the provenances remain unknown. This will hopefully open the doors for more discoveries to be made of the films from the relatively unknown local film history of the 1980s.

Like uncovering tiny time capsules tucked within the crevices, it was a pleasure to experience these humble creations forged through personal memories and friendships, and to witness the camaraderie in the common pursuit of inspiration.