Saturday, January 05, 2008

Eric Khoo up close and impersonal

There's plenty of stuff about his movies but very little about Eric Khoo the man and his family in the latest Raffles Conversation in The Business Times today.

There was a glimpse about his personal life: He did not look to his family to fund his films, how he got interested in films and his colourful description of his children. But it's hazy in this article as to what inspired the cinematic style of one of the richest men in Singapore.

According to a Wikipedia entry, Khoo's films explore a set of hard-hitting themes, including a sense of alienation in contemporary Singapore, nostalgia for a humane past, and the centrality and complexity of human sexuality.

"Influenced by Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, Khoo often features a complex anti-hero as the protagonist of his films: the lonely old man who commits suicide on his birthday in Symphony 92.4, the pork-seller in Carcass who takes comfort in television dramas and regular sex with a prostitute, the outcast necrophilic hawker in Mee Pok Man, the model citizen who breaks down in 12 Storeys - all dysfunctional individuals struggling to cope in a rigid and yet fast-paced society administered by harsh norms."

And why was the rich man so engrossed with marginalised characters in society? There's plenty of interesting characters in the upper crust of society too.

For instance, the Khoo family history is as colourful as Eric's movies. Eric was said to have inherited the lion's share of his family fortune following the death of Khoo Teck Puat, who was the richest man in Singapore, in 2004.

The bulk of the family wealth probably came from the sale of its 12% stake in Standard Chartered Bank to Singapore government investment arm for an undisclosed sum in 2006. The stake was estimated to be worth US$4 billion then. In addition, the family controls Singapore landmarks such as Goodwood Park Hotel.

Will Eric make a movie about the rich in Singapore as well?

Eric Khoo's movie magic
Award-winning filmmaker tells PARVATHI NAYAR why his movies are personal and always about Singapore

'I WOULD love my films to travel and all that, but why not keep it as something about ourselves, keep it local? We are, after all, a nation filled with 'tasty' characters,' says Singapore's celebrated filmmaker Eric Khoo, explaining why all his movies are personal, are centred on Singapore, and are filled with intriguing Singaporean protagonists, including his latest, in Tamil, titled My Magic.

As a director, Khoo is credited with jumpstarting the Singapore film renaissance in the mid-90s with his first feature film, Mee Pok Man (1995). He is also credited, as a producer, with helping keep alive Singapore's nascent film industry, by encouraging new Singapore talent such as Royston Tan.

Khoo's contributions to Singaporean cinema have not gone unnoticed. Born in 1965, Khoo was the first recipient of the Young Artist's Award for Film in 1997. Ten years later, he was awarded the nation's highest arts honour, the Cultural Medallion in 2007.

Talking about it makes him nostalgic. 'When I was told I had got the award, of course I was very happy. As someone who always looks at dates, timelines, and reflects on the past, it brought to mind the time when Haresh Sharma and I won the Young Artist's Award. The Cultural Medallion winners then seemed pretty old to me. I remember wondering whether we would have to wait so long to receive that honour, if we would ever receive it, and if we would still keep at our craft. As passionate as I am about film, you never really know if you can carry on. So the really important thing is that 10 years later, touchwood, we are still at it.'

In Khoo's books, it is first, foremost and finally, 'all about the work'. 'Making a film is like a father-and-son relationship, you do the best you can for your 'child', then it has to go out into the world, where you hope it will inspire people. So you don't make films to win awards, but, of course, it's great when you get them.'

From director to producer

Receiving the Cultural Medallion doesn't bring with it the burden of 'responsibility' - a word many creative people find anathema anyway - still, it is a validation that 'I've been on the right track'.

The cinematic track that Khoo has travelled has been somewhat unusual. He switched from direction to production despite his films doing well - his second feature, 12 Storeys (1997), picked up a clutch of awards, including the FIPRESCI Award, and was invited officially to participate in the 50th Cannes Film Festival.

'I took a backseat after that and turned to film production. Why? Because I was interested in the work of other Singapore filmmakers. I wanted to 'feel' what the younger crop here had, and how I could help them. As a producer, you have an interesting aerial perspective rather than being on the ground level, at the shoot.'

Through his company, Zhao Wei Films, founded in 1995, Khoo was executive producer for well received TV series like Drive (1998) and Seventh Month (2004); he was also the producer for a range of successful films such as Jack Neo's Liang Po Po (1999), One Leg Kicking (2001) and Royston Tan's 15 (2003) and 881 (2007).

Still, 'after an absence, you miss directing', he says. 'I was writing and looking at film projects in those seven years, but didn't want to direct them just yet.'

Khoo emerged from his director hiatus in 2004 with his third feature Be With Me. Friends and colleagues in the cinematic world such as film critic Tony Raynes were supportive. 'It was nice to have people on your side, a little group somewhere that wanted you to make another film,' says Khoo, but admits to feeling 'rusty' and not a little nervous at the time.

He needn't have worried. Be With Me received lots of positive reviews, awards and foreign distribution deals. Impressively, it was selected as the opening film for the Directors' Fortnight Cannes 2005. Khoo may not have been a prolific filmmaker, but all his films have made lasting impressions.

Be With Me weaves together three separate stories that interlock only through a desire shared by the different protagonists - to be with the one each loves. The stories are fictitious, except for that of Theresa Chan.

'The person who nagged me the most to make Be With Me was Theresa Chan, whom I met in the summer of 2003 at a wedding dinner. I could tell that she couldn't hear and see, but she was very animated and I thought, 'What an inspiring lady'. She asked who else was seated at the table and when it came to my turn, she was told I was a filmmaker. She had heard of me; then she looked towards me and said, 'you have to make a film about me'.'

Khoo said to the person who was 'translating' for Ms Chan: 'Tell her I'll make the film if she agrees to act in it. He writes this on her hand, right; within a second, she lifts her glass, points it in my direction and says 'Cheers, we're on'.'

It was an extraordinary moment. Before this incident Khoo had been thinking about silent movies; suddenly, an appropriate subject for such a film had fallen, unsought, into his lap.

Khoo shares with obvious affection Ms Chan's tenacity in pursuing the film. Eventually, 'her life story was so inspiring that I decided to make it, documentary style, and fit it with the two fictional strands I had in mind'.

'The actual inspiration for Be With Me came from a short conversation I had with my 13-year-old nephew from Paris, who told me how much he was in love. I thought it was so cute. I was a bit drunk at the time and it got me going, thinking about first loves - and of a story about love in youth, middle and old age, made as a silent film, to venture back to the style of my short films, which were basically silent.'

Khoo likes to follow the rhythm of the script, but, he laughs: 'I am quite lazy, I don't like writing dialogue. What I enjoy is coming up with the skeleton, and then let someone else flesh it out for me.'

A lot of the 'dialogue' in Be With Me is informed by the Singaporean passion for communicating via SMS, 'which means we can keep in touch easily, but as easily cut someone out of our lives'.

The success of Be With Me prompted an endless round of queries about Khoo's next film, on different occasions over the past few years, such as in South Korea during the release of Be With Me there, or at the retrospective of his films staged by the Seoul Independent Film Festival, or the Jeonju Digital Film Festival for which he made No Day Off, the story of an Indonesian maid.

Khoo decided he would first 'make a food film that revolved around three stories, including that of a food critic'. 'One night, when I was talking about my concept in my kitchen, my eldest son, 13-year-old Zhao Wei, walked in and overheard the conversation. He said, 'You are doing another three-story film like Be With Me. Dad, have you run out of ideas? You have to re-invent yourself.' Then he walked out.'

Khoo heeded the advice; appropriately enough, he went back to another story he had in mind, about the love between a father and son, about magic and fire-eaters.

My Magic, the film that Khoo is now working on, is based on a real person, a fire-eater named Francis Bosco. 'I met him some 10 years ago at a free booze party at Mohamed Sultan Road. I remember this mountain of a man coming through, eating fire; when he passed by us, I could feel the heat.'

Intrigued, Khoo bought him a drink, and kept in touch over the occasional beer. When Khoo brought him to Wagon Wheel - the noisy bar where we are talking - five years ago, 'he scared the patrons by eating glass and making a piece of paper fly; everyone asked me whether he had a toyol or tame ghost with him'.

When we first talked about the film, at the end of November last year, Khoo was getting ready to shoot in early December 'and the script is not yet done', he chuckled. As My Magic's dialogue is in Tamil, he says: 'I won't know what's going on, so I've told Francis and Jathis - who acts as his son - you better get it right.'

Khoo has always trusted the actors with the actual dialogue. 'We do some workshopping, but after that, as long as the actors get the point of what is happening in that scene, you must leave them to say it in their way. It turns out so much better.'

Fast forward to the end of December and he shares: 'It was my fastest shoot to date - we wrapped in eight days and will shoot one more day in January for the magical ending scene. It was a joy working on my first Tamil language film.'

As to why he is in the movies at all, he says: 'I blame it on my mother! Every week, she'd watch two or three movies, and drag me along to them, even though I was just two years old. My childhood was all about genre films such as James Bond, horror and spaghetti Westerns. A pivotal movie in my teens was Taxi Driver - I then realised cinema was more than just monsters or dinosaurs!

'As a little boy, I would draw comics, make up stories. One day, when I was looking around for my mum's old comics, I came across her Super8 camera. The camera still had a cartridge of film, so I just put in batteries and started to film.'

A breakthrough moment came when young Eric read about stop motion photography in a magazine. He decided to enlist the services of his fully articulated action figure GI Joe. 'I'd spend afternoons just tweaking the figure and filming it, to make a stop motion animation film where my GI Joe came alive. I'd show it to the old folks who would say 'How do you do it?' It was like my magic.'

Much later, all grown up, he pursued his story-telling passions through 'shooting commercials, and doing cartoons of a character called Condom Boy for Philip Cheah's Big O magazine. My cinematic career owes a lot to him and the Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF); without the Singapore Short Film Competition, I don't think there would be any of us filmmakers. All of us started by making shorts that won awards there. Importantly, foreign film festival programmers would attend and see our stuff. '

Khoo's Barbie Digs Joe became the first Singapore short to travel to festivals abroad, but the short that gained him instant headlines, a ban in Singapore, and a Special Achievement Award at the 1994 SIFF was Pain (1994), about a sado-masochist. The award came with a sponsorship deal for his next film. Rather than a short, he convinced his sponsors to let him make Mee Pok Man. Such incident-chains of cause and effect convince Khoo that 'there's such a thing as God and fate and destiny, things happen for a reason, and one thing does lead to another'.

Though born into a wealthy family - Khoo is the son of the late billionaire Khoo Teck Puat - he did not look to his family to fund his films. 'I could never get money from someone who did not believe in the medium, in my film project. That would be totally wrong,' he says, adding with a grin: 'I did ask my father for some money to make a film once, and he offered me $2,000!'

Khoo has always worked on tight budgets, thanks to short shoots and limited locations. Mee Pok Man was done for under $100,000; though investors were interested after its success, Khoo nevertheless made 12 Storeys in 14 days at a single apartment block for $280,000. Be With Me was about $300,000 and while My Magic is not finished, it is unlikely to exceed those figures.

As for the future, it sure looks busy. Last year, Khoo was appointed a board member of the Media Development Authority and the NYU Tisch School of Arts Asia. Projects beyond My Magic include a new comic called The Table, a series of vignettes - with a twist - based on an old coffee shop marble table, as well as plans to produce films for Royston Tan and Brian Gothong Tan.

'We will always support emerging directors of Singapore, but going forward, Zhao Wei films will also work collaboratively, with filmmakers outside Singapore as well.'

As to his own next film, perhaps horror is a genre he will try his hand at. 'I'm a real horror junkie,' he admits. In a nicely Singaporean blend of old and new, Khoo is both superstitious and a state-of-the-art techie. So, 'I wouldn't do a film with ghosts and spirits - I'm too scared. My biggest superstition is that it's too dangerous to direct a supernatural film, you never know what will go wrong with it.' But equally, 'I embrace technology', says the director who is a known advocate of digital film. 'For me, it's going to be high definition from now on.'

Leisure pursuits

Movies, music, visits to toy shops with his sons, cooking at the weekends - these are some of the ways Khoo unwinds. 'I love cooking,' says the director, who enjoys playing with sauces, stocks, soups, eggs. One Khoo special is a nutritious pasta with tomatoes, bacon, chillies, garlic and anchovies; another favourite is the perfect soft-boiled egg: 'I know how to make that, a lot of people don't,' he says with obvious relish.

Khoo has four sons, and he's very involved in their lives. 'They are gorgeous and I love being a Dad. My sons actually inspire me a lot. They are just like the Beatles - the eldest is like Paul McCartney and he is already making short films on his computer; the second, James is like John Lennon, the rebel; the third one, Christopher, is the dark horse like George Harrison; and Lucas is the joker who can get away with murder, just like Ringo Starr.'

Khoo's love for the movies is a passion he seeks to share with his kids: 'When my kids were small, I'd show them movies that made an impact on me, like Saving Private Ryan, and ask them to watch it for style and cinematic expression. And play Beach Boys music to it, so it was not scary.'

As his three older kids are into magic, they were the perfect sounding board for his newest film about real bonds and fake illusions. Khoo shares with pride how 10-year-old Christopher read the My Magic script, then 'before going to sleep, he came trotting in and said 'I like it. I can't describe why, Papa, but there's really something there.' Thanks to what he said, you know, I slept really well.'