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Culture in France

Ghosts from Singapore loom over Paris audience

Audio 04:27

“I am more comfortable with numbers than words,” Roystan Tan told an audience at the Quai Branly in Paris where his film 881 was shown as part of the Singapour Festivarts, which goes on until January 2011. The films shown over the Halloween-All Saints weekend all related to ghosts.


Tan is in his 30s and made his first feature film – 15: The Movie – in 2003. He followed it up with 4:30 in 2006, then 881 and 12 Lotus.

“My producer forced me to add the word Lotus to 12 Lotus and I told him it wouldn’t work,” he added. “Well I was right, it wasn’t a great success.”

15 was about a 15-year-old, 4:30 was about the dangerous time of day in the early hours of the morning when, as Tan discovered, the highest number of suicides are held to occur.

Tan’s film, which was made in 2007, was one of three shown over two days in the auditorium. The other two were made by Ho Tzu Nyen (Here – 2009), and Glen Goei (The Blue Mansion – 2009).

Ho’s film Here, premièred at the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs (Directors’ Fortnight) in Cannes in May 2009. It’s shot like a documentary in a disused mental asylum.

One of the first striking, bright-white-backed shots is of a woman lying immobile on the floor with a trickle of blood at the corner of her mouth. The ghosts are of those perhaps who had frequented this spooky place.

“Part of our interest was to shoot the place that was close to our feelings when we arrived there,” Ho told RFI. “We left it pretty much as we found it, in ruins, in a state of decay...”

Tan’s 881 takes place in the lunar seventh month when the ghosts reappear in the land of the living.

The title of the film, in spoken Hokkien dialect (which is originally from southern China) reads ba-ba-ya and sounds like, ‘papaya’. The language is an important part of the film as, while little used on television, for example, Hokkien widely spoken, Tan points out.

The action is centred around the two Papaya Sisters clad in outrageous stage costumes (sequins, colours, pieces of fruit and feathers) who are Getai (Ge = song and Tai = stage, in Mandarin Chinese) singers. Getai is a facet of the Hungry Ghost Festival as the performers try to appease the ghosts. Death also plays a significant role in 881, turning it into a bittersweet musical.

Speaking to RFI, Tan says that for him, “sound and image are equally important. In real life, my life is a musical. I like singing, so whenever I’m alone, I will imagine there will be music. In my i-pod I have six thousand different kinds of music that slide into my life in different stages.”

Music is a part of Tan, in the same way that sound is a part of Ho.

Ho describes images as being like flesh, sound as being like the soul.

“Images serve as a vehicle for me to work on the sound,” he says. Both Tan and Ho are working on new feature films. Funnily enough, they both have a military angle. Ho has almost finished shooting a film which he says is set in the forests of Singapore at the end of World War II. Many soldiers are left behind: Japanese occupying forces, Chinese communists and British saboteurs.

Tan is writing his script for a horror film, and composing it from stories told by young soldiers doing national service.

Tan, Ho and Goei landed in France during the festival of Singaporean culture and as France and Singapore get to work more closely on cultural exchange.

Although not their first visit here, the two young film-makers said they’d love to spend more time getting to know France and French people and the French lifestyle to make a film.

Here was done in about 11 days,” says Ho. “It’s not unusual in Singapore. When I speak to my counterparts in Europe, I’m always envious. I wish I had 30 days, sometimes 60 days to shoot a film. But that’s unlikely to happen to me in the next few years at least.”

Tan’s 881 took 23 days.

“We slept about four hours a day,” he says. “After a while you learn to be disciplined. It’s actually not a bad thing. Of course, I would love to have one whole year to shoot and take my time, observe the clouds and say, ‘the clouds are not looking good so we are not going to shoot today’.”

Keep an eye out for Ho Tzu Nyen and Roystan Tan’s second feature films, which both promise to be new directions for them. Ho’s film will likely be accompanied by music arranged out of natural sounds and ambiance. And Tan’s film, which will not be a musical this time, will, he swears, if he can avoid bowing to producer-pressure, contain meaningful numbers rather than words.

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