SINGAPORE (Oct 22): Singapore is playing host to its inaugural horror film festival, Scream Asia Film Festival, from Oct 19 to 28. And its curator, Eric Khoo, is the ideal man for the job. Khoo was in Malaysia recently to promote his latest project, a horror series named Folklore, which he created in partnership with cable television giant HBO Asia. The six-episode anthology features standalone stories helmed by directors from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Thailand.
Khoo himself directs the episode featuring a teenage pontianak (female vampire). Malaysia is represented by Ho Yuhang (Mrs K, At the End of Daybreak and Bunohan), whose story of a toyol (a ghost kept by certain individuals to steal money and other valuables) stars popular actor Bront Palarae.
“They are all my friends,” Khoo says of the directors involved when Options met him at the St Regis Kuala Lumpur. “I pitched an idea to HBO in late 2016 to do a series based on Asian folklore. What’s so great about this region is that we’re so different. We all believe in different… I mean our folklore is so rich, and I wanted all of that to be part of this series. It’s also why I wanted it all to be done in our respective mother tongues. The feel of it is necessary.”
Khoo confesses that horror is his favourite genre, though interestingly enough, he has not made a full-fledged horror film. “I was scared,” he quips, adding that watching horror movies as a child with his mother traumatised him.
The award-winning auteur observes, “People sort of scoff at horror, saying they are B-grade movies, but I think there is great integrity in the genre. This is because if you look at a lot of filmmakers, they started off with the genre, where [they] are always working with a tight budget, and so require a lot of creative [directing] skills to get what they want nonetheless.”
Khoo says rather than the shock and gore of slasher films, Folklore is more nuanced and story-driven. Lauding the directors for their strong individual styles and input, he says the series has an auteur vibe that is very refreshing.
“These are the directors I wanted to work with… whom I respect. And I didn’t want to control their creative freedom. But that’s the brilliant thing, not all of them have attempted this genre before, so it’s refreshing to see them do something new. And so you have some that are funny, some dead-on serious. Overall, I was very impressed with their execution and having watched them all, I think they are very good,” he says.
His own episode was shot in Batam, which he found more suited to the feel of “old Singapore” that he wanted. A firm believer in the fact that good horror must allow enable the viewer to identify with the story, he says he set about to create greater empathy for the pontianak than the people she slaughters. “When you watch it, you’ll understand why. It’s not meant to scare. You’ll find the story beautiful.”
Khoo’s filmography is as eclectic as they come. The common thread is an alluring, unpolished quality and quirky, standout characters — starting wth his first full-length film, the 1995 cult favourite, Mee Pok Man. Incidentally, it was also his most blatant dabble in the horror film genre and the film — which Khoo considers a love story, albeit with a dark aura — was both lauded and hated in equal measure. It nevertheless opened doors for him to participate in more than 30 film festivals worldwide, picking up a few awards along the way.
Fast forward to 2018, his latest film, Ramen Teh, is a considerably bigger Singapore-Japan-French production that delves into his other love, food. The story of a half-Japanese, half-Singaporean young ramen chef who heads back to Singapore to find out more about his roots is told through memory-evoking culinary delights.
Khoo has an extensive filmography and participated regularly at film festivals worldwide, whether as a competitor, guest or judge. He has cemented his status as Singapore’s most significant filmmaker and is, in fact, largely credited for the revival of the Singapore filmmaking industry.
Khoo: What’s so great about this region is that we’re so different. Our folklore is so rich, I wanted all that to be part of this series.
Like many young aspiring filmmakers then, Khoo — an alumni member of the City Art Institute Sydney who started out making TV commercials — took part in the Singapore International Film Festival’s short film competition. He attributes his entire career to that opportunity.
“In the 1950s, we had a great film industry with the Shaw Brothers, and P Ramlee films. When television came, there was a split, and the industry here sort of withered away. But I attribute everything to the Singapore International Film Festival. In 1991, I left the army and submitted one film. That year, there were 17 short films, all of which were finalists. I won the main prize.
“In 1994, I submitted another short film, which was banned. It was called Pain, and was essentially torture porn. They nevertheless let the film be screened for competition because the judges were foreigners. I won the best director award, but also a new special achievement award that I later found out came with a sponsorship prize. The great thing was that the piece of paper had no final amount listed,” Khoo recounts. He jumped at the opportunity to knock on doors for funding, resulting in the making of Mee Pok Man.
“I think I’ve really gone full circle and come back to my roots. My mother was a huge movie buff and every week, she would take my sister and I to watch the 4 o’clock show. We grew up in a fantastical world. Spaghetti Westerns, James Bond, Bruce Lee martial art films and one of her favourites, horror. Unfortunately, she’s gone now, so it’s just memories of that, and also of her cooking. Hence, we are where we are now,” he laughs.
Commenting on the industry today, he says, realistically, Singaporean filmmakers have no choice but to look outwards as the local market cannot sustain itself at the box office. One area where he sees under-realised potential is the horror genre, where the budget needed tends to be smaller but the interest and fan base are significantly larger.
The region’s lower film production costs and abundance of rich stories and cultural history also invite exploration. Folklore is a case in point; it is a project that he hopes will enjoy a second leg at least.
Perhaps it will involve some of the young Singaporean and Southeast Asian filmmakers that he is keeping an eye on. “I try to watch short films by young filmmakers. If I like them, I want to meet the makers and work together. It’s about growing the family. I just met with a boy I found on Facebook who has never gone to film school, but he did some wonderful shorts, went out and somehow managed to get some money by knocking on doors. Actions speak louder than words! Some people think this is glamorous and get into it for the wrong reasons, but when you find a gem, then you want to help him or her grow.”
Mae Chan is a writer with the Options desk at The Edge Malaysia.
This article appeared in Issue 853 (Oct 22) of The Edge Singapore.