Royston Tan to produce Singapore’s first dialect film anthology

Royston Tan to produce Singapore’s first dialect film anthology

Director Boo Junfeng, who is making his acting debut in Liao Jiekai's short film, shares with Channel NewsAsia’s Genevieve Loh how he “failed miserably” in speaking Hokkien.

Royston Tan 667 collage
The new dialect omnibus film 667 features (clockwork from top left): Jun Chong's Ke, He Shuming's Letters From The Motherland, Eva Tang's The Veiled Willow, and Liao Jiekai's Nocturne. (Photos courtesy of the filmmakers) 

SINGAPORE: Singapore’s first ever dialect film anthology will be executive produced by local filmmaker Royston Tan, as part of the inaugural SCCC Cultural Extravaganza by the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre which runs from May 20 to 27.

The omnibus, titled 667, sees the collective efforts of five young Singaporean filmmakers - Kirsten Tan, He Shuming, Liao Jiekai, Eva Tang and Jun Chong - employ a range of dialects such as Teochew, Hainanese, Hokkien, Cantonese, and Hakka in their respective short films reflecting Singapore’s Chinese cultural roots.

The main aim? To weave together the past and present as generations seek to understand, appreciate, preserve and pass on our heritage.

The film will be screened on May 25.

Royston Tan 667 (directors 1)
Clockwise from left: 667's executive producer Royston Tan with filmmakers Kirsten Tan and Liao Jiekai. (Photos courtesy of the filmmakers)

Royston told Channel NewsAsia that the title refers to “667 square feet, which is about the average size of a Singaporean 3-room HDB flat”, and that it is all about the rediscovery of one’s cultural roots.

He added that it was not a deliberate attempt to make an entire film omnibus using dialect, and each filmmaker had “free play” to explore their own heritage.

“With the success of 7 Letters, I also see this as a responsibility. SCCC is giving us this opportunity to create a platform to get to know more up-and-coming filmmakers,” Royston said.

“And each filmmaker presented intimate stories of the many Chinese communities that make up our unique Singapore Chinese culture. I hope the film will resonate with audience of all ages, providing them with perspectives that will spark their interest to better understand who we are.”

Royston Tan 667 (filmmakers 2)
From left: 667's filmmakers Eva Tang, Jun Chong, and He Shuming. (Photos courtesy of the filmmakers)

Fresh off the success of her award-winning POP AYE, which recently bagged the Jury Prize at the Bangkok ASEAN Film Festival on May 1, Kirsten is reinterpreting the classic and popular 15-minute Teochew opera/play Wu Song Sha Sao.

With her new short film, she aims to demystify and provide a glimpse into the world of Teochew opera for a younger generation of audience, she told Channel NewsAsia.

“Even though I’ve always been intrigued by Teochew opera, I have to admit that my relationship with my own Teochew dialect group is tenuous at best - I never found a way to understand and access that Chinese art form," Kirsten explained. 

“When Royston invited me, I thought it was the perfect chance to explore that curiosity … because it compelled me to engage with the Teochew operatic form in a direct and thorough manner - I had to translate and dissect the script word for word in order to direct it,” she added, with a laugh.

“Working on this piece made me discover the rich world of Teochew opera. Unfortunately, I’ve come to see that it is also a rapidly vanishing art form in Singapore; I’m honoured to be given a glimpse into this world and to be able to adapt it in a manner that can be shared with a younger audience.”


Jiekai’s film Nocturne, on the other hand, will focus on the Hokkien dialect and feature the acting debut of fellow filmmaker Boo Junfeng.

Royston Tan 667 (Liao Jiekai's Nocturne)
The 667 short film omnibus features Liao Jiekai's Nocturne. (Photo: Liao Jiekai)

“Cinema is like an old rusted mirror - we look into it and sometimes we see glimpses of ourselves. This film gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own cultural identity as a Chinese born in Singapore but unable to speak my own dialect,” he said.

“I hope that with this film, audiences can reflect on their cultural heritage, to see language as a powerful agency in defining identity, and to reflect on history, especially that which are not taught or told.”

With Jiekai at the helm, Boo, who has been enjoying critical and international success with his film Apprentice, will instead go in front of the lens and play the role of a director.

“Right from the beginning, the project started off as a collaboration between Jiekai and I,” Boo shared with Channel NewsAsia. “I’ve always admired Jiekai’s films and it’s great to be able to finally work together with him.

“It’s great to be in front of the camera. It’s my first time for a fiction film so it was a whole new experience for me,” he added. “It was decided right from the very beginning that he was going to direct it and I was going to act in it.”

So did the acclaimed filmmaker have any qualms making his acting debut?

“I was going to be acting as myself, so I guess it was relatively stress free,” joked Boo, who is Hokkien. “The biggest challenge was the parts where I had to speak some Hokkien. I think I failed miserably.”

Royston Tan 667 (Jun Chong's Ke)
The 667 short film omnibus features Jun Chong's Ke. (Photo: Jun Chong)


How do the filmmakers think a groundbreaking project such as this - doing an entire omnibus using dialect - will change the way local films are made here moving forward?

“In Singaporean films, the language often used is monolingual - it’s strictly in English, in Mandarin, or in Malay. But the reality is that Singapore is a multicultural and multilingual society. It would be great to see that variety reflected onscreen,” said Kirsten.

“An omnibus like this showcases the diversity of languages found just within the Chinese culture. It frees up the way we think about language usage in cinema here.”

Boo added: “I think it’s fantastic that an omnibus entirely in dialect can finally be allowed in Singapore. It’s especially meaningful when the filmmakers involved are all relatively young. It’s an experience that allowed us to reconnect with our language heritage, and I hope the audience will have something to take away from it.”

Source: CNA/gl