- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2006

SINGAPORE — Critics of Singapore often lament what they see as a stifling climate of social and political restrictions, but for local filmmaker Royston Tan, it is an inspiration.

“I always try to find positivity in negativity,” Mr. Tan, 29, says.

“It’s like when somebody tries to suffocate you and the environment tries to suffocate you, the more you desire to leave … You can either give in, or take a bigger breath and you survive. So I am this kind of person.”

Mr. Tan has won more than 35 foreign and local awards for his films. Time magazine, in 2004, tapped him as one of the top 20 Asian heroes younger than 40 for being “brave, bold or remarkable.”

He says he believes audiences warm to his work because he isn’t shy about casting the spotlight on the less fortunate in Singapore, Southeast Asia’s wealthiest society.

“I grew up in an environment where I see people falling through the cracks,”Mr. Tan says. “These are people who are normal, who are not good looking, who are not special.

“Yet these are people with stories, I think, who can still inspire others.”

Clad in casual khaki shorts and a T-shirt, Mr. Tan would blend right in with the ordinary folks he chronicles. “15,” his 2003 full-length feature debut, depicted Singapore gangland culture and won rave reviews internationally for its portrayal of dysfunctional teenagers living on the fringe.

It also put him in collision with the Board of Film Censors, an experience that led him to spend more than $10,000 of his own money to make the short film “Cut,” a satirical potshot at the censors.

“It’s a catalyst for me to get over this trauma that I have gone through,” Mr. Tan says, rejecting criticisms that he made “Cut” to gain attention.

“There are cheaper ways to get publicity,” he says.

Singapore’s Media Development Authority (MDA) says its censor board didn?t ask for any cuts to the graphic violence and coarse language shown in “15,” although police requested changes “for law and order reasons.”

Mr. Tan claims the censors demanded 27 cuts. However, an MDA statement says only nine were required to address police concerns, although “the producer chose to make edits within the sequences in a manner which brought the total number of edits to 27.”

Even though “Cut” ridiculed the censors, MDA says the film was passed without changes, as did Mr. Tan’s latest film, “4:30.” In “4:30,” Mr. Tan deftly relates the loneliness of an 11-year-old boy as he attempts to forge a bond with a suicidal Korean tenant in Singapore.

The 93-minute movie was an emotional homecoming for Mr. Tan when it was selected as the closing act for the annual Singapore International Film Festival in April, the first time a local director’s film was accorded the honor.

“I think loneliness is an international language,” Mr. Tan says. “There is only one sentence of talking between the actors, but yet it can still move people,” he adds.

The film was critically acclaimed when screened at the Berlin Film Festival early this year.

“It is a film which allows the audience to connect their inner feelings with themselves,” Mr. Tan says.

A naturally quiet man, Mr. Tan has come a long way since his childhood on a family owned pig farm when one teacher told his mother that he could be autistic or even retarded.

“I was very quiet and did not speak well,” recalls Mr. Tan, the eldest of two sons.

A school principal later saw his talents and handed him a camcorder.

Mr. Tan found his calling while studying visual communications in a polytechnic where filmmaking was part of the course.

“When I got the chance to hold a Handycam again, I fell in love with the whole filming thing,” he says.

“The words that I use are always simple, and I try not to be too flowery,” adds Mr. Tan, who remains chirpy throughout an hourlong interview despite having just returned to Singapore from a project overseas.

With his parents’ support, Mr. Tan went ahead to pursue a career in filmmaking and made his first movie, “Sons,” in 2000 with his own savings of the equivalent of $1,898. The movie , named “Best Short Film” at the Singapore International Film Festival in 2000, is about the relationship between a father and his son.

These days, Singapore is intent on turning the city-state into a regional arts and cultural hub and has relaxed censorship on sexual and violent content of imported films. The country’s fledging film industry was the toast of Cannes in May with the showing of a series of movies, as officials highlighted growing efforts to expand cinema in the city-state where a record eight movies were made last year.

But critics question just how vibrant a cultural hub Singapore could be when making a political film is a crime punishable by up to two years in jail. Martyn See, another local filmmaker, has said there is a “climate of fear, of not wanting to overstep boundaries.” He has been questioned three times by police for a film he made about an opposition Singapore politician.

Despite his own experience with Singapore censors, Mr. Tan says he will continue to make films that he believes in.

“A lot of the times when I do the films, I am very honest with my feelings … I am still young and I want to tell the stories that I want to tell,” he says.

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