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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Laugh -- That's an Order

A comedy may bring Singapore film to life

By Santha Oorjitham Singapore


IN JUNE LAST YEAR, cinematographer Ho Yoke Weng watched proudly as Mee Pok Man (Noodle Seller) hit the movie screens of Singapore. Ho worked with director Eric Khoo on the tragic story of a noodle seller's love for a prostitute and the film ultimately won a Special Jury Mention at the 1995 Asian Festival Silver Screen Awards. But the movie's success was hard won: Ho recalls having to work within a $70,000 budget, shoot the film in 16 days and limit himself to three takes per scene.

This summer, Ho plunged into something completely different: the filming of Singapore's first full-length comedy, Army Daze. Armed with a $500,000 budget and a sizable crew and working with a first-time movie director, Ong Keng Sen, Ho was "quite nervous." This was a comedy, after all, he explains.

At first glance, it is difficult to understand Ho's apprehensions. Army Daze, based on a 1984 novel by Singaporean author and playwright Michael Chiang, touches upon a subject close to many a good citizen's heart: basic military training, the beginning of the compulsory two-and-a-half year tour of duty for all Singaporean male nationals. In fact, some 37,000 people have already seen Army Daze in one form: Chiang transformed his book into a play which was performed to full houses in 1984, 1990 and 1995.

But Singaporean films to date have been a dour, serious lot. In recent years, the republic's small industry produced Medium Rare, based loosely on the true story of a deranged occultist hanged in Singapore in 1988 for murder; Bugis Street: The Movie, which followed the sad lives of transvestites working the city-state's red-light district circa 1970; and the morbid Mee Pok Man. Some critics have remarked that these three somber films reflect something deeper about Singapore society, that perhaps underneath the republic's veneer of sunny contentment lies a psyche that is surprisingly dark and complicated.

Singapore's movie industry has not exactly been prolific. In fact, for the Cathay Organization Group, the region's preeminent film distributor, cinema operator and sometime film studio, Army Daze marks its first production in two decades. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Cathay churned out movies from its Singapore studios, mostly in Malay. But by the 1970s, the company found it could no longer compete with the Chinese-language industries in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Furthermore, the Malay film audience became smaller as viewers began to embrace English-language films. Before Army Daze, Cathay's last two films were made in 1973.

Today in Singapore, film production costs remain high, while the market is still relatively small. Says Cathay chairman Choo Meileen: "Filmmaking is a risky business and we have to be commercial. We don't have the luxury of making art films." As a result, Army Daze, in filmic form, will go for all-out laughs. The story is seen through the eyes of Malcolm Png, a middle-class mama's boy-turned-recruit. His newfound mates include Ah Beng, a streetwise public housing kid; Krishna, a "twang king" (time waster) who pines for his girlfriend; the distinctly fey Kenny; and Johari, a would-be Rambo. In one hilarious scene, each recruit prepares a camouflage get-up to reflect his own personality.

Army Daze's dialogue is presented in the curious, local linguistic blend, Singlish; the film's world-view is very much a product of the culture. Says director Ong, "Army Daze is quintessentially Singaporean."

So, too, is it likely to be seen as a reflection of what Singapore's film industry can accomplish. "The burden on this movie was a bit scary," admits director Ong. "It has to fulfill many expectations -- of people who have seen the play, of those who have gone through national service. And there are expectations of its commercial success; it will determine how many more films are made and how people perceive Singaporean film." It may also determine how much more fun the republic's cinemagoers are going to have.


IN cinemas

The Nutty Professor

Eddie Murphy

Universal

In this exuberant update of the 1963 Jerry Lewis comedy, Murphy plays Sherman Klump, a hugely fat chemistry professor who longs to escape his load of misery. Murphy, under the deft hand of a make-up artist, effectively disappears under pouchy cheeks, a drooping double chin and the body of a hippopotamus. Drinking a potion, he emerges, newly svelte, as Buddy Love, lady-killer extraordinaire. Murphy also appears as four members of Sherman's fat, cantankerous family, and in doing so, he turns The Nutty Professor into a gloriously rowdy African-American burlesque. Murphy, who for so long seemed to have imploded as a comedian, has clearly rediscovered the joy of performing.


Feeling Minnesota

Cameron Diaz, Keanu Reeves

Fine Line

Reeves and Vincent D'Onofrio are brothers locked in a clash of destiny and snarl. They spend most of their screen time beating each other up, pummeling us too with their Midwestern Cain-and-Abel fury. As the woman they both love, Diaz plays the kind of dysfunctional yet faithful babe-slut who exists only in the minds of wishful young filmmakers. This is the worst independent feature of the year. N


Kansas City

Harry Belafonte, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Fine Line

Director Robert Altman mixes real and fictional characters in his elegantly constructed story about jazz and mobsters in the 1930s, and he almost -- almost -- gets the whole joint to swing. But as a hard bitten, movie-mad girl, Leigh clings to her mannerisms like a terrier chomping a gym sock, klutzing up the rhythm of the story. Belafonte, however, projects real power as a coke-sniffing, jazz-loving Mob king.

From ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY

1996 Entertainment Weekly Inc.


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