Royston Tan: To Them, Filmmaking is Not a Job – An Interview with Royston Tan, Eva Tang and Victric Thng

By Regina Marie Lee (13A01B)
Additional Interviewing by Esna Ong (13S05A) 

“Every time I wanted to make a film, (my parents) said to go and find a real job. ‘Don’t be too selfish, you need to support your family. You cannot just make some funny-funny video and think that this is art.’” – Royston Tan

The trio were casually dressed in pants and T-shirts, with a scarf on Eva and cuffed skinnie on Royston. They did not stand out. Only on second glance did this writer realise they were the speakers for the assembly talk! They did not look like filmmakers, but then again, Singapore has few filmmakers to typify. How then, did these three start out in the industry?

Like Royston Tan, Rafflesians are probably familiar with parental pressure when choosing careers. “I told my parents to give me three years to prove myself. Because to them, filmmaking is not a job,” he recounted. Victric Thng’s family “had no clue of what (he) was doing”, until he won “a big award and was featured in the newspaper”. “Then, they began to embrace what I wanted to do,” he said.

photo

Raffles Press met Royston, Victric, and Eva Tang when they visited RI to speak with students on their documentary-film, Old Romances, as part of the Arts Assembly Programme. Old Romances is the sequel to the much-acclaimed Old Places, which aired on TV on the eve of National Day 2010. Both focus on locations in Singapore which are fast disappearing, with people calling in to talk about the places that mattered to them.

Starting Out

“I only really wanted to be a graphic designer; I really didn’t want to be a film-maker,” confessed Royston. It was only in his Visual Communications course in Temasek Polytechnic that he found that he “could tell what (he) wanted to say (through film)”. School also helped him to be a better filmmaker. “I think school provides the environment for you to learn and grow with others, teaching you about working as a team,” he said. Similarly, Victric calls himself a “filmmaker by accident”. “At 16, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do.” While working as a salesperson in HMV, he made a 3-minute short film, Locust (2003), for a competition. When it won the Renault Samsung Prize at the Busan Asian Short Film Festival, that kickstarted his career as a filmmaker, and he attributes his current position to “one thing leading to another”.

On the other hand, Eva’s journey appears more deliberate. “During my secondary school days, I loved (reading) literature and going to the theatre,” she said. At the University of Hong Kong, she studied Comparative Literature, and caught many art house films at the Hong Kong Arts Centre. On her return, she worked as a movie critic for Lian He Zao Bao. “I enjoyed writing critiques (of movies), but I also wanted to (make movies myself),” she admitted. She then studied Directing at the UK National Film and Television School, and her filmmaking started. “This is all very important foundation, because you have to write scripts, and theatre helps you to understand the actors’ performance. I learn filmmaking by watching many films.”

To that end, Royston said: “I hope that RI can organise a film festival for students. I think it’s important not to just watch things on the Internet. We have to bring everybody out together, to be exposed to all kinds of films. We need to have discussions – it’s really when we discuss, then it’s really worth it.”

New Chay Hong Beauty Parlour was one of the places featured in Old Romances

New Chay Hong Beauty Parlour was one of the places featured in Old Romances

Yet, both were quick to point out that filmmaking was a tough career choice. “There is no short cut,” said Eva. Royston adds: “It’s a lot of hard work, and the only thing that will drive you is whether it makes you happy. Being a filmmaker doesn’t earn a lot of money. We went through a period where we were so poor, but so happy.” Royston admitted that while doing Old Romances, the directors “really wanted to have nervous breakdowns”. “I’m very grateful that I had a team. When I wanted to break down, Victric was the one to give me a scolding, while Eva came and asked us to be logical. When I fell, I realised there were like-minded people around to help me — that is the true spirit of Old Romances.”

“I’m still learning how to make films at this point, and I’m still making mistakes, which I think is a good thing – I’m prepared to keep making films for a long time,” said Victric.

Filmmaking in Singapore
When asked how they derived inspiration for their films, Royston divulged, “I love watching Taiwan music videos, and how they can sell emotions in 3 minutes!” It was Victric’s job that exposed him to musical inspiration. “I was posted to the Classical music sales department at HMV, and the music I listened to day and night infused into my soul in a profound way,” said Victric. “These influences are evident in my short films, which are important to create a certain mood.” For Eva, her inspiration comes from poetry, which challenges her to “create a space of imagination” in the minds of viewers through her films.

Old Places and Old Romances

The trio started the Old Places project as part of TV Channel Okto’s Special National Day Documentary Feature in 2010. “As filmmakers, our responsibility is to document these fast disappearing places. The film is for Singapore, to let the country know about the beautiful places we have,” said Victric. Both young and old have responded enthusiastically to the project, with youths suggesting locations to film for the directors on a Facebook group. “It’s not the age, but the curiosity (in a person). It’s whether they want to know who they are and where they come from,” said Eva. “During our screenings, the youths brought their elder family members, and these were the people who wept,” Victric recalled. “We’re glad to involve both young and old in this project.”

Indeed, Old Places touched many Singaporeans, prompting the sequel – Old Romances. The directors are glad to have aided Singaporeans in documenting their past. “A lot of people resonate with the films, because these places play a part in forming our cultural identity,” said Victric. “We embrace the future by remembering our past, not discarding it. Making these films is a way of doing that, by remembering places we cherish deeply. These are little pockets in Singapore where we can go and be ourselves, and enjoy that familiar cup of coffee and Teochew cake.” “Memory is a powerful collective thing,” said Eva.

Yet, Singapore’s film industry has only recently been growing, with household names like Jack Neo and his popular Ah Boys to Men dominating the scene. The directors of Old Places hope to see the scene mature.

“A healthy film industry is when you have a mixed group of directors doing different kinds of stuff. If we consistently stick to a certain type of film that promotes coffeeshop humour, eventually people will grow sick and tired,” said Royston, smiling wryly.

Eva feels that it is the audience that must demand more diversity, and “voice out their choices”. “In Singapore, Golden Village, Cathay, Shaw are all showing the same movies. I don’t see a distinctive difference. There are so many films out there that Singaporeans are not able to see (on the big screen). We must have choice as consumers.”

Photo credit: Objectifs (www.objectifs.com.sg)

Photo credit: Objectifs (www.objectifs.com.sg)

With the Old Places and Old Romances project coming to a close, we asked the directors about other aspects of Singapore they would like to document. “One of the most immediate things I want to document is food. There is a lot of culture in food,” said Royston. “And the taste of it is changing.” While admitting that it would be hard to film a documentary on, Royston added: “It’s time to bring dialect back. Let’s not silence the older generation.” Meanwhile, Eva hopes to “document an era” such as the ‘60s. “For me, it’s not only about documenting objects. They accumulate to form a memory,” she said.

“There was nothing to celebrate when we did Old Places and Old Romances, it was actually a tragedy. We were crying inside, because we knew that the audience would only be able to enjoy these spaces through the film,” Victric lamented. “I hope that we don’t have to do food, because I hope that it will continue to be as delicious. I hope we will not do a part 3 for Old whatever, and that all these good things continue to exist.”’

Raffles Press would like to thank our interviewees for speaking with us, and Dr Gooi (ADH/Music and Aesthetics) for arranging the interview. Readers can catch the trailer for Old Romances here. A copy of Old Places is available for loan at the Hullett Memorial Library.
Selected photos courtesy of Royston Tan and Objectif Films.

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