As the 29th edition of The Singapore International Film Festival rolls around, we meet the power players of our film industry who are shaping, moulding and steering the visual language of cinema with their behindthe-scenes bravado
NICOLE WEARS T-SHIRT AND JACKET FROM SANDRO; SKIRT FROM MAX MARA; BOOTS FROM JIMMY CHOO; AND RING FROM ATELIER SWAROVSKI.
The Festival Flourisher
Nicole Ong, 40, Marketing & Partnerships Director, Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF)
While filmmakers bring life, culture and art to our daily lives, it is film festivals that help spread these stories to audiences around the world. Enter Nicole, the newly minted Marketing & Partnerships Director for SGIFF, who oversees the propagation of high-quality creative films to the masses.
“There are all these filmmakers in the industry but they’re only as good as it gets right? You need to be able to actually spread the good word about these filmmakers and their personal stories so that’s where I come in. I make sure that the festival gets heard,” says Nicole, who moonlights as a photographer on the side.
“It’s also my role to look at how we are able to change perceptions about SGIFF. A lot of people tend to think that the films being shown here are very inaccessible, very indie, and a little bit niche, but one of our objectives this year is to get people who are not very into film to just come and be open to what we’ll show at the festival and come and see the diversity of the talents that we have in the region.”
In Nicole, the festival has found a fresh pair of eyes to take the SGIFF in a new direction. She comes from a different industry altogether – advertising – where she spent more than a decade in brand management.
“After 13 years working with clients, I needed a break just to reset. So, I did some freelancing and concentrated on photography work for a while before meeting with SGIFF. I was very honest about myself being very new to the film industry,” reveals Nicole, who joined SGIFF last March.
“It really was different from what I was used to. In advertising I was used to big budgets so coming from that into this non-profit organisation where people are here because of their passionate love for films, that really touched me. They really just want to nurture filmmakers and the filmmaking industry in Singapore. The whole team is very small and it’s very tight-knit.”
What’s Your Feel-Good Film: “I really like the Before Sunrise and Before Sunset series because not only is the storyline beautiful, but they also took nine years to film the sequel. They have these really long, uncut shots so the whole series really feels like a passage of time. There’s also Reality Bites, which isn’t entirely my favourite film, but it was relevant to me during my pivotal years growing up.”
"SER EN WEARS SOLACE LONDON DRESS FROM THE OUTNET; SHOES FROM ROGER VIVIER; AND EARRINGS FROM BIMBA Y LOLA."
The New Kid On The Block
Low Ser En, 28, BAFTA-winning Producer, mm2 Entertainment
The Kallang-born producer was the name on everyone’s lips after picking up an award at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) last February for her 12-minute stop-motion short film Poles Apart – and she’s gone from strength to strength since returning to her native soil.
“When Poles Apart won at the BAFTAs, I was speechless and in shock. I couldn’t believe it. I had worked on it as a graduation project and had a hand in the script’s direction and its editing process as well as handling the budgeting and film’s schedule over a period of 15 months,” shares Ser En, who has a Bachelor in Fine Arts from Nanyang Technological University.
“We were inspired by a newspaper article about climate change and how it affected polar bears in the north and grizzly bears in the south, so we decided to take that and turn it into a love story about these bears meeting as a result of their natural habitats being eroded.”
Since then, Ser En has worked on horror flick Zombiepura as an associate producer for mm2 Entertainment. The film made its debut in October to favourable reviews. “As a film producer I oversee everything from script development to the shoot itself to postproduction, and editing to marketing. We often have a role in the creative process and the business aspect of a film and we juggle multiple films at one go,” Ser En explains, adding that her career choice did receive some pushback from her conservative parents.
“When I won the BAFTA, I told my mum and she said, ‘Did you really win? I didn’t see you on TV’, which gave me a good laugh. Deep down I think they are secretly proud of me but it was tough for them to accept my job because sometimes there are no monetary rewards to show for it.
“I was all right pursuing film producing and spending all my time on set because of my passion, but for my parents, they felt that I could have chosen an easier path to success.”
What’s Your Feel-Good Film: “Gattaca, which is an odd choice but whenever someone asks me what movie I would make if I had $100 million, I always say Gattaca. It’s a sci-fimovie but it has a very human story behind it and it acts as a metaphor for society by looking at what will happen to the human condition if we take the sciences too seriously.”
PIN PIN WEARS TOP AND PANTS FROM MARELLA; AND RINGS FROM SWAROVSKI.
The Visual Storyteller
Tan Pin Pin, 49, Award-winning Documentary Filmmaker
Pairing nuanced observations about everyday life with Singapore as her backdrop and Singaporeans as her protagonists, Pin Pin’s documentaries leave their viewers with thoughtful reflections on the country they love.
It’s surprising then to learn that the acclaimed director originally chose another medium to tell her stories. “I started off as a stills photographer but I kept wanting the photographs to move; I wanted them to speak because they were too silent for me. So, when portable film cameras became available I just jumped feet-first into the world of filmmaking,” she reveals.
“Making documentaries then just became a continuation of my stint as a photojournalist. They’re both visual storytelling. They’ve both got sequences and you have to edit groups of scenes together, so they’re actually very, very similar.”
Pin Pin’s body of work since then has been nothing short of extraordinary. Her filmography includes documentaries like Singapore Gaga and Invisible City, alongside short film Pineapple Town, which was part of the 7 Letters anthology. Her most memorable work, however, is also one of her most controversial. “When To Singapore, With Love was banned in Singapore, I was surprised at how negative the reaction was to the film even though I imagined that it would have some effect amongst the powers that be,” reflects the award-winning auteur.
“I was very gratified when a group of about 400 Singaporeans made their way to Johor Bahru just so they could catch a screening of it but it was also very tragic for me that the film remains unable to be seen.”
The scene has improved vastly since, thanks in part to initiatives like the Singapore International Film Festival and spaces like The Projector, which Pin Pin says helped to pique her interest in the world of films beyond what Hollywood and Hong Kong had to offer.
“It creates a chance for people to be immersed in stories and cultures beyond themselves, so it’s a sign the film community here has gained a momentum that I hope continues,” says Pin Pin, who was also inducted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences this year, making her eligible to vote in the Oscars.
What’s Your Feel-Good Film: “Perfumed Nightmare by Filipino director Kidlat Tahimik. The film was made in 1977 and it stood out because it talked about what it was like to be a colonial subject. And not just a colonial subject, but a colonial subject in the tropics, and a colonial subject in the tropics in Southeast Asia, and the ironies upon ironies of that.”
KAREN WEARS TOP AND SKIRT FROM KAREN MILLEN; SHOES FROM JIMMY CHOO; AND RING FROM BIMBA Y LOLA.
Karen Khoo-Toohey, in her 40s, Executive Producer, Chuan Pictures
When a film wins Best Picture at the Oscars, the award is often handed to the producers. Not the director, not the on-screen stars… the producer. That’s testament to how powerful production is to a film’s success. But what does a film producer really do anyway?
“For movies, the executive producer is the person that brings in the money. I don’t technically do that at Chuan Pictures; I do that more for our television commercials, but it’s mostly the same thing because I still have to watch the budget and make sure we don’t go over,” says Karen.
Budgeting concerns aren’t the only thing on Karen’s plate. Producers are often in charge of tasks like choosing the cast, negotiating film rights, driving the marketing, being the occasional naysayer and the film’s biggest cheerleader all at the same time. This means Karen’s day often starts in the wee hours of the morning and doesn’t end until well past midnight.
“If you want to enter the film industry, you have to work your butt off, and be prepared to put in a lot of hard work, and a lot of heart into what you do. I think without the heart, you can never produce anything great. When it comes to filmmaking in Singapore, the heart comes first, followed very closely by the hard work,” Karen explains.
The mother-of-one adds that being a woman has allowed her to add on to the filmmaking process, in ways that a man simply can’t. “Men can suffer from tunnel vision sometimes, so it’s always good to have a woman involved in all aspects of a film just because their input can allow people to think outside the box and try different things,” she says.
What’s Your Feel-Good Film: “Amélie. The entire film is me – a bit crazy, a bit strange, a bit whimsical, a lot quirky and very colourful. So, I really relate to the film because the storyline is romantic but still a little weird, which is very me!”
PHOTOS: ANGELA GUO / ART DIRECTION: IVY CHOONG / STYLING: DEBBY KWONG / HAIR: BENJAMIN WONG USING PERCY AND REED / MAKEUP: AUDREY WEE USING TARTE / LOCATION: THE PROJECTOR