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Reaching out with a moving story

The Straits Times | John Lui | Friday, Apr 25, 2014

Cinema still : Love Cuts starring Zoe Tay and Kenny Ho.

Cancer. Dementia. Death and dying.

These topics, shunned in daily conversation, are being brought to life on the screen by a handful of Singapore filmmakers.

Message films - once associated with dull educational works or propaganda - are being reshaped into stories to touch hearts and, perhaps, alter how you live your life.

In the suspenseful feature-length drama 3.50, now showing at The Arts House, a documentarymaker played by Singapore actress Eunice Olsen dives into the world of sex slavery in Cambodia. Recipe, shown on Channel 8 last year, features Zoe Tay as a chef trying to juggle a career while caring for a mother losing her mind to dementia.

The documentary Pink Paddlers (2007) tells the uplifting story of Singapore's first breast-cancer survivor dragonboat team.

What sets these works apart from others is they have a sense of mission. They seek to start a conversation, usually about a topic which most people ignore or find uncomfortable.

In the package of films which form the art project Both Sides, Now, launched last year, visitors to a hospital watch children and animated figures discuss death and dying, in all its shadings.

Sometimes, the call to action is more explicit. In family drama Love Cuts (2010), also featuring Zoe Tay as the lead, the message is for women of a certain age to get screened regularly for breast cancer.

The moving image is a powerfully engaging storytelling medium, says acclaimed Singapore film-maker Eric Khoo, 49, which is why the Health Promotion Board (HPB) commissioned a film to raise awareness of dementia as a supplement to other methods, he says.

He felt telling a moving story in the form of a fiction feature would "reach out to a lot more people" compared with a documentary, but it was crucial to get a narrative framework which would speak to everyone.

The director worked with screenwriter Wong Kim Hoh, also a senior writer with The Straits Times, to fashion a story "that could work on a universal level". They hit upon the idea of a hawker (played by Li Yingzhu) and her daughter, a chef (Zoe Tay), two people separated by a cultural divide but joined by their love of cooking and food.

"All Singaporeans love to eat, so food would be a strong component. We care about the hawker centres," he says.

Love Cuts, also commissioned by the HPB, opened in cinemas. But because dementia and Alzheimer's hit hardest on older adults, "it was important that this film got on TV, on a platform such as Channel 8, so we could reach the aunties and uncles", says Khoo.

Since Singapore's second film-making renaissance began in the mid-1990s, there have been films which address issues, but with, perhaps, a more muted sense of mission than either Recipe or 3.50.

Tan Pin Pin, for example, has released works such as Invisible City (2007) and The Impossibility Of Knowing (2010), highly personal meditations on people and places in Singapore which ordinary citizens blank out.

Singapore's rapidly changing landscape has also spurred other film-makers to commit to record sights and sounds which might vanish. Eng Yee Peng's documentaries, Diminishing Memories I (2005) and II (2008), take a lingering, final look at rural Lim Chu Kang, where she grew up, while raising questions about its redevelopment.

Celebrated film-maker Royston Tan, maker of commercial romance-comedies 881 (2007) and 12 Lotus (2008), has made documentaries about Singapore's vanishing locations in Old Places (2010) and Old Romances (2012), both films jointly directed by Tan, Eva Tang and Victric Thng.

Remember Chek Jawa (2007) is a documentary by Eric Lim about the conserved wetland on Pulau Ubin, whose fate was still in doubt at the time of the film's making.

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