|Government film censorship has Asia's equivalent to Michael Moore in an outrage|
July 24, 2004
By JAKE LLOYD-SMITH
BUTTONHOLDING the chief censor, an avid, frizzy-haired filmgoer quizzes the official mercilessly about movie scenes deemed unfit for the people of this Southeast Asian city-state. Then he breaks into song: "Thank you, madam censor, for saving our country."
It's a scene from Cut, a 12-minute movie made for $14,500 in 48 hours by Singapore's maverick filmmaker, Royston Tan, to lampoon the Board of Film Censors.
"I would rather be punished for telling the truth, than not telling it and being a hypocrite," he says.
Much like Michael Moore's polemical films in America, Tan draws the wrath of the powerful. And true to the old Hollywood adage, the fresh-faced 27-year-old is finding there is no such thing as bad publicity.
Arts Minister Lee Boon Yang took to the floor of Parliament earlier this year to castigate Cut, saying it is "unhealthy" to poke fun at public officials.
"I don't appreciate such unbecoming attempts to undermine the standing of a public institution," Lee told lawmakers.
After the tirade, Tan found he had a minor hit on his hands. "I think that I owe the minister a favor. Ever since he mentioned my name, there's been calls," he said after a recent private screening.
Cut has been downloaded at least 50,000 times from a comedy Web site, and it has been booked to screen at more than 50 international film festivals. Tan also hopes to get it into local theaters.
He made Cut after his internationally acclaimed movie 15 was chopped up by the censors, who removed 27 scenes. The 2003 movie focused on Singapore's gritty underbelly of drug use, gangs and disaffected teenagers, and provoked a storm of local criticism during a limited showing in Singapore.
"My child got disfigured," says Tan, who left the country for a month to recover his poise after the censoring.
Before the board considered the movie, he had thought only two scenes would be removed.
But while Cut may have angered lawmakers, the acerbic spoof escaped the censors by not crossing into taboo areas — primarily nudity, bad language and the depiction of anti-social practices, such as drug-taking, or venturing into the sensitive area of race.
"While the film was factually inaccurate and critical ... it did not breach the classification guidelines," the Media Development Authority said.
The Board of Film Censors is among the busiest in Asia in clipping movie scenes. Such movies as The English Patient and Titanic have been censored, and Nicole Kidman's lesbian kissing scene in The Hours was cut.
Ben Stiller's Zoolander was banned because it poked fun at Singapore's neighbor, Malaysia.
Film titles get scrutinized, too. Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me was changed to The Spy Who Shioked Me — shiok in Singapore slang means good or nice — although that decision was overturned on appeal.
The government says its conservative citizens want censorship — and other restraints — to preserve order and family values in a multicultural society.
But officials also insist they have been easing up to suit the demands of a younger, more open generation exposed to overseas influences. They point to dropping a ban on bungee jumping and bar-top dancing as evidence of the softer line. A ban on the sale of chewing gum also was eased this year.
Still, most of Singapore's fundamental social and political controls remain in place. For Tan, one of the brightest lights in Singapore's modest film industry, the changes in movies and other artistic areas are not coming fast enough.
"If we really want to open up, we must give due credit to the arts," he says.
But Tan is optimistic about prospects for further change, and says he'll continue tackling tough or offbeat subjects. His next movie will be a full-length feature about insomniacs on the island nation.
"I believe only Singaporeans can tell the Singapore story, even though there's a lot of discouragement," he says.