SHE’S an award-winning actress with a knack for playing intense, dramatic roles on the big screen.
And when it comes to sit-down interviews, Joan Chen carefully crafts her words.
The long pauses in between her sentences, the slightly apologetic smile as she struggles to find the right words, the conflicted emotions brewing within her are unmistakable.
It’s as if she wants to be honest, yet politically correct.
Joan, who rose to fame in The Last Emperor in 1987, said: “I love Singapore, life is great here, it’s clean, well-managed and well-run. The people are wonderful too...”
Then she added: “It’s just that, perhaps, the (film) industry isn’t ripe enough at the moment. It’s still in the process of development.
“I mean, Singapore is beautiful and orderly, it’s like a fairyland film set. You guys are really lucky that everything is so good here.
“But personally, I feel that art comes from dissent, not from contentment.”
The New Paper caught up with the 48-year-old actress-director when she was in town as a special guest speaker at the recent Singapore Sun Festival, now into its third year.
During our interview at The Fullerton Hotel, we asked her what she thought of the local film industry.
After all, she has had some first-hand experience after her involvement in director Kuo Jian Hong’s science fiction-themed Avatar in 2004 and last year’s chick flick The Leap Years, adapted from a Catherine Lim novella.
She admitted that there was “a level of frustration” when working on the Singapore films, but declined to go into detail.
Instead, she decided to close the topic with this statement: “I’m sure that one day, the (Singapore) film industry will be led successfully by someone totally committed and driven by passion.”
To a certain extent, Joan’s sentiments are understandable.
After all, the two local movies she acted in were not exactly hits.
Avatar received much hype before its release, but eventually went straight to DVD in the US with a new title, Cyber Wars.
The Leap Years did moderately well locally with about $1 million in total sales, but failed to receive the critical acclaim and box-office successes of movies by Jack Neo and Royston Tan.
Jack’s Money No Enough (1998) holds the record for the highest-grossing local film at $5.8 million while Royston’s getai-themed 881 (2007) took in $3.5 million.
The New Paper asked some local film-makers what they thought of Joan’s comments about Singapore and the film industry.
Most took offence with her calling Singapore a fairyland film set and implying that there’s no dissent in local movies.
Jean Yeo, 39, who directed The Leap Years, admitted that Singapore is “still a young industry and we have a lot to learn”.
“But that doesn’t mean we can’t do good films,” she said. “From dissent comes a certain type of film, from peace comes another type of film.
“It doesn’t mean that without dissent, there cannot be good films. There are always issues at any time, topics like inclusivity and giving everyone a voice, for example.”
Jean, a former producer-director with Television Corporation of Singapore (now MediaCorp) and the founder of production house Ochre Pictures, did not work with Joan on The Leap Years.
Joan’s eight-minute part was worked into the film later, a marketing decision by Raintree Pictures, and was shot by the second-unit director.
There has been talk that Joan’s experience with The Leap Years was “not particularly pleasant”. Industry sources said that she “did not even have the whole script” when she arrived in Singapore and the second-unit director turned out to be “too young and inexperienced”, which led to “a crossfire between the two”.
Attempts to contact the second-unit director, listed as Sharon Tan on film directory imdb.com, were unsuccessful.
The New Paper asked Raintree Pictures to verify this, but a spokesman said that “all the producers who worked on The Leap Years have since left”.
She added: “As we are not fully clear of the context of Miss Chen’s expression, we are not able to comment in relation to her remarks. We believe all productions executed are to our best level of professionalism.”
When contacted, director and theatre practitioner Kuo Jing Hong, 38, who directed Joan in Avatar, said: “I think it is quite meaningless for me to comment at all.
“She has been to a lot of places in the world and she doesn’t lead the life we Singaporeans live. “So she’d naturally have her personal opinions of our country, which of course she is entitled to.”
Jing Hong said that because of these inherent differences, there is “no point in saying anything; it’ll be like shooting bullets into thin air”.
Director Royston Tan, of 881 (2007) and 12 Lotus (2008) fame, said that if Singapore was really so perfect, then there wouldn’t be any unhappy people here.
Some questioned whether Joan was in a position to comment on the local movie industry, given that she’s only done two smallish films here.
Chai Yee Wei, 33, who directed the recent supernatural flick Blood Ties, said that perhaps Joan isn’t familiar with issues that cause discontentment among Singaporeans.
She may also not be aware of issues that Singaporeans are not allowed to reflect on, he added. “Singapore is sanitised. We are not allowed to touch on anything that is too socially sensitive or politically charged, for example, the racial tension in the 1960s or terrorism.
“We have already run into trouble using dialects and Singlish. There are topics of dissent that local directors can deal with but we will think twice before doing them.”
Yee Wei and Royston also believe that contrary to foreign belief, there is dissent in the local movie industry.
Director Jack Neo has found the right balance to criticise without offending, said Yee Wei.
Jack, the most successful director here, criticised the local education system in I Not Stupid and its sequel, and the inflexibility of government rules and civil servants in Just Follow Law.
Yee Wei thinks Jack manages to pull it off because he softens the criticism by dressing it up as satire and getting the audience to look within themselves.
Royston also thinks that Eric Khoo, whose movies include Mee-Pok Man, 12 Storeys and Be With Me, is pushing the boundaries by sticking to his guns and doing arthouse movies.
“That’s already going against the flow. And I took the risk to make Hokkien-speaking movies 881 and 12 Lotus,” he added.
– Additional reporting by Kwok Kar Peng
This article was first published in The New Paper.