Roystan Tan, sadly, has the last laugh

Alicia Wong

When acclaimed local filmmaker Roystan Tan first directed his breakout short film ”15” in 2002, which explored teenage gangsterism in Singapore, local authorities told him the topic was “fictional”.

Now as it turns out, his short film – which was made into a full-length movie in 2003 — was prophetic, even visionary.

Late last year, the problem of youth violence reared its ugly head with the shock death of a teenager at Downtown East. Subsequent police investigations reveal that it was gang-related. Gang codewords such as “3-6-9″ and “Fong Hong San” (Phoenix Mountain in English) were bandied about.

That was just the beginning. Since then, a spate of slashings and teen bashings have made the headlines. As recently as Christmas last year, three teens were bashed at separate locations at Downtown East, Clarke Quay and Orchard Road.

It was announced in November the police would get more power to deal with the problem of youth gangs.

“See, now they bite their words,” the 34-year-old hit film-maker told Yahoo! Singapore on Tuesday. “It’s such an irony. Now, 15 is used as a reference in schools.”

He added, at the time, the authorities said he was promoting violence.

The short-film ”15″  was a raw, unflinching account of marginalised youth in Singapore who turn to drugs, body modification, self-multilation and gangs. The gritty film received a record-breaking 27 cuts and an R(A) rating from the Film Censorship Board.

However, overseas it garnered a stream of awards and special mentions at several international film festivals including the Busan Asian Short Film Festival and 10th Lyon Asian Film Festival.

Mr Tan was speaking at the sidelines of a media briefing on the launch of Toy Factory’s 881 The Musical, an adaptation of Mr Tan’s 2007 film, 881.

881 grossed over $3 million when it opened and has made it mark in international film festivals.

Directed by playwright Goh Boon Teck, this is the first time a local movie is adapted for the stage.

The two-and-a-half hour musical extravaganza traces the path of the Papaya sisters, who dream of ruling the ‘getai’ circuit with help from a celestial being. Along the way, they deal with issues of friendship, sisterhood and love.

The $1.8 million musical promises five newly composed songs, more Hokkien evergreens that were not featured in the movie and a dazzling array of costumes with Indian, Indonesian and Japanese inspired designs.

Mr Tan, who is the musical’s creative consultant, said, “To watch how they present this (musical), it’s something very fresh.”

“He (Mr Goh) brings out the key things that need to be addressed, and what I didn’t address in the film, he gives a new spin to it, which I like very much.”

Mr Goh and Mr Tan said they worked well together as they had similar interests, such as in Chinese opera.

Of the musical, Mr Goh said, “It’s a very colourful Singaporean piece of work. It’s very local. To know Singapore, to appreciate Singapore, to love Singapore, this is the one to watch.”

What’s next for the two directors?

Mr Goh said Toy Factory will soon be having public auditions for a Singapore adaption of the play Equus, which tells the story of a psychiatrist trying to treat a young man with a pathological religious/sexual fascination with horses.

As for Royston Tan, he said he is working on a script for his new feature. It’s about a fish, and includes a “very controversial number” its title, he hinted. It will also open with a scene with a naked person, he added.

Any advice for budding filmmakers?

“A lot of young filmmakers are rushing out to make their first film almost immediately,” he said. “It’s actually quite suicidal,” he said, suggesting they first experiment with short films to hone their craft and learn how to solve problems before going on to full feature-length films.

Producing a feature film involves doing business, he cautioned, “you might owe banks, be tied down for three years, and you lose your passion for filmmaking”.

881 The Musical will run from 15 to 17 April and 19 to 24 April at The Esplanade Theatre. Tickets are available at Sistic.

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