Interview with Eric Khoo on sex, censorship, and the future of local films

Interview with Eric Khoo on sex, censorship, and the future of local films

In the room

Text: Varsha Sivaram

Image: SGIFF

Following the axe of a commercial release for his latest film, we speak to esteemed director Eric Khoo on what's next

It's no secret that Singapore's media landscape isn't the most accepting of the lot. While recent events have been encouraging – A Clockwork Orange has hit our shores, and local films like Rubbers and Sex.Violence.FamilyValues have been released – it looks as if stringent censorship is still here to stay. The Media Development Authority (MDA) has not approved the full version of Eric Khoo's latest feature film In The Room for commercial release, despite an R21 rating. This doesn't seem to bode well for how sex is perceived in the eyes of authorities, tallying with Khoo's observation: "I think it's getting more backwards."

In The Room, termed an erotic film by some and a drama by others, is more an amalgamation of the two. Comprising six narratives, it tells the stories of occupants in a single hotel room across decades. Hotels are often seen as soulless places of transit, but this room is humanised by the experiences of its inhabitants. We'll leave it at that, for those wary of spoilers.

The lack of a local release for In The Room might seem like a roadblock, but hope is far from lost for cinema in Singapore. "I think we're going to start seeing more talented individuals come out," remarks Khoo, in praise of the heightened accessibility for filmmakers today to create their own works. With a new feature film of his own on the horizon, we too foresee more than enough to look forward to.

Interview with Eric Khoo on sex, censorship, and the future of local films (фото 1)

You've said that the first Special Achievement Award you received in the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) has been integral to your career. Do you think similar opportunities are available for young filmmakers today to pursue their craft?
What's really important is the formation of the Singapore Film Commission (SFC). Because it enables filmmakers – doing short films or whatever – to have a budget. I think it's also important that there's such a thing as digital. It just cuts down all the costs. In the old days, people had to go to film school because you couldn't afford to spend over $100,000 on a movie camera; then you have to edit the damn thing on this flatbed. And now with your smartphone, you can start making films. During my period, I think without the SGIFF, I would have probably just carried on doing commercials.

It's also important that Phillip Cheah at the time created the short film competition, because if you look at all the filmmakers that have gone through it, it's almost like a rite of passage: Jack Neo, Kelvin Tong, Royston [Tan]. If it wasn't there, I don't think we'd have created any filmmakers. So, now that the festival is back, I think we're going to start seeing more talented individuals come out. And what's also very good is that you have the first feature film grant, which gives a film up to $250,000. You can easily make a film now, for under 250 [thousand].

So SGIFF is now not the only gateway, and you've got more accessibility.
I also take my hat off to the MDA and its Production Assistance Grant – that really helps the industry. So it's a lot better now than it was back then.

Speaking of the MDA, do you see the way in which sex can be featured in Singaporean films as changing, or is it stagnant?
I think it's getting more backwards. I feel that with In The Room, an R21 rating is cool. I mean, if we talk about sex...there's no real hardcore violence in it, so I don't know. Since the SGIFF is only less than two weeks, all films should be allowed a screening here. It's for cinephiles, it's for people who love cinema. Films that have gone to festival circuits, accomplished films – it'd be nice if you could screen everything for this little duration.

Interview with Eric Khoo on sex, censorship, and the future of local films (фото 2)

Coming back to the local film stage, how important do you think it is for Singaporean filmmakers to tell Singaporean stories?
It's really about the sort of story you want to tell. I mean to force something that's local...what really, is local? More importantly, don't restrict yourself. It's like when I did Tatsumi – I'm a fanboy, I'm not Japanese, but I wanted to explore those scenarios.

When it comes your own films, there are certain motifs that reappear, such as the banana. Are they just stylistic?
This is really funny cause I was in Korea, and a journalist goes, "How come in your short films you've always got a banana?" Then I realised, somehow or the other, a banana just appears [in my work]. So then I made it a point that with every feature film that I make, there must be a banana. And there's a ghost somewhere.

As for the ghost in In The Room, why did you decide to have it as a presence across the film?
I just like the idea of a soul; that the room has a soul. And you know, Damien Sin [the late writer to whom the film is dedicated] was such a horror writer, he loved ghosts. He was a cheeky guy, so [the ghost] played with the tap, and gave someone the big 'O'!

What did the room itself mean to you?
I felt very emotional while I was on the shoot, seeing this room change from decade to decade. And finally we had to make it look like a sh*thole, right? I felt really sad for the room.

Do you have any plans for future works?

I'm working on my next feature. It's with the Japanese, because in 1966 we signed the Friendship Treaty, so come next year it's the 50th anniversary of friendship. It's a G-rated film, even a 5 year old can attend it and understand it – I'm going back to a fairytale.

Eric Khoo