Sitting in a small conference room with sleeves rolled up till just below the elbows and spotting a ring and stud on his left earlobe, Yeo Siew Hua could just be a regular nine-to-five guy who frequents coffee shops for his meals.
But he isn’t just another face in the crowd.
A Land Imagined, his neo-noir film about a jaded Singapore detective investigating the disappearance of a Chinese construction worker, swept the Golden Leopard grand prize – the first for a Singapore-made film – at the prestigious Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland last August.
Known as a premier platform for art house productions, Locarno is one of the longest-running international film festivals. Golden Leopard’s alumni include such cinematic giants as Stanley Kubrick and John Ford, the latter regarded by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman as “the greatest director in the world”.
A Land Imagined has since garnered 12 other awards around the world in places such as Germany, Spain and Australia, as well as at the 2018 Singapore Film Festival for Best Asian Feature. Yeo is now among a new breed of filmmakers, including Kirsten Tan and Anthony Chen, who is chomping at the bit to take the Singapore movie brand to a higher level – after the likes of Eric Khoo, Jack Neo and Glen Goei revived the industry in the 1990s.
Even so, unlike Hollywood blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians, Yeo’s Golden Leopard gem opened only at six cinemas in February and at limited show times, despite the glowing reviews it received here and overseas. “Singapore films don’t have the marketing might that Hollywood movies have, so our staying power is not as strong and cinema operators tend to pull them out once crowds start to dwindle,” says Yeo, 33.
But he is determined to press on. The Singapore filmmaker says it cost under $1 million to make the film and he is confident of recouping the cost, with it even sustaining him until his next project, tentatively titled Stranger Eyes, which he is already working on.
So engrossed in his mission, he says he is constantly thinking about topics for future films, so much so he hasn’t much time for anything else. “Even when I travel, I watch films to get a sense of the audience elsewhere. My job is tough, but I love what I do and meeting cinema-goers is one of the most rewarding things for me.”
He started writing and producing short films in 2005 and, after graduating from Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s School of Film & Media Studies in 2009, he made his first feature film, In the House of Straw. Five years later, he produced The Obs: A Singapore Story, a documentary about famed local electronica band The Observatory, before moving on to A Land Imagined.
He isn’t concerned that his production rate is a film every four to five years. “The worst situation to be in is feeling the need to make a film every year. You will turn out mediocre stuff.”
Coming from an upper middle-class family with parents who are architects, he says he is privileged to have the luxury to fully focus on his goal of making a mark as a filmmaker and helping Singapore make an impact globally.
“In my travels, I find that people overseas can’t form an idea of what Singapore cinema is, unlike say the Iranians, whose craft is well-known,” he adds. “As a brand, as a movement, as a wave, we have not arrived there yet. It is still a struggle for us, but I like to be part of this struggle that is defining the shape and form of Singapore films.”
01 Sing lit
“My favourite local works of literature are probably The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew and Dan Koh’s Jurong My Love.”
02 Border crossing
“My ideal vacation is a drive through Malaysia… As someone who has travelled to almost 30 countries in the past nine months to present at film festivals, the idea of being close to home is very alluring.”
03 Rice rice baby
“I enjoy cai peng (economy rice) as it feels home-cooked and you can switch it up in terms of ingredient combinations. It’s one of the reasons why I find it hard to leave Singapore for an extended period of time.”
Photography Darren Chang
Art Direction Fazlie Hashim
Clothes CYC Made to Measure