Sancho does Asia, cinémas d'Asie et d'ailleurs
Singapour | Festival du film asiatique de Deauville 2003 | Rencontres

Colin Goh

"We wanted [the movie] to be a celebration of everyday Singaporean people."

Je dois avouer qu’à l’origine, nous ne savions pas trop comment aborder Colin Goh - pas plus que son film Talking Cock. Vous allez pouvoir constater cependant, que M. Goh s’est montré tellement communicatif et intéressant, que notre entretien avec lui a constitué un échange inestimable ! Personnellement, cette rencontre restera le meilleur souvenir du Festival ; je pense que le reste des membres de SdA présents ce jour-là ne vous diront pas le contraire !

Talking Cock is a very surprising concept - you’re probably the first person to derive a movie from a website...

I don’t think so. There’s The Blair Witch Project I guess, which was also based on a website. We are probably the first - well, definitely the first - Singapore movie to make a film based on a website. It’s also the first Singapore movie, I think, to have merged languages the way we have. That was our main goal : most Singapore movies are either in Mandarin - perfect Mandarin - or perfect English, and we tried our best to depict all the races that exist in Singapore, and the way the language actually operates, which is : we share the same languages and use terms from each culture at the same time.

Did you work on the subtitles of the movie personally ?

Yes, I tried very hard to find a way to subtitle it that could be acceptable to an English-speaking audience. We had a lot of trouble with the censorship authorities in Singapore, who were very - shall we say - unhappy about us not using perfect English. In fact when the film premiered in Singapore, it was right smack in the middle of the "Speak Good English" campaign [laughs]...

Which I guess you did on purpose...

Actually, no ! If I’d had my way, I think we would have opened much later - then I wouldn’t have had to fight the censorship authorities so much, and more importantly, I wouldn’t have had to open a week before Spiderman ! [laughs]

Could you present us the website that started everything ?

Sure ! The website, which is, was started by a group of Singaporeans who were living overseas. They were feeling homesick, and wanted to write in a certain way... The thing is, Singaporeans are stereotyped as not having a sense of humour - but that’s not true. Singaporeans actually do have a sense of humour, but they feel that they need to keep it in private. For some reason, when we are talking, everybody appears very business-like. And you know, we just wanted to have this website between friends, where we could feel free to write the way we wanted to. One day we just happenend to check the hit counter, and noticed we were receiving thousands of hits - and we were like : "how did this happen ?"... I guess somebody forwarded it to somebody, who forwarded it again - and now we get more than two million hits a month. Which is suprising when Singapore is only a 4 million population, so... [laughs]

We were quite scared in the beginning, because the Government actually debated in Parliament on whether we should be shut down... and we were like "stop, we are just innocent jokers !". For the moment though, nothing is happening - but we are always a little nervous...

You have this very interesting disclaimer on the first page of the website...

Oh yes. We need to have that, to make it very clear to people how the site works, because Singapore has very strict censorship laws - like, if I make a joke about somebody, technically it could be defaming. So I always have to say "this is a joke". Obviously, this is at some cost to us. You know, comedians over the world don’t have to tell people "it’s a joke", they can just rely on people’s intelligence. But I guess we’re a special case, and if we don’t put it out there, somebody who’s not very bright might think it’s all serious...

Does it give you the freedom to push your sense of humour even further ?

A little I guess, because we have to get clever with the language, and we have to maneuver a lot, always skirting the edge... But I do wish that the authorities would lighten up - I just want to make sincere social comment, and not necessarily subvert everything.

Social comment is valuable in and of itself, and the movie is not there to be a subversive take on the Government in particular. That’s why we tried to make the movie the way it is as well, naturalistic and a little silly. We were very inspired - which is not very Singaporean - by Monty Python...

It shows in the re-enactment...

Yes ! [laughs] I think people were suprised when that came up - Asian Monty Python... it’s something that’s not common in Asian cinema, I guess...

Did the website also have this attention for the Singaporean language ?

Yes. The language in Singapore nowadays is quite a big issue, because the Government insists that everybody should speak perfect English, or perfect Mandarin for business purposes.
Our position has always been : "Sure, by all means encourage grammatical English, encourage good Mandarin, for formal letters and such... but why should you be censoring the dialog of TV programs and movies ? That will only result in dialog that doesn’t represent the people at all - and it all becomes completely irrelevant. So by all means, encourage it, but why do you have to impose censorship on us just for that ?"

And I personally think that people are intelligent enough to realize that, when you are writing a formal business letter, you should try to use correct grammatical forms, and watch that you speak the way you should...

How did you come up with the idea of bringing the concept of the website to film ?

Well, it seemed like a natural thing. We imported certain characters, merged some of the stories... We wanted it to be a celebration of everyday Singaporean people.

As I said before, most Singaporean films feature an all-Chinese cast, and we deliberately did not want this, because Singapour is a multi-racial society - with Indians and Malaysians in addition to the Chinese - and I wanted to have all that at the same time. We didn’t want this sort of tourist image, that I guess the authorities might have prefered. We definitely wanted something that’s a little messy, chaotic - all mixed up...

This variety of cultures gives you so many comic angles...

That’s right ! Their collision is actually so rich... It may not be apparent to the French audience, but a lot of the time the characters are speaking each other’s languages.

Yes, sometimes it sounds like Chinese, sometimes you have some English - and at other times you just can’t really tell what it is...


Do you think that, as a foreign audience, we are lacking certain keys to understand all the humour in the film ?

Certainly, yes. I was very surprised when Deauville contacted me and said this film would be participating in the Festival, because I thought - this is such a Singapore movie ! There are certain in-jokes, certain references, bits of the dialog which would probably not be understood by the audience... some of it just cannot be represented by the subtitles ! But I thought, you know, that it’s good to have an exposure out there.

No other film is as representative of us as we are, and all the other films out there make Singapore seem like a country that could be Taiwan, could be Hong Kong - and we are definitely not like that. So I thought : maybe it’s time to give exposure to the real Singapore...

Could you explain some of those references that we might be lacking, and which seem important to you ?

Well, just off the top of my head, let’s see... Those who watched the film might have noticed that we had to replace certain words, dub them over with other words. This was actually because the Singapore Government thought we could not release the film if these words were heard.

My argument to the authorities was this : I found another Singaporean film with 11 uses of the swear word in English - which is [whispers] "fuck". And I said "There are so many uses in this film. I have far fewer swear words". It just happens that my swear words are in Hokkien (Singaporean dialect, NDLR). How come I can swear in English, and I can’t swear in a local dialect ? And they said "Oh. Because then people might relate to your film better". And I was thinking "I thought that was the whole point !" [laughs]

It’s a ridiculous thing actually, this kind of double standard : if I want to make another film in Singapore, I can swear as much as I want in English, but I can’t do it in a local dialect. This is why I had to substitute some words with others that sound very similar in English to the swear words in the original dialogs. It’s very unfortunate, and I hope this will change someday...

Don’t you have an unedited version of the movie ?

I guess I do. But this is the best version, because the sound has been mastered on it. On a version that has not been "cleaned up ", you would have different sound levels - so I took a gamble and decided we might as well get even sound and come up with this.

Besides, in some strange way maybe the authorities did me a favour, because it’s much more obvious now that they have a problem with these words - when they really shouldn’t. But if they want to draw attention to those words themselves, well they’ve done it, and one can only put the blame on them ! [laughs]

What’s with the "Auntie, Auntie" ?

Throughout Asia, you see that mature women are usualy refered to as "Auntie". We call everybody "Auntie" or "Uncle", it doesn’t even matter whether we are related by blood or not - that’s irrelevant.

There’s been this joke running around Singapore that the world is actually ruled by all these Aunties. It’s a grand conspiracy and you know, I didn’t have the budget but in the early draft I had Aunties parachuting down buildings. [laughs wildly] It would have been great, all those middle-aged women crashing through windows, just like commandos... maybe in the sequel !

Has the movie been well received by the Singaporean public ?

I think so. We actually opened at the number 5 position on the top 10 list of movies. But we were very quickly withdrawn. I’ve no idea what happened since. It also didn’t help that we opened 5 days before Spiderman ! [laughs] I think our distributors didn’t give me the greatest advice there.

Did other people take the opportunity of the release of the film to "promote" the use of the Singaporean dialect ?

No. In fact, I was pretty much the target of a lot of attacks. The Government was certainly coming pretty heavily down on me. They actually yanked our TV trailer off the air, because it had some Singlish in it ! So I couldn’t promote the film.

Basically, when we held a press conference about the yanking of the trailer off the air, none of the local press turned up. The BBC, Time magazine were there... The international press was there, but not a single member of the local press. I thought this was very odd, considering they were the ones we had alerted the most, you know ? I don’t know what to say...

Isn’t there some sort of hipocrisy around all this ? I mean, if the website has so many hits, some people must be glad that you are trying to defend Singlish...

I think people are glad - we get a lot of fanmail about it. It’s just that I guess the authorities take a certain position, deciding that we’re all ignorant and hopefully we’ll come to our senses, that we’ll realize everyone should speak like a British person. [laughs] We think we are a little channel of resistance...

About the film - its structure is pretty loose to say the least. The beginning is very fast, with many short sketches, and the catching up with people running into one another... Like a satirical version of Altman [laughs], where you would pick up on anybody in the street, a drunk, an old pervert, whatever... The second part of the film however, has these very long sketches which kind of slow down the movie...

I guess it was pretty much an experiment for us. It was a judgment call as whether to keep the pace - this sort of hammering at you constantly, with different characters coming in all the time - or try to measure the pace a little. It depends on the audience really, some people like the "bang bang bang" - things happening all the time - whereas others prefer the measured tone. I really don’t know. Personally, I prefer the crazyness, and I whish I’d kept that up a little more. But interestingly, some of the reviewers actually seem to prefer the more measured pace... so I give up - I can’t read the minds of the audience !

Were the two long stories - the love story and the music story - specific choices ? Was it a conscious decision to make these subjects last longer - do they represent something for you ?

I think so, yes - especially the music story, with the Malay cast. We are the first Singaporean film since probably the sixties - when we last had a film industry - to have significant Malay characters, not just some guy in the background carrying somebody’s luggage... and we wanted to give space to that.

A lot of the humour actually comes from the way they talk. So I guess if we had a lot of things coming in at the same time, we felt we might detract the audience from the way the characters speak. I guess that might not translate well cinematographically to an audience who doesn’t understand Malay. But we certainly wanted people to focus on the language more than anything else.

It’s so much faster, with fewer understandable English than the rest of the languages and dialects used in the movie...

Yes, that’s right !

You mentionned the Singapore film industry. Are there many Singaporean films produced every year ? We hardly see any in festivals...

Well, there are very few. We are lucky if we produce three or four films a year, since we’re a tiny little country, and our film industry is only just getting back on its feet. We were probably the biggest film industry in South East Asia in the sixties, with the huge studios that used to be located in Singapore...

For some reason, in the seventies everything had to focus on industrialization, and somebody decided that the film industry was not important anymore. People in the Government are realizing the folly of that, and trying to change it, but they’re also still trying to stage-manage things a little. So they will police your script. If you only get funding from the Government - which is about the only body that gives out funding - then they will check the content of your script. We didn’t want to go there, so we had to go completely independant.

But it’s really difficult in a country where the distribution infrastructure isn’t quite there. The market is also actually quite small. Yet I think people saw in us a litte example of what can be done when you push hard enough. Especially with DV.

I think DV has helped a lot. By going digital we certainly helped to cut a lot of costs and make ourselves less dependent. I don’t think I could have pulled a movie in 35 in Singapore, because the money concerns would have been crazy. I think we’ll be seing many more Singaporean films - films that are a little truer to what we really are, rather than some tourist image.

The movie opens with a claim that it’s from a country where chewing gum is banned. I actually have a friend who lives in Singapore who told me this story - he explained that it was because this new subway system with huge windows was set up, and people were sticking gum on them...

Yes, that is the story - the official story, anyway. I have no idea what the real reason is, there are various conspiracy theories you know...

I think the official story could be true, because we are quite pragmatic and restrictive. "These stupid people are sticking gum, gumming up the subway doors - let’s take it away from them". Interestingly, just a few months ago, there’s been talk that chewing gum might come back because Singapore is entering a free trade agreement with the US - and the US clearly want Wrigley’s to make money [laughs]. So there’s some talk that this might be repealed.

Are there other restrictions of the type in Singapore ?

It’s really all very strict. The very old joke in Singapore is that Singapore is a "fine city" because you get fines for everything : for littering, for smoking... This has led to a kind of scared mentality. Everybody would rather not take risks or do something new. There’s a big celebrated case of an American boy who happened to spray-paint a car, and he was lashed ! They actually whipped him, despite Bill Clinton calling our president... [laughs]

Are you working on another movie now ?

Yes we are. We’re actually working on a couple of movies. We’ll see which one gets the funding first. We hope to shoot one in New York next year. It will be a Singapore story, but set in New York - it’s about Chinese lion dancing.

Will it be a comedy ?

I think it will not be as anarchic as Talking Cock. It will be a more narrative feature - a light hearted drama, actually.

Do you intend to keep up with your website ?

Yes - it’s actually going strong. In fact it’s getting better - much better - than we expected. Unfortunately it doesn’t make any money, but which dot com does ?

None I guess ! [laughs] But you can sell the movie on it now !

Yes, we can - hopefully... We’re selling the soundtrack, which actually got good reviews. The Singapore edition of Elle Magazine actually voted it album of the year. The irony is it cannot be played on radio at all, so we can’t market it... [laughs again]

Is it all Singapore music ?

Yes, it’s all Singapore music, and we included bits of dialog, and radio sketches are in it as well. None of it can be played - it’s very frustrating - but then, we tried !

You’ve chosen a hard path !

I think maybe the path chose us [laughs]. If we had known then what we know now !

Do you regret doing the movie this way ?

No I don’t. I mean, it was a wonderful experience. I just didn’t expect the magnitude...

Actually, because of this film, I became the first Singapore filmmaker ever to argue personally before the complete appeals comity of the censorship board. It was like - I was a lawyer before, but this was far worse ! [hilarious]

So I don’t regret the experience. What I do regret though, is how unnecessary it actually all is. It’s not as if the world has collapsed because of the film. Well not yet, anyway.

Yes, it all does seem like too much trouble...

That’s right !

Is there any French movie that you like particularly ?

Yes ! A Kieslowski, I think - one of the three colours, Red. I also liked... I think it might have been a Jean Réno movie... Léon ?

It’s really funny how many people cite Léon. It’s so close to being an American movie...

There’s more humour in it, I think - a certain humour that American movies lack. American movies tend to be very... unsubtle. [laughs]

That’s a very kind way to say it...

Yes... French movies are really wonderful. This is the home of cinema, and I’m amazed that I’m here, you know ! Sometimes I think my film barely qualifies as cinema, so it’s great !

Have you had the opportunity to talk with your newly-found public ?

Yes ! So far the response has been very positive, I think.
It’s also interesting to see which parts they laugh at, because it seems to be different in every country. [laughs]

I think we respond pretty well to raunchy humour...

Maybe, maybe... Usually the chicken head scene gets a laugh in every country. [keeps on laughing]

I guess the Turbanator works pretty well, too. [can’t stop laughing !] He’s a very strong character !

Aaah, yes.

What’s with the nipple-squeezing anyway ?

This in an old Singapore joke. Terribly racist, but... If a Sikh person walks past, you usually pinch your friend, and you don’t let go until he says the colour of the turban. Most of the time he doesn’t know... I guess this is their revenge : we got a support from the Sikh community going "Yes ! We want Turbanator t-shirts". [laughs on and on] But they would probably find a way to restrict that too !

Thank you !

Thanks, guys.

Interview réalisée à Deauville le 15 mars 2003 par l’équipe de SdA.

- Article paru le jeudi 20 mars 2003

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