Later this month, Singapore will play host to inaugural horror festival, Scream Asia, and its curator, Eric Khoo, is the ideal man for the job.
Just recently, Khoo came to town to promote his latest project, a horror series named Folklore, which he created in partnership with cable television giant HBO Asia. The six-episode anthology features standalone stories helmed by directors from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Thailand. Khoo himself directs the episode featuring a teenage pontianak. Malaysia is represented by Ho Yuhang (Mrs K, At the End of Daybreak and Bunohan), whose story of the toyol stars popular actor Bront Palarae.
“They are all my friends,” Khoo says of the directors involved when Options met him at the St. Regis Kuala Lumpur. “I pitched an idea to HBO in late 2016 to do a series based on Asian folklore. What’s so great about this region is that we’re so different. We all believe in different … I mean our folklore is so rich, and I wanted all that to be part of this series. It’s also why I wanted it all to be done in our respective mother tongues. The feel of it is necessary.”
Khoo confesses that horror is his favourite genre, though interestingly enough, he has not made a full-fledged horror film. “I was scared,” he quips, adding that watching horror movies as a child with his mother traumatised him.
On a more serious note, the award-winning auteur observes, “People sort of scoff at horror, saying they are B-grade movies, but I think there is great integrity in the genre. This is because if you look at a lot of filmmakers, they started off with the genre, where you’re always working with a tight budget, and so requires a lot of creative directional skills to get what they want nonetheless.”
Naming popular TV-series The Twilight Zone as being a memorable part of his growing-up years, Khoo says rather than the shock and gore offered in slasher films, the idea for Folklore is more nuanced and story-driven. Crediting the directors for their strong individual styles and input, he says the series has an auteur vibe that is very refreshing.
“These are the directors I wanted to work with … whom I respect. And I didn’t want to control their creative freedom. But that’s the brilliant thing, not all of them have attempted this genre before, so it’s refreshing to see them do something new. And so you have some that are funny, some dead-on serious. Overall, I was very impressed with their execution and having watched them all, I think they are very good,” he smiles confidently.
His own episode was shot in Batam, which he found more suited to the feel of “old Singapore” that he wanted. Subscribing to the firm belief that good horror requires the ability to help the viewer identify with the story, he says he set about to create more empathy for the pontianak than the people she slaughters. “When you watch it, you’ll understand why. It’s not meant to scare. You’ll find the story beautiful.”
With a filmography that is as eclectic as they come, the common threads for Khoo’s films are perhaps an alluring, unpolished quality and the quirky, stand-out characters that inhabit his stories — even from his first full-length film, the 1995 cult-status Mee Pok Man. Incidentally, it was also his most blatant dabble in the horror film genre and the film — which Khoo considers a love story, albeit with a very dark aura — was both lauded and hated in equal measure. It nevertheless opened doors for Khoo to enter more than 30 film festivals worldwide, picking up a few awards along the way.
Fast forward to 2018, his latest film, Ramen Teh, is a considerably bigger Singapore-Japan-French production that delves into his other love, food. The story of a half-Japanese, half-Singaporean young ramen chef who heads back to Singapore to find out more about his roots is told through memory-evoking culinary delights.
Between the two films is an extensive filmography, along with regular attendance at film festivals worldwide — be it as a competitor, guest or panel judge — as Khoo cemented his status as Singapore’s most significant filmmaker. In fact, he is largely credited for the revival of the Singapore filmmaking industry.
Like many young aspiring filmmakers then, the City Art Institute Sydney alumni member, who started out making TV commercials, took part in the Singapore International Film Festival’s short film competition. He attributes his entire career to that opportunity. “In the 1950s, we had a great film industry with the Shaw Brothers, and P Ramlee films. When television came, there was a split, and the industry here sort of withered away. But I attribute everything to the Singapore International Film Festival. In 1991, I left the army and submitted one film. That year, there were 17 short films, all of which were finalists. I won the main prize.
“In 1994, I submitted another short film, which was banned. It was called Pain, and was essentially torture porn. They nevertheless let the film be screened for competition, because the judges were foreigners. I won the best director award, but also a new special achievement award that I later found out came with a sponsorship prize. The great thing was that the piece of paper had no final amount listed,” Khoo recounts. He jumped at the opportunity to knock on doors for funding, resulting in the making of Mee Pok Man.
“I think I’ve really gone full circle and come back to my roots. My mother is a huge movie buff and every week, she would take my sister and I to watch the four o’clock show. We grew up in a fantastical world. Spaghetti Westerns, James Bond, Bruce Lee martial art films and one of her favourites, horror. Unfortunately, she’s gone now, so it’s just memories of that, and also of her cooking. Hence, we are where we are now,” he laughs.
Commenting on the industry today, he says, realistically, Singapore filmmakers have no choice but to look outwards as the local market cannot sustain itself at the box office. One area where he sees under-realised potential is the horror genre, where the budget needed tends to be smaller, while interest and the fan base are significantly larger.
The region’s lower film production costs and its abundance of rich stories and cultural history also invite exploration. Folklore is a case in point; it is a project that he hopes will see a second leg at least.
Perhaps it will see more of the young Singaporean and Southeast Asian filmmakers that he is keeping an eye on coming on board. “I try to watch short films by young filmmakers. If I like them, I want to meet the makers and work together. It’s about growing the family. I just met with a boy I found on Facebook who has never gone to film school, but he did some wonderful shorts, went out and somehow managed to get some money by knocking on doors. Actions speak louder than words! Some people think this is glamorous and get into it for the wrong reasons, but when you find a gem, then you want to help him or her grow.”
'Folklore' is now showing on HBO in Malaysia. New episodes are premiered every Sunday. This article first appeared on Oct 8, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.