Royston Tan's 'Homecoming' - film about people of Pulau Ubin

Royston Tan: 'I must rebel for the right reason'
Despite a string of govt-commissioned works, film-maker Roystan Tan says he has not 'sold out'
Joanne Soh The New Paper 6 May 16;

Do not call him the reformed bad boy of local cinema.

Even though Royston Tan has effectively become the go-to guy for government-endorsed projects - he has done more than 20 in the past decade, including 10 in the last year alone - there is still a rebel in him.

It is just manifested a little differently now.

The local film-maker still wants his work, be it short or feature-length films, to raise eyebrows.

"I don't think my story-telling style has changed over the years. The objective is still the same," Tan told The New Paper over the phone.

"There are certain messages I want to get across. I'm still telling stories close to my heart."

And that would be uniquely Singaporean human interest stories or tales about the community.

Sixteen years in the industry have certainly changed people's minds and opinions, as well as his own "enfant terrible" reputation.

For a director whose seminal 2002 feature film 15 struck a nerve in Singapore - particularly that of the Government's - due to its unsavoury depiction of teenage delinquency, gangs and illegal activities, Tan appears to be going in the opposite direction.

This year, the 39-year-old has already completed three commissioned projects by various ministries and agencies.

The first was a video installation called A Moment Of Unity for the National Museum of Singapore to mark the first anniversary of the passing of Singapore's first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew.

That was followed by Shoelaces, a heartwarming commercial commissioned by the Workplace Safety and Health Council to create awareness that all injuries and ill health at work can be prevented. It is now showing on TV and in cinemas.


Then there is Homecoming, a one-hour documentary film commissioned by the National Heritage Board (NHB) for Singapore HeritageFest 2016.

It features personal stories of former Pulau Ubin residents who still return to the village and others who have left their homes on the mainland to settle down on Ubin.

Its premiere will be at the Pulau Ubin Wayang Stage on May 14, alongside another local film, Dahdi, by Kirsten Tan.

When asked if he is "selling out" for what may be perceived as propaganda projects, Tan brushed off the criticism, saying that "the culture has changed".

"I've not lost my edginess. It's just that the environment is more open, and that presented more opportunities for creativity," he insisted.

"The (agencies) don't interfere much nowadays... they just let me do what I want."

He said the agencies gave him free rein on the stories and direction.

"I guess they like my narrative and atmospheric style."

It is clear that there is no longer any bad blood between Tan and the censorship board, and all those 15-related fiascos are water under the bridge.

"I never thought of myself as a rebel against the authorities. When I rebel, I must rebel for the right reason."

He added, laughing: "I'm still very much against censorship, though!"

For Homecoming, Tan was approached by NHB because of a Pulau Ubin segment in his short film 50 First Kisses, which was part of the SG Heart Map campaign last year.

"(NHB) asked if I have any more footage on Pulau Ubin. After much discussion and brainstorming, we realised that the island has a lot of interesting people, and they should be featured.

"They have so many wonderful memories and those should be shared."


Capturing the past has long been a hobby for Tan, who is passionate about archiving and documenting Singapore's lost heritage, forgotten places and even old architecture.

Doing commercials such as Shoelaces pays the bills for him to indulge in such pet projects, Tan joked.

However, Tan insists he still pushes the envelope.

"I have a big 'naughty' project coming up," he teased, hinting that it may have something to do with the anti-dialect campaign.

"We used to have those Speak Mandarin campaigns and were forbidden to use dialect.

"But dialect is beautiful and it should not be lost. It's how we communicate with our elderly folks.

"If Singaporeans can speak Korean by watching the TV shows, why can't they pick up Mandarin so easily too?

"So don't blame dialect and make it the scapegoat for us not being able to speak Mandarin properly.

"Wait for my next project. It will be out in a few months' time and it is going to be historic," he said, laughing.

Royston's fond memories of the island from his younger days and his passion for documenting Singapore's heritage can be seen from his recent work, 7 Letters, and his other short film 50 First Kisses. We are confident that he will be able to tell the story of Pulau Ubin beautifully.

- Mr Warren Sin, film programmer, Singapore HeritageFest 2016

Royston was part of a group of three local film-makers shortlisted by our advertising agency to produce the commercial Shoelaces. We appointed him because we felt that his creative style and proposed execution of the (commercial) was best suited to achieve our objectives in getting the general public to take action to prevent injuries and ill health at work. The WSH Council had also previously worked with Royston (for) its 2012 television commercial Guilt Kid.

- Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) Council spokesman

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