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Eric Khoo On The 20th Anniversary Of '12 Storeys': "It's Still Relevant Because We All Haven’t Changed That Much"

The filmmaker also has a new retrospective DVD box-set and a new movie coming out next year called 'Ramen Teh', starring Jeanette Aw and Mark Lee.


8 DAYS: You have a DVD box-set, Eric Khoo: Director’s Collection, out now... 

ERIC KHOO: All my films — from Mee Pok Man to Tatsumi — are in there, except [the erotic omnibus] In the Room because that’s rated R21 [which isn’t allowed for sale on DVD]. In France, In the Room is rated ‘12’ (laughs). [The classifiers here] have got the numbers wrong (laughs). The box-set also has some of my short films, including Cinema, the segment I did for 7 Letters.  

Was it emotional to re-watch these films as you were prepping the box-set?

I’m so happy that I finally got to restore Mee Pok Man and 12 Storeys, because I was never really happy with the previous DVD editions which were transferred from the 35mm prints that were so badly scratched! When we were doing those films, the budget was very lean, so I never supervised the colour-grading; the cinematographer did that. So when I first saw those films, I thought it was pretty good, but I think it was more of what the cinematographer wanted. But now I could actually get the colours that I have always wanted the films to be.

This year also marks the 20th anniversary of 12 Storeys. What attracted you to make a slice-of-life drama about HDB residents? 

We thought it’d be kind of cool to do something really Singaporean, and that’s one of the reasons the characters spoke the way they spoke. Because the problem with Channel 5 is that everything is in perfect English. In 12 Storeys, you could throw in the dialects to make the characters even more real. At that time, James Toh, my co-writer, and I were reading a lot of local news. We were also very inspired by the works of Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki, and that sort of worked its way to one of the stories with Jack Neo as a yong tau foo seller and Quan Yifeng as his China bride.

Do you remember the first scene you directed?  

It was with Jack and Yifeng and they totally cracked me up. It was the scene where Jack was on his exercise bike and wanting sex so desperately from his China bride.

Odd couple: Jack Neo and Quan Yifeng as estranged husband and wife in 12 Storeys.

12 Storeys was Quan Yifeng’s first movie.  

She was excellent. She’s Taiwanese and had to put on a Mainland Chinese accent. You couldn’t find anyone as good as her who could do that sort of accent.

How did Jack Neo get involved in the film? You two went on to make Liang Po Po

I met Jack at this production house called A&T Studio, where they rented out cameras and simple editing suites. If you were doing something low-budget, you’d go there. So I met him there and I was thinking of this transition link to connect the three stories in 12 Storeys — there would be a TV set in everyone’s home and they are watching this comedian, which I wanted Jack to play. But Jack went, “I don’t want to be inside a TV! Give me a bigger role!” I said, “But we don’t have the budget.” He said, “It’s okay lah, you give me an ang pow!” Then I said, “But then you need to look ugly.” He said, “Oh, I’ve got these prop teeth that look really ugly. The next time we met he had those fake teeth.

Do you think the film still holds up?

We did a 20th anniversary screening [at The Projector recently] and what was really cool about that was the audience — it was a younger audience who had never seen the film. It was wonderful to hear them laugh and relating to what they were watching — a social satire set 20 years ago that’s still relevant. It still resonates with Singaporeans because we all haven’t changed that much.

12 Storeys was also invited to the Cannes Film Festival that year. And this year, you became the first Singaporean filmmaker to be a member of the jury for short and student Palm D’or.

 I was just so damn happy [former Cannes Film Festival president] Gilles Jacob invited me to be on the panel because 20 years ago — which was also Cannes’ 50th anniversary — I was there 12 Storeys. And then now, for Cannes’ 70th anniversary, I’m back but as at the jury. So for me, it was very sentimental. It was wonderful to see Cannes through a different lens. Normally when you are there with a film, it’s physical work because you have back-to-back interviews where you regurgitate your replies over and over, six hours every day, and you can’t really watch anything and you’re always under the pressure of what the critics are going to say about your film.  [When you’re there as a jury],  you get to meet up-close filmmakers of various nationalities, from Guillermo del Toro to Dario Argento to David Cronenberg. You can be superstar or a nobody star, as long as you’re doing something new and innovative, you’re welcome there. 

Jury duty: Eric Khoo was on the jury for the Cannes Film Festival's short and student Palm D'or, alongside Moonlight director (second from left) director Barry Jenkins. "It was so enlightening to talk to Barry Jenkins," recalled Khoo. "He saw Be With Me at Telluride Film Festival [in the US] and he asked me if I talked to Hou Hsiao-Hsien because he had a movie called Three Times which was [similar to Be With Me]. " 

Back to the box-set. You’re re-releasing the films on a dinosaur format. The DVD market isn’t what it used to be…  

I’m very sad lah, because I like [my DVDs in a] physical box. Whenever I’m in Japan, I’d make a pilgrimage to Tower Records, because they have everything, and I will still buy CDs. Then when I bring them back, my kids would say, “Oh, I already downloaded this.” But I like the [feel of a] physical disc very much and I still love going into shops to find DVDs.

You should get your movies on Netflix or iTunes. Those are the new platforms for young people to discover films.

That’s how [Guardians of the Galaxy director] James Gunn saw it. We were at a film festival in Tokyo and he asked what I did. I said Tatsumi, and he went, “I [expletive] love the film!” I was like, “Where did you see it?!” And he said, “On iTunes!”

Your next movie is Ramen Teh, a drama about a ramen chef from Japan trying to learn more about his Singaporean mother. It stars Mark Lee, Jeanette Aw ... and 1980s J-pop idol Seiko Matsuda.  

I’m a Seiko fan. I even got her vinyls from back in the day. She is a gem to work with. You know who went gaga over her? Mark Lee. I kept telling him that we got Seiko Matsuda, and he just went, “Orh.” He only knew her by her Chinese name. So one day before filming, he discovered who she was and went crazy. (laughs)

Soul food: Jeanette Aw and Ihara Tsuyoshi in Ramen Teh.  Khoo says he became a Jeanette Aw fan after watching her on The Little Nyonya. “When I first met up with her a long time ago, I didn’t know what exactly to put her in,” recalls Khoo. “But I wanted to meet her so that if I finally do get to make a film with a character [that’s suitable for her] to play, I’d rope her in.” 

Come to think of it, food has always played a part in your works.  

I’ve been watching cooking shows ever since I was a kid. Before Nigella Lawson and Gordon Ramsay, there was this British celeb chef Keith Floyd in the 1970s. I’m always watching all these delicious shots, wondering [how to combine them with] a story. My main love is horror but I always make it a point to watch every food film out there. There’s a lovely Indian film called The Lunchbox. Fantastic. 

Main photo: Kelvin Chia 

The Eric Khoo Director’s Collection ($89.90)  is out in Kinokuniya Bookstores and all fine video stores; Ramen Teh will be in cinemas next year.   

 

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