Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Singapore Connection 1955-1965

Singapore Cinema: The Filipino Connection 1955-1965

By Raphael Millet, reprinted from his excellent book Singapore Cinema (Singapore, Editions Didier Millet, 2006) ORDER FROM AMAZON HERE

Moving away from the overwhelming influence of the Indian film culture inspired by the Indian directors, and in the absence of a sufficient number of local Malay filmmakers, Shaw [Brothers] decided to diversify its talent, importing award-winning Filipinos like Eddy Infante, T.C. Santos, Ramon Estella, Lamberto Avellana and Rolf Bayer (who was apparently also involved in the making of films for Shaw Brothers Hong Kong). They made a total of 16 movies in Singapore, for Singapore.

The Filipinos had a cultural connection with Malay culture, tracing their roots back to the days of the early Malay kingdoms. And, in fact, the Filipinos’ Tagalog language and ethnic backgrounds were close enough to Malay culture that they were able to pick up the Malay language easily. As early as 1919, we find the Nepomuceno brothers, the equivalent of the Shaw brothers, starting the first local Filipino company, significantly called Malayan Movies.

These Filipino directors, a whole new group of “foreign talents”, worked in Singapore for an entire decade, from 1955 to 1965. They brought in myriad influences, not only from the Philippines, but also from America. Indeed, many of them were very much Hollywood-oriented, and some were even trained by Americans. Their screenplays tended to be remakes of Hollywood films, and their films were replete with Western themes.

In 1954, Eddy Infante was the first to be brought in by Shaw. His Gadis Layar [lit. The Elephant Girl] was screened in 1955. He was followed in 1957 by T.C. Santos, who directed Taufan [aka Typhoon], and in 1958, by Rolf Bayer, who directed Azimat [lit. Talisman]. These men did not make more movies in Singapore. In fact, many of the Filipino directors hired by Shaw did not stay long. Either the studio was not satisfied with their work, or they saw no future in Singapore for their careers, and left of their own accord.

Rolf Bayer’s Azimat was a very jazzy Hollywoodian film that undeniably moved away from the other Singapore Malay movies of the time. The music score, lighting, editing, and acting gave it a very particular, and very un-Singaporean, feel. Yet, at the same time, Azimat stands out for how it portrayed a very modern way of life in the city, with clubs, bars, smoking, drinking and dining. It also has some interesting location shots along the Singapore River, which today gives it documentary value.

Lamberto Avellana’s career began in the Philippines before the war, with his 1939 world-acclaimed Sakay. In 1956, he won the Best Director Award at the Asian Film Festival in Hong Kong for Anak Dalita [aka The Ruins]. In 1957, Lamberto Avellana partnered Cathay-Keris for Bajau Anak Laut [lit. The Badjaos Children Of The Sea], for which he was rewarded with yet another Best Director Award. This movie was, in fact, totally not Singaporean apart from the financial investment by Cathay-Keris who was trying to develop a strategy of international co-productions (this one being done with Dona Narcisa Benvedina de Leon). Bajau Anak Laut, beautifully shot in outdoor locations, takes place in Southern Philippines, with a Filipino cast and crew.

Lamberto Avellana was thus a filmmaker already crowned by the industry for his achievements when he was brought to Singapore by the Shaw brothers in 1958. For them, he started directing Sergeant Hassan [aka Sarjan Hassan], about World War II, starring P. Ramlee in the lead role. But Lamberto Avellana left midway, leaving P. Ramlee to finish the work. Yet, Lamberto Avellana is usually the only director credited for this movie, as Ramlee had apparently decided to give him full credit. Lamberto Avellana, who was also the first Filipino director selected at the Cannes Film Festival, did not need Singapore to advance his career, which probably explains why he did not pay much attention to the movie.

Ad for Ramon Estella's Mata Hari (1958)

The Influential Ramon Estella

Only one Filipino film director was as influential as his Indian peers – Ramon Estella. He made a total of 11 movies in Singapore between 1957 and 1965. He started with Shaw’s Malay Film Productions in 1957, directing Kembali Seorang [lit. A Man Is Back]. With his ability to tune in to the local culture, and to speedily churn out feature films, Estella was asked to compete with Cathay-Keris’ directors such as B.N. Rao in the horror genre, bringing to the screen the Pontianak, and other more or less scary monsters.

For Shaw, he directed the famous Anak Pontianak [lit. Son Of Pontianak] in 1958, and a few more movies, including the very interesting Mata Hari [lit. Sun, but aka The Rape Of Malaya], which capitalized on the success met by Avellana’s Sergeant Hassan. Mata Hari portrays the life of a kampong which is turned into a camp by the Japanese during World War II, with some excellent acting by Maria Menado in the lead role.

In 1963, Estella joined Cathay-Keris for a short period, where he directed Bunga Tanjung, Darahku [lit. My Blood], and, ironically, one of the Pontianak series, Pontianak Kembali [aka The Vampire Returns].

He resumed work for Shaw in 1964, and successively shot Dupa Chendana [lit. The Sandalwood Incense], Melanchong Ke Tokyo [lit. Going To Tokyo] and his last Pontianak movie, the 1965 Pusaka Pontianak [aka The Accursed Legacy, aka The Pontianak Legacy], shot the very year of Singapore’s independence. It was truly the end of an era. Strangely, the filming of these iconic Pontianak movies has always been left to foreigners, whether Indians or Filipinos. It was only in 2001 that a Singaporean, Djinn, would venture into this horror genre with his Return To Pontianak.

As for the Filipino connection, it did not totally disappear, since Filipino John [actually Jun] Aristorenas was to direct a feature in Malaysia in 1976, called Malaysia Five, shot in Malay. Also, Manila-based producer-cum-director Bobby Suarez would go on to initiate a series of regional co-productions in the late 1970s involving the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore.


1955 – Gadis Layar/“The Elephant Girl” (Malay Film Productions)

Eddy Infante

1957 – Bajau Anak Laut/“The Badjaos Children Of The Sea” (LVN Productions/Cathay-Keris)


1957 – Kembali Seorang/“A Man Is Back” (Malay Film Productions)

Director Ramon Estella

Cast Ahmad Mahmud, Saadiah, Daeng Idris, Sunatri, Salleh Kamil

1957 – Taufan/“Typhoon” (Malay Film Productions)

Director/Screenplay Teodorico C. Santos Story B.H. Chua Dialogue/Lyrics S. Sudarmadji Music Osman Ahmad, Fred Libio

Cast Ahmad Mahmud (Amir), Zaiton (Fatimah), Salleh Kamil (Hamid), Mariani, Omar Suwita, Aziz Sattar, Shariff Dol, Ali Fijee, Mustarjo, Nyak Osman

Synopsis “Hamid, the village shopowner, falls in love with Fatimah, who is engaged to Amir. Torn with jealousy, Hamid tries to separate them.”

1958 – Anak Pontianak/“Son Of Pontianak” (Malay Film Productions)

Director Ramon Estella

Cast Jins Shamsuddin, Hashima Yon, Dayang Sofia, S. Kadarisman

Synopsis “A gallery of scary creatures like the son of the infamous vampire, a bodiless monster called the polong, and hantu the snake-devil. AT the time of its release, it was advertised in the newspapers as ‘the most horrific thriller ever filmed! Stronger than the strongest!’ And it introduced Sang Kanchil as the talking mousedeer.”

1958 – Azimat/“Talisman” (Malay Film Productions)

Director Rolf Bayer

Cast Pancho Magalona, Saloma, Jins Shamsuddin, Salleh Kamil, Tita Doran

Synopsis “The son of a rich man wastes his life away, flirting with women, listening to music and drinking wine. After an argument with his father, he considers committing suicide, but meets an old bearded Chinese man who gives him a talisman. The lead role is played by Filipino movie star Pancho Magalona. The overall feel is very jazzy and Hollywoodian. It presents a very different picture of Singapore from what was usually seen in movies of that time.”

1958 – Mata Hari/“The Sun” (Malay Film Productions)

[also known as “Matahari”, “The Rape Of Malaya”]

Director Ramon Estella

Cast Maria Medano (Matahari), Ahmad Mahmud (Ahmad), Salleh Kamil (Umai), Omar Rojik (Jepun), Daeng Idris, Alice Ma, Jins Shamsuddin

Synopsis “Matahari’s village is turned into a camp by the invading Japanese army. Bravely, the young Matahari leads a war for the freedom of her country. Umai, however, betrays his people and starts working for the Japanese. At the time of its release, it was billed as ‘the first authentic film about the Japanese occupation in Malaya’.”

1958 – Sergeant Hassan (Malay Film Productions)

[also known as “Sarjan Hassan”]

Directors Lamberto [V.] Avellana, [uncredited] P. Ramlee Story Ralph Moder Screenplay P. Ramlee

Cast P. Ramlee (Sergeant Hassan), Saadiah (Salmah), Jins Shamsuddin (Aziz), Salleh Kamil (Buang), Daeng Idris (Lebai), Aini Jasmin (Minah), John Gray, David Downe, Omar Rojik, Ali Fiji

Synopsis “In his early youth, Hassan loses both his mother and his father. His father’s employer, taking pity on him, decides to take care of him, thus placing Hassan under his guidance. But his employer’s son, Aziz, becomes envious, and grows bitter towards Hassan. The fact that the beautiful Salmah falls in love with Hassan makes Aziz even more envious. At the outbreak of World War II, Aziz and some friends respond to the call for volunteers to fight the Japanese. Hassan, who wants to go as well, is forced to stay in the village to take care of the plantation with his adoptive father. He is called a coward by the villagers. Hassan, unable to take it any longer, runs away and joins the army, where he quickly proves to be a very skilled soldier.”

1959 – Samseng/“Gangster” (Malay Film Productions)

Director Ramon Estella

Cast Jins Shamsuddin, Rosnani Jamil

1959 – Saudagar Minyak Urat/“The Massage Oil Merchant” (Malay Film Productions)

Director Ramon Estella Music P. Ramlee

Cast S. Kadarisman, Normadiah, S. Shamsuddin, Aziz Satar, Mariani, Saloma, Leng Hussein, Ibrahim Pendek, Ahmad Nisfu

1963 – Bunga Tanjung (Cathay-Keris)

Director Ramon Estella

1963 – Darahku/“My Blood” (Cathay-Keris/Maria Medano Productions)

Director Ramon Estella

Cast Maria Medano, Malik Selamat

1963 – Pontianak Kembali/“The Vampire Returns” (Cathay-Keris/Maria Medano Productions)

Director Ramon Estella

Cast Malik Selamat, Maria Medano

1964 – Dupa Chendana/“The Sandalwood Incense” (Cathay-Keris)

Director Ramon Estella

Cast Ahmad Mahmud, Saadiah, Mariani, Aziz Jaafar, S. Kadarisman

1964 – Melanchong Ke Tokyo/“Going To Tokyo” (Malay Film Productions)

Director Ramon Estella

Cast Aziz Jaafar, Saadiah, S. Kadarisman, Asao Mutsumoto, Motoko Furakawa, Normadiah

1965 – Pusaka Pontianak/“The Pontianak Legacy” (Malay Film Productions)

[also known as “The Accursed Legacy”]

Director Ramon Estella Music Yusoff B and The Swallows

Cast Ahmad Mahmud, Sa’adia, Ahmad Daud, Haji Mahadi, Normadiah, Salleh Kamil, Ibrahim Pendek, Aziz Satar, Dayang Sofia, Mariam Bahrun

Synopsis “Some people are gathered in a large mansion to share the legacy of a rich rubber tycoon. But, very soon, mysterious things start happening. The last of the Pontianak movies, and also the last movie made by a Filipino director for one of the Singaporean studios.”

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