Royston Tan

by Lee, Xin Ying

Royston Tan (b. 5 October 1976, Singapore–) is an award-winning Singaporean film-maker who is hailed as one of the most promising talents in the local film-making industry. Most of Tan’s works focus on social issues and seek to challenge the boundaries of societal expectations. As such, he is often regarded as the enfant terrible (which means “terrible child” in French) of Singapore film. Tan set up his own film production company, 10twentyeight, in 2008.

Early years
Tan spent his early childhood in a kampong (“village” or “settlement” in Malay) on Lorong Chuan where his parents owned a provision shop. His carefree days were occupied with activities such as catching fish in drains and watching street opera. When he was 10, Tan and his family moved into a Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat, one of the last few families in Singapore to be resettled. Tan had difficulty adjusting to the move because he had to interact more with people instead of plants and animals.

Tan honed his street smarts while trying to adapt to primary school life, and his acute insights and intuitive reading of situations and people are reflected in the honest, social realist films he subsequently made. Tan’s family later moved to a semi-detached house, but they had to shift once more to a rented accommodation when his father was declared a bankrupt while Tan was doing his National Service. His parents then worked as hawkers to support the family.

These trials and tribulations drew the family closer together and such close-knit ties can be seen in how Tan often involves his family members in his work. Such family involvement includes helping to transport items, preparing food for the crew and acting as extras in his films. Tan also draws inspiration from his parents’ fortitude in dealing with misfortune and this has greatly influenced his film ideas.

Venturing into film

Tan spent his formative years as a normal stream student in Zhonghua Secondary School. Upon graduation, he took video production classes and developed a strong interest in film-making. Although not academically inclined, Tan overcame initial difficulties with his studies and excelled in the visual communications course he took at Temasek Polytechnic. He scored the highest marks in the cohort for his final year project and also bagged a number of prestigious awards. These include the National Panasonic Video Award for local band Concave Scream's music video Erase in 1996, as well as the Temasek Students' Music Video Award and the UTV International Book Prize for Adam.Eve.Steve in 1997.

Tan started out making short films before venturing into longer feature films. He admits to being influenced by acclaimed Hong Kong auteur director Wong Kar Wai and his use of the wide-angle lens. Wong is famous for directing iconic films such as Days of Being Wild (1990), Chungking Express (1994) and In the Mood for Love (2000).

In his early years as a film-maker, Tan often participated in local film contests. His entries eventually caught the eye of established Singaporean film director Eric Khoo, who was a frequent judge at these contests. Tan subsequently became Khoo’s protégé and worked at his company, Zhao Wei Films, for five years as its in-house director.

Tan’s breakthrough film Sons (2000) was made using his own savings of S$3,000. The film, which is about a father’s attempt to repair his relationship with his son, was named Best Short Film at the 13th Singapore International Film Festival. Sons also earned Tan the Silver Award at the 23rd Tokyo Film Festival, making him the first Singaporean to win an award at the festival. He received a cash prize of 150,000 yen (S$2,255) and a plaque for winning the award.

Outstanding works

Tan has won more than 40 international and local film awards. One of his most outstanding works to date is 15 (2003), a controversial film on Singapore’s troubled youths that deals with issues such as juvenile delinquency, drug abuse and teen violence. It is an extended version of his famous short film of the same name that was produced in 2002. Featuring former gang members, the film received financial support from Zhao Wei Films and the Singapore Film Commission, and premiered at the 16th Singapore International Film Festival in 2003. It was the fastest selling local film in the history of the festival with all 1,200 tickets sold out in just four days. Although the film had certain scenes cut by the Board of Film Censors for its vivid portrayal of secret societies, it resonated well with the international arts community, winning numerous awards and receiving many accolades at film festivals in Venice, Toronto, London, Los Angeles and Vancouver.

Royston Tan’s second feature-length film, 4:30 (2006), was the first Singapore film to be funded and co-produced by Japan’s national broadcaster NHK. Other co-sponsors were the Singapore Film Commission and Zhao Wei Films. The film is about a young boy who wakes up at 4:30 a.m. every morning to spy on his tenant, a Korean man, whom he subsequently looks to as a father figure. The film was well received and played to a full house during its world premiere at the 56th Berlin International Film Festival in 2006. The accolades received by 4:30 include: the Netpac Award at the 26th Hawaii International Film Festival, the Grand Prix Award for Best Film at the International Film Festival held in Bratislava, Slovakia, and the Best Film Award at the Rome Asian Film Festival.

Tan’s next feature film, 881 (2007), was about Singapore’s getai (Chinese for “song stage”) scene. Getai is a live stage performance featuring singing and dancing that is held during the Hungry Ghost Festival in the 7th month of the Chinese lunar calendar. The protagonists of the film are the getai-performing Papaya Sisters (played by actresses Mindee Ong and Yeo Yann Yann) who strive to make it big on the getai stage. The film held its international premiere at the Pusan International Film Festival in Busan, South Korea. It earned the praise of former senior minister Goh Chok Tong, who claimed it had “all the elements of a Broadway hit” after watching it at a preview. The film was chosen by the Singapore Film Commission as Singapore’s entry for the Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film category at the 2008 Academy Awards.

Riding on the success of 881, Tan subsequently released 12 Lotus (2008), which was his second film on getai. The film is about a talented singer, Lian Hua (played by Mindee Ong), who is used and abused by various men. Like 881, the film features a mix of Mandarin and Hokkien dialogue and songs.

Films for a cause

Tan uses his films not only to tell stories, but also to champion societal causes by focusing on the disadvantaged and marginalised segments of society.

A case in point is Tan’s film documentary 48 on Aids (2001), which discusses the sensitive topic of Aids in a tactful but personal manner by featuring people from all walks of life, including Aids victims and sex workers. Tan and his film crew took great risks by interviewing and filming 48 people in 48 different locations, including brothels. The documentary was aired on Channel NewsAsia on 1 December 2001 to commemorate World Aids Day. The documentary won Best Cinematography (Long Form) and Best of Show awards at the 2002 Asian Television Awards.

Tan was commissioned by the Health Promotion Board (HPB) to write and direct Ah Kong (2010), which is a short film meant to enhance public awareness of dementia and to reduce the stigma associated with it.

Giving back to society

Tan has made much effort to reach out to the less fortunate and to inspire them, such as teaching troubled youths film-making for free and assisting them with their film productions. Tan has also helped to raise money for an old folks’ home and The Business Times Budding Artists Fund, which supports the artistic pursuits of upcoming local artists.

In March 2005, Tan held the 0104 showcase at the Alliance Française de Singapour, which featured 12 of his 15 short films produced between 2001 and 2004. Proceeds from the two-day showcase were used to help another local film-maker, Bertrand Lee, who had his leg amputated as a result of an accident in Mumbai. Before Singapore, the showcase was also held in Chicago, London and Tokyo.

Tan served as the inspiration for a film directed by budding film-makers Randy Ang and Nicholas Chee, who were both visual communications alumni of the Temasek Design School. The film Becoming Royston (2007) pays tribute to Tan and is about a prawn farmer’s son who hopes to be a film-maker like him. Tan was impressed with the passion and enthusiasm shown by the film-makers and made a cameo appearance in the film as himself. The film was nominated for the Best Male Actor, Best Cinematographer and Best Screenplay awards at the Asian Festival of 1st Films in 2006.

Selected awards

Best Short Film and Special Achievement Award for Sons at the 13th Singapore International Film Festival.
23rd Tokyo Film Festival Silver Award for Sons; 6th Malaysian Video Awards (MVA) ASEAN Director of the Year Silver Award.
Singapore National Arts Council’s Young Artist of the Year; Silver Screen Award for Special Achievement in the Singapore short film category at the 15th Singapore International Film Festival; Tampere International Film Festival Jury’s Diploma of Merit Award (Finland) for Hock Hiap Leong; Technical and Creative Winner of Asian Television Awards 2002.
Recognised by the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (Netpac) Jury as one of Asia’s most promising talents; Netpac/Fipresci Jury World Critic Award at the 16th Singapore International Film Festival for 15; New York Film and Television Award (Silver) for 48 on Aids.
Named as one of the “Top 20 Asian Heroes” by Time Magazine, Special Jury Award at the Deauville Asian Film Festival for 15, Best Director award at the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema.
: Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (Netpac) Jury Award at the 26th Hawaii International Film Festival for 4:30.
The Grand Prix award for the 6th Lab Competition segment at the 29th Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival for Monkeylove.
Best Director at the 22nd Singapore International Film Festival’s Silver Screen Awards for 12 Lotus.  
Recipient of the Singapore Youth Award (Arts & Culture).
Winner of the inaugural Yahoo! Singapore 9 Awards (Culture category).
Busan Award at the Busan International Film Festival's Asian Project Market for 69.

Father: Tan Chin Cheng
Mother: Ng Peng Hwy
Younger brother: Ethan Tan


Lee Xin Ying and Veronica Chee


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Huang, H. (2010, August 22). My dad, my No. 1 fan. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva.

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Yong, S. C. (2002, June 22). Asian TV winners show they can stand on their own. Today, p. 23. Retrieved from NewspaperSG. 

The information in this article is valid as at 19 June 2013 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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