by Koh, Angeline
Eric Khoo Kim Hai1 (b. 27 March 1965, Singapore–),2 better known simply as Eric Khoo, is a local filmmaker who has been credited with jump-starting the Singapore film industry in the mid-1990s. Khoo, who helms local movie companies Zhao Wei Films and Gorylah Pictures, put Singapore on the international film map with his award-winning films. He was the first Singaporean to have his films showcased at major film festivals such as those held in Berlin, Venice and Cannes. For his contributions to the local film industry, Khoo was conferred the Cultural Medallion for Film in 2007.3
Khoo was born the youngest son of prominent local businessman Khoo Teck Puat. He received his education at the United World College of South East Asia.5 Khoo attributes his love for cinema to his mother, whom he once described as a “cinephile”. She gave him his first taste of cinema when he was about two years old. In his early years, going to the four-o’clock movies with her was a once-or-twice-a-week affair. Fantasy and horror films – all part of his mother’s regular diet of movies – became part of his. In addition to film, the young Khoo also read a lot of comics such as Superman.
At eight, Khoo stumbled on his mother’s Super 8 film camera. His attempt at animated film got him hooked and he could not put the camera down. When he was about 11 or 12, he watched Martin Scorsese’s movie Taxi Driver. The movie’s exploration of the self-contradicting mind and life of a man at war within himself made Khoo realise that there was more to cinema than just monsters or dinosaurs.6
Khoo became very interested in the anti-hero: characters who never function well or get things right but who have to live within society’s rules and regulations.7 In Khoo’s later years, the anti-hero became one of the hallmarks of his film productions. His interest in film eventually led Khoo to study cinematography at the City Art Institute in Sydney, Australia.
Reviving the local film industry8
The mid-1930s saw the founding of two Singapore film empires: Loke Wan Tho’s Cathay Productions (later Cathay-Keris Studio) and Shaw Brothers Studio. Unfortunately, the advent of World War II cut short the booming success of the ‘Hollywood of Asia’. Following the end of the war in 1945, the Singapore film industry was revived. P. Ramlee and Hussein Haniff created Malay-language films that were popular even with non-Malays. Cinemas then depended heavily on foreign films, especially those that were produced in Hong Kong.
By the late 1960s, television had become the rage in Singapore, with Western films becoming the norm. In 1967, Shaw Brothers closed their Singapore studio when their biggest star and best director P. Ramlee moved to Kuala Lumpur to join Studio Merdeka. When Cathy-Keris Studio folded up in 1972 due to financial difficulties, Singapore became a nation without a national cinema for more than 20 years. It was in this dearth of Singapore-made films that Eric Khoo jump-started the Singapore filmmaking industry in 1995.
Mee Pok Man (1995), a story about a lonely, misunderstood and ridiculed noodle seller and his obsession with a disillusioned prostitute, received Special Mention from the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) at the 8th Singapore International Film Festival; Special Jury Prize at the 9th Fukuoka Asian Film Festival 1996; and Special Mention from the Jury – New Currents Award Competition – Best New Asian Director at the 1st Pusan International Film Festival in September 1996.10
Best appreciated by home audiences, Khoo’s second production, 12 Storeys (1997), is a social commentary featuring three households on the 12th floor of Singapore’s public housing. It premiered at the 1997 Singapore International Film Festival and was subsequently invited to be featured at the Un Certain Regard programme in Cannes that same year.
Khoo did Singapore proud when 12 Storeys became the first made-in-Singapore film to be invited officially to participate in the 50th Cannes Film Festival. No other director from Singapore and few directors from Southeast Asia have made such a breakthrough in the European film agenda. Khoo’s films have since become a regular feature of the Cannes festival programme.11
Mee Pok Man and 12 Storeys have together been screened at over 60 film festivals held all over the world, including Ivy League festivals such as Venice, Berlin and Rotterdam. In 2008, Khoo’s 12 Storeys was also one of three local films selected for adaptation into novel format under a pilot project, Screen to Print, which was spearheaded by the National Book Development Council of Singapore and supported by the National Library Board.12 Khoo continued to collect many more accolades for his works following the success of his first two groundbreaking movies.
Khoo made a name for himself in film but unknown to many, the filmmaker started out as a comic illustrator in the late 1980s. His works were published in publications such as the NewMan and BigO magazines. Khoo’s Unfortunate Lives was also the first comic collection to be published in Singapore.13
Many of Khoo’s films revolve around the seedier, less sanitised side of Singaporean life. These films strive to create a dissonance that awakens the audiences’s awareness of their own and society’s condition and existence. Influenced by Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Khoo’s stories explore jarring themes, including a sense of alienation in contemporary Singapore, nostalgia for a more humane past, and the centrality and complexity of human sexuality.15
While strict censorship, cuts and rating have been common complaints about the film industry in Singapore, Khoo always challenged such boundaries and found ways to create his art. “At the end of the day, it's all about telling a good story,” he said. “If you want to cover controversial ground, so be it. It’s about how smart you're going to be and what you want to do, and how you tell it”.16
Grooming the next generation17
Khoo is not content with just making award-winning films. He wants to ensure that Singapore films continue to be made. For local films to get anywhere, he believes that Singapore directors need to think out of the box – and especially out of Singapore. “It is a constant struggle and you have to work smart, quick and never say die.” In 2007, Khoo was appointed as a board member of New York University Tisch School of the Arts Asia.
Khoo’s vision for his company Zhao Wei Films is to groom the next generation of filmmakers, not just in Singapore but also in Asia. In 2009, Zhao Wei Films and Infinite Studios started Gorylah Pictures to fund, co-invest, produce, market and distribute genre films with a focus on young emerging film talents from Southeast Asia.18
While Khoo continues to garner accolades for his work, a surprising side not often seen of Singapore’s most celebrated filmmaker is his devotion to his children. Khoo named his four sons after famous persons – Edward, after artist Edward Hopper; James, after actor James Dean; Christopher, after Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski; and Lucas, after film director George Lucas. His company Zhao Wei was named after one of his sons’s Chinese name.
Khoo involves his four sons in his film work and they are as comfortable behind a camera as they are in front of it. As a family, they create video filmlets, draw cartoon strips and cook. “I try to help them understand the craft of filmmaking and storytelling. It's how you view a work. Looking at it on a technical level or in an artistic way will give you entirely different perspectives.”
Awards and recognitions19
1995: Mee Pok Man won awards in Fukuoka, Pusan and Singapore. Screened at over 60 film festivals, held all over the world, including at Ivy League festivals such as Venice, Berlin and Rotterdam.
1997: 12 Storeys screened at over 60 film festivals, held all over the world, including at Ivy League festivals such as Venice, Berlin and Rotterdam. Received Federation of International Film Critics (FIPRESCI) Award, UOB Young Cinema Award at the 10th Singapore International Festival, and the Golden Maile Award for Best Picture at the 17th Hawaii International Film Festival. More importantly, 12 Storeys was the first Singaporean film to be invited officially to participate in the 50th Cannes Film Festival (1997).
1997: First recipient of the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award for Film.
1998: Ranked one of 25 exceptional trend makers of Asia by Asiaweek.
1999: Included in Leaders for the Millennium by Asiaweek.
1999: Recipient of Singapore Youth Award.
1999: Liang Po Po – The Movie was the highest grossing local movie in 1999.
2001: One Leg Kicking was the highest grossing local movie in 2001.
2003: Producer for 15. Invited to Venice Film Festival 2003 and Sundance 2004.
2005: Be With Me was the first Singaporean film to be nominated for the European Film Awards 2005. Selected as the opening film for the Directors’ Fortnight Cannes 2005. Won several awards overseas. Invited to the Toronto International Film Festival, Telluride Film Festival, Pusan International Film Festival amongst others. Received international distribution including the US and Europe with glowing reviews in the French media.
2005: Judge at the 10th Pusan International Film Festival.
2006: Awarded the 2006 Singapore Youth Awards Medal Of Commendation.
2006: First Singapore director whose films were featured in a retrospective in Korea. Paid tribute by the Seoul Independent Film Festival. Invited to direct for the Jeonju Digital Film Festival in Korea.
2007: Awarded Cultural Medallion for Film by President S. R. Nathan.
2007: Appointed board member of the New York University Tisch School of the Arts Asia.
2008: My Magic nominated for the Cannes Palme d’Or. Awarded Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French Cultural Minister of Culture.
Best film award at Fribourg International Film Festival and voted best film of 2008 by Le Monde.
2009: Macabre won Best Actress award, Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival.
2010: Sandcastle was selected for 2010 Critic’s Week at Cannes.
2010: Profiled in Take 100. The Future of Film – 100 New Directors, Phaidon Press.
2010: Eric Khoo film retrospective held at the Pompidou Centre, Paris.
2010: President of the Jury, Locarno International film Festival.
2011: Tatsumi, featured at the 64th Cannes Film Festival and made its North American premiere at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Won best animated feature at the Sitges Film Festival, and the best film and best composer awards in the Muhr Asia/Africa Awards at the 8th Dubai International Film Festival.
2011: President of the Jury, Rotterdam International film festival.
2011: President of the Jury, Hong Kong Asian Film awards.
2011: 23:59, Executive Producer. Number one at the Singapore box office.
2012: Jury President at the Asian Film Awards and Rotterdam International Film Festival.
2013: Head of the Jury at Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival 2013.
1990: Barbie Digs Joe.
1993: Symphony 92.4.
2000: Home Vdo.
2006: No Day Off.
1995: Mee Pok Man, Director.
1997: 12 Storeys, Director.
1999: Liang Po Po – The Movie, Executive Producer.
2000: Stories About Love, Producer.
2001: One Leg Kicking, Executive Producer.
2003: 15, Producer.
2004: Zombie Dogs, Producer.
2005: Be With Me, Director.
2006: 4:30, Producer.
2007: 881, Producer.
2008: My Magic, Director.
2008: Invisible Children, Executive Producer.
2009: Macabre, Executive Producer.
2010: Sandcastle, Executive Producer.
2011: Tatsumi, Director.
2011: 23:59, Executive Producer.
2013: Ghost Child, Executive Producer.
1998: Drive, Executive Producer.
2001: We Do, Executive Producer.
2003: Home Coming, Executive Producer.
2004: Seventh Month, Executive Producer.
2013: Recipe, Director.
Children: Edward, James, Christopher, Lucas.22
1. Asiaweek. (1998, March 6). The Trend Makers: 25 exceptional people who shape the way we think, feel and live. Asiaweek. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com.sg/ASIANOW/asiaweek/98/0306/cs4.html
2. Imdb. (2014). Eric Khoo Biography. Retrieved from http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0451799/bio
3. EricKhoo.com. Eric Khoo biography. Retrieved from http://www.erickhoo.com/images/eric%20information_edit050508.pdf
4. Hon, J. Y. (2013, September 12). The unexpurgated interview with Eric Khoo. TODAYonline. Retrieved from http://www.todayonline.com/blogs/ratedg/unexpurgated-interview-eric-khoo; Kinema. Singapore Cinema: Director Eric Khoo Speaks Up. Retrieved from http://kinema.uwaterloo.ca/article.php?id=199&feature
5. UWC South East Asia. UWCSEA Alumni Profiles. Retrieved from http://alumni.uwcsea.edu.sg/?page=alumniprofiles
6. SlantMagazine.com. (2011, March 17). Film Review: Taxi Driver. Retrieved from http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/taxi-driver
7. Tan, K. P. (2005). Inaugural Forum on Asian Cinema: 5th Asian Film Symposium. Social Memory on Film. AsianFilmArchive.org. Retrieved from http://www.asianfilmarchive.org/fac/about_eric.asp
8. White, T. R. (1997). When Singapore was Southeast Asia’s Hollywood. Dept of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore. Retrieved from http://courses.nus.edu.sg/course/elltrw/History/Singapore.doc; Peterson, J. (2009, April). My snapshot of Singapore film history. Passage, 12–13. Retrieved from http://www.fom.sg/Passage/2009/04film.pdf
9. EricKhoo.com. Eric Khoo biography. Retrieved from http://www.erickhoo.com/images/eric%20information_edit050508.pdf
10. Zhao Wei Films. Eric Khoo. Retrieved from http://zhaowei.com/eric-khoo/
11. Bjerkem, B. (2011, October 6). Singaporean magic with Eric Khoo. Retrieved from http://www.filmfrasor.no/en/news/2011/10/eric-khoo
12. Yap, S. (2008, June 23). Local films get novel treatment. The Straits Times, p. 49. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Lim, C. T. (2012, October 23). The early comics of Eric Khoo. Retrieved from http://s-pores.com/2012/10/the-early-comics-of-eric-khoo-by-lim-cheng-tju/
14. Tan, K. P. (2005). Inaugural Forum on Asian Cinema: 5th Asian Film Symposium. Social Memory on Film. AsianFilmArchive.org. Retrieved from http://www.asianfilmarchive.org/fac/about_eric.asp
15. Kordecki, A. (2013, June 13). Beneath the Lion City: The films of Eric Khoo. Retrieved from http://travel.xin.msn.com/culture-trip/storyviewer.aspx?cp-documentid=252800311
16. Tan, J. (2011, December 15). How Eric Khoo works around censorship in Singapore. Retrieved from http://sg.entertainment.yahoo.com/blogs/singapore-showbiz/eric-khoo-works-around-censorship-pore-161840706.html
17. Loh, G. (2009, August 9). Eric Khoo: Never say die. Today, p. 22; Tan, M. (2003, June 13). The off-screen father. Today, p. 76. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Zhao Wei Films. (2013). Gorylah Pictures. Retrieved from http://zhaowei.com/about-us/#2
19. EricKhoo.com. Eric Khoo biography. Retrieved from http://www.erickhoo.com/images/eric%20information_edit050508.pdf
20. EricKhoo.com. Eric Khoo biography. Retrieved from http://www.erickhoo.com/images/eric%20information_edit050508.pdf
21. eJumpCut.org. Unorthodoxies of Eric Khoo’s early films. Retrieved from http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc46.2003/12storeys/storeys4.html
22. Tan, M. (2003, June 13). The off-screen father. Today, p. 76. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
The information in this article is valid as at 11 February 2014 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.