By Terence Toh
It has not been a great time for cinephiles. Like many other industries, COVID-19 has impacted the world of filmmaking, with many films scheduled for 2020 being postponed, or worse, cancelled outright.
So, what do you do when there is a dearth of future films to look forward to? You look to the past, of course. Singaporean video artist Toh Hun Ping, 43, created a YouTube channel which features a variety of classic local films, most of them in black and white. You can watch the videos completely free.
Showcasing old films on new media may seem a bit unusual, but this channel is a labour of love for Toh who has been collecting old 20th-century Singaporean films for over nine years now.
“About a decade ago, I wanted to make a found footage work that appropriates old films made in Singapore. The more films I collected and watched, the more I became fascinated with them. I began to read more books on Singapore cinema, did further research on my own, and started writing about Singapore film locations, and the history of Singapore filmmaking,” Toh told The Culture Review Mag.
Toh had amassed many films in a variety of forms: VCDs, DVDs, and even VHS. The pandemic jolted him to make the digital leap: in April 2020, he started uploading the videos online daily.
Today, the channel boasts around 200 classic films, the majority of them between the 1940s to 1970s and produced in Singapore and Malaysia. It has no official name, although Toh calls it ‘Films of Singapore and Malaya Regularly’.
You can also find Hollywood films set or shot in Singapore and Malaya (as Malaysia was known then), as well as films and documentaries made in Singapore in the 1990s.
Old films, new technology
There are classics like ‘Penarek Becha’ (1955), ‘Hang Tuah’ (1956), ‘Bujang Lapok’ (1957) and ‘Raja Bersiong’ (1963). There are also horror films (1975’s ‘Pontianak’), folk stories (1961’s ‘Si Tanggang’), spoofs (1967’s ‘Mat Bond’) and even a Malay samurai film (1968’s ‘Si-Murai’).
There’s also a romance between a Malay girl and Chinese boy: no, we’re not talking about Yasmin Ahmad’s ‘Sepet’, but the 1958 Shaw Brothers film ‘Sri Menanti’, featuring Zaiton and Hong Kong actor Paul Chung. Some of these old filmmakers were more progressive than we think.
Toh’s love of classic cinema goes back almost a decade: in the early 2010s, he started watching Singapore-produced Malay films by legendary Malaysian film icon P. Ramlee. These included the ‘Bujang Lapok’ comedy series (the first one released in 1957) and melodramas like ‘Ibu Mertuaku’ (1962) and ‘Antara Dua Darjat’ (1960)
“I was taken aback by how brilliant they are. The storytelling, the acting, the mise-en-scene, the editing, the songs and so forth are as good as those you might find in other classics of world cinema. And they were all produced in Singapore, 60 years ago!” Toh said.
His favorite director, however, is auteur Hussein Haniff, who worked for the Cathay Keris film studio in Singapore. Toh even made a playlist – ‘The Rebel Passion of Hussein Haniff’ – which includes gems like ‘Gila Talak’ and ‘Masok Angin Keluar Asap’ (a pair of comedies about courtship and separation, produced in 1963, the year Singapore merged with Malaya) and ‘Chinta Kaseh Sayang’ (1965), which, in Toh’s own words, is “an almost feministic drama about adultery.”
“I personally think Hussein is the best director to have made films during the golden age of Singapore cinema from the 1950s to the 1960s. He’s vastly underrated. Till today, his oeuvre of films hasn’t been properly recognised or thoroughly researched with a complete retrospective film exhibition,” Toh, whose favourite classic film is Hussein’s ‘Dang Anom’ (1962), said.
Singapore’s and Malaysia’s colourful screen history goes beyond P. Ramlee’s movies
Toh, of course, has a rich supply to draw from. Malay films have a long and colourful history, from the first one, 1933’s ‘Leila Majnun’, to the modern blockbusters of today.
The golden age of Malay cinema, however, is usually considered to be the late 1950s to the 1960s. This was the heyday of the Shaw Brothers and their Malay Film Productions (famously known as Studio Jalan Ampas), Cathay-Keris Film Productions, and of course, the legendary P. Ramlee, who made his movie debut earlier in the film ‘Cinta’ in 1948. Many screenplays of the time were based on folk tales, stage plays and legends of fictional or real historical heroes or events.
While these films were celebrated then, most of them are forgotten today: local film critic and writer Daniyal Kadir states that one of the problems faced by the Malaysian film industry is the lack of access to classic films.
“This access is important to celebrate our cinematic traditions, for us to know our roots and the development of local cinema. At the same time, these are important points in the development of a culture of quality film-watching among audiences,” Daniyal said. Daniyal is the author of ‘Membedah P. Ramlee’, a 2015 book dissecting the socio-political aspects of the films of the late cinema icon.
He said while classic films are still shown today, they are usually confined to certain time slots, for example the RTM programme ‘Teater Lagenda’. However, these slots tend to only show P. Ramlee’s films over and over again.
“This should not happen. It gives the impression, particularly to the younger generation, that P. Ramlee was the only person making films in the classic era. We should not only show his films, but also other great Malay films by famous directors such as M. Amin, Hussein Haniff and Mat Sentol,” Daniyal said.
“The efforts of people like Hun Ping on his YouTube channel should be commended. They give us the opportunity to watch old local classics, especially the ones in Malay. Most of the uploaded films cannot be seen on television anymore. These efforts should also serve as a call for us to maintain these films, through restoration and digitalization, so they can last long and be enjoyed by all,” he added.
The future of classic films
After Singaporean cinemas reopened in July, Toh has been uploading a little less regularly: now only a couple of times a week. However, he aims to keep putting up old movies from Singapore and Malaya until the pandemic ends.
His channel has attracted almost 4.4 million views at last count, with viewers from Malaysia making up 70% of the audience. Toh revealed he receives a lot of positive comments and feedback, with some of his friends using the channel as a research resource.
“This access [to past movies from Singapore and Malaysia] is important to celebrate our cinematic traditions, for us to know our roots and the development of local cinema.Film critic Daniyal Kadir
The most popular movie on the channel is ‘Jula Juli Bintang Tujoh’, a 1962 Cathay-Keris film about seven heavenly princesses banished to earth. It has gained over 302,000 views and counting.
“Beats me why it turns out to be the most popular! It’s one among many titles that lovers of classic Malay cinema cherish and keep returning to, savouring time and time again the songs by Zubir Said, the fantastical storyline adapted from a time-tested bangsawan play, and the acting of screen idols Nordin Ahmad, Wahid Satay and Roseyatimah,” Toh said.
And of course, the million-dollar question: how much has Toh made from his movie channel? Nothing. He said he will never monetise his channel.
“It’s all done in the spirit of sharing. Especially during this most unusual of times, to allow viewers free access to old, classic films from Singapore and Malaysia’s bygone eras. It also keeps me motivated as the negativity surrounding the pandemic takes its toll,” Toh said.
“I love films, both old and modern. I love history, especially with regards to the history of Singapore and its region. I’m intrigued by what came before. Old films have age on them,” he said further.
About the author
Terence Toh (no relation) writes articles by day and fiction by night. He is on a constant search for fulfilment, wonder, and affordable plates of pasta. His work includes short stories, plays and musicals. He was a full-time writer at the Arts and Culture section of a major daily English newspaper for six years, and continues to write arts articles on a freelance basis.