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When a Room is No Longer Just a Room: An Interview with Eric Khoo

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By Amir Ganjavie. 

Eric Khoo’s latest film, In The Room, is a tapestry of stories that all take place over several decades in Room 27 of the Singapura Hotel. Sex is the common thread of the tales and through the individual guests of the hotel we can observe all the facets of the human condition: love, joy, compassion, redemption, depravity, and fear. I interviewed Khoo after the screening of his movie at the Toronto International Film Festival. He has received the Cultural Medallion, the highest artistic award in Singapore, and made a name for himself by putting Singapore onto the international film map in recent years.

After watching Psycho, a critic asked Hitchcock, “Why did you decide to make this film?” Hitchcock told him sarcastically that he wanted that “every time people go to a hotel, they become afraid.” So if I want to repeat the same procedure, I want to know, “Why did you decide to make such a movie in a room?”

Sometimes you go into a room – especially when the maid hasn’t really done a good job of cleaning it up – and you see things left behind from the previous occupant. Like once I saw the ashtray and there were two cigarettes in it. One was a menthol cigarette with a lipstick mark. The other one was like a Marlboro filter. Bother were crushed in the ashtray and I found myself wondering “What was their conversation?” and thinking “they were the ones just before me.” It’s almost like if walls could talk, what would they say?

If let’s say the room had a soul and you’re feeling it and it’s like every day, then all of these different transient characters come in and you see them at their rawest, their purest, because everything is revealed once the door is closed. So we thought that was a fascinating concept for a feature film, where you actually feel as though the room grows up as it ages with each decade, as it has a different look, a different feel. Once we settled on this concept, we also decided pay tribute to the television series The Twilight Zone.

That’s very interesting in the sense that every time we think of movies, we think of their actors but not the “on location” settings as much. So many movies are good because of the presence of a famous building that has been used in different stories and according to the situation, the meaning of the film may change. The buildings have essential roles to play in your movie, so I think that it also pays tribute to the function of space in cinema.

The actual building that we used is a famous hotel in Singapore called the Seventh Story Hotel. It was built in the 50s and was the tallest building in Singapore. It was like a landmark and was grand with great parties on the top floor, but in its last ten years of its existence it became a shit hole. It just became sad then it was demolished. I spoke to the owners and previous managers of the place to hear their stories and things that had happened in the hotel. We thought that’s interesting for the project so we did quite a bit of homework and decided to make this movie as a tribute film to both the hotel and to Singapore at the time. For this, we start off in the 40s when the British were kicked out by the Japanese.

The common thread through the movie is sex and it shows how sexual norms have changed over time, that people are becoming more open about their sexuality, especially women.

Yes, that was the intention, to show the progress. Each story shows the passing of a different decade, which is also represented in the room’s changing soundscape and interior. Moving down the timeline, we will experience the roaring 50s and the swinging 60s, along with the movement towards social liberation and changing perspectives towards sex. By the 1990s, the Singapura has become a budget hotel, a cheap stop for lost souls on the road.

One character is a maid who comes into the story at different time periods and is also a musician. Who is he exactly?

That character is based on my friend, the writer Damian Sin. He had written a lot of horror stories and I used to illustrate his books. He wrote the screenplay for my first movie, Meatball Man, based on one of his short stories and when I discovered in the process of putting this film together that he had passed away from a heroin overdose I felt compelled to represent him in the film. That’s why we have the character Damian. We also thought of his stories. He’s got a fantastical mind and does a lot of mischievous things so we thought we would use him as the bridge. We wanted to keep a relationship in the film that was really pure because there’s so much physical activity happening in the room with all the sex but this is the purest of the relationships and it cannot have any sort of consummation. We found it to be very romantic that you watched someone’s role and remain with that person until the end.

Reflecting on your previous works, it appears that you were always interested in questions of sexuality and eroticism and its representations, but apparently there were always issues of censorship in your country.

Well, I really hope that this film will be released without censorship or cuts of any kind because we’re the only country in the whole world where there’s a 21 rating. If a film has too much sex or violence then sometimes it gets put into the 21 category. But there are also times when they will censor the film and rate it as 21 for no clear reason. I feel that if you’re going to make it 21 then please don’t cut anything.

Seeing your previous movies, I realized that you didn’t depict any sado-masochism this time. Was that related to censorship?

Yeah, and also because we didn’t want to go into really brutal angry sex.

Most of your previous movies were screened only at festivals. Is it because of their cult nature?

I just want to basically share my stories with people. I don’t really want to label myself but hopefully it’s almost like when you make a film and you spend a lot of time on it you want people to love the film. I’m the father and I’ve got my sons and I spend all this time with my kids. I want people to like (my films) but maybe sometimes you know if you look at the nature of certain works then they may be a bit more difficult to tolerate. But anyway, when I make films I make them from the heart, and it’s always nice when people like them.

Is there any funding available for making independent movies in your country?

There are quite a lot of backers for cinema in Singapore and the Singapore Film Commission, which is part of the government, does help young filmmakers. So there is some strong support and it’s good because Singapore is a small country and we need this sort of support. It’s just like when you look at France and different countries – there’s a strong commission that helps.

How is the public support for the movie?

The only problem is that we are small. If you look at South Korea, you’ve got 40 million people and you can have 10 million going to see a Korean film. In Singapore, we have 5 million people out of which only 2.5 million are real Singaporeans. And at the most, you get admission of 100,000 and that’s good. Unfortunately, the main thing is Hollywood. That’s what everybody wants to see. They don’t only want to see films from Asia anymore, not even Hong Kong films; it’s all Hollywood. So one of the reasons that our films must be very small in terms of budget is that this is viable.

What is your next project?

I have one that’s playing in my head now and it’s going to be a food film. Singaporeans love to eat. It is fictional and will make you hungry.

Fascinated by the issue of alternative and utopian space in cinema and architecture, Amir Ganjavie has published widely about cinema, architecture and cultural studies. He has recently co-edited a special volume on alternative Iranian cinema for Film International and edited Humanism of the Other, an essay collection on the Dardenne brothers (in Persian). His most recent contribution is an article on the meaning of space and utopia in cinema by analysing the films of Tsai Ming-Liang.

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