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Djinn: A Taxi Driver Dreams of Perth
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
January 16, 2007 - 4:22 PM PST

"I don't see any reason why we have to forsake historical fact in order to be dramatically more enticing..."

The promotional materials compare Perth to Scorsese's Taxi Driver. Is that a comparison you deliberately evoked?

It's a convenient entry point for an international audience unaccustomed to Singapore, but the film has several more layers to differentiate it from Taxi Driver. For starters, I think Harry Lee's character is much more tied to a past (in itself much more defined) than Travis Bickle, and that past prevents him from making the necessary steps toward his future in Perth. However, that much said, I did intend to pay homage to Taxi Driver, because in writing Perth, I had come to realize that there were similarities in plot line. I think it bespeaks well of Taxi Driver and its influence on cinema in drawing a common bond with a character set in a different country in a different period with a different set of circumstances. In fact, early on in the pre- production, we had this insane plan to entice/invite Mr. Scorcese over to Singapore/Asia for a week, all expenses paid (I had a friend with a spa in Bali), in exchange for a day's shoot in the back of a Singapore cab with Harry Lee driving!

It's interesting how you made a film from a middle-age point of view, something that's rare in movies. According to Harry, things used to be simpler. Do you agree? Can you talk a little about this point of view?

It goes back to the whole language issue. Harry at his age is really a transition point for Singapore between the world of colonial rule and post-colonial independence. Harry's English itself is quite rounded and not as thick as the Singlish spoken by some of the younger characters. That's because he is of the British schooling systems, and even though he probably did not complete beyond Grade 6, his speech is very precise. When we showed the film in Singapore, we had two differing reactions to this. The younger generation, product of the Singapore government's "Speak Mandarin" campaign, did not believe such a character could exist (even in view of the prototype, which was my uncle) - whereas the older generation related to him. Therefore, the film serves in a way as an archive to the changing human software in a society that mercilessly pushes forward in the name of survival. We have forgotten how we spoke less than half a generation ago - which I find amazing.

For you, how does Harry's previous military service play into the story?

Military service is a common denominator for Singaporeans young and old, male and female. Again, we have an Israeli system of defense and despite our lack of size, we are now the micro-superpower of the region. Harry was one of the first batch of National Serviceman (and a Commando). There is some pride in this, as they were the ones trained directly under the Israelis in 1967/68. Over the years, as the population became more educated, the military faced a fall in the standard of fitness of military servicemen (I know, as I was a physical drill instructor). Hence the only way that Selveraja and Harry can stick it to the man would be to gloat over this fact. Beyond that, the military motif serves as a crucial metaphor for entrapment in the system. Like it or not, you never really leave the army. This is as true for Harry as it is for the younger generation.

Except for his anger and frustration over his shattered relationships with his son and wife, Harry's a pretty happy-go-lucky guy. How did you decide to place his redemption in the character of Mai?

Well, my uncle had a woman he was in love with when he did the river trips out in Vietnam for the petrol companies supplying US bases. And when we shot the film, there were many Vietnamese working girls transiting through Singapore on short-stay visas working the bars. I thought that Harry's character would want to resolve the ghosts in his life on his own terms. In which case, if he became fixated on someone as a sort of replacement for his impotence, it would probably be a cliché. Hence we have a prostitute, as in Taxi Driver, but a Vietnamese one, which clouds his sense of reality with the past. He remembers her as a vague spectre from long before, a woman he once loved and who could have set him on the straight and narrow.

Are there any other Singaporian films or filmmakers that you admire and could recommend?

Singapore cinema used to be very strong in the 60s. We had several studios back then. There is a great book recently published by Editions Didier Millet called Singapore Cinema and written by Raphael Millet. It's an interesting read on a strange cinema scene in a tucked away corner of the world, open to all sorts of influences. Hence our cinema is somewhat eccentric and we can't quite quantify a sense of common character to it. I shouldn't point out any of my fellow filmmakers over others but the current generation is making some very interesting stuff. We are at a juncture at which we are finally getting producers instead of just filmmakers, which bodes well for the future.

You apparently studied history instead of filmmaking. Did this background help you in any way?

I think it affects the way I approach filmmaking. My last film was a horror film entitled Return to Pontianak. It was a tad clumsy but a big hit in Singapore. The Pontianak series of films back in the 60s was really popular and we were the first in Singapore to revive that genre as well as horror films. But more so than that, it was also the first film in the new generation of Singapore filmmaking that was about something other than mainstream majority (Chinese) issues. Not many people in the world, let alone Singaporeans themselves, realize it, but Singapore is considered Pusat Melayu, or the navel of the Malay world. The Riau Lingga archipelago is rich in folklore and the supernatural. But in Singapore, oddly, they are considered foreign since we are now conditioned to the majority.

Similarly, in Perth, the main character, Harry, is a Peranakan. That race is the amalgamation of Chinese and Malay cultures. In the past (before the 19th century), most Chinese coming out to Singapore were men and they did not take wives from China. Many were pirates or were fleeing from Manchu rule in China. So they took up Malay or indigenous women and consequently adopted many Malay Adats (or common customs and laws). Sadly, much of this hybrid culture is passing into history, partially a result of the Singapore government's emphasis on being Chinese, which has swayed the Peranakans back into the mainstream. However, it was a touch too controversial to mention the Peranakans in the film, as the government is sensitive to race issues in "multi-racial" Singapore. (It's in the deleted scenes.) History is always a strong driving force for me. I don't see any reason why we have to forsake historical fact in order to be dramatically more enticing, which is sadly endemic in a lot of today's cinema.

How did you decide to use just plain "Djinn" as your professional name?

Djinn is my army nickname. I am Peranakan, so my Chinese name is Ong Lay Jinn. The last name is your personal name, and so the Malay boys started making fun of me because Jinn means "Djinnie" to them and could be conceived as the devil. They used to call me "Jinn Satan." Much later, they decided on Djinn, which was a tad more palatable. But it's also a nom de guerre for me as my family is from Indonesia. Half of my heritage is Indonesian, so I didn't want to lose it to the faceless streamlining of the majority Chinese pull, hence it functions as a superficial reminder to a culture breathing its last embers of life.

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"At the end of the 90s, Singapore was experiencing a brain drain..."
"I don't see any reason why we have to forsake historical fact in order to be dramatically more enticing..."

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Jeffrey M. Anderson
Author of our primer on the Iranian New Wave, Jeffrey M. Anderson has written for the San Francisco Examiner, Las Vegas Weekly and is a frequent contributor to Cinematical.

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