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The Star: Restore and Remaster
Monday, March 15, 2010

WHOSE films are they? Do they belong to Malaysia or Singapore? Books such as Singapore Cinema (2005) by Raphael Millet and Latent Images (2010) by Jan Uhde and Yvonne Ng Uhde trace the origins of Singaporean films to the days of Jalan Ampas, Shaw Bros and Cathay-Keris, and P. Ramlee. The authors even went as far back as Laila Majnun which was largely regarded as the first-ever Malay feature film.

Malaysia and Singapore have a shared film history, right through British colonialism, the Japanese Occupation, British rule again, before Singapore became independent in 1965.
The golden age of our cinema happened when filmmaking reached its peak with the studio system in the 1950s and 60s.

In 1960, Datuk L. Krishnan set up Merdeka Studios in Kuala Lumpur, and filmmaking in Malaysia continued despite the demise of the studio system shortly after that, while filmmaking in Singapore came to a grinding halt in the 1970s and was only revived in the 1990s.

The situation becomes sticky if and when claims of ownership come into the equation. Do we describe the early Malay classics as Malaysian or Singaporean?

Asian Film Archive (AFA) founder and executive director Tan Bee Thiam said it shouldn’t matter at all to which territory these films belong because, even back then, the way films were made could well be described as international co-productions.
Indeed, the first directors to work on Malay films were from India and the Philippines, while studios such as Shaw and Cathay made their way here from Hong Kong.

“A national-boundary point of view is just one way of looking at cinema,” said Tan. “There are also other ways of discussing cinema. It doesn’t have to be territorial or divided by boundaries.

“That is really how art should be, where it is not seen as a product made in Singapore or Malaysia. It is creative people coming together, regardless of where they are from, who share a love of cinema, and are creatively inspired by each other. At the end of the day, we want the films to belong to the people who really love them. And no one should be able to take that away from them.”

The AFA currently has about 100 classic Malay titles in its care, donated by Cathay Organisation.

Tan said some of the films handed to them for safekeeping are in very good condition, while others have succumbed to the “vinegar syndrome”. The condition is caused by heat and humidity which trigger the breaking down of film into cellulose and acetic acid. Vinegar syndrome is most detectable by the whiff of vinegar smell caused by the escape of the acetic acid in gaseous form. It is the most feared damage as the deterioration can quickly spread to other film stocks nearby.

“There were some that came in rusty cans and very decayed conditions,” said Tan. “We treated them differently. We have done audio restoration on one of the earliest independent experimental short films made in Singapore in the 1970s. We released it on DVD, called Labour Of Love (by Rajendra Gour).”

But restoration is not only painstaking and time-consuming, it can also be extremely expensive. While most film restoration work is done photochemically, new digital technology has enabled frames to be repaired digitally where it cannot be done by photochemical means.

According to a 2003 Hollywood Reporter article, digitally scanning an entire film for frame-by-frame correction is still too costly for most.

A black-and-white film can be photochemically restored for US$40,000 (RM133,700) to US$80,000 (RM267,400), while colour film restoration can cost anywhere between US$50,000 (RM167,100) and US$100,000 (RM334,200). Digital restoration can cost US$75,000 (RM250,650) up to US$250,000 (RM835,500).

“Even Criterion (Collection) doesn’t do that kind of restoration,” said Tan. “The Hong Kong film archives, which has a considerable budget, can only afford to do that kind of restoration for one or two films a year. It’s a very expensive process. But if you’re talking about remastering, then it’s different. You put it through a machine that does some general cleaning,” said Tan.

By Allan Koay

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