The defiant filmmaker

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08 Jan 2021 | PEOPLE

The defiant filmmaker

// Story Benita Teo

// Photos Ong Ji Xuan, Kenneth Lin & courtesy of CPL (NS) Khoo

[Photoshoot location: York Hotel Singapore]

Some things in life, you just cannot wait. Like when you urgently need to pee; when Apple Stores open the queue for the latest iPhone; and when you ORD (reach Operationally Ready Date) and collect your pink IC (Identity Card).

Unless you are CPL (NS) Khoo.

"I remember I picked up my pink IC late, because I was filming on the day that I was supposed to collect it."

Film is definitely life for the recent New York University Tisch School of the Arts graduate, whose cool demeanour gives way to unbridled excitement when he begins to talk about his passion in filmmaking.

But what you didn't know is that he actually defied his parents' wishes to apply for a spot in the prestigious film school.

CPL (NS) Khoo with his dad, Eric Khoo, at the ciNE65 2021 launch on 27 Nov 2020. The veteran filmmaker had actually hoped that his son, the eldest of four boys, would choose a more conventional career path instead of following in his footsteps.

"I applied behind my parents' backs"

"My dad was not particularly keen on me doing film. I've never asked why, but maybe having spent his whole life in the industry, he thought I could do something different," said CPL (NS) Khoo with a laugh.

What would his parents have preferred he studied? "They wanted me to have a more conventional career in a stable industry (like) architecture or law. Perhaps they also felt that doing indie films here in Singapore is hard and they were worried that I wasn't cut out for it.

"But I really wanted to be surrounded by people my age who also loved film, and to go out of Singapore and live in New York."

When his application turned out successful, his parents saw it as a recognition of his efforts, and have been his fiercest supporters since.

In 2019, CPL (NS) Khoo received his Bachelor of Arts in Undergraduate Film and Television.

Piecing together a power team in NS

The film that caused CPL (NS) Khoo to delay his ORD was June in Pieces, a passion project that he worked on with his National Service (NS) buddies in 2015.

The film, a black-and-white noir (a genre of crime fiction) about a florist who meets and falls in love with KTV singer June while delivering flowers, is CPL (NS) Khoo's reflection on the multiple roles he had to play as a Full-time National Serviceman and outside of NS.

"While I was in camp I had to be a soldier; when I came home I was a brother and a son; on the weekends I was working on my film. All this while trying to maintain a social life.

"I was experiencing a certain multiplicity of identities, the same way my protagonist was seeing June in the different people he encountered. The film is a metaphor for how I remember that time in my life and the relationships I made."

The idea of making a film was thought up together with Kwok Li Chen, his Basic Military Training (BMT) platoon mate. They also roped in Luk Yean, another buddy from Mr Kwok's unit, to compose the music for the film.

CPL (NS) Khoo even cast his unit mates from 8th Singapore Armoured Brigade (8 SAB). One of them - the lead actor, Ice Asher Chew - worked in the Officer Commanding's office and the two used to hang out together at Keat Hong Camp.

Although Mr Chew had never acted before, CPL (NS) Khoo saw in him star presence and a much-needed skill: "My protagonist rides a motorcycle. I knew Ice rode his motorcycle to camp so I asked him on a whim and he said yes. He turned out to be the guy who would go all the way for the film and even turn up at 6am on a Saturday to shoot."

The film was shot over the course of six days, most of which were weekends after the cast and crew had booked out from camp.

June in Pieces went on to be nominated for Best Southeast Asian Short Film at the Singapore International Film Festival in 2015.

CPL (NS) Khoo (centre) at his BMT graduation parade in 2013. NS has enabled him to meet friends who come from all walks of life.

Looking back on his time as an M113 ULTRA Armoured Personnel Carrier operator and as a clerk in 8 SAB's S1 office, CPL (NS) Khoo noted that he has met not only NS mates who have become collaborators in his journey as a filmmaker, but also friends from different backgrounds.

"(Before NS,) I studied at the Singapore American School. Coming to NS made me realise I had been living in a bubble. People say that one big takeaway from NS is that you meet people from all walks of life, and everyone's in the same position you're in.

"It's very humbling for me to see that there were no divides between people based on where they came from, and that you make friends with people you normally wouldn't have been friends with."

Video Store is set in Rida Video Centre, one of Singapore's last video-rental shops, and was inspired by CPL (NS) Khoo's childhood spent in the store browsing titles with his dad.

A new direction

Since returning to Singapore last year, CPL (NS) Khoo has made Video Store, a film commissioned for ciNE65's 2021 season.

The film was inspired by Rida Video Centre, a video-rental shop in Serene Centre that he used to frequent with his dad – an experience he credits for igniting his passion and interest in film. Father and son are also working together on an upcoming feature, a horror flick set in World War II.

What kind of sparks can we expect when the two filmmakers come together?

"I think we have very different personalities on set. He will say that I'm a bit slow or that I overthink things a bit too much. But on the other hand, I think he sometimes rushes a bit too much."

"But we do work together well," he added. "And he knows that when we are working in a partnership, whenever one person is directing, the other one will let him have the final say."

Mr Khoo had worked with CPL (NS) Khoo in his debut short film Late Shift, which became one of the finalists at the 17th Busan International Film Festival in 2012.

And in a world fed on social media's fast content, CPL (NS) Khoo hopes that young filmmakers like himself will uphold the art of filmmaking and keep it from becoming completely commercialised: "These days, we're hyper-saturated by content like TikTok and Instagram on social media and Netflix that is immediate and readily available. And everything looks like it could have been made by the same person.

"So for me, I try not to let film feel like content. As the next generation of filmmakers, we need to make the indie stuff in response to this, because if the product is defined by capital and by a sameness, then it will fail to be art."

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