Ken Kwek, 33, is not afraid to stand up for his beliefs, protest against prejudice and challenge authority. In person, he comes across as cool, introspective and eloquent. He takes time to reflect on his words before giving a reply. He exudes an air of quiet calm that makes you believe him when he says ‘writing is an incredibly solitary process’ and that he ‘clearly has the disposition for that solitude’. From writing to producing to directing, he’s done it all, delivering plays, screenplays, short films and articles to audiences in Singapore and around the world.
The University of Cambridge graduate started off as a cameraman for 2005 documentary The Ballad of Vicki and Jake, chronicling the lives of a heroin addict and her teenage son in Bristol, UK. After two years of working in London on short films and features, which Kwek described as ‘gruelling, low paid work in an incredibly expensive city’, he gave up on filmmaking and returned to Singapore, settling into a job at The Straits Times as a political journalist. After three years, he left, frustrated with the country's Singapore’s censorship rules.
This time, he headed to the States, where he found himself in the familiar yet unwelcome terrain of a struggling artist. It was then that he remembered Singaporean film and theatre director Glen Goei’s (whom he’d written plays for) parting words to him about venturing into scriptwriting. Four weeks later, he sent a finished work to Goei, and 2009’s offbeat mystery murder film The Blue Mansion was born. Thus marked the beginning of Ken Kwek – the accidental filmmaker (as he calls himself). Collaborations with directors like Kelvin Tong sprung up along the way.
In Kwek’s third year as a screenwriter, he decided to create his own short film, which consisted of three stories. ‘I wasn’t content to do a small short film; I wanted something that had a bit of scale, but which could be contained,’ Kwek says. ‘I wasn’t quite prepared to risk investors’ millions on a full-length feature film, and as a first-time director, I wanted to have a product for which the return on the investment was less about money than it was about good branding for my investors and exposure for myself as a director.’
With his experience of life in Singapore, Kwek crafted three distinct stories to show a side of Singapore that has rarely been represented in local theatres as a mainstream comedy. ‘I don’t think Singapore is as sanitised, orderly, soulless or simple as its reputation overseas would often suggest,’ Kwek reveals. ‘I didn’t grow up in a society where all the races were all “happy family”, and there was no tension, no conflict. I didn’t grow up in a society where there were no dirty jokes, no filth and no vice.’ He wanted to portray Singapore in a completely authentic way, from behaviour to characterisation to language, and that was how Sex.Violence.FamilyValues came to be. Even the protagonists’ ethnicities in each story reflected Singapore’s complex demographic, as each character was moulded carefully to ‘undermine the simplicity and crudeness of stereotypes’.
tells the tale of a mild-mannered child who shockingly draws disturbing, monstrous images; 'Porn Masala' follows a wannabe actor struggling with his role in a crude director’s porno; 'The Bouncer'
revolves around the animosity between a nightclub bouncer and a teen stripper.
‘The material is not exactly safe – but it’s not gritty, underbelly stuff; it’s a mainstream comedy,’ Kwek describes. ‘And it was designed to appeal to a wide audience, not confined to a middle-class, highly-educated audience with esoteric or artistic taste.’ Working with veterans like Adrian Pang, Pam Oei and Tan Kheng Hua, as well as newcomers such as Sylvia Ratonel, Vadi PVSS and Matthew Loo was ‘tremendous fun’, according to Kwek. ‘These are not hard dramas, they’re comedies, so you have a lot of fun on set,’ he says. ‘It’s obviously a great pleasure to work with actors who are incredibly experienced, and then to play them off newer actors who have a certain rawness and electricity – a raw talent can give you a surprisingly real performance when they’re not conscious of it.’ And about working with children? Kwek is remarkably mellow about that. ‘There’s a truism in the entertainment industry: don’t work with children or animals, especially if it’s your first film – so I worked the dog out of the script and just concentrated on the children [laughs]
Ultimately, at the core of his film is not a message or a profound moral lesson, but a jolly good time for the audience. ‘I want [the audience] to laugh – whatever the laughter may be; it’s not plain laughing at slapstick, sometimes it’s an uncomfortable sort of laughter that hopefully makes you think about the characters and the society we live in,’ Kwek says. ‘I’m reflecting a world that I think a lot of people will recognise and perhaps appreciate, but also critique in their own way.’
Writing the script and editing the film took Kwek about two years, during which he secured nightclub The Butter Factory as producers and shot the entire film at their venue. Transforming the space into three different venues was a challenge, but Kwek faced it with finesse. ‘That’s part of the magic of movies that I love. As a director, you can tell a beautiful lie, and there’s some joy to be had from that,’ Kwek muses. His stories are connected by theme and space, and although Kwek melded them into a single film to offer enough entertainment for audiences despite its short duration, he admits his surprise about his work being the first short film ever to receive a theatrical release with a major distributor here.
Unfortunately, although Singapore’s Media Development Authority passed the film with an M18 rating, dispelling Kwek’s suspicions and worries, three days before its slated release on 8 October 2012, its license was abruptly revoked. The reason? A small group of people had found the language in 'Porn Masala' objectionable and complained to the MDA. And that was after its early premiere on 5 October at Orchard Cineleisure, where no one from the 300-strong audience voiced any grievances. Kwek concedes he foresaw the film causing a bit of stir (only locally), but was still shocked by the sudden ban. ‘"Porn Masala" is the show biz at heart, but it’s also a satire on race, sexism and exploitation. I know it’s somewhat edgy material, in the Borat sense,’ Kwek acknowledges. ‘But I followed the rules and did everything by the book, and it had already been deemed acceptable.’
After working together with his producers to compile and submit a 500-page report – with various documents citing past cases and official statements about local support for the arts – Kwek finally got the green light from the MDA. But it came with two conditions – a stricter R21 rating and an edited version of two sentences of dialogue – an uncomfortable compromise that took Kwek weeks to reconcile with.
‘It’s painful for any filmmaker to do it, but I have come this far, and I think it’d be a bit of an anti-climax if I got on a soap box to take the uncompromising artistic integrity position,’ Ken shares. ‘It’s not that I don’t feel the prick of it, but I have made a silly comedy, not an important historical drama or political film that requires me to take a dissident stand.’ He's since edited the film according to the MDA's guidelines, and did it in such a way that 'the audience can't miss which parts the MDA ruled "offensive", without being taken out of the moment in a jarring way.'
Whether the fight for freedom has been worth it remains to be seen, but Kwek doesn’t deny the surge in interest surrounding his film after the ban. ‘I’m not going to be bogged down by this controversy, which, in the larger scheme of things, I’ll probably look back on and laugh,’ Kwek explains. ‘I have to think of the longer game, of the viability of future projects.’
Not to worry – Kwek is not one to go down easily without kicking and screaming and putting up a heck of a fight. He’s already finished a script that has been optioned by a Danish producer and will continue developing ideas and writing scripts, saying ‘I’m still working, and I won’t stop. I couldn’t if I wanted to.’