PG13 for Singapore film on ex-political detainee: How did it pass the censors?

Artist Green Zeng is behind The Return, a fictional film about an ex-political detainee who was freed after being arrested as a student activist (Photo: Singapore International Film Festival)

By Kyle Malinda-White

Artist Green Zeng’s debut feature film “The Return” which tells the story of an ex-political detainee freed from Singapore prison, was shown at this year’s Venice Film Festival and had its Singapore premiere at the recent Singapore International Film Festival.

But for a film containing references to student activism and the Internal Security Act, it passed the censors with a milder rating from its politically-charged counterparts: PG13.

In an interview with Yahoo Singapore, Zeng believes that it is the subtlety of The Return’s fictional narrative that made his film pass the board as compared to other films such as Tan Pin Pin’s “To Singapore, With Love”. Tan’s film, which presents the views of Singapore’s political exiles living outside the country is classified as Not Allowed for All Ratings – a statement from the Media Development Authority (MDA) in September 2014 said the contents of the film undermined national security. 

“In my work, I’m trying to find a subtle way to talk about these periods. In the last three years, there has been a surge in such works but they are documentaries whereas mine is a fictional film,” said Zeng.

Zeng’s approach is not one of confrontation and he affirmed how it extends into his personality as well.

“It’s not because I’m afraid – it’s just my personality; I will not do anything different in my films than in my own life. If I go out in the street and I talk to people about such times, I would approach them just like how I approach it in my work. There is no difference between film and my life.”

The artist’s previous body of work explores the disconnects in history and the Singapore identity. His previous 2007 short film, “Sentosa: Pulau Blakang Mati”, features the story of a political detainee going back to the island he was exiled to. The film passed the censors with an NC16 rating.

Local audience a tougher crowd than overseas: Zeng

Filmmaker Green Zeng said his film’s protagonist is an homage to his father. (Photo: The Return)

“The Return” hits home on a personal level: the film’s protagonist is an homage to Zeng’s father - “Chinese-educated, interested in politics and student activism”. Zeng declined to reveal if the film was connected to a specific event but he said his family and relatives experienced the period where student activists were being arrested in Singapore.

It is these and other local references that make Zeng more anxious to show the film in Singapore than in overseas countries. Although he believes the local audience has the ability to understand the film’s nuances, he was also nervous about the local crowd’s moviegoer culture.

“Local audiences are very critical about local films - they have a preconceived idea of what a local film should be and they are not there with an open mind sometimes,” he said.

Despite the setbacks, Zeng’s passion in history shines in his work and he believes his honesty shows despite being a fish out of water in the film festival circuit. He noted that during the screening of “The Return” in Venice, many stayed behind for the question-and-answer session when it is normal culture to leave immediately for the next film.

“I believe the audience are intelligent enough - you don’t have to try too hard to pander to them. I don’t have exotic elements that people put in local films to make them stand out. Yet, by focusing on my interest alone, I was selected for Venice,” he said.

It is the quality of a film’s story that Zeng believes, makes ratings “overrated”.

“For me, it’s a bit overrated if the film is R21 or PG13. It doesn’t tell you a lot about the film whether it’s good or bad. A film being banned doesn’t mean anything. I don’t start to make a film for it to be banned - I want it to be seen. It’s difficult to get a film to not be banned and push that very sensitive topic to the public to open up discourse,” he said.

Zeng is currently in talks with distributors for a theatrical release. When asked to clarify on rating processes, a spokesperson from MDA said the board "assesses each film on its individual merits” such as treatment and presentation.