THE PHONE RANG. “I need to meet you,” the caller said. “I’m about to embark on a career in crime.”
That invitation was irresistible. Almost as irresistible as the reminder from my dentist that I still had one wisdom tooth left to extract.
Still, your humble narrator had only 95 things on his urgent “to do” list, so decided to spare him 30 minutes.
When we sat down at Oliver’s Super Sandwiches, he explained that he had been commissioned to write a crime screenplay by an Asian movie house and needed advice from someone with experience in the genre.
“Congratulations,” I said. “You seem well on the way to making crime pay.”
He gave an uneasy smile. “Yeah, but there's a problem. The commissioning editor says there must be no crime involved.”
Ah. Got it. What he meant was that some or all of the money for the movie was coming from a state film commission.
Here’s a trade secret. Why are Asian films not successful internationally? Most people think it's because they are rubbish. In fact, this is true. They ARE rubbish in many cases. But there's another reason: state film commissions in Asia have secret rules. No crime in crime stories. No ghosts in ghost stories. No corrupt officials in settings where corrupt officials can be found wall-to-wall.
This makes film-making an interesting challenge. What edge-of-the-seat action-adventure stories do you like to see? Exciting, successful action stories inevitably feature embezzlement, treachery, gun-running and the usual type of murderous activity which passed for “office politics” in some of the school boards I’ve sat on.
But in several places, such as China, officials who hold screen purse strings think that even suggesting that “crime exists” is going too far.
In Singapore, crime stories are not forbidden, but budgets are low and fear of authority is high. Screenwriters tell me that they don’t have the cash to build sets of police stations or jails, and can’t get access to real ones without full co-operation with the authorities. Result: no negative portrayals of authority figures.
Writers are stuffed. In the classic suspense model, crimes are solved by maverick detectives who have just been told by their chief: “You're off the case: hand in your badge.”
Asian Film Commission model: Crimes are solved by boringly good cops who tell each other, “Follow all rules and respect authority.”
Classic crime-writer model: “Hmm. This has been made to look like an accidental fire, but I suspect it is actually the work of an evil arsonist.”
State Film Commission model: “Hmm. This looks like the work of an evil arsonist, but it’s probably an accidental fire caused by a careless foreigner.”
Classic crime-writer model: Detective says to his junior, “Remember. Evil often emerges where some people might least expect it: from slick, rich, smiling, successful individuals who make up the elite.”
State Film Commission model: Detective says to his junior, “Remember. The elite are sinless and trouble comes from foreigners and other minority groups.”
This makes it difficult for people on the Eastern side of the planet to create the next Godfather or Scarface.
But I’ve often thought that one day filmgoers will suss it out, realizing that certain countries never produce films dealing with subjects such as government corruption.
Or maybe not. All filmgoers with taste are in the movie house next door, watching All The President’s Men.
Pass the popcorn.