Busan 2019: Eric Khoo reflects on “Mee Pok Man” 24 years later


Released in 1995, Eric Khoo’s “Mee Pok Man” focuses on a lonely, haunted street stall vendor who takes care of an abused prostitute he’s infatuated with after she’s involved in a serious car accident.  The movie launched Khoo’s career and revitalized the Singaporean film industry.

“Mee Pok Man” is uncompromising in its portrayal of the poorest layer of Singaporean society; in an Oct. 4 Q&A session at the 2019 Busan International Film Festival, Khoo admitted that he probably couldn’t get the film made today due to its subject matter.  Some excerpts from that session, during which Khoo shared thoughts on his debut film and his upcoming HBO series on food, follow below:

On the state of film in Singapore in the mid-1990’s: When we shot “Mee Pok Man,” there really wasn’t a film industry back in Singapore at that point in time. Everything was on television which was a very sort of sterilized look at the landscape of Singapore. And I wanted very, very much to capture locations in Singapore that I felt would not really last because in a small country there’s a lot of new development. So in a way it was hallmark for the places that I felt for the places that I felt for in terms of the look and the feel.  Unfortunately, a lot of places that I did film are no longer there.

On the inspiration for “Mee Pok Man”: When we go back to the origins of “Mee Pok Man”, it was based on a short story by [the late author] Damien Sin. Because I draw…[there] was a compilation of horror stories that he wanted me to illustrate [for him]. But there was this one story that really captured my mind, and it was called “One Last Cold Kiss.” In the short story, it’s about a mortuary attendant who takes a dead body home, and has a relationship with the dead body.

Now that story stayed in my head. But I didn’t really want to make an all outright horror film, you know? I didn’t exactly want a film inside a mortuary. So I told him, “If you just change it and make it a noodle seller…then maybe there’s a lady that works.” There’s a lady of the night and enjoys the food a lot. So I think when you look at the film and at the end of it, there’s a school picture. So it is really funny that [the two main characters in] “Mee Pok Man” having been in school as children, right? So he’s always loved her. In a way, we wanted to do something that was almost like people really on the fringe, as on the left side, that society doesn’t care about, that nobody really wants or loves. But in that strange world, these two people were able to connect at some point. So it’s almost like, think of it like horror figures, but there was this true, deep, intrinsic love. I mean, Damien and I are romantics to some extent.

His favorite scene in “Mee Pok Man”: I kind of like the shots where he goes back to his old school and in areas of his past, his childhood. That for me was, also I guess when I was filming it, it was nostalgic. And it’s sort of like lost innocence that I did feel for in the Mee Pok Man.

Why timing played a role in the international success of the film: You know, actually I was very fortunate because Singapore for many years didn’t have the rating system. And when they had the rating system, I was just very, very pleased that it was screened in Singapore uncut. They allowed everything, all right? For me it was really progressive. But I think we were fortunate that the film was able to travel to major festivals like Venice and Berlin, and to have good, you know, critique from the international press. So, I think that opened the doors for Singapore cinema.

On the restored version of “Mee Pok Man” that screened in Busan: When we did the film way back then – the budget being very, very small – I sent my cameraman, my DP, to go to Australia to do the final sort of release print on 35 mm. So I wasn’t there. And when I eventually saw the film, it was, I would say, maybe 80 percent of what I wanted the look to be. But when the Asian Film Archive decided to restore the film and managed to get the original negatives back, I spent time to regrade the whole film. So actually what we [saw] tonight, it’s really 100 percent of the look that I wanted.

Why the Busan International Film Festival played an important role in Khoo’s career: I really feel very, very close with the Busan Film Festival because they’ve literally screened all my feature films – with the exception of the last one that I discovered the Korean distributor didn’t want to have it in Busan, though Busan wanted to play it. But when I did my first two films, “Mee Pok Man” and then “12 Storeys,” after that I decided to take a break from directing for about seven years to produce the films of other Singaporean filmmakers because I wanted more directors to emerge from Singapore. Then I came back after 1997 and 2005 with “Be With Me.” And so it’s always been very, very moving for me coming back to Busan. I mean, I’ve been here since the second festival which was I think was in ’97.

How Khoo has shifted from one film love (horror) to another (food): Between “Ramen Shop” or “Ramen Teh,” my most recent film, and “Mee Pok Man,” I would say the main difference there is, in essence, my mother loved to see horror films. As a young boy, she brought me to see a lot of horror movies. Thus “Mee Pok Man,” though not exactly a horror film, the roots are there.  But as I have matured and gone on, you know, in my life and having kids and all that, I really [have found] my other love, and that is in food. And so ramen is a dedication to memories and taste and love.

What I’m doing now, we just finished the wrap. It’s a series for HBO Asia, an anthology series of food. It’s called “Food Lore,” with eight different countries, eight directors. And it’s not a documentary. It’s sort of fictional stories, narrative stories revolving around food.

On the funding and logistics for “Mee Pok Man”: We’re very, very fortunate, especially at the time, to have been able to capture it on 35 mm film stock. Because actually the history for “Mee Pok Man” was, I made a short film for the Singapore International Film Festival, and I won a special prize which was the Special Achievement. It was a sponsorship from Kodak and camera rental facilities, blah blah blah. And I went to them and I said, “Rather than you sponsor me to do another short film, how about you give me a bit more and I’ll make a feature and I’ll credit all of you?”

And machining ratio for “Mee Pok Man” was actually just two to one. Sometimes the shots just had to be wide because we didn’t have enough film stock. But sometimes I think when you are restrained, you really think out of the box and go all out and make it.

We shot for 18 days. And sometimes it was 15-hour days. None of us had made a feature film and sometimes we wondered, “Will we even have a feature film?” And it was only at that night when we presented at the Singapore International Film Festival in a cinema, it was at the end of the film that we realized we had made a film. An amazing feeling.