James Sebastian and Ring of Fury

by AFA Archivist, Chew Tee Pao

It was 4 March 2019 when staff from the Asian Film Archive (AFA) met with James Sebastian, the co-director of Singapore’s first and only kungfu film, Ring of Fury (1973). A serendipitous encounter with James Sebastian’s son, Dr. Marc Sebastian Rerceretnam enabled the AFA to have the opportunity to meet with the retired television veteran during his brief visit to Singapore where his son was doing a research fellowship. James and his family live in Australia, where they immigrated to in 1984.

James Sebastian was born in February 1933 in Selangor and moved to Singapore with his family in 1947, where he completed most of his education. During his conversation with AFA, he explained his arts education in university piqued his interest in film. He established a career in the early years of local television as a Films Officer and was responsible for procuring foreign films from around the world for television broadcast.

Through the job, he had the chance to watch and learn about classic films from Europe, Hong Kong and the USA, and came across paraphernalia such as film scripts and camera log sheets that made him curious about film production. James was later promoted to oversee the Film Unit (a department of cameramen and film editors) at the TV station, where he had his first foray into filmmaking – to produce an obituary reel to accompany the news report on the passing of Singapore’s late President Yusof Ishak. 

“The thing is – I wanted to be evolutionary in terms of a new start in Singapore filmmaking.”

James Sebastian, 2019.

James shared candid anecdotes about his television career. He left the television station to start an independent career as a scriptwriter and described the arduous process of making Ring of Fury, which he scripted and directed (co-credited with Tony Yeow).For uniformity, James Sebastian was credited in Chinese with a seemingly rugged name “Sah Pah Tian” (沙豹典), a phonetical translation of his surname. Even though it was a Chinese film with a predominantly Chinese cast and crew, James highlighted the significant contributions of the Malay and Indian production crew, including Ayyakannu, who served as the film’s cinematographer.

Ring of Fury’s opening titles. The grey iron mask is a recurring prop worn by the film’s main villain.

As a film that portrayed gangsterism in 1970s Singapore, the filmmakers encountered real gangsters just like those who intimidated the local hawkers on set and had to tread carefully not to overstep certain boundaries. Filmed in a guerilla manner, the filmmakers did not obtain official permits to shoot at all the locations including the Fort Pasir Panjang (now part of Labrador Park) and the Tampines quarry. James’ son, Marc chimed in to relate how his bedroom was used to film the scene of the police station.

I mentioned to them that because of the film, people have become more aware of these Singapore locations. Film historians and researchers have learnt more regarding the historical and geographical significance of these spaces uncovered through old local films. AFA’s State of Motion 2017 https://stateofmotion.sg/2017/locations/ brought tour participants to Labrador Park, site of the tunnel of Fort Pasir Panjang, that was featured in the film.

Tunnel of Fort Pasir Panjang (now part of Labrador Park)
Tampines Quarry, where many fight scenes took place
The hawker scenes were filmed at Satay Club on Elizabeth Walk

With several upheavals in the production came numerous reshoots and re-edits to the work. The film was eventually completed but it was far from what James had originally envisioned the film to be. He admitted that he had some inkling that the film would be banned, based on his experience working with the then Board of Film Censors, but nonetheless he tried appealing to the Chairman of the Board at that time. The appeal proved unsuccessful and the filmmakers had little choice but to move on. Even though there was a certain resignation and regret that the film never received a theatrical release then, James was proud that the film had travelled to parts of Europe through a surviving 35mm print that the lead actor Peter Chong helped to salvage.

A young Peter Chong in a kungfu training scene

James described his illuminating experience working with Peter Chong (who played Fei Pao), and attributed Peter’s superb martial art skills and their rapport as instrumental to the making of the film. In fact, even after James had migrated to Australia, the two men kept in touch. They even came close to collaborating on a second film, which James had scripted and created a role specially tailored for Peter.

I asked James if he kept any materials related to the making of Ring of Fury. He recalled that the family only kept a small photo album taken of behind the scenes during one of the reshoots. Looking at the pictures of a young James and Peter brought much warmth to the narrative of the tumultuous and yet enigmatic story behind the making of the film.

I told James that the film enjoyed a short and successful theatrical run in 2018 at The Projector after it had been restored. The audience’s response was overwhelmingly positive, and many people appreciated the opportunity to rediscover this rare Singapore film. He was heartened that a new generation of audience has been given the chance to watch and appreciate this slice of local film history. He was emphatic about how important it was to preserve every part of Singapore’s film history.

At 87 years old, James Sebastian had written over 150 film scripts, 57 of which he also directed and edited. At the time of our interview, he expressed his wish to return to scripting and directing films once he had fully recovered from a fall injury. When we asked if he had any words for aspiring Singapore filmmakers, he at first felt it was presumptuous of him to offer any advice. He nonetheless left us with these earnest words: “Don’t ever give up. Follow your dreams”.

From L to R: Dr. Marc Sebastian Rerceretnam, James Sebastian and wife Phyllis Sebastian, 2019 (We found out through the interview that she designed the original look of the iron mask!)

James Sebastian passed away peacefully on 7 April 2020.

His interview with the AFA staff was his last public encounter relating to his film career. The AFA is honoured to have had the chance to meet and speak with James.

We sincerely thank Phyllis and Marc for allowing the AFA into their Singapore home to conduct the interview.

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