In one of the last scenes in Casablanca, the protagonist Rick (Humphrey Bogart) utters these four words whilst bidding an emotional farewell to the love of his life, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). Rick knows that he’ll probably never see her again, but despite this, he orders Ilsa to flee the Nazi-ridden Moroccan city Casablanca, and to remember him by their happier days.
Since its release in 1942, the film has achieved strong critical acclaim. Even today, it’s widely regarded as one of the best movies of all-time, thus cementing its place in cinematic history.
Rather embarrassingly, however, I never knew this and am almost eight decades late to the party. Only last week, at the behest of fifty-eight-year-old Madam Laurel Khoo, did I finally catch the iconic film.
And well, what can I say. The film’s a masterpiece in emotive storytelling, and Madam Khoo was right. She truly knows her stuff. But it’s also unsurprising, considering she’s the owner of one of the last independent video rental stores in Singapore.
Leaving the chatter of nearby junior college students, I allow myself to be transported into a time gone by. Unlike the cold and almost clinical interiors of modern chain stores, this slightly cramped space possesses a sort of understated, old-world charm that’s hardly recognisable anymore.
Hundreds of DVDs line the floor-to-ceiling shelves, just waiting to be checked out, while stacks of newer titles pile up neatly beside them. Navigating the narrow, makeshift aisles they’ve created, I notice that colourful movie posters make up the rest of the décor; they’ve been plastered on just about every exposed surface and gleam under the shop’s warm lighting.
Temporarily lost in my thoughts, a soft but welcoming, “Can I help you?” jolts me out of my nostalgia.
The voice belongs to Madam Khoo, and the petite lady looks a little shocked to see someone my age bumbling around her store. After a short and unexpectedly spirited debate on the best movies of all-time, the ice is broken.
“My husband and I would always head to the theatre to watch films when we were younger so maybe that played a part in why we started the business as well,” she shares.
“If you asked me back then if I really, really loved movies, then no. I just followed my husband at the time.”
Describing themselves as being “very green” when it came to running a video rental business, the couple relied on other side ventures in property to keep Rida afloat during the struggles in its first two years.
Laughing, Madam Khoo recounts their early days.
“I remember the day before we opened, it was very close to the Lunar New Year. We were all very “kelam-kabut” (panicked) as we were packing our tapes and laser discs! We didn’t know how to run a business and struggled but thankfully, our friends, other retail shop owners, and even some of our early customers taught us how to manage.”
Because of both the popularity and affordability of home entertainment systems at the time, almost every household saw demand for the VHS tapes that Rida was offering. Through word-of-mouth, the business saw a slow but steady increase in its customer base, eventually becoming financially viable.
But alas, father time is a cruel master, and over the years, problems have surfaced.
The ease of torrenting, coupled with the rise of video-on-demand services like Netflix and Apple TV, have left a solid dent in Rida’s business. Rising rental costs have also forced Madam Khoo to move the shop out of its original home in Serene Centre to their current premises in Coronation Plaza in order to make ends meet.
The soft-spoken woman also candidly shares that back then, she and her husband didn’t really have any sort of concrete business strategy.
“We are a small business enterprise so we don’t really follow a business model per se,” she said.
“We just have a budget which includes the cost of the discs, licensing fees, overheads et cetera. As long as we don’t spend more than we earn, everything should be fine.”
However, if you thought that Madam Khoo only cares only about cash flow, you’d be wrong.
She laments the loss of customer interaction that comes with selling DVDs online. In addition, she tries to bring in the more niche movies that she feels the public should watch, instead of just the most commercially viable films such as the latest Hollywood blockbusters.
Citing her attempt at importing the psychological-horror movie Unsane, Madam Khoo tells me that she was hugely impressed that the film was shot entirely on an iphone 7, and the concept was something more people needed to experience. Unfortunately, even though the movie passed the censorship board with an NC16 rating, a trailer in the DVD release was rated R21, resulting in an embargo on the film’s home distribution in Singapore.
It was admittedly an oversight on her part, but I’m sure that somehow, somewhere, an aspiring filmmaker thanks Madam Khoo for the effort.
Listening to her speak, its easy to get wrapped up in Madam Koo’s warm, matronly charm—a feeling that makes you feel right at home in her presence, and that compels me to constantly remind myself that I’m talking to a business owner, not my own mother or grandmother.
She tells me, “Initially, when my husband passed away seven years ago, it was just me carrying on the business because it was a job and I needed to work to support my family. But over time, I’ve realised how important this space is in other ways. Through watching movies and analysing them afterwards with my staff and customers, I’ve broadened my world view.”
At this point, Madam Khoo excitedly scurries around the shop pulling DVD after DVD down from shelves before proceeding to enthusiastically explain why I should watch them.
Madam Khoo concedes that some if not most of the movies might be fictional, but it’s the subjects that make you think.
“These are beautiful movies that reflect what’s happening outside of our comfort zone and they make you think you know? I do hope that more Singaporeans, especially the younger ones, will watch them and appreciate how blessed Singapore’s environment and society are,” she says, flashing me a smile full of subtle hints that I am the intended recipient of her wisdom.
Indeed, for a place that houses posters of Deadpool and Thor scowling at visitors, the topics discussed in the small shop are pretty heavy, ranging from global issues on terrorism and natural disasters to even the Pink Dot movement here in Singapore.
The more time I spend with her, the clearer it is that under Madam Khoo’s reserved demeanour lies a woman who’s deeply passionate about sharing her love for movies. In fact, being able to interact and critically analyse a film with her customers is what she tells me is the best part of her job.
“It’s sort of a family outing when they come into the shop and I think parents understand that watching movies with their children is a good form of bonding. They can talk about the plot after and it’s a chance to possibly instil some important values in their kids.”
Smiling, Madam Khoo tells me that she knows almost all of her customers, if not by name then by face. Because she makes it a point to try tailor her recommendations to their individual tastes, she regularly strikes up conversations with them and many of her friendships can be traced back to the small corner shop in Coronation Plaza.
“Over the years, we’ve built up very good relationships with our customers and they’ve become good friends. I do go out for dinner with them sometimes and there are days when they or even their now grown-up children will pop by just for a chat.”
“Me and her have very different tastes in movies but I’ll still give her recommendations a try. When I come back to return the discs, then we’ll discuss them. I think it’s that dialogue which is very important,” Ms Teo tells me as she accepts a cup of home-made coffee from Madam Khoo.
“When you interact with someone and talk about something, you have to have an opinion. You don’t just watch and forget the movies but instead, analyse them. In a way, it “forces” you to feel and think so you can defend your point.”
The sense of community is obviously the backbone of Madam Khoo’s business, and watching the two ladies animatedly discuss the films they plan on recommending me, I can’t help but wonder if Rida is living on borrowed time.
By her own admission, Madam Khoo recognises that video rental in Singapore is in fact a dying trade. Yet she chooses to remain optimistic about Rida’s future, come what may.
“Even if the day comes where I need to close down, of course I’ll feel sad but what good does feeling sad do? There’s no point. Even if I miss it, what good does it do? You have to stay positive. We will try our best to be around for as long as we can and I hope we have many, many years left.”
You see, this isn’t just where you go to rent a film. No. It’s your grandmother’s living room on a Sunday afternoon when the entire extended family gathers for brunch. Everyone—young and old—is always welcome.
It’s also a reminder that spaces for face to face interaction and debate still exist, something you don’t get when you stream or download a movie at home.
So here’s looking at you Madam Khoo. I genuinely hope that I will always have the pleasure of being able to visit your shop in the many years to come. But if not, I guess we’ll always have Rida.