Singapore is seeing itself on the big screen in a way that transcends entertainment and reflects reality. How do we see ourselves as reel life plays out real life?
By Lilian Wu
A good movie touches our hearts and stirs our minds. Over time, the ability of film to show us more about ourselves has become a useful tool in narrating the evolution of society. From the glorified stunts of Hong Kong’s acrobatic film industry to the dancing colours of Bollywood, a similar realisation has set in, making way for directors to deliver films that reach for the core of human existence. This realisation, it would appear, has also awakened in Singapore.
When local director Anthony Chen stepped up to receive the Camera d’Or for best first feature at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it cast the tiny island republic better known for its business savvy in a different light. The success of Ilo Ilo, a film about a Singaporean family and its new maid in a tale set during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, presents a story with a distinctly Singaporean flavour, a sign of maturity from a barely 50-year-old nation with a relatively short filmmaking culture. Helping pave its way to international success have been a host of passionate filmmakers who have made landmark films about Singapore over the years.
Singapore’s first independent filmmaker to make a full length film was Eric Khoo, who directed Mee Pok Man in 1995 after cutting his teeth on years of making short, award-winning films. It was the first Singapore film to enter film festivals, earning awards in Fukuoka, Pusan and Singapore. Three years later, first time director Glen Goei followed with Forever Fever , a disco-inspired flick that was picked up by Miramax for S$4.5 million and re-released in the USA as That’s The Way I Like It. Jack Neo’s Mandarin-language Homerun, a 2003 remake of the award-winning Iranian film Children of Heaven, played as a satire of the tense political relations between Singapore and Malaysia in 1965 when the two countries separated. It was nominated for two awards at the 2003 Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival and Awards. Its 10-year-old actress Megan Zheng won the Best New Performer award, the first Singaporean to ever win a Golden Horse Award.
So it would appear that Singapore filmmakers are already crafting local lore into movies that resonate beyond our shores. Even international filmmakers like Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor have been enchanted by Singapore enough to tell some of its stories in Civic Life: Tiong Bahru, a 20-minute film narrating three tales that take place in one of the oldest housing estates on the island.
Most outsiders would probably have found it easier to make a touristy, mass appeal film. Instead, Molloy and Lawlor chose to speak with Tiong Bahru residents whom they found more than happy to share stories about the special connection they had with their neighbourhood. From this, the three short stories revolving around the Tiong Bahru hawker centre were born.
“When you chip away at the surface, there are very strong local stories…
….and they are best manifested through places like hawker centres where people spend a lot of time…hawker centres are real social spaces,” Molloy explained. Hawker centers also happen to be a Singapore idea.
For Better and for Worse
While Molloy and Lawlor weave the character and characters of Tiong Bahru’s hawker centre and its surrounding social spaces on film, other filmmakers like Ken Kwek explore heavier issues like authoritarianism, censorship and prejudice. Kwek started out as a journalist with The Straits Times in 2005, but left two years later, frustrated with what he perceived as a culture of censorship in mainstream media. Whether he admits it or not, it is likely this very sentiment that spurred him to make satires like Sex.Violence.FamilyValues, where the limelight falls on dysfunctional families, racial discrimination and promiscuity — usually sensitive topics by Singapore’s media standards.
Although well-received at several film festivals internationally, the Media Development Authority slapped a ban on it, citing demeaning and offensive racial references to Indians in one of its three stories, Porn Masala. The film eventually received a R21 rating after Kwek and the film’s producer Tay Eu-Yen submitted a 500-page appeal to the Films Appeals Committee.
Ironically, Kwek sought to poke satirical fun at racism and other negative stereotypes through this very film so that his audience would become more aware of such prevailing undercurrents in our society. Nonetheless, the ban caused a public furore and started a heated debate about censorship in Singapore. Kwek told The Wall Street Journal that he felt the relief of a man who had survived a minor stabbing when the ban was lifted, but there is no denying that his work explores themes like “money, the rapidly changing urban landscape, our obsession with renewal and how all these affect the psyche, behaviour and relationships of the people living in the city.”
Why do these themes play such a prominent role in his stories? They are simply “what interests me,” says Kwek, “the funny, foolish, sometimes extreme, sometimes incomprehensible things people do to survive in this very confusing world we live in…. Singapore is my country.
I grew up here. I’ve seen how the city and its people have changed over time, for better or for worse.”
Love and Yearning
Eric Khoo seeks out love and yearning in his filmmaking exploits. Khoo explores love in its broadest sense, from parentchild relationships to warm memories evoked by food. A self-confessed food lover, Khoo’s films are not only filled with locally flavoured characters that are often inspired by news in the “Home” section of, The Straits Times , but are also well-seasoned with a recurring theme — food. You could say Khoo’s route to filmgoers’ hearts runs through the stomach.
“It’ll take probably 50 minutes to drive from one end of the island to the other without traffic but the diverse types of food found here are incredible,” says Khoo enthusiastically. “And the more I enjoy my favourite foods here — wanton mee (dumpling noodles), mee siam (spicy rice noodles) or pepper crabs — the more I am inspired and compelled to create.”
Indeed, food seems to be a major catalyst even when tackling the weighty issue of ageing and dementia in his upcoming feature film, The Recipe. Just as how he sees food as an integral part of Singapore identity, Khoo likens the loss of family recipes in the film to the loss of memories caused by dementia. Through rediscovering her mother’s best-loved dishes, the movie’s protagonist recovers the memories associated with them and reconnects with her mother who is suffering from early stage dementia.
Other than food, sounds help define a uniquely Singapore landscape in films. Think of the distinct dialects our forefathers used to speak that have been all but swept away by the Speak Mandarin campaigns or the thoughts expressed by Singapore’s denizens on state policies in Singlish. Sounds play a prominent part in many of Tan Pin Pin’s films. The Singapore-based director, acknowledged as Singapore’s documentarian, tirelessly touches on themes close to a Singaporean’s heart. She is best known for Singapore Gaga, significant for being the first local documentary to have a theatrical run. The 55-minute documentary of 2005 explored Singapore’s history, its context and limits, and was made more compelling with a powerful soundscape that used various sounds, like that of National Day Parades, to create an aural landscape of Singaporeans yearning to be heard and to belong over the years.
With a deft hand, Tan paints with sound and imagery past and present to conjure compelling juxtapositions that show how the urbanisation of our society has been bittersweet in our march of progress. Through her films’ insights, we rediscover a Singapore that has been left behind in the rat race.
I Hear, I See, I Make Movie
Meanwhile, one of the most recognisable celebrities in Singapore, actor and director Jack Neo, has proven his talent for making movies that use humour to comment on the everyday issues Singaporeans deal with. He touched a nerve here and in Asia with I Not Stupid in 2002, a satirical comedy on Singapore’s education system that got away with oblique criticism of the Singapore government for segregating weaker students into a different “stream”. An even more successful sequel followed with I Not Stupid Too in 2006. It dealt with poor parent-child communication that sealed a growing international audience for his work.
Interviewed about it by Talk Asia CNN in 2007, Neo was clear about his film’s intentions, that he was “…not purposely trying to dig up something to mess up the nation. Basically, I just want to deliver a message and I hope this message helps the country, helps the people — anybody — to improve…. Some people choose to show their concern for society by writing a letter to the paper. As a filmmaker, I choose to make a movie to tell you that these issues are my concern.”
These issues of education, parental negligence, society’s obsession with money, brotherhoods forged and strengthened by National Service, even the tension over the water agreement between Singapore and Malaysia, are creative fodder for Neo in over a dozen of his films.
Serious as these topics may be, Neo handles them with comedic aplomb, casting characters that Singaporeans can easily identify with. Neo proved once again he had the Midas touch in February this year when the sequel to his first National Service movie, Ah Boys to Men 2, struck box office gold as the highest-grossing local film of all time. It reaped more than S$1.2 million in its first weekend, and reached about S$6.5 million by May.
From heart tuggers to award winners, boundary pushers to box office record breakers, Singapore’s filmmakers are revealing a kaleidoscopic diversity of life in Singapore. These movie moments surprise and delight outsiders and locals, especially those who may have assumptions about the country or taken life here for granted. Surely these reflections can only be a good thing as the nation contemplates its next steps as one people?
Through the Lens of Life
London-based film-making couple explore Singapore identity.
When they first walked into Tiong Bahru estate in January 2009, filmmakers Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor immediately knew its unique architecture would make it a great location for a Civic Life film. Civic Life is a series of film shorts, each shot in a day, using casts from community groups. It defined the reputation of the London-based couple, who set up as Desperate Optimists in 1992, as a creative partnership for such work.
Seeing themselves as early pioneers of “socially-engaged filmmaking”, they started the series in 2003, shooting in and around the UK and won the Best British Short Film award in 2004 for it. Civic Life: Tiong Bahru is their tenth in the series and the first outside the UK. Molloy and Lawlor’s venture here came through an invitation from the British Council and National Museum in Singapore.
“We don’t know a huge amount about Singapore,” admits Molloy. “We got to know more about it during the time we spent there…the ideas for the film slowly evolved through the dialogues and conversations we had. It’s not an essay about Tiong Bahru, more a dialogue about people, where they live, their relationships and the relationship they have to the place they live.
“Singapore is an interesting context for questions about identity because it is a very young country, a very small country, has a lot of immigration and a lot of flux in terms of the people who live there. In a way, going away allows people to reinvent who they are and it’s interesting to me that we came across lots of people who have come to Singapore for a fresh beginning and have almost reinvented themselves.
“It opened our eyes to the possibility of a Singapore identity forged not just by virtue of being born here, but through reinventing ourselves in a new place.”
Civic Life: Tiong Bahru was directed by Molloy and Lawlor, and featured a cast of over 150 local volunteers in telling the stories of three Tiong Bahru residents. The production was supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England, the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Singapore and the Singapore International Foundation. It has been selected for the 2011 editions of the 40th International Film Festival Rotterdam, the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival and IndieLisboa 8th International Independent Film Festival.
Singapore International Foundation provided multi-level support to Molloy and Lawlor in their research, production and premiering of the film in Singapore and London, 2010.
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