You can never go home
Feature by: Ben and May
Written by Ben Slater
The Singapore International Film Festival is underway when I arrive in town and its director, Philip Cheah, tells me I can just show up for the jury screenings. So, today I took the train to the Alliance Francais and slipped into the back row to see the shortlisted Singapore Short films. The first one blew the others off the screen. It begins with an incredible set of images, two teenage boys half-clad in a desert, like mythic figures, then crunching sound-effects deposit us into the banality of their daily lives; as juvenile delinquents they skive, fight, pop pills, watch porn, and dream up absurdly deadpan bedroom-set pop videos (or as they say in Singapore, ‘MTVs’) peppered with references to triad gangs. There’s hardly any plot, just a series of sketches and moments, some brief, some extended, creating their own fractured rhythm. Yet, as we watch them, the boys gradually earn our affection (mostly though their surprising tenderness), and by the end, their alienation and sense of abandonment is palpable. Like a great pop record or love song, when it was over I wanted to watch it again immediately. The year is 2002 and the film is called, simply, 15.
Whether they are young or old (and most of them are young), there is a sense that the protagonists in Royston Tan’s films cannot or will not grow up. If you throw yourself out of the world, then you have no system or rules by which to navigate, and ‘lostness’ is inevitable. On the surface 15 and 881 appear to be very different films, but the main characters of both suffer equally from profound disorientation. The boys of 15 cling onto the fragile bonds of ‘gangsters’ and ‘brotherhood’, and the girls of 881 are committed to the superstitious myths of a declining performance form. Their parents have rejected them, mainstream society fetishises or ridicules them, so they only have each other and a child-like sense of fantasy to live off. The two films share an image: both sets of protagonists (the brothers of 15 and the sisters of 881) lounging around wearing cosmetic face-masks with cucumbers over their eyes. It’s funny and ironic, like kids pretending to be grown-ups, and a satire of the local-universal obsession with ‘looking young’, but it is also apt, the choice not to see what’s in front of you, to become voluntarily and willfully misplaced. I think of these characters as lost boys and girls in the J. M. Barrie tradition, self-exiled into a tropical island of their own imagination, choosing not to engage with a society that simply has no time for them.
Nostalgia’s literal meaning is ‘homesickness’, or more specifically the painful ache one experiences while returning home. European soldiers adrift in Java in the 17th Century were afflicted with a ‘disease’ diagnosed as nostalgia. ‘Home’ for them was a time and a place that had vanished, leaving only remnants, fragments, reminders. In locating and decorating his films, Royston Tan is often drawn to these partial traces of the past, reveling in the old, decrepit and the near-extinct. It could be the pattern in the wallpaper, or the entire setting for the film. In Hock Hiap Leong, the narrator languidly absorbs the atmosphere of an ‘old school’ coffee shop, transporting himself back into an imagined 1950s that takes the form of a pop video for a Chinese song, then returning, exhilarated, to the ‘present’ where a somber title informs us that the coffee shop was later demolished. Several levels of nostalgia are at work here, indeed Tan seems to be playing with the idea of ‘nostalgia’. Memory, and idealized memory slip into fiction, the ‘past’ is utterly and joyously fake, clearly imagined through the prism of MTV and old movies, leading us to question the reality of the present. And that sad end-title, was (fortunately) wrong. The coffee shop continued trading for years after the film was made, but that never limited the melancholy poignancy of the film’s punchline whenever it was screened. Only now, after time and development has finally caught up with Hock Hiap Leong, does the title tell the truth.
The insomniac boy in 4:30 ends the film by trying to block out light from a window, as if to stop time moving foward. He doesn’t want to get old. With repeated shots of immobile clocks, 4:30 captures the heavy slow-drip of time in the dead of night, of being stuck in a perpetual present. The boy’s mother is absent, a nagging voice on the phone, and parents in Royston Tan’s films are often non-existent or at the very edges of the frame. Or perhaps it’s just the mothers? Fathers or grandfathers have been romanticized as broken figures of redemptive dignity, communicating via sparsely articulate voice-overs in Sons and The Old Man & The River. Mothers are more problematic, they reject their children (in 4:30 and 881) or are in turn rejected. In one of Tan’s least typical short films, Mother, a man reads out a litany of hatred to his mother as a voice-over on the soundtrack, while on-screen we watch the (found footage) home movies of another family (the man is Chinese, the family is Eurasian, so it's unlikely they're related). By the end, it’s clear the man has his regrets and the mother is no longer there to listen. Even in death she lets him down. Idyllic images of children playing on screen, of merry family gatherings of the past, create a layer of nostalgia. Not a fake, media-processed, choreographed past, somebody’s real memories, the traces of a real home. But the son’s lament does violence towards them, it reveals what might be hidden beneath the smiles, and the darkness in looking back.
Sin Sai Hong, one of Royston Tan’s least seen films, might be pivotal. Moving away from loner-protagonists towards (endangered) communities, from the apparent slickness of his award-winning advertising aesthetic towards a more elegant theatricality. We are ‘behind-the-scenes’ at a Hokkien Opera Troupe, preparing to go on stage, but the performance has already begun, and the largely female cast sing ‘classic’ songs from their repertoire and playfully re-enact dramas in this make-shift backstage environment. The camera glides between them in measured, controlled movements, discovering the personalities and the dynamics of the group. The whole thing is highly ‘staged’, and yet they are a real troupe on a real stage. The closest they come to ‘speaking’ as themselves is when they sing directly to the audience (us, watching them on screen) lyrics about the troupe’s imminent demise, and we shift from joyously celebrating them to witnessing their maudlin disappearance on celluloid. It’s pivotal because the veteran wayang performers are only a short step from the workhorse getai girls of 881, and it’s a further riff on the nostalgic tendency we’ve observed. Sin Sai Hong are the oldest Hokkien Opera troupe in Singapore, and they face a kind of double-extinction, firstly as (we are told) they have no money to continue operating for much longer, and secondly because the dialect they perform in, Hokkien, has been (along with all other Chinese dialects) censored and erased by the state. A step on fron Hock Hiap Leong, as sentimentality about what is lost is sharpened by a sense of anger about why it is lost.
Those soldiers fevered with nostalgia in Java may have had a real sense of what their ‘home’ had been, but do Singaporeans? Although it’s a collaboration with two other film-makers, Eva Tang and Victric Thng, Old Places is a development in the expression of nostalgia in Royston Tan’s work (it was even billed as Royston Tan’s Old Places, as if they all belonged to him). The structure of the film is simple: a particular location - a cemetery, a cinema, a swimming pool, a coffee shop – is filmed in a series of highly framed, composed and ‘presented’ shots, while mainly phone-recorded voices of (real) people’s memories of those spaces play over the images. For each ‘place’ this process is repeated, many times and with many places. Less a conventional documentary than a durational installation, the accumulation of places, spaces and personal memories builds into a larger, grander memorial to the vanishing traces of Singapore’s past. While unashamedly sentimental about the emotions evoked, there’s a harder edge to Old Places if you care to look. Premiered by the TV channel that commissioned it on National Day, it constructed a sense of ‘home’ (a place-time that’s authentic, human and good) in a past that pre-dates any celebration of independence. And since almost all of these places are condemned, the film becomes an automatic archive of things about to disappear. Everything leads back to a past that is going, going, gone. A reaction to powerlessness, to having no engagement, stake or say in the 'New Places' that dominate Singapore. It is the ultimate gesture of nostalgia, a rejection of the future.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had recently with a Malaysian film-maker who observed that this tendency for nostalgia, a fetishisation of ‘old things’, didn’t have a counterpart in Malaysian independent cinema. It was, he felt, an idiosyncratically Singaporean filmic trait. We can all propose reasons for this, most of them to do with a technocratically ‘forward-thinking’ system of government. Rereading what I have written it strikes me that the issue of what is ‘real’ is crucial Royston Tan’s films. His work, at its best, blurs the lines between drama and documentary, placing highly fictional elements into authentic environments or vice versa. Nostalgia is a strategy for re-imagining the ‘real’, a process of capturing, remembering and dreaming about the past, but poignantly and spectacularly, it’s destined to fail.