|Singapore Shorts DVD
Singapore Shorts: Whatever happened to The Class of 2002?
Reviewed by: Ben Slater
After the collapsing, nuclear family of Birthday, we segue into Tan Pin Pin’s Moving House, a judgement-free visual essay on the lengths an extended family will go to in order to be obedient.
When their ancestors’ graves are scheduled to be exhumed by order of government bodies (to clear the way for new housing estates in land-scarce Singapore), two families (the DVD contains both Tan Pin Pin’s original ‘home movie’ about her own family, and the longer Discovery TV version about another family) set out to excavate the burial sites, and carry out a new set of rites to smooth the journey from one resting place to another.
Here, obedience takes two forms: that boundless loyalty to their deceased loved ones, bearing witness to the premature re-appearance of their bony, decayed remains; and an unspoken commitment to the ‘powers-that-be’ that have imposed this humiliation upon the living and the dead in the name of progress.
In both versions of the film, Tan captures the way the families are cheerful and relaxed in their reverence – no ‘to-camera’ bitterness about the “gah’men”, as Singaporeans call the authorities. The vibe: we have no choice. The ritual must be completed, so let’s get on with it as peacefully and respectfully as possible. I’m aware that this a very ‘local’ reading of the film, and I wonder whether the interest of Western juries and TV commissioners in Moving House stems simply from its bizarreness, the matter-of-fact way that bones are lifted from the dirt, rather than the larger implications.
Tan honed a certain sensibility for pointed documentary with Moving House, in which simple but effective editing choices say more than an hour of editorial narration. She also established her proximity to her subjects, close enough to let them talk, but far away enough to cast a cool eye (I can’t help returning to Distance!).
Her latest mini-feature, Singapore GaGa, extends and develops this practice further. Again, it is finely tuned to Singapore’s idiosyncratic tensions, and I wonder what responses it gets outside the island. A multi-stranded tapestry of interviews themed around sound and music in the Lion City, Singapore GaGa cumulatively reveals an alternative history of the republic, which counters the official line (she assembles a cast of mild-mannered misfits, has-beens, outsiders, rebels and mavericks).
This implicit engagement with political discourse is extremely rare in Singapore, largely because any film deemed ‘partisan’ is actually illegal. The ongoing investigation into documentary filmmaker Martyn See, whose short-film portrait of Opposition figure Chee Soon Juan (called Singapore Rebel) caught the attention of the police before it could be screened, stands as a warning to all other film-makers: Don’t Go There.
Royston Tan’s contribution to the Singapore Shorts is Mother, a piece in the DVD compilation that returns us to disobedience once more. Found-footage of home movies from the 70s/80s unspool and flicker as an actor recites a prose poem in Mandarin about a delinquent’s profoundly unfilial hatred of this mother. It sounds angsty, but it’s actually more layered than my crude description suggests. For one thing, Tan doesn’t pretend that the footage directly relates to the narration; rather, it becomes a signifier for all families – sometimes for a past that seems idyllic but may be hiding something, and sometimes for a childhood that our narrator may have wanted but never had. His litany of cruelty acted upon his mother repeats itself into oblivion, and you are left hanging at the end with a few tons of unspoken regret.
Tan made Mother the year before 15 (the short version), and you could trace some connections between the benumbed teens of that film (who almost never discuss their families), and Mother’s outpouring. That year, he also made Hock Hiap Leong, the short that launched him on the international film circuit. It is something else entirely, a blatantly and knowingly nostalgic lip-sync routine in praise of a decrepit coffee shop. The real companion piece to Mother, however, is the more lyrical Sons from a year before that, which marries the slick, advertising honed eye of Hock Hiap Leong with the poignant disconnect of the later film.
Tan is something of a chameleon. Even if you’d seen all the shorts that preceded it, 15 (the short) still came as a surprise. That film of course, should be included here, but it remains a touchy issue. The feature-length 15 was horribly censored in Singapore while it was celebrated uncut abroad. Attempts to revive the short version (which had sailed under the radar because of its limited appearance at SIFF) have failed. Forget ordering the UK DVD on Amazon – it gets sent straight back, rejected. Within Singapore, 15 (in both versions) is in real danger of becoming a lost movie.
Tan has just finished shooting his second feature, and is destined to burn very bright, but his relationship with government agencies (they fund him or give him awards, then censor or chastise him) epitomises the fatal ambivalence that the authorities have towards the arts in general. They are not willing to pay the cost (hearing stuff they don’t want to hear) of brilliance and originality.
OK. Back to the DVD. Han Yew Kwang explains that the idea of The Call Home was not his, but rather presented to him as he was preparing to make a ‘thesis’ film. The film is another long-short, twenty minutes cataloguing details in the life of Kasi, an Indian construction worker who strives to live with dignity as he serves his time in Singapore, but rapidly succumbs to the temptations of life away from home (smoking dope, booze, possibly whores) and the miseries of dormitory life and tedious labour. It’s hard to tell how ‘authentic’ Han’s portrait of this way of being is. He has a measured, unobtrusive way of shooting, and the details feel right (although in three years of working and walking in Little India, I’ve never seen a worker crying at a payphone). The film, however, emulates Kasi’s life rather too closely, and it winds up edging into boredom.
It’s a very worthy issue, and seeing it on arrival in Singapore in 2002 it seemed like it was a powerful statement, but I can’t help thinking there are other approaches. Construction workers in Singapore are among the most voiceless and marginalised groups on the island. Domestic workers (maids) and their predicaments received much media attention, and their rights are frequently discussed. Han’s film makes Kasi into an object of pity, and we go through all the appropriate emotions as we pity him, but what then?
Malaysian director Yasmin Ahmad is currently in the early stages of developing a project about a construction worker in Singapore. Anyone familiar with Ahmad’s mixture of the magical romance and earthy humour will realise that she could take the material into radically different territory. As for Han, he has just finished his first feature, a slapstick comedy in Mandarin.
The two odd films out are Jason Lai’s Three Feet Apart and Eva Tang’s While You Sleep. The former, a Flash animation film, seems to be included by virtue of its explicit intersection with the ‘Distance’ theme. While it was bold to put one animated film amidst a programme of live action, Lai’s film doesn’t hold its end up, and it adds nothing to the DVD. It’s a one-gag flick, and even if it’s meant to be a sad joke, and the comment it makes about communication and technology is all in the notes, we don’t even need to see the film. The other one, While You Sleep, is a student piece, shot in freezing London-standing-in-for-Japan with a Japanese cast, in black and white – all for no clear reason. Tang builds a tentative narrative about a single mother whose life-saving operation requires her to be unconscious for a few days. In her absence, the daughter bonds with the quasi-senile grandmother; her brother plays with his PlayStation 2; and their estranged father makes a pathetic attempt at reconciliation. Its slight, minor-key observations are based entirely on moments layered on top of moments, and this reveals a hint of Tang’s potential, but nothing more.
My exhausting viewing marathon concludes with Locust by Victric Thng, a director often touted as Singapore’s leading ‘experimental’ film-maker. Thng is a stylist, for sure, knowing how to combine pleasing images with a poignant Mandarin voice-over. For three minutes, Locust presents footage of a huge swarming crowd (in China during winter, perhaps?). Faces move in and out of focus; the mass anonymity of the group fleetingly giving way to individuals, their smiles and personalities. It concludes on a repeated, slowed-down fragment of two young men sharing a moment of tenderness amidst the seething rush. It’s a well-made piece, a short film as a declaration of love (a good companion to Tan’s Mother), and I’m curious as to where Thng will go next. My hunch is that he could thrive, away from the constraints of the cinema or TV space – video installation may be better suited to his atmospherics.
A little Googling reveals that Locust has played in a slew of Gay & Lesbian film festivals around the world, none of which are cited in the DVD’s ‘Screening History’ section. I’m not quite sure what they’re afraid of.
So, the ‘Class of 2002’ morphs into the ‘Class of 2005’ if indeed this DVD provides the signpost along a journey for this eclectic assembly of talents. Short films have such a limited life, so the Archive can be commended for finding a place for them to retire, and hopefully to be visited often by the public. It’s clearly not a commercial exercise, but a labour of love.
The strength of the DVD is that it shows how this generation of filmmakers have fresh, distinctive and ‘other’ voices, something that the creatively conservative major media in Singapore (print, TV, film) generally avoid like the plague. The short film epidemic I mentioned earlier has given rise to a wide variety of dubious talent contests with heavyweight corporate sponsors. As PR exercises they are effective: making a lot of noise about how ‘open access’ these networks are (and the attendant rhetoric about digital tech), but I seriously doubt that the next Bertrand Lees or Tan Pin Pins will emerge from this process. Rather we’ll have more (and inferior) variations on HDB Whimsy, Disconnected Lovers and Singapore Underground to add to the ever-growing pile.
The best work here is personal, and even the films that I really dislike on the DVD never feel like the shameless ‘Calling Cards’ which are the norm in Europe and America – shorts that only exist to show off their makers’ skills and get jobs. At the same time, I doubt that any of these film-makers are naive enough to think that they can expand into features or TV without suffering compromise to the very elements that make them stand out--another paradox. Until Singapore learns to truly, properly, deeply nurture the talents that are already out in the open, then the Class of 2002 or 2005 and all the future classes may have to remain in school.
Article originally commissioned for publication in the SPAFA journal by SEAMEO-SPAFA. Reprinted here with their kind permission.