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Singapore
Singapore Dreaming
Dr Woo Yen Yen, Colin Goh
Dr Woo Yen Yen, Colin Goh
100 minutes
2006
 
   
October 23, 2006


Singapore Dreaming
Reviewed by: Vinita Ramani

The posters have been hard to miss. Even Singapore’s President S.R. Nathan contributed a one-line (albeit hackneyed) review for the film: “It is life in its reality”. In fact, with all the hullaballoo surrounding Singapore Dreaming’s release, coupled with the rallying call to support it, one would think the film is a civil society organisation or a charity: under-funded and driven by noble intentions, therefore worthy of our attention. That it speaks to the sentiments of the Singapore everyman may have something to do with its appeal.

For its directors, Talkingcock.com comic artist Colin Goh and partner Dr. Woo Yen Yen, it is a film about a nation undergoing a midlife crisis: 41 years old, upwardly mobile and uncertain of where things go from here. In that sense, it captures something of the mood of the nation at present.

Familial Woes

Ostensibly a film about a “typical Singaporean family”, it centres around the Lohs. Loh Poh Huat (Richard Low) is a lawyer’s clerk who issues notices of goods seizure to credit card debtors. Siew Luan (Alice Lim Cheng Peng) is his quietly suffering wife who orients herself in the midst of change, by adhering to values from an era that is slowly being pushed to the margins. It is typified throughout the film by her dedicated preparations of herbal teas and concoctions that she insists her family members must drink.

Poh Huat and Siew Luan have two grown children with aspirations typical of the 20 to 30-something generation in Singapore. Their daughter Mei (Yeo Yann Yann) is a secretary and elder sister to Seng (Dick Su). Ambitious but frustrated by her meek insurance sales agent husband C.K.’s (Lim Yu Beng) lack of direction or career prospects, she feels doubly undone by the unconditional favouritism her parents direct towards Seng.

Due back in Singapore after completing his undergraduate studies in Idaho, Seng is introduced to us as a loafer who has finally “done good”, even before he makes an appearance. That he’s on the road to responsibility is a belief strongly held by his cheery, bubbly girlfriend. It becomes apparent from the onset that his parents and sister have to work somewhat harder to have the same degree of conviction. We’re also rather quickly led to believe that their doubts are not unfounded. But this is kept under wraps and Seng receives continual support for all his endeavours, however dubious they seem.

As the narrative moves along, the threads of course begin to fray at the edges and the family gradually comes undone under the weight of its collective desires. But tragedy – when it does strike – provides catharsis and resolution for some members of the family.

Both narratively and visually, the filmmakers rely rather heavily on irony as a device to move the film along and fuel an empathetic reaction from their audience.

In the opening shot, a smiling Poh Huat is lounging on a deck-chair by a pool in a condominium. As the soundtrack filters in (a Hokkien number called “Yearning for the Spring Breeze”, sung by theatre actress Celina Rosa Tan), there is an unidentified transition to shots that are “typical” Singapore scenes. Audiences see wet markets, hawkers, butchers chopping meat and a slow pan of the Singapore housing development board (HDB) apartments. Called the heartlands, it is where roughly 80 percent of the population live. At such an early juncture we know nothing about Poh Huat’s background or living conditions, but the quick shift from relaxed grin to frustrated frown at least indicates that he may not be a condominium resident and is instead enjoying the perks during a quick visit (for what reason, we’re not yet sure).

This is followed by a scene inside a relatively small HDB apartment, where Siew Luan is chatting with Seng’s girlfriend Irene (Serene Chen), who lives with the Poh family. Irene eats noodles for breakfast, takes the bottle of herbal tea Siew Luan gives her and heads off to work. Good natured and apparently well-adjusted, she is the only one who obediently drinks the herbal tea Siew Luan prepares – that device alone is used to cast her as the ideal daughter-in-law.

Again, this introduction to the significant characters in the film is juxtaposed with a transition to a scene that is supposed to capture idiosyncrasies “typical” of life in the heartlands. First, somebody has urinated in the elevator and then a mother tells her son off for not getting the full 100 percent in a spelling test (for effect, she adds that 95 or 98 per cent is not good enough).

Another transition introduces us to Mei and her husband C.K. driving to work. News on the radio mentions a case of maid abuse in the subordinate courts of Singapore and Mei’s nonchalant reaction is, “Why people like that arh?” Perfectly positioned and timed, the statement is simply there to serve as the counterpoint to a later scene in which Mei’s actions contradict her disbelief that people could be “like that”. Again, we cut to a shot outside the car window of a condominium that has just been completed and Mei looks at it with more than a passing degree of interest.

These opening sequences serve a simple function. They establish who the main actors are and give some indication of their preoccupations and attitudes to success and happiness. The unidentified transitions establish the other set of “actors”, namely Singapore itself. Visually, some scenes are a little too manufactured and look like a tourism board promotion video (hawkers, wet markets and butchers in the suburbs or bustling city centre. Welcome to Singapore!), while the others firmly signify the problems and almost obsessive preoccupations of some Singaporeans (i.e.: academic success; lack of cultural finesse or politeness and opulent living conditions).

The rest of the film moves along to develop these defining or establishing shots. As it turns out, Poh Huat is a lawyer’s clerk who visits condominium owners or residents to issue letters regarding seizure of goods. Yes, it’s ironic that he is taking away from others, what he desires to have himself (and yes, this act will come back around later, adding further irony to these opening sequences). Poh Huat is determined to get out of the cultural squalor and “low-class” life that to him is represented by life in a HDB apartment, public transportation, speaking in dialect with no knowledge of English and craving the symbols of success without actually owning them. At a later juncture in the film, when it appears that he has finally struck gold by winning the lottery, it only serves to impress upon us that Singaporeans are caught in a catch-22: luxury and status cannot be bought, it must be earned. However, in order to earn it, you have to already show signs of having it.

Indeed, it’s Seng who says, “If you want to make it, you’ve got to look like you’ve already made it”. If there are hints of social commentary in the film (regardless of whether the filmmakers deny this to be the case), Seng’s statement captures it in a nutshell. Work no longer guarantees success, direction or financial security. But the perks of a secure career and a steady paycheck remain objects of desire. In other words, the end hasn’t changed and must be reached, but the means offers no certainty that it can be attained.

Again, an ironic device is used almost literally: the lottery win in hand, we come to yet another unidentified transition, showing the ornate doors of the Fullerton Hotel opening to the Poh family who now have a right to access its innards. The hotel is nestled in Singapore’s CBD district, Raffles Place. The only other time we see a shot of the area is when Seng navigates through the humdrum of the afternoon crowd, nervously prepping himself for a job interview that does not go well.

At a later sequence in the second half of the film, an employee from a funeral service outfit rather dramatically says that specific requests for a service cannot be met because it’s a “peak period for deaths”. It’s a heavy-handed gesture on the part of the filmmakers, but the insertion is a substitute for the paraphrased motto that nothing in life is free and even if you can pay for it, you have to wait in line.

Poh Huat’s material dreams, Seng’s conviction that image counts for more than substance and C.K.’s feeble attempts to be the archetypal husband form another aspect of the film’s window into social expectations in the country. Arcing over the entire film is the other explicit point that men – be it Singaporean men in general, or Chinese men in particular at a particular juncture in history – appear to be more and more uncertain of what their social roles are.

If Seng wants to ride on the goodwill of his parents and the arbitrary support given to him as a man to circumvent whatever it is he feels is beyond his means to achieve, C.K. is his counterpoint. We are given hints that he joined the armed forces in the hopes of a secure career, but instead found himself jobless after a retrenchment exercise.

Now working in a dead-end job as an insurance salesman, he feebly calls up old friends from secondary school in the hopes that they will be potential clients. His wife nags that he just has to “try harder”, but there is acute sense that no amount of trying will give C.K. the chance to be the epitome of the successful patriarch, breadwinner and head of the household that his wife wants him to be. Instead, it is Mei who seems to be dictating the direction their lives will take.

Irene and Siew Luan are the softer of the trio of women contrasted with their male counterparts, but even these two seem entirely aware of circumstances and make some of the key decisions that drive the film to its conclusion. Both characters show that their loyalty and endurance are regarded less as hallmarks of behavioural codes espoused as the “ideal” by society and more a choice they exercise as independent, thinking individuals. Under duress, both women redress their priorities. This touch gives the film its other arc besides the one that explores men who are uncertain of what their priorities are to begin with.

Where to from here, indeed

That the film succeeds in representing these issues and more generally, is a portrait of one kind of Singaporean family [1], is a point I won’t argue with. Evenly well-acted by a cast of actors who are a mix of experienced theatre practitioners and newcomers, the ensemble is entirely believable.

The year of its release, I think, also accounts for some of the positively bubbling reviews it has received. During the elections in May this year, Singaporeans took chances on new faces and alternatives to the stock spiel they have otherwise been offered so far. It was also the year that the Internet (MySpace, YouTube, the blogosphere) allowed for a whole bevy of writers and social commentators (self-professed or otherwise) to voice their concerns and comment on the subtle changes in their social landscape.

In the legal arena, April saw former Attorney-General Chan Sek Keong becoming the new Chief Justice of Singapore. Lawyers in the country with even a minor inkling for public interest litigation are keenly watching his policy recommendations, which show a slight shift towards a more rehabilitative approach to justice, away from its otherwise strongly punitive tendencies.

Even the cautiously optimistic might concede that good things could be on the horizon.

Yet, the old themes continue to repeat themselves. The ones that stand out and are perhaps most relevant to Singapore Dreaming is how the terms “Singaporean” or “Western” are defined (protesting is not Singaporean) and what is the best indicator of happiness (commodifying everything we do is). However, Singaporeans (not just of the English-educated, activist variety as some would have us believe) are increasingly aware that what they are told defines their “national identity” and more accurately defines the government of the day than the people. The identity doesn’t fit and the dreams are elusive at best, unaffordable at worst.

Why should all this matter and what on earth does it have to do with Singapore Dreaming?

It serves as the social backdrop to the film and to me, it at least explains some of the reactions the film has generated locally. One friend even commented that comparisons to Eric Khoo’s 1997 film 12 Storeys are unhelpful and inaccurate because Khoo’s film pathologised suburban HDB apartment dwellers and sought out the perverse, depressing underbelly of life in the heartlands. Singapore Dreaming, he insisted, was about every Singaporean. That its ordinary characters impose extraordinary demands on each other or themselves, he said, captured the struggle of living in a country where material ambition has become an incurable illness. Clearly, the film speaks to a lot of Singaporeans and in that respect, it matters.

However, I think that as a piece of filmmaking judged entirely on its aesthetic, narrative merits (and yes, as entertainment), the film falls short of expectations. A few commentators have already noted why this could be the case, both in terms of Singapore Dreaming specifically and Singaporean cinema in general [2]. Largely, the film follows in the same path cut by earlier filmmakers such as Khoo, focusing on what critics now realise is “the HDB film”. While I completely agree that the mood in 12 Storeys and Singapore Dreaming are quite different and hardly comparable, Goh and Dr. Woo have chosen to locate their drama in a setting that has been – in some respects – already explored within a similar narrative framework (several characters; life in the HDBs; thwarted material ambitions; sexual repression/frustration).

It is not that the setting for the stories that unravel is one-dimensional (a lot more can be said about life in the HDB heartlands or the underbelly of the city’s downtown core), but that the stories we’ve played witness to seem to be rehashing the same issues. Urban ennui and suburban banality seem to be current topics for screenwriters in Singapore and a different preoccupation or form of writing to address these concerns might be overdue. Social drama and social satire is something we’ve realised we can do but whether we can come at the issues with an entirely different touch, remains to be seen. Sandi Tan’s Gourmet Baby came somewhat close, taking a more allegorical approach to the issue of patriarchy and nanny-states. But that was one short film by a director who has since left Singapore.

It will be interesting to see what direction Singapore filmmakers will forge, when they realise this story and this particular mood (ennui, frustration, unhappiness) has been milked to death.

Perhaps the uncertainty is just as well. The nation may be having a mid-life crisis at 41, but its filmmakers are considerably younger and may still be finding stories to tell about the island.

End Notes:

[1] The filmmakers defended themselves against charges by a member of the public that the film claims to be representational of a “typical Singaporean family” but include no other ethnic groups. The charges were undoubtedly naïve. However, there is some substance to the critique that we need to develop a different kind of local cinema – one that does not preoccupy itself solely with the HDB suburban drama or existential crises a la Wong Kar Wai and Tsai Ming Liang, which seems to be the trend so far. See http://singaporedreaming.com/blog/?q=node/35

[2] See Ben Slater’s review of the Singapore Shorts DVD and his take on sub-genres that have emerged in Singapore independent filmmaking: http://www.criticine.com/review_article.php?id=11 and see Alex Au’s erudite critique of Singapore Dreaming at http://www.yawningbread.org/arch_2006/yax-644.htm

 
     
 
 
 
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