Singapore kept its annual feature film production to around 20 in 2016, and produced a few gems which signalled that filmmaking talent in the country is steadily ripening.
Local box-office champion Jack Neo paid a delayed tribute to Singapore’s 50th anniversary of independence (which took place in 2015) with a two-part period drama, Long Long Time Ago and Long Long Time Ago 2. The initial film, Long Long Time Ago, is set in the first decade of independent Singapore (1965 to the early 1970s), and traces the development of the new city-state through the trials and tribulations of a central family. It begins with Zhao Di, a widow who, rejected by her late husband’s family, is forced to return to her own kampung (village) with three young daughters where they are less than welcomed. But through sacrifice, hard work, and tenacity, Zhao Di proves her worth.
Released on February 4 for the Lunar New Year, Long Long Time Ago had a pleasing charm and authenticity, especially in its use of the Hokkien dialect, which comprised much of the dialogue, along with some Malay and English. (At the time, few of the uneducated Chinese in Singapore would have known how to speak Mandarin.) This was a victory for the filmmaker, as the use of dialect in film is restricted due to the official ‘Speak Mandarin’ campaign. The film did well at the box office, taking in S$4.15 million by the end of March 2016, when Long Long Time Ago 2 was released. The two films cost about S$6 million to produce.
In the sequel, the story continues to centre on Zhao Di and her family. After the 1969 floods, Zhao Di takes over her family farm. It’s the time of a large-scale population relocation from the kampungs to the newly-built, multi-storeyed housing estates, as the government starts reclaiming land for development. Zhao Di receives compensation for her land, but her younger brother Ah Kun schemes to get the money. The director also reflects on social changes and challenges in Singapore society, including the interracial romance between Zhao Di’s younger brother Ah Hee and his Indian girlfriend, Rani, an affair which is opposed by the parents on both sides.
Part two felt more contrived and heavy handed than the first film, and was marred by a tendency to moralise, as well as some blatant product placement. Not surprisingly, it didn’t do as well as the first film, taking in S$2.41 million.
The wave of nostalgia was also apparent in other films. In contrast to Neo’s mainstream view, Eric Khoo’s homage to Singapore’s history was the erotically-charged, R21-rated (restricted to viewers 21 years and above) In the Room, which also had censorship issues with the local authorities. The movie consists of six love stories featuring six couples of diverse nationalities and backgrounds spanning several decades. Each story takes place in Room 27 of the fictional, slowly decaying Singapura Hotel.
Except for the second episode, a campy, colourful tribute to Malayan cabaret dancer and striptease queen Rose Chan, who rose to fame in the 1950s, the stories are about the lingering loss and loneliness that the transitory pleasures of sex cannot assuage. Sadly, In the Room is a lost opportunity. Although there are inspired moments, problems with the script (co-written by Eric Khoo and Jonathan Lim) and uneven performances mean that the film doesn’t live up to its potential.
The Songs We Sang, by Eva Tang, is an engaging two-hour documentary that looks at an almost-forgotten part of Singapore’s cultural history – that of xinyao, which, in Mandarin, literally means “songs of Singapore”. These were Mandarin songs composed and performed by young Singaporeans. Xinyao was essentially a student movement that started in the late 1970s, and which flourished in the1980s before slowly disappearing by the 1990s. It took root at a time when the Mandarin language was felt to become increasingly sidelined by the growing influence of English. In using Mandarin, xinyao was not only a creative avenue for the songwriters, but also a way to assert social and cultural identity.
Tang’s well-researched and well-crafted film, featuring a host of interviews with the key people involved in the xinyao movement, radio and TV recordings from the past, and the songs that were sung, make this documentary a valuable cinematic cultural resource.
My Love Sinema is yet another movie harking back to the past. Directed by Tan Ai Leng, it’s a tribute to the nostalgic Italian Cinema Paradiso. The story is framed by some scenes set in the present. A successful film director, Mai, is interviewed by a TV host and his producer, on the way to a surprise visit to an elderly projectionist, Keong. The projectionist had sparked the director’s passion for the movies 40 years ago. The old man relates the film’s central story of how he became a film projectionist in the 1950s. He also talks about his love for Xiao Wei, a young woman from a rich family who was also his night class teacher, and who was an ardent anti-colonial activist. Theirs was a doomed love story, as she was already engaged to a wealthy and influential businessman, so her father was vehemently opposed to her relationship with a poor projectionist. Like Neo’s Long Long Time Ago and its sequel, My Love Sinema was partly filmed in Ipoh, Malaysia. While some period scenes such as the open-air projection of movies in the kampungs were charming, the convoluted narrative with its multiple time frames and uneven performances tarnishes the quality of the film.
Singapore cinema scored some critical successes on the international circuit in 2016. Apprentice, was a 96-minute drama directed by 33-year-old Boo Junfeng, whose debut feature Sandcastle (2010) was the first Singaporean film to be invited to the International Critics Week at the Cannes Film Festival. Apprentice, executive-produced by Eric Khoo’s Zhao Wei Films, also screened at Cannes, in the Un Certain Regard section. It was selected as Singapore’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 89th Academy Awards in 2017.
Apprentice’s protagonist is the 28-year-old Malay correctional officer Aiman, reassigned to his new post in the country’s maximum security prison. There, he becomes acquainted with sergeant Rahim who, he soon finds out, is the long-serving chief executioner of the prison. Their bond grows, and when Rahim’s assistant suddenly quits his job, Rahim asks Aiman to become his apprentice. Amidst conflicting emotions, Aiman agrees. When he tells his older sister, Suhaila, about his new position, she is horrified, as it Rahim had executed their father 30 years ago.
Like Sandcastle, Apprentice is an insightful study of complex emotions and personal relationships. It also provides a timely societal reflection in Singapore, a country where capital punishment is still a legal penalty. In Apprentice, the director makes an inspired decision to present the controversial topic of the death penalty from the psychological perspective of the executioner. The ritual of leading a prisoner on his last walk to the gallows is filmed with documentary-like realism, resulting in an intense and chilling experience. It is to Boo’s credit that the film not only evokes the viewer’s compassion for the death row inmates, but also for those whose joyless task it is to pull the lever. Apprentice was shot on location in Sydney, Australia, and Singapore, on a budget of S$1.8 million.
Another prison-related film which captured international attention was A Yellow Bird. This 111-minute feature drama, co-produced with Singapore and France, was co-written and directed by Singapore filmmaker K Rajagopal. Rajagopal’s debut feature was invited to International Critics’ Week at Cannes 2016, joining Boo Junfeng’s Apprentice at the prestigious international film festival.
Produced by Akanga Film Asia (also a producer of Apprentice) for S$600,000, A Yellow Bird tells the story of Siva (Singaporean actor Sivakumar Palakrishnan), a 38-year-old Singaporean Indian man released after eight years spent in prison for smuggling contraband. But life outside the prison walls seems like another prison, with impenetrable walls of pain, poverty and prejudice. Siva returns to the tiny apartment of his mother (Indian actress Seema Biswas), to discover she has rented out his room to Chinese migrants. He then goes on a desperate search for his ex- wife and daughter. To stay alive, he plays in a funeral band. He meets and later connects with Chen Chen (Chinese actress Huang Lu), an illegal worker from mainland China doing odd jobs, including prostitution, to help her debt-ridden family. But people and events seem to be working against him, and his sullen character and explosive temper make things worse.
As many viewers have pointed out, A Yellow Bird is relentlessly grim, portraying a depressingly realistic account of lives on the margins of society. In contrast to the conventional image of an orderly, prosperous city-state, the director deliberately highlights the desperate situation of those who have fallen between the cracks, and are conveniently ignored, forgotten or abused. For his role as Siva, director Rajagopal made TV actor Sivakumar Palakrishnan sleep rough on the streets of Singapore’s Little India to feel what it was like to be homeless. Indeed, the characters here have an authenticity that is not always apparent in Singaporean films.
The feature debut Pop Aye, written and directed by Kirsten Tan (35) is one of the most accomplished films ever made by a Singaporean filmmaker. Born and bred in Singapore, the New York-based director, who has also lived in South Korea and Thailand, boldly sets the story of Pop Aye in Thailand with local cast and crew.
Pop Aye introduces a middle-aged Bangkok architect named Thana who is in the midst of an existential crisis, rejected both in his professional life and in his marriage. By chance, he encounters an elephant that reminds him of the one he knew as a boy, which he had named Pop Aye, after his favourite cartoon character. Thana buys him and takes him on a slow, 500km-long journey back to his native village.
During this peculiar odyssey, the odd but affectionate couple meet characters ranging from the police to a transvestite, and a pauper who can read the stars. The interactions and situations are a delicate balance of the poetic and absurd, of humorous and surreal elements anchored in unsentimental reality. A sense of melancholy flows through the film. But there’s an even stronger the sense of humanity that ultimately makes the journey of man and elephant one of hope and redemption.
Pop Aye is a Singapore-Thai co-production produced by Lai Weijie, with executive production by Anthony Chen (Ilo Ilo) under his film company Giraffe Pictures. Selected as an opening night film of the World Dramatic section at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Kirsten Tan’s film won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Screenwriting. Shortly after, her film won the VPRO Big Screen Award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (January/February 2017). A truly original voice from Singapore, Tan is no novice to film festivals. Her shorts, including Dahdi (Granny, 2014), Fonzi (2007) and 10 Minutes Later (2006), have won over 30 awards at home and internationally in the last 10 years.
Anthony Chen was also the executive producer and writer of the omnibus feature Distance, the first movie of his film company, Giraffe Pictures. The three segments were directed by three young directors Xin Yukun (China), Tan Shijie (Singapore) and Sivaroj Kongsakul (Thailand), around the theme of transcending loss and regret. Taiwanese actor Chen Bo-lin plays a different character in each of the segments. The film was chosen to open Taipei’s Golden Horse Film Festival in November 2015.
1 SGD = USD 0.71 // EUR 0.67 (2 March 2017)