2018 in review: Two films from Singapore

As I can’t keep up with the daily flow of knee-jerk hysteria over Disney’s newest propaganda-blockbuster, the moral ins-and-outs of Netflix’s latest publicity campaign, or whatever it’ll be next, I thought now might be a good time to dig out my old movie-watching notes and time-travel all the way back to… 2018. Well, it does seem a long time ago now, doesn’t it?

It may be overdue but, two years being about the right minimum distance from which to make sense of the overall landscape of world cinema releases, I’m finally going to start work on my year-end-list of favourites from 2018. Working my way up to it, I’ll first look back on the good films and otherwise noteworthy curios of 2018 that just failed to make my final list, beginning with reviews of two films from Singapore…


A Land Imagined

Director: Yeo Siew Hua

Year: 2018

Country: Singapore/France/Netherlands

Let’s be honest. The city-state of Singapore has never been much of a cinematic hotbed, especially when compared to other East Asian nation-hubs. Perhaps its small size and the tight grip the government has on its overly compliant population have not been particularly conducive to the oppositional rebelliousness needed to make art. Yet it certainly has its share of stories to be told, and while auteurs like Eric Khoo and Royston Tan have made some international splash in the past, in recent years more of these Singaporean stories are beginning to emerge — in 2013 Anthony Chen’s sweet-but-unsentimental portrayal of the bond between a young boy and his housemaid, Ilo Ilo, won a prize at Cannes, then Sandi Tan’s personal quirky documentary Shirkers (see below) was an indie success, and most recently A Land Imagined won top prize at Locarno.

The latter film, young director Yeo Siew Hua’s second feature, is a dreamy neo-noir tackling some of the major issues under the surface of Singapore’s modern and sanitised exterior: its dependence on a huge population of migrant workers and labourers (they account for 1 in 6 people in Singapore) and its reclamation of surrounding sea to build artificial land in order to expand in size (a whopping 14 hectares have been thus reclaimed since independence in 1965).

The plot is a classic of the genre, but dealt with considerable skill and atmosphere: it revolves around a police detective whose mission is to search for a missing migrant worker operating on a construction site where reclaimed land is being built. The lighting is pure neo-noir, full of neon and trippy colours, giving a surreal feel to the city. There’s an alluring femme fatale type, played by Guo Yue, previously seen in Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues. And the noir-ish trope of identity-blurring between cop and missing suspect connects with the idea of a nation in constant mutation and transformation, adding new land to itself like an animal moulting and mutating.

The detective is thus forced deeper into a sub-stratum of Singaporean society most tourists and even citizens never see — when I watched this at the Singapore Film Festival, the middle-aged man sat next to me, who’d lived his whole life in Singapore, told me he’d never seen his country quite like this before. Yeo’s achievement then is to make a city-state, known for its conformity and uniformity, seem strange, mysterious, and inevitably draw out political implications. In his Festival prize acceptance speech, Yeo cited Blade Runner as an inspiration, and that sheds an intriguing light on A Land Imagined, likening its migrant workers who’ve travelled from poverty in China and South Asia for better jobs, to the man-made slave-robots of the 1982 sci-fi classic. An almost prophetic critique of one land’s dependency on a sub-class of workers for its own progress, especially given the Covid-19 situation there in 2020.


Shirkers

Director: Sandi Tan

Year: 2018

Country: Singapore/USA/UK

What is the difference between an actual film (in its physical manifestations or at least in the digital age as some kind of downloadable streamable ownable entity) and the mental experience of a film? All films, after all, exist in the viewer’s imagination at first and then in their memory, lingering on if they’re good (or sometimes if they’re very bad) to be mulled over, remembered, brought back into existence in our mental realms. There are sometimes films we read about long before we can see them or before they become available, and our mental anticipation and expectations are crucial to our experience of the film.

But what happens when a film is actually lost, and cannot be seen? When it can only be read about, spoken of, remembered, never actually watched or consulted to refresh our memory of it or confirm our expectations? On what ideal plane does it continue to reside? Is this the same as the mental plane in which we remember and imagine and re-construct films we did actually see?

These questions are all ripe to ponder when watching Singaporean writer and critic Sandi Tan’s quirky, personal documentary recounting the story of a feature film she and friends made as teenagers in 1992. Fearlessly going out into the streets with a camera, their DIY moviemaking adventure should have resulted in what would have been the very first independent feature made in Singapore (‘Shirkers’ was also the original film’s title), if it had ever seen the light of day…

Tan’s doc soon becomes a ghost tale, the story not only of the movie she wrote and starred in as a 19-year-old and whose absence has left a hole in the lives of her and her collaborator-friends, but also the story of a mysterious older American man she befriended at the time who grasped control of the film production only to disappear, taking with him every reel of the finished film. If the original 1992 Shirkers was to be a meditative and stylish road movie with a dash of mystery, this new Shirkers stands in for the film that no longer exists, a bit like how Abbas Kiarostami’s Close Up allows itself to be the film its protagonist falsely promised.

The detective thread searching for the man who stole the film is central to the narrative that unfolds, takes Tan around the world, and is of course of the zeitgeist in reminding us how often female stories are drowned out by grasping men. How satisfying its investigative denouement truly is remains up for debate, as the film does lose steam. Likewise, the necessity to ramp up the significance of the lost film is at times cloying, veering on self-importance. This is not quite the missing reels of The Magnificent Ambersons. Although it’s impossible to judge their film in absentia, it looks a lot like it was the work of imaginative adolescents who knew more of cool aesthetics (clearly Tan and her friends gorged on Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch, and 1980s French cinéma du look) than of the complexities of real life (the latter being the raw material of any great film).

All that said, where Shirkers works best is in its contagious spirit of rebellious creativity, especially in the descriptions of the young friends’ punk-ish guerrilla filmmaking in a nation as conservative and conformist as Singapore. It becomes an ode to the teen spirit of artsy outcasts anywhere, and their defiant willingness to unleash their creative forces wherever. And, even if there may be weird men who’ll steal your film, there are also countless kindred spirits to connect with, an inspiring note that resonates through the film — be it Tan finding other filmmakers who were in the same boat or the local Singaporean underground cultural scene where people like Philip Cheah supported and encouraged her endeavour.

Cheah, one of many talking heads in the doc, is a noteworthy figure whose ethos can serve to sum up Tan’s movie. A writer, critic, programmer and all-round film and music buff who often wrote about movies and records that were not yet available in Singapore, Cheah’s oft-repeated motto (which he often told Tan herself) was that he aimed to “create a desire” for what like-minded Singaporeans couldn’t yet access. In other words, knowing that sowing that seed will eventually reap its own form of harvest. Sandi Tan achieves the very same, creating the desire in us to see her lost film which is not quite available, and is this not also after all what unites a subculture of cinephiles, of art-minded folk, of anyone who feels slightly different from those around them, into reading, thinking about, and prolonging the experience of films or art even long after the experience of seeing them?

3 thoughts on “2018 in review: Two films from Singapore

  1. I enjoyed reading your article, I must admit I’ve never seen a movie from Singapore, your review of the first one sparked up my imagination, and in the second review I feel that you opened up many important questions. Thank you for the article!

    1. Thanks for reading!

      I would recommend ILO ILO (Anthony Chen) as a nice introduction to Singapore cinema. Then maybe something like 12 STOREYS (Eric Khoo) for a darker, more critical perspective on Singaporean society. Let me know if you do manage to catch any of these films, would be interested in your thoughts 🙂

      1. Thank you so much for the recommendations, I looked the films up and they seem interesting. Added them on my watchlist. I will contact you if I find an opportunity to watch them, so we can comment on them. 🙂

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