Mention Singapore and images of a pristine, orderly and progressive city come to mind. The Lion City is an exemplary model of a well-oiled state, populated by law-abiding, content citizens – or is it?
Singapore has invariably been portrayed as a flourishing land of opportunities in mainstream narratives. Media representations of its National Day celebrations showcase a united and prosperous front, with proud citizens professing their unwavering loyalty, in full force. Singaporean education is highly coveted by gifted, ambitious scholars from near and far. But Singapore’s contemporary films offer a view into their world that not many people give a thought to.
We have largely been offered light-hearted glimpses into the idiosyncrasies of the Singaporean everyday by the long-running sitcom Phua Chu Kang Pte. Ltd., while an entertaining slew of Jack Neo films proffered comedic social commentary on Singapore’s institutions and systems. But on a deeper, grittier level, several other productions of Singaporean cinema reveal the oft-ignored underside of Singapore and its grim price of the unending pursuit of progress – urban alienation and marginalised citizens.
Eric Khoo’s 12 Storeys (1997)
The ubiquitous HDB, or Housing Development Board, flats are a mainstay of the modern Singaporean landscape due to their designation as the residential quarters of a majority of Singaporean citizens. As such, they frequently feature in contemporary Singaporean films, serving as a metaphor for the suffocating, oppressive confines of urban life as well as a microcosm of the regimented public sphere of Singapore’s state-sanctioned urban infrastructure. This sentiment is wistfully portrayed in 12 Storeys (1997), in which the motley inhabitants of a block of HDB flats struggle to participate in state-building narratives, yet eventually find themselves unable to keep up with the societal demands that entail the perpetual quest to be a ‘good and useful’ citizen. The characters in 12 Storeys are inevitably made to realise that their personal lives are far from ideal. They aren’t living the great Singapore Dream and their concerted efforts to achieve their own personal aspirations are rendered futile, crushed by self-delusion and the harshness of reality.
One of the segments of 12 Storeys features flat resident Ah Gu, a blundering hawker who harbours hopes to establish a family with Lili, his ‘imported’ bride from China. Lili is implied to be a calculative ‘bride for hire’ in pursuit of fortune, yet her vulnerability seeps through in scenes of her gazing woefully at photos of her Chinese lover back home. Trapped in a one-sided relationship plagued by pent-up frustration and dissatisfaction, Ah Gu and Lili constantly end up criticising each other’s inadequacies in anguished emotional outbursts. Both Ah Gu and Lili have beset themselves within a devious loop of alternating between delusions and distrust, their superficial union sustained only by Ah Gu’s pleas for Lili to stay.
12 Storeys: Disappointed Ah Gu (Jack Neo) and his detached ‘China bride’, Lili (Quan Yi Fong)
Source: Pioner Cinema (http://pioner-cinema.ru/en/film/12-storeys/)
Eric Khoo’s Mee Pok Man (1995)
Mee Pok Man (1995), tells the story of a stuttering, socially awkward mee pok (flat egg noodles) hawker toiling in Singapore’s red-light district, who has a chance encounter with a similarly ill-fated prostitute, Bunny. A gritty, sombre depiction of working-class life, it also conveys the harrowing loneliness and isolation experienced by urban dwellers ostracised by society and the desire for human connection and affection, symbolised by the Mee Pok Man’s persistent, even obsessive, infatuation for Bunny. The Mee Pok Man resides in a dilapidated block of flats, exuding a bleak atmosphere of desolation and neglect which serves as a paradox to his burgeoning desire for an escape, manifested in the form of Bunny. Sidelined by society, both the Mee Pok Man and Bunny seek solace in other outlets: Bunny in monetary gain and her hopes of escaping her dreary life, the Mee Pok Man in his adoration of Bunny. However, this tragic cycle of misplaced dependence ultimately isolates the Mee Pok Man even further, leaving him devastated and lost once again upon Bunny’s unexpected departure.
Mee Pok Man: The Mee Pok Man (Joe Ng) looking cautiously at Bunny (Michelle Goh)
Source: The Straits Times (http://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/entertainment/mee-pok-man-pushed-boundaries)
Wee Li Lin’s Gone Shopping (2007)
Gone Shopping (2007) explores the quiet desperation of the suburban class, escaping from inner emptiness into mindless bouts of shopping and the material world.
Bored and dissatisfied with her affluent yet vacant life, Clara, a tai tai (wealthy lady of leisure), spends most of her time loitering aimlessly in shopping malls, making impulse purchases as a fruitless attempt at achieving happiness and finding meaning at the bottom of a shopping bag. Instead, she spirals into a bottomless abyss of mind-numbing materialism. Each item purchased provides instant and temporary gratification, yet also contributes to the expanding emptiness within her. The characters of Gone Shopping appear trapped within the lonely and monotonous space of shopping malls, a sanctuary of sorts to them. It begs the question: have we become excessively reliant on consumerism and complacent towards our commoditised lifestyle? Do we risk regressing into a blank mass of consumers, with no need for the human connection?
Gone Shopping: Clara (Kym Ng) distractedly browsing through handbags in a shopping mall
Source: Objectifs (https://www.objectifs.com.sg/watchlocal2016/)
Sanif Olek’s Sayang Disayang (2013)
In an ever-developing state, there are always people that find themselves getting left behind. Sayang Disayang (2013) sheds light on something we all avoid talking about: the phenomenon of neglected senior citizens. Harun, an elderly, wheelchair-bound widower, leads a lonely existence in his dignified, well-kept residence – a beguiling veneer to Harun’s increasingly unbearable solitude within the house. Presumably resentful towards his son’s abandonment of him in favour of relocating abroad, the disgruntled Harun maintains a volatile relationship with his caretaker Murni, his sole companion.
As Harun’s hopes for his son’s return erode day by day, his disillusionment grows and envelops him in resentment and discontent. By virtue of Murni’s patience and compassion (and not to mention her culinary flair), their initially hostile relationship evolves for the better, yet there is isolation and yearning that chokes the atmosphere on-screen and strikes hard at the hearts of its viewers. Murni pines for her family back home in Indonesia, just as Harun longs for the return of his son in the guise of his guarded demeanour and short temper. Viewers are transfixed by still shots of Harun’s forlorn figure. Devoid of family, the only human connection Harun has left lies with his Indonesian caretaker, as he gradually withers in the shadows of lost faith and unfulfilled hope that accompany his eventual demise.
Sayang Disayang: Harun’s (Rahim Razali) forlorn figure staring into the distance
As we enjoy the abundance and convenience offered by urbanisation, cinematic projections of the ‘other side’ of Singapore serve as relevant reminders of the necessity of empathy and compassion in our increasingly busy and congested society, although they may appear bleak and disconcerting. Nevertheless, the films mentioned above are by no means exhaustive or fully representative of the diverse milieu of Singaporean cinema. Alternative glimpses of hope, optimism and nostalgia remain celebrated in films such as Be With Me (Eric Khoo, 2005), That Girl in Pinafore (Chai Yee Wei, 2013), Banting (Raihan Halim, 2014) and omnibus film 7 Letters (various directors, 2015).
By Choo Suet Fun