Identification // Deviation

October 6, 2021, 1:22am

by Pranamika Subhalaxmi

Village Neighbours, Here is Not There and Hampshire Road are three films in Singapore Shorts ‘21 programme that encapsulate the tensions underlying the notion of ‘nationhood’. With the past year hanging heavy over our heads, these films examine the differences and affinities we share with our fellow man, especially those who are often relegated to the bottom rungs of the ladder. Film has long been a medium of exploration and empathy, and these films interrogate history and offer us questions of how we perceive each other and ourselves.

Village Neighbours (2020) dir. Toh Hun Ping

Over the course of this five-minute film, we listen to ‘Singapore’ being spoken (and, on occasion, sung) in a striking collage. The films that director Toh Hun Ping draws from to string together this found footage film range from the 1930s to 2000, spanning over multiple languages and continents.

On my first watch, I could not help but muse on that strange penchant for external validation that is so key to being Singaporean. Hearing all these different voices in a myriad of different accents acknowledge the existence of ‘Singapore’, triggers – if only for a split second – the reflex to point to the screen and say “Hey! That’s us!”. The idea is, after all, hammered into us – that we are a small island-nation, a blip on the map. Even the briefest of acknowledgements feels like an accomplishment.

Image still from Village Neighbours (2020) dir. Toh Hun Ping

So, what then of our village neighbours? Each mention of ‘Singapore’ is accompanied by other place names. Framing these countries as our village neighbours imparts a sweetness to relationships that may otherwise seem fraught or, at times, non-existent. That mythical kampung spirit stretches well past our borders and across oceans.

As countries are named, one begins to make mental note of the repeated names and starts to draw links. Port cities and colonial pasts are the most obvious link that proliferate, especially with films from earlier eras. Oh, Dutch and British ancestors, how you loved your port cities! Port Said, Colombo, Hong Kong, Tananarive. The list goes on.

Image still from Village Neighbours (2020) dir. Toh Hun Ping

A second association pops up: that denoting ‘around the world’-ness – the notion that this island we currently occupy is a getaway destination, much like Paris or Rome. It is not unfamiliar as a concept; after all we are distinctly aware of our attractiveness (and attraction) to tourists. But just how far back our history as a tourist destination stretches is not something we often consider.

There is also the occasional oddly paired neighbour – one such utterance includes ‘Singapore; Vancouver’. The film plays out like an increasingly confused but entirely delightful game of word association, especially when these confusing pairs repeat themselves. A lack of knowledge might perhaps make way for intrigue: what shared history lies between us and Aden?

Village Neighbours treads that fine line between identification and differentiation – where do we see ourselves in other places? How different do we see ourselves? What is there to gain from either of these lines of thinking? History feels a lot more fluid, dancing between our borders and beyond. Village Neighbours invites us to toy with it, to play with its meanings and to see if we like what we find.

Here is Not There (2019) dir. Nelson Yeo

Nelson Yeo’s Here is Not There focuses on the life of a migrant worker named Xun, and her entanglement with her colleague, Chong. This beautifully shot film makes use of stark lighting and an eerie, atmospheric score to immerse us in the life of these workers, and the limbo of space that they occupy.

Image still from Here is Not There (2019) dir. Nelson Yeo

Xun (played by Bobbi Chen) presumably hails from Taiwan or China, while Chong (played by Hong Yu Yang) is Malaysian. They work at a warehouse selling and producing joss paper and effigies.

The opening of the film introduces us to two such effigies – extreme caricatures of a dark-skinned South Asian construction worker and a domestic helper wielding a mop, possibly of Southeast Asian descent. They sit in the back of the truck, transported with a familiar indignity, staring blankly with paper eyes into nothing.

On the rooftop of Golden Mile Tower, Chong smokes and muses on a childhood wish to clone himself, so as to earn twice the money. Giant cranes and construction loom in the background and dwarf the two characters — a reminder of the relentless pursuit of progress for the upper classes at the expense of those forced to cling to the lower rungs.

Xun also expresses her wish to clone herself. However, hers is a metaphysical wish – to be in two places at once. To be home, and to be in Singapore. She expresses the difference between here, a foreign place defined by work, and there, being at home, where the minutes can be savoured.

Image still from Here is Not There (2019) dir. Nelson Yeo

Yeo explores the divergences between here and there in multiple senses. There is the physical distance from home; and the divide between life and death, as the references to the Hungry Ghost Month and setting of the joss paper warehouse imply. Then, there are the divides within the migrant worker social class.

Chong asserts that ‘they’ are different, because while construction and domestic workers are ‘modern slaves’, they have a choice for who they work for. In one scene, the characters walk through a crowded street in Little India, surrounded by brown faces who turn curiously towards the camera. The camera shakes for the first and only time as Xun reveals to Chong that she is pregnant, and he walks away from her. Xun remains the focus of this scene, while the South Asian men linger in the periphery. Is Yeo trying to posit this moment as that of oneness in the social stratum, or as one of deep unbelonging?

Image still from Here is Not There (2019) dir. Nelson Yeo

At the tragic close of the film, Chong dies in an accident in the warehouse. His last moments are captured on mobile phone cameras – reduced to a mere spectacle. A distraught Xun leaves the warehouse, a look of wild desperation flooding her eyes as she walks away and out of the camera’s frame. We return to the effigies, now being burnt by an unknown man.

Here is Not There seems to say that differentiation is futile. Ultimately, workers are seen as equally expendable. Bleakly, the difference between here and there is the difference between death and servitude.

Hampshire Road (2019) dir. Ting Min-Wei

With a one-take journey down Hampshire Road, Ting Min-Wei explores the way migrant workers are monitored and transported in Singapore. In the shadow of the pandemic and how it has ravaged the migrant worker community, there is an aching relevance to this film. The artist’s note clarifies that this was a pre-COVID production, and that Hampshire Road now stands empty.

We open at the beginning of the road, travelling down the side of the building. At first, it seems entirely void of people, the sky a sort of inky darkness where one is not entirely sure of the time of day.  The audio is bereft of anything other than ambient sounds, and the rumble of buses function as a soundtrack. It is well past a minute into the film when we see its subjects: the workers waiting for their transportation, holding onto plastic bags of groceries.

Image still from Hampshire Road (2019) dir. Ting Min-Wei

The film’s visuals leave us with nothing to look at besides the workers for most of its run time. As we travel down the road, each queue of workers seems to snake longer than the last. The soundscape fills with snippets of their conversation. There is a staggering number of people and the metal gates of the building leave us with the uncomfortable impression that they are being caged.

On occasion, one of the men notices the camera and returns our gaze with his. The flimsy distance allotted by the screen seems to crumble. The discomfort of being a voyeur sinks in, amplifying the pre-existing gulf constructed by class (socio-economic, social, and racial). This is particularly so when we see worker after worker, in throngs, for the better part of five minutes, becoming faceless stand-ins for a social statement.

At the end of the film, we are introduced to the vast extent of security present at the building’s entrance. The awareness of the surveillance presiding over these men as they are herded back to, in all likelihood, their dormitories is a sickening realisation.

Image still from Hampshire Road (2019) dir. Ting Min-Wei

As we travel away from the building and are left to digest what we have seen, we survey a large field with pockets of people lounging on the grass. The lit-up letters of the Park Royal hotel loom in the distance, reminding us of the fissures that lie between the lived experiences of the average Singaporean and those of these workers.

The emotion evoked by Hampshire Road is complicated. We empathise and sympathise with the workers, but are left painfully aware of the power imbalance between us and them, forced into the harsh light by the gaze of the camera.


About the Writer

Pranamika Subhalaxmi is a writer and film enthusiast with a background in media studies and poetry. Her works have been published in the SGIFF Film Academy journal under the Youth Jury & Critics Programme. Her interest in film extends to curation and production, having been head programmer for the Perspectives Film Festival 2020. Her thesis film, Between These Bones, received nominations at the National Youth Film Awards and Bangkok International Documentary Awards.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the
Asian Film Archive.