Notes from a Sunny Island

July 12, 2018, 7:05pm

Sun’s up, time to go to the cinema. An entry in a walking diary through the Singapore Day/Night programme.

Contributed by Yang Yanxuan Vicki

 

Day 1 of Singapore Day/Night.

6:50 AM: Singapura, Oh Singapura, Sunny Island, Set in the Sea

The yawning sun stretches above the horizon of the waking city. Its illumination creeps over the rectangular building blocks like an inevitable cascade of dominoes. Before it reaches me, I’m off to the beach to catch another spot of sunshine in today’s walk through AFA’s Singapore Day/Night film programme.

This walkthrough starts off briskly enough in this port city and the first film of the programme; the island city-state introduced through the playful prism that is Sunshine Singapore (1970). Rajendra Gour’s film immerses us in a nutty game as we set off across the landscape of AFA’s inaugural Singapore Shorts series of screenings that pays tribute to one of the country’s first independent short filmmakers. His curious camera tries to trap daubs of sunlight across the country in its lens as an insistent beat chimes rhythmically and boisterously through these attempts.

Still from Sunshine Singapore (1972, dir. Rajendra Gour)

It’s not easy to catch these sunlit motes, you don’t think? Like a tongue-in-cheek shot at the reputation of our sunny isle, these luminous specks can be too impish and frisky to catch on 16mm film. But Gour is in on the game, his hands lending a nimbleness to his camerawork, an equal mischievousness to the editing; his camera upends entire buildings, deceives the sly subject with slow movements before zooming up skyscrapers suddenly, recalibrates the cityscape and his searching eye with changes of focus in shots. Gour’s whimsical picture puzzle also leads us through the commerce, consumerism and commotion in this montage of late 1960s city life, including the trappings of modernity – wealth and wares; banks, bling and baubles.

Though Gour manages to arrest scenes of a corporatised life that marches to the drum of military drills, sunlight proves much more evasive. It dodges his lens, blinks through shrouds of shrubbery, peeks at us from the cornices of buildings; move a step, tilt the camera a little and you’ll miss it, but there it is again! A flicker of life in a pool of water in Concrete City and even someone’s curtain of hair.

Gour uses these moments of captivity to bring us up close and intimate to the city’s features, now made far more crystalline in this restored version of the film and screening that is AFA’s tribute to one who made some of post-colonial Singapore’s earliest independent short films. Gour’s game of tag through dappled sights and sites is perhaps reflective of an inquisitive exploration of his new home since his arrival from India to Singapore in 1964 and a precursor to his later films and short film oeuvre capturing life in 1960s and 1970s Singapore (A Labour of Love – The Housewife; 1978 and My Child My Child, 1979; Eyes, 1967).

Still from Sunshine Singapore (1972, dir. Rajendra Gour)

Sunshine Singapore’s merit doesn’t lie in being an archive of teasing images. Yes, newly independent Singapore may have been a land of opportunity to migrants like Gour, but the film’s premise seems almost a juicy bit of insider gossip by a new inhabitant armed with a camera, talking behind Stamford Raffles’ back (and indeed do we see the back silhouette of the founder of the colony). As long as Singapore continues to be known or marketed as a sunny island in the tropics and provided global warming doesn’t change our weather patterns drastically, Gour’s short film is a game of longevity cinema viewers and makers do and continue to play today – to come up with snappy zingers on the continuing rampant consumerism and relentless development of a sun-drenched Singapore Inc., but more importantly, to lead our tired eyes in a wide-eyed and wondrous exploration of a city we thought we’ve seen before.

As the finale of the film winds down with a sunset and the neat columns of lit public flat windows, it lays bare the reality of post-independent Singapore then and now – it never gets dark here anymore.

 

08:43 AM: The Great Singapore Sale

As the natural light recedes on Gour’s Sunshine Singapore, it trades it for the harsher light of a workday morning in the next film of the programme. Our traipse through the country continues, this time accompanied by what might initially seem to be a classic depoliticised representative of the country – the Singapore Girl. But hold on; it’s not The Singapore Girl decked out in the recognisable blue sarong kebaya uniform of the Singapore Airlines stewardesses, but director Jeremy Sing’s own version, specifically The Girl in the Red Sarong (also the title of his 2007 film).

Still from The Girl in Red Sarong (2007, dir. Jeremy Sing)

Watching this today recalls other artistic attempts to set the timeless Singapore Girl against a landscape in flux. John Clang’s 2014 photo series, The Land of My Heart, re-appropriates the traditional It Girl with choice placements of her uniformed selves in time-worn suburbia familiar and favoured by Clang. “What I find fascinating are the different heartlands, where people grow up, wake up, go to work, and when they come home at night,” once said Clang of his work that uses the well-preserved Singapore Girl to orientate viewers to a tour of “the true Singapore – not where we spend our weekend or where the tourists go”. While both of their images recast the Singapore Girl and her hallowed homeland, Sing’s divergent strain is to deflate these phantasms of perfection utterly.

Though they might be cut from the same cloth – quite literally as Sing informs us so in beginning intertitles -, the sarong kebaya of SIA flight stewardesses that has become a trademark of national pride “particularly in Singapore” demonstrates a different reality on the ground in Sing’s film. Instead of the immaculate signature chignon with nary a hair out of place, unhurried sway and graceful acquiescence to preposterous in-flight requests, our guide through Singapore and its suburbs is Sing’s harried kebaya-clad woman with disheveled hair, bent on evading her landlady.

The Land of My Heart (Park). Part of The Land of My Heart series by John Clang. Image taken from http://johnclang.com/the-land-of-my-heart/

Like Gour’s film, Sing’s Singapore continues to be the land of opportunity thirty years on but there’s a beat – of missed opportunities, he means – as his Singapore Girl is put through multiple comical failures to secure better-paying gigs. But in this economy, you can still sell something. The preservation of the Singapore Girl and its parallels to the city’s public image – pristine and perfect – is exotica for purchase. The titular Girl in the Red Sarong unwittingly becomes an image for sale for awed tourists and Sing pads some dimension under that exemplary regalia. Her ceaseless job flops underscore the multitude of desires she possesses – for money, stability, escape from economic realities and for companionship that goes beyond donning a wedding dress.

 

09:09 AM: Disneyland with the Death Penalty

So turn to the right for the prosperity and the left for the ordinariness as we continue our tour of the nation and its icons in the next exposé of mundanity in Eric Khoo’s Home VDO (2000). Carrying dichotomous views of the country within a mini-DV camcorder, the short splits its running time between a day in the life of a middle-class visitor from Cleveland and a heart-lander. The former is an icon in his own right – the kind of cliché-spouting moneyed ignoramus tourist from the West you might find in Clarke Quay or on TripAdvisor. Khoo checks off the boxes of their distinct behaviour in Mr. Cleveland’s travelogue – there’s the usual spiel on low crimes rates, caning of Michael Fay, the heat, the cleanliness of streets in town, the unconscious Anglo-condescension (“They’re very smart, they speak English”), and the buying in of tourism marketing myths, hook, line and sinker (the Merlion represents “how tough Singaporeans are, they just have to sink or swim”).

 

Still from Home VDO (2000, dir. Eric Khoo)

Mr. Cleveland’s signature wonder-stricken phrase, “Can you believe it?’, is the fulcrum of Khoo’s larger narrative. The next half of the camera’s tape in the hands of a loutish working class young adult belies Mr. Cleveland’s narrow tour of a Singapore sold to tourists with a different reality hat Khoo could not make more blatant – a sleeping community cat, chain-link fences, laundry lines of HDB flats, petty theft. Home VDO is a barefaced “Spot the Difference” for amateurs – one video is the act of showing off, the next skims the interiority of one’s life here. But even in this Compare and Contrast, Home VDO casts both slices of life in the city and its suburbs as utterly – if not painfully – mundane. Whether a holiday hideout or the heartlands, our home plays host to banality – and its inhabitants’ very ordinary mortal urges and allure to money or sex.

 

2:16 PM: Passion Made Possible

As we walk through the halfway point of Singapore Day/Night, it’s time for some afternoon sex! At least, that’s what Carol Ho and Teo Mei Ann’s Not Here (2008) posits for its protagonists – two colleagues thwarted in their desire at every urban locale they drop in at to do the deed.

Viewed today, Ho and Teo’s film gains extra resonance in what might truly be sex-starved Singapore. In 2014, the Society for Men’s Health, Singapore released the results of a three-year study on nearly 300 Singaporeans and their sexual attitudes, uncovering that a third of them had sex less than once a month. One wonders if the film’s characters would be as outraged as many Singaporeans in 2016 when then-Senior Minister of State, Josephine Teo, declared, “You need a very small space to have sex”.

Still from Not Here (2008, dir. Carol Ho and Teo Mei Ann)

But it never really is about size, is it? Building upon Gour, Sing and Khoo’s vision of the country as one of merciless industry, Ho and Teo flips the country’s famed efficiency another way – because the nation hums on constantly, Singapore is a building block of inconvenient architecture. The city becomes a busy physical and emotional maze to navigate. Mere lust as signified by a timid touch of the fingers evolves into a journey towards connection and a deeper intimacy as the lovers shake off the shackles of urban conditioning in their search for Adam and Eve’s idyllic haven.

 

4:26 PM: We Will Get There

The vicissitudes of a life in Singapore go beyond sex of course. Both Srinivas Bhakta’s animated short Curry Fish Head (2014) and Green Zeng’s Passenger (2006) drive home that point as they journey through one’s life in tandem with notes on a country’s changing face.

Still from Curry Fish Head (2014, dir. Srinivas Bhakta)

As a case study of A Life of a Singaporean or a Day in the Life of a Someone in Singapore, Curry Fish Head is an expansion pack of The Girl in the Red Sarong and the heartland half of Home VDO. Tasked to purchase ingredients for a quintessential local dish, a young girl tracks through an imagined flash forward of her life with all its significant milestones set against a steady stream of icons and the backdrop of a city’s physical progress – kampong villages, running MRT trains, laundry lines (clearly by now the epitome of Singapore heartland life and its preoccupations), Capitol Theatre, Raffles Hotel, Marina Bay Sands. Like Sunshine Singapore, the rendered cityscape is uninterrupted commerce, but Bhakta’s chronicle also makes it a witness to an entire spectrum of trials, tribulations, and trauma. Whether or not one agrees with this animated assessment, it gives a full taste of life in Singapore.

Still from Passenger (2006, dir. Green Zeng)

Tired as yet? Let’s get into a cab then, with Green Zeng. In Passenger, a taxi driver picks up a senior and takes her down memory lane and the history of her longtime homeland. A preview of Zeng’s preoccupation with the collision of the personal and the political in his later film, The Return (2015), Passenger’s narrative and her story is gradually weighed down with layers of private and national history that the passenger inevitably expounds on at every stop – her old workplace which was also the first Chinese school in the area, the historic cinema of her first dates now turned into a nightclub. Driver and passenger are reversed as the cabbie is taken through his surprising passenger’s life arc. And like The Girl in the Red Sarong and Home VDO, there’s perhaps yet another dig – though with pathos – at one of the most marketable of the country’s icons. Here, icons never face death. They may even jump out of graves.

 

9:12 PM: The Real Singapore

Unlike Zeng’s short, Singapore after dusk casts not a pallor of the past but masks what is essentially a limitless manufacturing plant of neon-tinted illusions in Giovanni Fantoni Modena’s Artificial Melodrama (2011). An embittered starlet from Europe is schooled on life by a mysterious cabbie who also turns out to be an unexpected walking (or driving) fountain of knowledge and a half-rate Alain de Botton.

As its title suggests, Modena goes heavy assembling the artifice that the budding actress castigates her surroundings for, adding a flagrant and obtrusive layer of meta-commentary onto hers. Moments of sincerity are hard-pressed to find here with deliberate dubbing, exact movie narrative clichés and conspicuous projections of the passing city.

Still from Artificial Melodrama (2011, dir. Giovanni Fantoni Modena)

As a paragon of modernity, the ex-colony is initially marked as just another indistinguishable Asian city, but this visitor from the West is also not cast in the same mould as her previous peers and seekers of economic opportunities who once flocked to former colonies. Instead, the country that can now afford to deflect her dreams and anyone else’s exploitation is cast as the real live actor and a mutating character. This is what this land could be – a faux projection of neon-lit dreams by the West; a model metropolis masking the minutiae of melodrama under its gilded eaves; an ex-colony charged with making its own choices; a hypermodern clone of Asian capitals; a mimesis of the West; streets that lead towards self-enlightenment. It’s a fitting end to the Day 1 programme of Singapore Shorts; in all of its shades, sunshine and shadows, Singapore in these shorts could be anything – banality, memory, a running gag of icons, a manufacturer of mirages and mundanity, an unconsummated state of affairs; Singapore could have been anything.

 

End of entry.

___________

References:

https://johnclang.com/the-land-of-my-heart/

https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/4wb7gd/in-conversation-with-clang-the-singaporean-photographer-takes-us-back-to-the-land-of-his-heart-957

https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/health/survey-of-300-people-finds-that-one-in-three-has-sex-less-than-once-a-month

https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/ministers-rejoinder-to-no-flat-no-child-belief

 

About the writer

Yang Yanxuan Vicki began plying her trade as the co-editor of now-defunct online magazine, POSKOD.SG, and subsequently in Hong Kong and Singapore in publishing and content marketing. She has written for the National Museum of Singapore (Cinematheque Quarterly), Kodak, Temasek Holdings, and Urban Redevelopment Authority, and works on film productions in various capacities today. The main tinkerer behind the independent COCKEYE film zine – the silliest zine on cinema in the country -, Vicki draws stickman comics, writes on film and other sentiments on Art at http://yangvicki.com

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