Pragmatic Nightmares – The Family as Microcosm of an Anxious Nation

October 28, 2022, 3:07pm

by Jolie Fan

Rather than being a proud and self-confident nation, Singapore exists only through psychosis, as an existentially anxious nation (that awaits the salvation provided by the [government]).

– Seok-Fang Sim (2001) in Asian Values, Authoritarianism & Capitalism in Singapore

In Singapore, as anywhere, people cling to dreams. Amidst the allure of post-industrial lifestyles and consumerist possessions, we dream of material prosperity, financial comfort, and stable employment. Such prevailing declarations espouse a familiar narrative of nation-building–dubbed “the Singapore Dream” – that is interpellated into our values over time as the ideological lynchpin to maintain individual, national, and global success. This is as Malaysian singer Huang Yi Fei croons in his song One Million Dollars, “With a million dollars, my whole life will have no worries.”

The obverse is, then, a “pragmatic nightmare”: a crisis of ordinariness that betrays the dream’s cruel optimism, entrenching the unattainable ideal of material success as a pragmatic goal where all citizens are supposedly equal players. Those who fall through the cracks are fettered by the nation’s anxious obsession with efficiency and rationality, timorously strung along by a paternalistic system that urges self-sacrificing probity and compliance. Within this pressure cooker of ever-developing policies, our being becomes transient, unanchored, and lost. Soon, we forget how to dream.

The three films of A Man Trembles, Two is Enough and Everybody Wins the Lottery live inside that nightmare. Though articulated through prosaic platitudes of disillusioned Chinese-Singaporean families, these four artists are less invested in outlining the quotidian struggles of a family unit than the repressed desires and mounting alienation they symbolise for a larger national climate. Their disparate use of dialect (Cantonese, Teochew, Hokkien), objects of desire (a mysterious orb, an incoming child, a lottery ticket) and spatio-temporal locale preface questions of national history and policies that these films intend to broach. In the crossfire where the personal and the political collide, what are we losing and what have we lost?

Figure 1: A family picnics peacefully atop Sentosa, previously known as ‘Pulau Blakang Mati’ (Island Behind Death) during World War II.
Still from A Man Trembles (2021, dir. Mark Chua & Lam Li Shuen)

A Man Trembles

For the filmmaking duo, Mark Chua and Lam Li Shuen, A Man Trembles (2021) confront the imminent loss of humanity– in a post-apocalyptic sense and in the stifling repression of the metaphysical– resulting from terraforming unused land for rapid redevelopment and commercialisation. The film’s opening is protractedly mundane; tranquil and pastoral in its selection of foliage and tropical mise-en-scene. Steeped in the troughs of a recession at the peak of the Asian Financial Crisis, a family seeks respite on Sentosa Island, a coast that has witnessed several installations of death and war before it became a tourist cynosure.

This layered past lies unbeknownst to the family that picnics languidly atop its bloodied soil. “Read at the sign there mah,” said the father to his wife after briefly explaining the use of arms on the island in World War II. “Blakang Mati, then they rebrand mah.” Indeed, what used to be a Prisoner of War (POW) camp, a bombing site and an Operation Sook Ching execution ground during the Japanese Occupation was conveniently re-packaged and marketed as a fun-filled “Island Playground” for the nation’s tourism blueprint. To the family, Sentosa’s dynamically shifting identity and ostensible rootlessness are not unlike the rest of Singapore’s topography– demolition and refurbishment projects are prolific but its frequent disregard for historical sensibilities can make memories impermanent and lived experiences transient.

Figure 2: The father (played by Oliver Chong) holds his son (played by Brayden Koh) in a composition reminiscent of Madonna and Child.
Still from A Man Trembles (2021, dir. Mark Chua & Lam Li Shuen)

One sees this in the striking singularity of a scene where the father cradles his son in the ocean, a frame of incredible stillness as if anticipating the chaos that ensues. The son lies motionless in the body of water, half-submerged, untethered, and buoyant, without root, possession, or memory. Such imagery evokes the likeness of baptism– after death, comes rebirth; after destruction, comes renewal.

Figure 3: Collapsed onto the forest floor, the father washes up shakily from a puddle of water.
Still from A Man Trembles (2021, dir. Mark Chua & Lam Li Shuen)

The nightmare begins as night falls and the family’s foray into the dense jungle leads them to an illuminated elliptical-shaped orb– a non-human entity that paralyses its subjects beneath. One can only guess what it symbolises; perhaps, the island’s effaced history returning to haunt its inhabitants or a grotesque spectre of diabolical nature. Percolated with a percussive soundscape clittering with staccatos of waspish stridulation, the father descends into the abyss of unknown terror, quaking and shivering in its intensity. As this complex, bizarre and absurd sequence abruptly halts, a Kafkaesque dread settles. There is no escape from the material world’s iron-grip hold and nowhere to run from the crushing weight of unfulfilled dreams.

A trembling man sprawls on the forest floor, gawking at a cavity of water reflecting in its chasm the same emptiness in his spirit.

Two is Enough

Against the grain of official narratives celebrating the government’s population control efforts, Leon Cheo’s Two is Enough grapples with another family’s fractured psyche, precipitated by the invisible hand of breakneck-paced policies and its pervasive cultural stigmas levied onto lower-income families. In tandem with the thematic explorations of repression, disaffection, and isolation in A Man Trembles, the protagonists in Two is Enough similarly find their version of the Singapore Dream handicapped by numbing practical ordeals.

Figure 4: The husband (played by Benjamin Josiah Tan) and the wife (played by Liew Li Ting) tenderly welcomes their third child by singing a popular Teo Chew lullaby.
Still from Two is Enough (2021, dir. Leon Cheo)
Figure 5: Devoid of the same affection, the couple falls out over a quarrel on aborting the baby.
Still from Two is Enough (2021, dir. Leon Cheo)

Here, dreams are conceived in gestation; not quite fully formed but harboured in the liminal realm between bodily existence and the incorporeal. Here, the object of desire is the promise of a new life. Mui Leng, a mother who yearns for a bigger family, is expecting her third child. Initially enthusiastic about the newborn’s arrival, this tenderness soon dissolves as the lines of divide between husband and wife exacerbates. “I don’t know if I can afford another,” the husband, Ah Seng, complains to her as he brandishes the government’s family planning pamphlets anxiously in the air, unaware that she has already formed a profound attachment to the unborn child. In sentimentality, she lashes out, “Money, money, money. Is that all you think about?”

This contention between Ah Seng and Mui Leng may represent a broader national ethos. As public policy scholar Kenneth Paul Tan propounds, the dominant attitude of the State is that personal memory, intangibles, and sentimentalities should be disparaged for their lack of economic productivity and incurred as losses in the pursuit of greater national development.1 In this vein, the family unit becomes a microcosm of a nation with repressed desires and unfulfilled aspirations, reaching and stretching but never quite attaining.

Figure 6: A national advertisement on family planning, espousing their population control program for couples to “Stop at Two”.
Still from Two is Enough (2021, dir. Leon Cheo)

Surrounded by an obedient social workforce-citizenry that heavily perpetuates a culture of ‘sacrifice’ in favour of abiding by the government’s strict regiments, Mui Leng is constantly reminded to put the nation’s needs above her own. “You should consider an abortion. You’ll see that it’s the best thing for your family [nation].” was a nurse’s didactic reply. Desiring a good education for her two sons, she concedes her personal attachment to the incoming third child.

Over the span of 15 years, Singapore’s two-child policy was relinquished to establish a new cornerstone: “Have three or more if you can afford it.” A land’s history may be rebranded and repackaged, as can its policies, and in a much shorter time span. The traumatic scars– bodily and psychologically– left in its wake become buried beneath the new.

Everybody Wins the Lottery

Highly stylised and infectiously kitsch, Eryka Fontanilla & Yang Sheng Xiong’s Everybody Wins the Lottery breaks from the seriousness, dread and trepidation that distinguishes it from the previous films, lending a comedic and ironic edge to its humorously exaggerated performances. Considerably optimistic and gaudy, the film opens with a karaoke interface starring a family dancing to “One Million Dollars” – which was also the opening theme song of Jack Neo’s Money No Enough 2 (2008)–and setting a precedent for the film’s themes of money, freedom and control.

Figure 7: A karaoke cover featuring the film’s family partying on a yacht.
Still from Everybody Wins the Lottery (2021, dir. Eryka Fontanilla & Yang Sheng Xiong)

Saddled by their father’s retrenchment and operating on a shoestring household budget, a family tries their luck at the lottery and extraordinarily makes a strike. When the ticket goes missing overnight, the search for it brings us through an entertaining sequence of vignettes, elucidating each family member’s pipe dreams of success: one dreams of fame, one dreams of power and another of freedom. The lottery ticket, as in several local films including Anthony Chen’s ilo ilo,was a common object to symbolise the material obsessions of Singaporeans, offering fuss-free means to get rich quickly and achieve the purported path to success.

Figure 8: The family peers dreamily at the lottery ticket which holds incredible promise for achieving their dreams.
Still from Everybody Wins the Lottery (2021, dir. Eryka Fontanilla & Yang Sheng Xiong)

Interestingly, the ticket in Everybody Wins the Lottery embodies a different kind of desire: a longing for closeness, connection, and support rather than any materialistic gain. “All you think about is money… and the expense sheet!” the daughter appealed. Beneath the glitter of winning a million dollars, a family was growing apart. Blinded by the superficial anxieties of wealth, the mother was not cognisant of the emotional dearth her rigid rules may have left behind.

Figure 9: In a daydream, the family is back on the yacht, with less glamorous possessions.
Still from Everybody Wins the Lottery (2021, dir. Eryka Fontanilla & Yang Sheng Xiong)

Perhaps, the point of departure from the earlier two films is the diversity of caricatures squeezed on-set and packed into a semi-dysfunctional family unit: the good-natured clueless father, the strict but self-sacrificing mother, the bohemian oddball younger sister and the golden boy brother. If anything, the engagement of student directors, Eryka and Sheng Xiong, not only opens new avenues for encountering formal innovation but also reveals the shifting attitudes of prevailing discourse.

If A Man Trembles and Two is Enough are harrowing appraisals of the myth of the Singaporean Dream, then Everybody Wins the Lottery offers a palliative to those trapped in the nightmarish iterations of futility and hopelessness: an escapist dose of karaoke and groove, all while on a white luxurious yacht.


Endnotes

  1. Tan, Kenneth Paul. “Violence and the supernatural in Singapore cinema.” New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film 8, no. 3 (2011): 213-223.

About the Writer

Jolie is a writer, journalist and cultural studies undergraduate working at the intersection of film criticism, scholarly investigation and festival programming. Her essays and criticisms have appeared in EasternKicks, Duart, the Asian Film Archive, SinemaSG and awarded Regional Winner in the Global Undergraduate Awards 2021. She was also selected as an aspiring film journalist for an all expenses paid fellowship at the Far East Film Festival Campus 2022 where she pitched and wrote incisive articles and interviewed filmmakers and industry professionals.

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