‘BABY, YOU NEED TO GO BACK TO MALAYSIA IF YOU WANT TO SEE A CHANGE OF GOVERNMENT!’

July 8, 2020 – 9:11 am

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It’s never easy reading between the lines of $ingapore cinema. Philip Cheah looks at $ingapore film in 2019 and finds many unseen trails.

$ingapore must stand as one of the world’s leaders in allegorical cinema. It’s the only private thrill there is to savour, considering that very few enjoy the films enough to keep them scoring at the box office, even after a trail of gob-smacking awards that larger neighbouring countries don’t even get close to achieving.

Take for instance, Glen Goei’s and (Malaysian) Gavin Yap’s Revenge Of The Pontianak (2019). This film didn’t even bother to wait for domestic box office approval. It nearly went straight to Netflix (after a very limited domestic run). This was a case when the filmmakers realised - why bother? They must have thought: “If you didn’t latch on to our in-jokes the last time (circa The Blue Mansion, 2009), we ain’t gonna hang around that long to see if you get it this time.”

And, of course, there’s an allegory somewhere. When the filmmakers state just two dates in their film, you best pay attention to them. So the dates are 1965 ($ingapore’s independence) and 1956 (the year when Malaysia announced that it would have its independence in 1957, and this announcement is shown in the film).

Inside this frame is a melodramatic horror tale of an unloved woman who is killed and returns as a pontianak (female vampire), when her lover gets married to another woman. But wait, the pontianak myth normally includes a dead or unborn child (Note: “anak” in Malay language means child), and there is one here.

The killed woman had a live foetus that grew up into a young boy. In the film’s best scene, the pontianak caresses her son’s soft cheek with her bloodied hand and sharp claws. Her son acknowledges her as his mother. It’s an essential poignant separation scene but one that is filled with tenderness and love.

If at this point you don’t get it, try to think of the dates again. The year 1965 was $ingapore’s independence and “separation” from Malaysia. But here’s the rub. That historical traumatic political separation as symbolised in this film wasn’t filled with so much tenderness! And, sad to say, this film could have benefitted from more trauma!

By the time you get to Anthony Chen’s Wet Season (2019), this is a film that is pregnant (sic) with allegorical motifs. The film is blanketed with news reports of Malaysia’s street protests calling for the resignation of their prime minister. The lead actress Yeo Yann Yann is Malaysian and she plays a Malaysian woman married to a $ingapore man.

And, if your complaint has always been that $ingapore is such a sterile society, think about the Freudian role-playing here. The lead actor, Koh Jia Ler, who plays the son in Chen’s debut, Ilo Ilo (2013), returns to have a sexual relationship with Yeo Yann Yann, the actress who played his mother in Ilo Ilo, now the teacher in Wet Season. Not sterile for sure (see film’s ending) and definitely not a dry run (pun intended). You can even make a case for the $ingapore-Malaysia sexual relationship but let’s not go there.

Some would describe this as a “quintessential heartlander” film but what it really evolves as, is a TV melodrama that betrays its hardworking arthouse ambitions. Teacher desperately wants a child from distant husband who only leaves her to look after ailing father. Then her affair with a student finally convinces her to return to her Malaysian roots.

The rainy weather motif has never been so cleverly done in a $ingapore film. It’s just that (Malaysian) Tsai Ming Liang did it better in The Hole (1998). But okay, as allegories go, the rain in Wet Season extinguishes any fire that can possibly ignite in this film - the passion, the sex and yes, even the revolution. Baby, you need to go back to Malaysia if you want to see a change of government.

About nine Singapore films made it to the local cinemas last year, the same as in 2018. Of this number, a few weren’t really made for the silver screen. For example, Eva Tang’s From Victoria Street to Ang Mo Kio was a commissioned documentary for her alma mater’s 85th St Nicholas Girls’ School anniversary, the first Catholic missionary Chinese girls’ school.

On a similar trajectory was Yong Shuling’s Unteachable, the local award-winning documentary on the education system that is now seeking a theatrical release. Then there was Revenge Of The Pontianak, essentially a made-for-Netflix film. The others were the usual list of suspects: actor comedian Mark Lee helmed his debut, Make It Big Big, for the Lunar New Year market. His comedian colleague and box-office champ, Jack Neo, returned with Killer Not Stupid, an action film. Both films sank as did Han Yew Kwang’s zombie romance, When Ghost Meets Zombie.

If you think that $ingapore tends toward more-of-the-same cinema, it also has a mirror image on the film policy front. Sort of like the evil twins that we are plagued with (see last year’s essay!). The government formed in December 2019, the Media International Advisory Council, consisting of who they consider as entertainment industry heavyweights from Netflix, Disney Asia, iQIYI to Formula One!

The group will meet once a year to chase the Asian content industry’s potential worth of US$4.4 billion by 2024. This development echoes the government’s plan to set aside US$14.7 million as co-production funds to make $ingapore a key player amongst the top-ranked media funds.

These moves have such a similar ring to them, that it’s not even a shock that we are besieged annually, by a slate of similar-type cinema. Such initiatives go as far back as the founding of the $ingapore Film Commission in 1998. Now and then on the festival circuit, you might even meet some of these “entertainment industry heavyweights” who were once on such advisory committees in $ingapore. And they ask not to be quoted!

Meanwhile, Chris Yeo’s award-winning A Land Imagined (2018) got a limited cinema release, before it went to Netflix. His 13 Little Pictures colleague, Lei Yuan Bin’s I Dream of Singapore, was almost a documentary companion piece to A Land Imagined (with even similar title words). In this documentary, an injured Bangladesh migrant worker is repatriated while thinking of the good times and friends he left behind. You can choose to imagine or dream which film is the more real of the two.

Perhaps, in terms of being left behind, is a peculiar trend for $ingapore films to find their niche overseas, before trying for the home market. Last year’s essay ended with Jason Chan’s and Christian Lee’s Jimami Tofu (2017) that took an Audience Award in Hawaii before settling into single slot screenings locally. The film is still playing somewhere on the cineplex circuit till today, at least once a week in one cinema.

Goh Ming Siu’s and Scott Chong Hillyard’s Repossession, that premiered last year at the Cinequest Film Festival (US) before going to the Five Flavours Asian Film Festival (Poland), takes closing mention this year. It has not played in $ingapore yet.

Inspired by the way Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999) changed dramatic horses midstream, Repossession is intended as psychological horror. The film starts as a family drama when a 50-plus executive gets retrenched. His cushioned-condominium, branded lifestyle steadily spirals downwards especially since he can’t admit to his high-living wife of his job loss until it’s too late.

Like Audition, the horror elements are slowly injected into the film before it takes control. However, one wishes that like Miike’s film, Repossession would go totally and completely berserk. But alas, that’s not the case and perhaps, lead actor Gerald Chew explains it best: “Everything in $ingapore is highly regulated, so in this sense, you have to follow the rules socially, emotionally and psychologically; you have to play this game, otherwise you will be out.”

That’s perhaps a stirring case for a $ingapore cinema, out of $ingapore.

Postscript 2020:

When the New Year began, no one could imagine the box-office holocaust that the spread of the coronavirus (aka Covid-19) would wreak worldwide. While it is known that China shut down its cinemas for three months, the bad news about $ingapore film exhibition was off the record. Industry sources say that shows were quietly cancelled when no tickets are bought.

Cinemas have also begun to start the screening day later, just before lunchtime. It used to begin after breakfast. Film productions have also been postponed. Award-winning $ingapore-based producer, Fran Borgia, confirmed that the production of Jow Zhi Wei’s debut feature, Tomorrow is A Long Time, has been pushed back to late this year. Meanwhile, Jeremy Chua’s co-production of Nicole Midori Woodford’s You Are There that requires locations in Japan was planned to shoot in June. This has now been pushed to year end.

Already four specialised film festivals have postponed their events, for example, the Japanese Film Festival and the Middle East Film Festival, and the $ingapore Chinese Film Festival. At stake here is the $ingapore Premiere of Goh Ming Siu’s and Scott Chong Hillyard’s Repossession, that was selected for the latter festival. Interestingly, this film will now have greater emotional resonance with this delayed release. The dark horror of unemployment faced by the protagonist was exactly what faced significant sectors of the $ingapore work force.

$ingapore cinemas will reopen on July 13, with 50-person limit per hall.

Note: This essay was originally published in the catalogue of the Udine Far East Film Festival (June 26-July 4, 2020).

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