Film Society Screening: Singapore Boleh!

By Claire Tan (20S07A), Clara Shen (20A01A) and Coco Liu (20S06L)

As students streamed into the movie room in excited chatter on the 14th March, there was anticipation in the air of what the evening could possibly offer and what enlightenment the four films, which were carefully selected through a democratic voting process by the FilmSoc members, sought to provide.

Raffles Film Society chose the theme of Singapore Boleh this year due to concerns of Rafflesians in the discourse of Singapore’s political and social issues and the timely need for appreciation of local film productions.

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At the beginning, students seemed a little hesitant to share their thoughts and opinions but the discussion soon gained traction and was nothing short of being thought provoking and stimulating. The tone of the discussion seemed to change with the nature of the film which has been screened- from the likes of being “emotionally exploitative” to fitting under the category of exposition, it was an artistic curation of short films which catered to a wide spectrum of emotions and pertinent issues faced by Singaporeans from different walks of life.

Happy Birthday (2014)

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“You came from the rubbish bin,” Cecelia is told by her grandmother after she innocently asks when her birthday is. At that, the little girl looks down and continues toying with the packet of sweets given to her by her classmate Xiao Lee during the latter’s birthday celebration at their kindergarten. After she goes home, Cecelia puts some of her own sweets into a plastic bag and gives it to another classmate the next day, explaining to the teacher that it’s her birthday. She repeats this process the day after, and when the confused teacher confronts her grandmother on why Cecelia claims to have two birthdays, she is told that they do not know when Cecelia’s birthday is because they have never celebrated it. At the end of the short film, Cecelia and her grandmother walk down a pavement into the evening, holding hands for the first time in the film, as the voiceover asks, “Grandma, what are birthdays?”

Director Ang Geck Geck draws inspiration from her own life to create this short film. It’s economical with dialogue, relying heavily on visuals instead, and tells the story from the perspective of a young girl. This shows in all the artistic choices made – especially in the camera angles that focus specifically on Cecelia. The audience sees the grandmother’s arm or the teacher’s hands, but never their faces. It’s a choice that puts the audience firmly in Cecelia’s shoes, dehumanising the adults and all but removing them from the equation.

Rightly so, too – Cecelia doesn’t seem close to either of her grandparents, and her parents are absent entirely. Her grandfather smokes while ignoring her questions. While her classmate Xiao Lee’s mother cooks Xiao Lee curry chicken and asks her about her day, Cecelia’s grandmother says not a word when she picks her up from kindergarten. This absence of affection is also reflected in the contrast between the dark lighting at home and the bright lights at the kindergarten, painting a grim picture of Cecelia’s home life.

Yet despite the sadness invoked, the film ends on a positive note. Cecelia and her grandmother finally hold hands, for the first time in the film, as they walk together. This final scene promises a little hope.

To Milton Lee (20S06A), this film, at its core, was “the director trying to portray what her childhood was like.” It’s about a child’s journey as she tries to understand the world around her.

Happy Birthday can be found here in its entirety.

Grandma Positioning System (GPS) (2015)

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“家是我们一起走过的路 (Home is the road we’ve travelled together),” Director Kelvin Tong writes in Mandarin at the end of this film. Part of the collection 7 Letters, a selection of seven short films by various Singaporean directors that served as their love letters to Singapore for SG50, Grandma Positioning System (GPS) touches on themes of tradition and loss in our changing world.

In the first half of the film, a three-generation Singaporean family makes their annual trip to Johor to visit the grandfather’s grave. The titular Grandma Positioning System proves to be more accurate than a normal GPS when the grandmother manages to direct the family to the cemetery when the GPS fails. There, almost all the members in the family are in a rush, hurrying things along and showing little respect for the traditions. All but the son – who is trying to avoid his swimming lesson – needs to rush back to Singapore for something or another. This also shows later, when the parents and their daughter gather in the car while the grandmother gives the deceased grandfather directions and details how Singapore has changed and the son alone tends to the fire.

Fast forward to a year later, and the grandmother has passed away too. Her absence is startling in everything from the family’s inability to find the cemetery to the rushed process of paying respects. Yet when the rest of the family hurry to the car to return to Singapore, the son scampers back to the cemetery, and, in Hokkien, mimics the grandmother’s words from a year ago. He gives directions to his deceased grandparents and details how Singapore has changed. And when the family finally catch up to him, they tearfully begin to do the same.

The tears on their faces were reflected in most of the audience of the screening. Part of this is due to how the film deals with the themes of tradition and loss – the way the daughter would rather meet her friends than pay her respects was both mournfully tragic and regrettably relatable. It’s a timely reminder that we should never forget our family and our heritage in the midst of our busy modern lives and the changing landscapes of our country.

The end of the film hammers this point home as a montage of photographs of some of the places mentioned – places that are now gone with the vestiges of time – plays and the deceased grandparents are seen walking together along the Old Bukit Timah Railway Tracks.

To make things even more heartwarming, this is a special film for the graduating batch of the Film Society. They shared that the entire batch broke out in tears when they were shown the film last year and it served as a significant bonding moment for them.

Ali Baba (2018)

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Part of the compilation of short films 15 Shorts, Ali Baba is rooted in reality as it tells the true story of an illegal migrant worker in Singapore. The film opens with its titular character, Mohd Bashar, lying unconscious on the forest floor, after having been seriously injured by a descending lift at a construction site. His arduous fight for survival crawling through the jungle floor is paralleled by journalists who fight to get his story published in the newspapers and bring him attention. These two storylines are intermittently woven together throughout the film and yet expertly set apart using contrasting colours; penumbral tones lining Mohd’s scenes juxtaposed with the journalists’ brightly lit office space.

This biographical short film sheds light on a class of people in Singapore rarely at the center of attention in conventional media. Scenes depicting firm opposition to the publication of Mohd’s story serves to discreetly criticize the presence of censorship in Singapore and remind us that there could be countless similar stories that go unpublished. A poignant moment in the film is when Mohd, after being rescued, is being interviewed by the journalist. When he is asked if he knew that he entered Singapore illegally, he tearfully recounts that he was duped into it, and that now, he has lost everything–the money he paid to come here, the use of his legs. Referring to the men who tricked him as ‘Ali Baba’,  he shakes his head and sobs, “Many Ali Baba. Many, many Ali Baba.”

However, this film perhaps entrenches itself too much on the message and too little on the storyline. When opinions were gathered from the floor, some found the film too focused on evoking emotions rather than properly telling a story, or that the characters were too one-dimensional. The question is, for a film with such a meaningful socio-political message, can these flaws be forgiven?

Nevertheless, it has a noble message, an important one, especially in today’s political focus on migrant workers not only domestically, but internationally, too.

Ali Baba can be found here in its entirety. 

Parting (2015)

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Have you ever wondered what separation feels like? Parting is the profoundly emotive response to the agonising choice of self-interests and survival over love in the historical context of the Singapore-Malaysia separation in 1963. The film begins with a scene of an elderly Malay man staring blankly at the window of a train, accompanied by a voiceover of a young woman apologising for not being able to write in a long while and telling Ismail, our protagonist how things have changed drastically in Singapore.

The train comes to a halt and the rest of the passengers hastily alight, leaving Ismail in a clueless state of mind. Ismail asks the stationmaster if the train stops at Tanjong Pagar, but he is told that the last stop is Woodlands. The main character is shown to have dementia when he is interrogated by the immigration authorities about his length of stay in Singapore. His state of disorientation is apparent, as he shrugs his shoulders nonchalantly. There is collective curiosity as to what motivated Ismail to travel across Causeway borders at his age and condition.

 Notably, Ismail, who is noticeably quiet throughout the entire film, converses the most with the Malay stall vendor who helps him along the way. Evidently, there is a language barrier which has amplified Ismail’s sense of unfamiliarity in a country he no longer recognises as his own. Unfortunately, Ismail receives the news that his past love interest has left Singapore years ago. Even though we are unable to encapsulate the magnitude of disappointment Ismail must have felt, but to have come so far for nothing was definitely not the ending we were rooting for Ismail. The camera pans to local scenes of families crossing the road and a young couple on a train. It is likely to be a deliberate play on the perspective of Ismail who ponders the what-ifs if he had decided not to leave Singapore back then. There is a sense of regret and resignation that what has been done cannot be undone, which casts a despondent shadow on the overall tone of the film. However, the film succeeds in addressing the inexplicable circumstances of people during the early years of Singapore’s independence in a poignant light without delving into the nitty-gritty of details.

It is remarkable how Ismail’s narrative has come full circle, with Tanjong Pagar railway station as the anchor of the beginning and end of his story. What appears to be a flashback scene of a young Ismail breaking the news to his old flame that he has decided to leave Singapore and a heartbreaking moment of separation between the couple is actually a scene from a filming set. When Ismail walks past the set, it appears as if he is watching a film reel of his own memories physically materialise in front of him. Although the protagonist is said to have dementia, the recollection of his distant past in captivating detail and clarity seems to be a uncharacteristic stream of consciousness on his part.

The last scene, as many in the audience would surely agree, was a befitting end for this bittersweet production which balanced disappointment and hope at an equilibrium. The actress who plays the young version of Ismail’s love interest is seen to smile knowingly at Ismail when he looks over at her. Perhaps Ismail will never reunite with his old flame or be able to turn back time to make a different choice, but this moment is self-sufficient in capturing the calm acceptance Ismail has of the situation and how he has finally came to terms with the reality that he has been struggling to grapple with. At the end of the journey that Ismail has taken in pursuit of what was lost in the past, the last station he alights at is not Tanjong Pagar from the past or Woodlands in the present, but it is letting go of his regrets.

Conclusion

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Hitting a little close to home—some closer than others—the films all touch upon pivotal aspects of Singaporean history and society that we all cannot afford to look past. They are facets which we can pry open and learn from; mediums through which we can engage in discourse and share ideas.

Charlotte Yeong (19A13B), a facilitator of this event, had this to say: “We hope that through these unique perspectives on issues that are prevalent in Singapore [students] will have a better understanding of these issues and be able to better empathise with [the people involved].”

Indeed, as students, the nascency of change starts with us, and empathy is but a fundamental quality to effect positive change. Singapore is a place to all of us, and a home to most of us. At times, as the films all show, Singapore can lag behind, or even leave us with a face full of dust, but whatever it is, it’s up to us to show that Singapore boleh!

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