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Singapore Shorts Vol. 2: The Singapore Short Film and its Emerging Cultural Significance
by Kenneth Chan

Arriving at the heels of the remarkably successful release of Singapore Shorts (which is now in its second edition with new subtitles) is the Asian Film Archive’s follow-up collection Singapore Shorts Vol. 2. While the appearance of Volume 1 constitutes a minor but highly significant moment in Singapore’s cinema—the DVD collection is the first of its kind in the Republic’s film history—Volume 2 further affirms the relevance, importance, and surprising popularity of the short as a filmic and artistic medium in Singapore’s revitalized contemporary cinematic culture.

The short film as an art form has often been critically shortchanged in the history of popular global cinema, eclipsed by the entrenched prominence and ubiquitous presence of feature-length films with Hollywood-style narratives. Because it has always been considered the apprenticeship vehicle through which fledgling directors, cinematographers, and scriptwriters hone their craft (so as to enable them to later graduate to feature-length work as their creative raison d’être), film industries, particular movie executives, in myopically focusing on the short film’s apparent lack of economic potential, fail to recognize the cultural and aesthetic richness the form offers. The presence of Singapore Shorts volumes 1 and 2, together with a number of DVD shorts anthologies in the market, not only bucks global trends, but it also re-sketches the landscape of Singapore cinema on a national and transnational level in the new millennium. The emergence of new media technologies, the ease of home video production, and the distributive power of the Internet can turn the average neophyte into an aspiring Scorsese, an Ang Lee, or, in the Singapore context, an Eric Khoo or a Royston Tan. The immense presence of young filmmaking talent is further cultivated by an increasing number of film schools, with the film short permitting this talent to showcase itself. While a few film graduates move on to mainstream commercial success, some choose instead to express their artistic visions through the short film as their medium of choice, especially when the format serves well the artist’s political or cultural intentions. Tan Pin Pin, for example, has sharpened the documentary short into a critically incisive commentary on Singapore society, as evident in her films "Moving House", "Singapore Gaga", and "Invisible City". ("Moving House" is part of Singapore Shorts volume 1.) It is in this context of the modest but significant success of the short film medium in Singapore that one must situate Singapore Shorts Vol. 2.

This collection features nine instances of impressive short film production: eight contemporary works by incredibly talented, up-and-coming directors, whose careers will populate the next generation of Singapore film culture. These films are, in turn, retrospectively anchored by the historically significant "Labour of Love", helmed by Rajendra Gour in 1974. As part of the Asian Film Archive’s effort to recover and restore the lost work of Singaporean filmmakers, "Labour of Love" exemplifies precisely the historical and cultural possibilities that such archival work can offer in filling the historical gaps of Singapore’s film heritage. On a cultural political level, the film is also insightful in the way it allows viewers a rare glimpse of 1970s Singapore and its headlong rush into nation-building urban development, all through the private prism of a singular Indian family and the female homemaker’s struggles with the tribulations of everyday life within the confines of the family’s cramp HDB (Singapore’s Housing Development Board) apartment1. When one overlooks its naturally dated educational-video voice-over commentary and narrative, the film discursively suggests a proto-feminist message that affirms, in a positive imagistic fashion, a necessary rethinking of patriarchal and sexist notions of female labor in the home as authentic and legitimate economic labor. The visual foregrounding of the tired and overworked wife and mother in the film is alternately juxtaposed to old video images of Singapore’s Padang, Shenton Way, and Haw Par Villa (Tiger Palm Garden). While all this footage of Singapore thirty years ago may fascinate both film historians and younger viewers, they also represent visually Singapore’s unrelenting move towards becoming a regional center of transnational capital, Asian modernity, and global tourism. But these dueling images of public triumph versus private travail further register the social and cultural price the citizenry has paid or will pay as a material consequence of ideologically constituting the nation as an expression of capitalist modernity. The emphasis on gender and social issues effectively creates a critical umbrella to frame and hold together thematically the remaining eight films. The contemporary entries, thus, provide an updated rephrasing of Gour’s "Labour of Love", as they engage the social, cultural, and political concerns of twenty-first century Singapore.

Two large themes present themselves within the eight films in various permutations: social/familial dysfunctions and the shifting sexual mores and practices in Singapore. The fact that these concerns find their way into the emerging cinematic voices in this volume creates for the viewer an index into the collective and individual psyche of Singaporeans today and, thus, provides a commentary and critique of the ideological, cultural, and political structures that gird and/or provoke these expressions.

In a country where traditional family values are institutionally sanctioned and paternalism revered as the model for both state and social cohesion and order, the films expose the contradictory logic of these cultural and national narratives, while highlighting their effects on Singaporean society and personal lives. The absence of and alienation from father figures dominate in K. Rajagopal’s "Absence" and Michael Tay’s "Wet Season". In Ryan Tan’s "Yesterday’s Play", inordinate social pressures to succeed strain the relationship between mother and son, a mounting tension that is poignantly dissipated with the son unexpectedly hugging his mother in the end, an unusual display of familial affection seldom encountered in Singapore cinema. As Kelvin Tong’s The Maid and Eric Khoo's "No Day Off" have recently accomplished2, Brian Gothong Tan’s "Imelda Goes to Singapore" satirically confronts the plight of foreign maids by offering viewers a mock music video of "Imelda" as a maid singing, to the tune of a popular Filipino song, a tribute to her Singaporean employer: “If I am true, I will be your slave. Everything I’d have in my life would be because of you.” Touching particularly on the impact of globalization is Sandi Tan’s impressive "Gourmet Baby", where Lim Kay Tong’s character turns to his young niece as an unlikely gourmet dining companion. For in his estimation, Singaporeans “were all so conventional, so incurious about the world’s possibilities.” What is doubly ironic about this observation is that his critique of Singaporeans is based on a cosmopolitan elitism fostered by the nation’s unequivocal embrace of globalization.

The question of sexuality has also been a significant issue addressed by social activists and cultural practitioners, particularly in response to the draconian censorship of sympathetic representations of homosexuality in the media and the arts. (Under the state’s dated Penal Code, sodomy remains a crime.) Hence, it comes as no surprise that the short film genre sees young directors addressing the taboo subject of alternative sexualities and eroticism. The young male protagonist’s crush on the Hindu priest in "Absence" unveils a daddy-son sexual dynamic, while "Wet Season" finds the awkward scenario of a filmmaker imagining a father-son masturbatory session (to straight porn) as an instance of father-son bonding. Boo Junfeng’s "A Family Portrait" redefines conventional notions of sex and love when the young Sergio espies his happily married parents engaging in a ménage à trois with a male family friend. The second documentary in the anthology, Mirabelle Ang’s "Match Made", is a tour de force exposé of a growing phenomenon in Singapore where single men seek out potential wives through matchmaking agencies in developing Asian countries such as Vietnam. Armed with a hand-held camera, Ang chronicles a five-day trip taken by the male subject in search of his perfect Vietnamese female life partner, a journey that ends, not unpredictably, in the tragic abandonment of his young bride, marking rather carelessly the latter as a dispensable sexual object. And, finally, there is "Autopsy", Loo Zihan’s minimalist recording of his conversations with his mother as they discuss his homosexuality. Loo has learned well the lessons of cinematic mise en scène, that less is more—his mother’s loving yet difficult acknowledgment of his sexuality is deceptively simple in its homespun logic because it packs a powerfully visceral punch. By its inclusion in this excellent short film DVD collection, Loo's piece points the way (through the social and cultural acceptance of queer sexuality, as both a political reality and a critical trope) towards a hope for a more accepting Singapore of the future. Singapore Shorts Vol. 2 succeeds as a platform for young cinematic voices to formulate emerging modes of political aesthetics to engage a new generation of discerning Singapore audiences.

1 For a great discussion of the cultural politics of Singapore’s urban development, see Beng-Huat Chua, Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore (London: Routledge, 1995).

2 See my essay on these two films: Kenneth Chan, "Maid to Serve: Representations of Female Domestic Workers in Singapore Cinema", Moving Worlds: A Journal of Transcultural Writings (forthcoming).

Biography of author: Kenneth Chan is Assistant Professor of Film Studies at the University of Northern Colorado. His book on the Chinese in Hollywood is forthcoming from Hong Kong University Press. His essays have also appeared in academic journals such as Cinema Journal, Journal of Chinese Cinemas, Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Camera Obscura, and Discourse. Volunteering with the Asian Film Archive (Singapore), he chairs the International Advisory Board and is on the Board of Directors.
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