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Fractured Families by Chua Beng Huat and Vineeta Sinha

The Singapore government has consistently insisted on the idealogy that the ‘family’ is the fundamental institution of the society, the basic building block which the society is built up on. The government is determined to shore up the family institution. In spite of the fact that like in every contemporary society, divorce rates are going up, marriage-age for men and women are rising and, the number of children per married couple is dwindling or none at all and, finally, singlehood is increasingly common, if only because of the absence of the ‘right’ marriage partners or by ideological commitment to singlehood. Consequently, it has many pro-family policies in place that try to encourage marriage and family formation, propagating preferably the extended family. As a result, there is a tendency in Singapore, among the government and the people, to project the family as an ‘ideal’ social institution of warmth, love and harmony. The reality of the family is, of course, far from this ideal. It is frequently fractured and fragmented in multiple and different ways. This fracturing and fragmenting provide grist for the mill for the Singaporean filmmakers featured in this compilation of short films on the family. In focusing on the cracks, these films not only insert realism back into the concept of the family but also serve as critiques of the government's ideology. Furthermore, the commentaries in these short films challenge the idea of the hetero-normative, nuclear family as a somewhat universal structure in all contemporary societies, beyond the boundaries of the island-nation.

Labour of Love - the Housewife, by Rajendra Gour, made in the 1970s, appropriately features a normal family by focusing on the daily, mundane activities, i.e. ‘housework’, of the housewife, with two young children. The film meticulously details the daily chores - cleaning the house, doing the laundry, cooking, feeding, playing, comforting, educating and disciplining the children, managing the household budget, and attending to the husband; the housewife does all this repetitively, endlessly, and above all, uncomplaining. She seeks as reward nothing more than her husband’s acknowledgment and derives meaning in raising a future generation. The film ends ironically. When asked by a team of visiting surveyors if she is working, she replies reflexively, ‘No I am not.’ This surprises even her and she asks herself: “What have I been doing all day?” The dedication of the film to ‘the housewife in the labour of love,’ only serves to intensify the irony.

One way in which family harmony is disrupted is by the death of a family member. K. Rajagopal’s Absence, opens with a scene of two women, clad in white, who sit grieving before a garlanded photograph of a man, the departed, in a ritual of chanting prayers to appease feelings of separation, loss and remembrance. Rikesh, the son, an aspiring photographer and artist berates his mother for ‘all this crying and praying’, rejecting the religious tradition that offers solace to his mother. Yet, the Hindu priest who officiates at his father’s death anniversary prayers fascinates the young man. The audience is led to believe that the fascination is aesthetic, as he photographs and sketches the priest. But the depth of his longing for the lost father is revealed in a scene where, in trance, he reaches out for physical contact with the bathing priest as the father figure. The mistaken reaction of the older man makes the young one recoil in confusion and embarrassment. His confusion and delusion is further enhanced when he returns home one afternoon to find the priest and his mother in slumber. When a family falls apart, it does so in more ways than one.

Ryan Tan Wei Liang’s Mandarin and Teochew film, Yesterday’s Play continues the theme of mother and son. The unemployed son suffers daily, verbal abuse from his mother for being a ‘good for nothing’. His presence in the house is a persistent source of annoyance and irritation to the mother who resents his dependence on her for all his needs, including nourishment. This interaction between mother and son, filled with frustrations and anger on both sides,  becomes routine, normal. Yet, they cling on to this negative intense relationship. They cling on to each other literally, as the son forcefully embraces his mother, a gesture that she seems to resist but not entirely and not too convincingly, lending a moment of uncertain tenderness or desperate reciprocity of dependency and need, respectively.

Absence is not always a cause for despair. Michael Tay’s Wet Season, is a moving tribute to the memory of a loved one whose absence haunts those who are left behind. The pain of separation, the emptiness, the lack of meaning and motivation to live, created by the absence of a faceless man, whose identity remains a mystery till the very end, in the life of the man/character on screen are captured through the range of complex and powerful emotions evoked, including anger, disappointment and affection, as the latter fondly remembers intimate and humorous details of their relationship and experiences. The audience’s interest is captivated by the ambiguity and complexity of the missing man’s identity and the intensity of the relationship between the two men. The patchwork, montage nature of the film, together with clever animation and visuals, make the film a memorable experience.

In Wet Season, homosexuality remains private to the character-on-screen; however, due to the activities of civil society groups like Action for Aids and People like Us, homosexuality has been brought into the light of day, debated in parliament, and thus is no longer a suppressed topic for public discussion. Nevertheless, for gay individuals to ‘come out’ to one’s own family remains a difficult hurdle to cross. Loo Zihan’s Autopsy is a documentary which records the ‘coming out’ conversation between a mother and her gay son. The difficulties of portraying homosexuality on screen is cleverly handled by an intentional ‘disconnect’ between visuals of conventional and normal school days where boys and girls mingle, and the voice-over conversation between the mother and son, the visuals and the dialogue run in parallel. Only in the opening scene where waves are used to signify the ‘emotional’ state of the character, is the difficult conversation made evident. Throughout the film, the son is invisible and the mother appears only towards the end. There is the suggestion of a film within a film in which the son appears in the nude and the mother’s insistence that she will, of course, watch it, is her way of expressing her painful acceptance of the son’s sexuality.

Gourmet Baby by Sandi Tan nicely weaves the other Singaporean ideological self-representation, namely Singaporean’s obsession with food, to that of the family. A Singaporean man who returns home after two decades abroad, finds the adult Singaporean unadventurous in taste for different foods, contrary to the common boasts of Singaporeans being ‘foodies’ and Singapore a food paradise. Only in his seven-year old niece, Winnie, does he find a willing culinary partner who is open to what the man considers as refined, sophisticated tastes and flavour of foreign foods. She is his ‘gourmet baby.’ Unfortunately, babies grow up and become conventional. As Winnie grows into her teenage years, typical teenage preference for fast food is a sign of normality. The knowingly peer-determined plebeian taste of fast food has displaced the eating of ‘fine’ food which was no more than an ignorant practice, mistaken by her uncle as intrinsic adventurousness. For the teenager, the Uncle’s companionship becomes a source of irritation and embarrassment, his aloneness a source of suspicion and speculation of his ‘abnormality’, especially his sexuality. The Uncle’s final failed attempt to revive her ‘interest’ in food discloses Winnie’s altered attitude not just to gourmet food but to him as a person as well.

The harmony of a family is often maintained by conspiracy to secrecy not only among its adult members but amongst the children as well. Boo Junfeng’s Spanish language film – an oddity among Singaporean filmmakers – A Family Portrait, starts with an image of Sergio, a 17-year old young man with the conventional adolescent curiosity about the female anatomy, gleaned from a book. Sergio was discomforted by his younger sister’s question of ‘what is sex’, asked on account of her classroom discussion on love. Sergio struggles to provide a harmless and innocuous response as he recalls the unconventional, threesome sexual tryst involving his mother, bisexual father and an uncle, which he inadvertently witnessed as a child. But the family secret had to be suppressed, and ostensibly to prolong if not save his sister’s innocence. He tells her that ‘sex’ as a ‘beautiful’ part of love and marriage. The latter concludes happily, ‘then sex is love’ and a moment for truth was transformed into a moment of illusion, of misinformation, if not exactly falsehood.

The government’s encouragement of marriage and family is also manifested in the individual Singaporean’s desire for partners. Unfortunately, the tendency of women to marry upwards in social class and status has left many lowly educated and low social status men without marriage partners. However, given the inequalities of development between nations, the lowly status of these Singaporean men is reconfigured by the superior economic condition of Singapore into relatively ‘high’ status regionally, enabling some of them to ‘purchase’ a ‘mail order’ bride elsewhere from the region. Mirabelle Ang’s film, Match Made, documents one man’s, Ricky, process of sourcing for his bride in Vietnam. The highly organized process turned out to be an ‘international’ enterprise: ‘Sin Ye International Matchmaker’ in Singapore is owned by a Taiwanese man, Mark Lin, whose Vietnamese counter parts source for potential brides, bringing them to Ho Chi Mind City. The entire process of securing a wife takes only five days - from the point of viewing of the available girls, selecting, preparing for the wedding and the marriage itself. Ricky’s marriage ends unhappily, with his 19 year-old bride being sent back to Vietnam within three months of arriving in Singapore. The illustrative case refers to all the unknown cases of such unequal and abusive unions that mirror the inequalities between nations, of Singapore’s relative economic superiority and resentment by the regional others.

Foreign women do not enter Singapore just as ‘brides’. The overwhelming majority of them come in as domestic ‘maids’ on short term contracts, without any claims to permanent residency and, ironically, no rights to marriage to low-wage Singaporean men. Brian Gothong Tan’s Imelda Goes to Singapore showcases the renowned actress Nora Samosir, as a Filipino maid in a Singapore household. An ‘escape’ from the alienation in a job of cleaning up after others and isolation in the employer’s flat is to outfit oneself, with plastic bags for the baggy sleeves of Filipino traditional fashion, in the image of Imelda Marcos, former First Lady of the Philippines, singing the one Filipino love ballad that is made familiar to others by Filipino bands performing in hotel lounges all over Asia, Dahil Sa Iyo (Because of You) – to the beat of daily household chores. The soulful, musical rendition of the song and the entire mise-en-scène offers a highly ambiguous mix of comedy, satire and political commentaries on, among other imaginable themes, the life of foreign contract maids who have been hailed as ‘national heroes’ by the government in the Philippines.

Taken together this set of short films chronicles not only the relatively permanent features of the realities of family life but also provides critical reflections and commentaries on the political relations between Singapore and some of its neighbouring countries, an unequal and economic hierarchical relation that strangely reflects and recalls the patriarchal and hierarchical structure of the male dominant family.

Biography of authors: Professor Chua Beng Huat and Associate Professor Vineeta Sinha are colleagues in the Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore.

Professor Chua Beng Huat is a regular commentator on Singapore current affairs, is currently Professor in the Department of Sociology and the Asia Research Institute. His publications include Life is Not Complete without Shopping (Singapore University Press, 2003), Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore (Routledge, 1995) and Political Legitimacy and Housing: Stakeholding in Singapore (Routledge, 1997). He is also founding co-executive editor of the journal Inter-Asia Cultural Studies (London: Routledge).

Associate Professor Vineeta Sinha teaches social theory in the Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore. She is the author of A New God in the Diaspora?: Muneeswaran Worship in Contemporary Singapore (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2005).
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