Monday, 6 September 2010


**15.10.10 + 18.10.10 showing at the London Film Festival

To that degree to which Singapore has attained the 'ideal city', and it has like almost no other, it bears a burden of angst to that same degree. And this social existentialism has born fruit of naval gazingly melancholic films. This film functions as an older brother to I No Stupid, and in that function I would recommend it to anyone looking to understand Singapore.

Singapore is the sandcastle. A metaphor that functions at a number of levels: most literally we are here living in castles built on reclaimed land of borrowed sand, dredged from Indonesia. Really however, the title is more concerned for the sense in which Singapore is a sandcastle in the imagination of its elders who, as the tide turns, have their precious childhood project now threatened by a wave of sexually liberal youth. Approximately.

Coming of age. Apt then that this film about Singapore's love-affair with itself should begin with porn. Evoking also Singapore's self-understanding as being an adolescent nation, and here En, embodying Singapore (rather as Tsotsi for South Africa), goes through the motions coming of age, and we see him mature: in his beginning of a relationship with Ying, an objective other; in his learning to drive, a skill of independence; and in his making peace with his dead father in Malaysia, symbolic of many things, up to and including Singapore's collective sense of fatherlessness?

Crosses and Christianity. After 8 months here, I have not yet fathomed what happened on this island a generation ago that accounts for the accumulation of cultural christianisms, particularly among the Chinese middle classes. Twice, in the slightly laboured poetic shots this film intersperses, we linger on the crucifix hung from his mother's rear-view mirror. Suggesting the religious tension hanging in air of a silent car journey? My sense is that Boo Junfeng aligns that generation's nostalgia for a golden age of emerging Singaporean Christianity (?1960s), with a parallel belief in a golden age of heroic Singaporean independence. The baton that the government wants passed on at NDP is a sort of moral character, vision and allegiance to the divinised city Singapore, a baton which cultural Christians raising Christian kids perhaps struggle to distinguish from their faith's morality, hope and security? Anyone?

Much is unsaid, we do see some conflict over baptising the grandmother, where a nominal-secular-gen-x would take offence at a born-again-boomer attempting to convert a traditionally-buddhist-interwar-generation. And at a stretch we could draw something out of 'crossing' the mosquito bites, as a picture of wisdom reduced to superstition and self-medication for life's woes. And at a stretch further we could draw on biblical sandcastle parables Mt Lk.

Boo Junfeng's presentation treads lightly around religion in what is an already understated (and censor-aware) film, to a certain extent he offers these volumes of silence as a canvas for our own judgement on these issues. However, the mother, an already maligned type in comparable narratives, is constructed here as forceful and hypocritical, racist regarding Chinese immigrants in food courts, and hypocritical in her presumably sexual affair with Wilson. That relationship between Christian mother and this military character is the film's most biting critique. For Christians listening, you are here being called to account for your complicity.

The city leaves no place for old people. Illustrated by their alienation in a number of ways, old people are those least able to resist the mechanisation and impersonalisation of all things by the city, least able to escape, least able to make their voice heard. Accordingly the portrayal of the nursing home is suitably hard: a sterile box, possibly made the more cruel by its view of the sea and the distance from it. The PCK movie illustrates the challenge of this question also, in its own humourous way, the speed of Asian urbanisation and the former strength of the Chinese family, seem to make this dilemma acute, in its pain and humour. And against this En's deepening relationship with his grandmother is a beautiful unfolding, being believeable and enviable.

The city forgets old people. It is interesting to set the difficulties-to-keep-up for old people, shown in the dialogue about dial up and why En's iMac needed a telephone cable, to set this beside the difficulties-to-go-back for the team making the film in 2009 showing a Singapore in 1999, Singapore where there are no cars old enough for such historical reconstruction - Ref. So I enjoyed that reality of the city's amnesia being played out. And amnesia finds various metaphors in damaged hard-drives, burnt prints and the piecing together of a jigsaw – they didn't feel disproportionately forced.

Photography and the nation. Into this amnesia, we have photography, which, as well as making this a film about film, a history of history, it also offers us a possible window into the whys of a Singaporean obsession. More than half of bus ads, constant colour supplements and event sponsorship, acres of mall space, all serve and reflect this preoccupation as a nation for holding power over time, eternalising the ephemeral, mediating a present, flattening the complexities of a now. So here, the role of photography in the narrative, the role of photographing in En's character formation and the self-conscious photography of the director's art direction should each offer some clue to this nation and the question of why Singapore photographs.

Willing propaganda and music. In making a film about Singapore, a director is looking to give a buying public the Singapore they want, give the censoring (?funding) government the Singapore they want, and express some little part of the Singapore the director wants to see emerge out of the tangle in future. Where in these do we place the soundtrack's use of the NDP national songs, songs which are in their original tuneful and here are reworked not unpleasingly as slower acoustic numbers? A vision for that same Home ideal the government sells but achieved in a more understated, personal and unplugged manner?

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