Tuesday, 29 August 2006

Singapore Dreaming (2006)

This might have worked in 1997 or 1998. Not now.

There are some people who will watch Singapore Dreaming solely because it is made by a Singaporean director. Must support local films mah. There are a few others who will love Singapore Dreaming because it articulates the undercurrent of discontent, misgivings, and grumblings of ordinary Singaporeans on their everyday lives. You know, people who do not buy into the Singaporean Dream, and believe we are all living in a Matrix. If you fall into any of these categories, you might like Colin Goh’s follow-up to Talking Cock the Movie.

Then, there are people who watch films as films. Singapore Dreaming falls squarely in the genre of the Angsty HDB Film, popularised by Eric Khoo’s 12 Storeys in 1997 and Jack Neo’s Money No Enough in 1998. This genre is the local filmic equivalent to the Great American Novel, and almost every major local filmmaker will have attempted their Angsty HDB Masterpiece at least once, as part of their juvenilia. I suppose it is one of those things filmmakers do in their growing up phase, and one of those genres that audiences had to endure during our film industry’s growing up phase, which has thankfully passed. Or has it?

Colin Goh has given us a film that would have been passable in 1997 or 1998. Unfortunately, he is almost an entire decade too late, and it is very difficult to like a film that airs the same old tired diatribes from films that Eric Khoo and Jack Neo made long ago, that voices the same old tirades and true personal life stories that the disaffected ah peks at coffeeshops have been telling for ages. The film is heartfelt, but executed so clumsily that makes its subject matter even more banal than it already is.

It is difficult – no, impossible – to like a film that has characters whose dialogue function as both tedious and repetitive exposition and platform for the director’s complaints of Singapore society. When characters cease to speak as characters, when they function as makeshift narrators to keep the audience up to date with What Has Happened Before, when they function as mouthpieces for the scriptwriters, it is unforgivable. The scriptwriters forget their film school lessons on the difference between what a character needs to say in order to convey the significance of their emotions and dilemmas in terms of what it means to the movie, and just simply having their characters state how significant their emotions and dilemmas are. The problem with this movie is not the Singlish and Hokkien (no one speaks in purely English Singlish), but with the writers’ tin ear for dialogue. Even without dialogue, certain scenes felt too forced, and I believe this movie would have benefited from at least 3 more rounds of rewrites before the directors commenced shooting,

It is completely ridiculous that a movie produced in 2006, and by an "international crew who have been nominated for Academy Awards", should be riddled with continuity errors and a 5 minute stretch where the camerawork is unintentionally and amateurishly jerky, as though someone forgot to turn on the jitter control feature of their digital video camera. I counted a mid-shot, 3 different sets of close-up angles in that long, painful stretch. This is embarrassingly bad production values that the Director of Photography, that same award-nominated Martina Radwan and the editor Rachel Kittner must answer for. Similarly, the script supervisor Evelyn Ng should be taken to task for the amount of continuity errors in the film.

It is frightening that the directors call this "possibly the strongest ensemble cast ever assembled in a Singaporean film", given that everyone overacted more than theatre-trained Lim Yu Beng, who gave his most understated and subdued performance in this film. It is simply unacceptable for Goh and Wu to bombard the audience with gratuitous shots of the Merlion, the Esplanade, Shenton Way, and other tourist traps – as if we didn’t know the movie is set in Singapore, and as if any movie set in Singapore must feature these locations, even for just a fleeting second here and there, and there and there, and here and here. The film even features a funeral wake and procession that looks like a love child of the funeral procession in Jack Neo’s Liang Po Po and Tan Pin Pin’s made for Caucasians eager for exotic Asian fare National Geographic documentary Moving House.

I suppose you can let your eyes glaze over when the Merlion et al pop up on the screen, but you won’t be able to miss the theme song, "Gazing at the Eastern Wind". This Taiwanese folk song is a heartfelt piece meant to be sung simply by an unadorned female voice. The directors employ this workhorse to cue pathos in every scene that might be sentimental or emotional, practically bludgeoning audiences over the head with the music. Adding salt into the wound are the many instrumental-only rearrangements of the theme by Dr Sydney Tan, who evidently didn’t realise that the entire point of the song is to be as unadorned and plaintive as possible, that having a chamber ensemble or piano arrangement would actually betray its folk roots and realism, and render the music insincere and bombastic. The entire effect is rather annoying and grating.

As a film, Singapore Dreaming makes mistakes that we might have forgiven in the infancy of Singapore’s film industry a decade ago. Raw and angsty directors like Eric Khoo and Jack Neo have grown up, refined their filmmaking skills, and moved on. It is time for Colin Goh to do that as well. They also need to understand that having good intentions isn’t enough to make a good film.

First published at incinemas on 7 September 2006


Ng Yi-Sheng said...




u r pwnd :P

Vernon Chan said...

Awww... That a movie wins awards doesn't mean it's above criticism or that it's perfect what.

Home Run won Golden Horse, does that mean those of us who sniggered at Jack Neo are now pwned?