In its third week in a row, Crazy Rich Asians continues to make a huge impact at the US box office, topping it once more after the Labor Day weekend. Even as it further solidifies its status as a cultural touchstone in the American film industry, Jon M. Chu’s opulent cinematic vacation to Singapore has but kept one thing in mind: the question of authorship, ownership, and authenticity of a nation’s narratives.
In my review of Crazy Rich Asians, I remain optimistic that the film serves a vital function within the western cinematic canon as a whole, given its value in representing Asian identity to a degree. Regardless, there’s so much more about the actual Singapore that you just don’t get to see in it. Most of the country and its citizens do not shape themselves among the shenanigans of the ultra-affluent lifestyles in Chu’s escapist movie.
This begs the question of just how Singaporean stories ought to be told, and luckily, local filmmakers have genuinely thrived in recent years. The same week I was due to see Crazy Rich Asians, I actually fortuitously stumbled upon the Viddsee Juree Awards, an initiative primed to support the most promising up-and-coming filmmakers in Asia that was started by the eponymous online curation platform.
This year marked Viddsee’s inaugural Singaporean competition after two prior showcases in Indonesia and the Philippines, and talent was clearly a-brewing across the board. A selection of the finalists excelled in telling crisp, heartrending family-centric dramas. Others displayed deftness for more lighthearted comedic tendencies. Moreover, there were films that went off the deep end into darker, more nihilistic stories. Finally, some shorts tested narrative boundaries in unusually fantastical ways, getting points for utmost creativity.
Two polar opposites eventually walked away with the initiative’s top prizes. The Drum, Ler Jiyuan’s emotional character study about a jaded father’s late-life crisis, was awarded the Gold. Meanwhile, the Silver went to Such is Life, a broader dark comedy by Kaizer Thng that examines the tenuous working relationship between a junior undertaker and his seasoned mentor.
These short films were each made under completely different circumstances. The Drum was crafted specifically for the National Arts Council’s Silver Arts program, a festival organized to promote the involvement of senior citizens within the local arts scene. Meanwhile, Such is Life is a university thesis film with a purposely experimental premise. Nevertheless, both of them couldn’t be more indicative of the potential array of talent that’s slowly but surely blooming within the Singaporean film industry.
The Drum (watch it in full above, or here) is reminiscent of the best dramatic offerings in Singaporean cinema; the kind that has steadily popped up over the years since the resurgence of the nation’s film scene in the late 1990s. After the Golden Era of Singapore cinema that ran between the 1940s to the 1970s, the country found its preferred cinematic narrative focus in films such as Eric Khoo’s 12 Storeys and Tay Teck Lock’s Money No Enough (both of which FSR recommends in our guide of essential post-Crazy Rich Asians viewing).
At their core, 12 Storeys and Money No Enough prioritize humanity, looking into pockets of real life and examining social concerns of family and finance in a very down-to-earth way. Particularly of 12 Storeys, Khoo himself stated to the Singapore Tatler in 2017 that the fervent response to the film 20 years prior was due to its disparities with the comparatively polished realities found on popular television at the time. 12 Storeys “was not sanitized,” and its meditative qualities were construed as believable and achingly relatable.
A close examination of Ler’s The Drum highlights a similarly internal dissection of identity in its narrative. It is a pointed but also poetic quest to depict – in Ler’s own words – “a man dealing with the emptiness of old age, learning to let go of all the anger in his life.”
Taking inspiration from Hirokazu Kore-eda (Shoplifters), Edward Yang (Yi Yi), and Ang Lee (Life of Pi), Ler’s short is a startling peek into existential listlessness enhanced by a strong if familiar visual footprint. The film’s plot is simple. Its protagonist Kang (Wang Yuqing) is a retiree in his sixties who feels distant and depressed as he struggles with relationships that have long fractured.
Kang then takes solace in a tabla left behind by a man who once rented a room from him. This eponymous drum becomes a symbolic throughline in Kang’s life; something seemingly tangential and serendipitous that lets him connect to others.
As Ler tells me:
“To me [the tabla is] a metaphor for grace, as well as the courage to step into a new world. The drum and the lead character of the short film share something in common – they are both empty inside. I guess this film is about that. It’s about how we deal with that emptiness – do we let ourselves be consumed, or do we use it as a source of inspiration? Like how the drum is able to make a beautiful sound even from a hollow body.”
The Drum‘s effectiveness comes from a variety of subtle filmmaking decisions, including the short’s deliberately measured editing (allowing audiences “to experience life at [the protagonist’s] pace”), and its muted color palette (“to express the fact that the character is ‘fading away’ slowly”). Singaporean (Chinese) viewers may be adept to notice the specific uses of the Hokkien dialect and Mandarin as a way to convey a persistent generational gap that exists between Kang and the world around him, as well.
Ultimately, The Drum works tremendously well because of an intimate character-focused premise that feels timeless. Ler took the film to the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival prior to its entry into the Viddsee Juree Awards, receiving a positive response overall, and it’s easy to see why. The solemnity of The Drum can be bittersweet, but it is also absolutely universal.
Conversely, in what seems like a stark response to the loveliness of The Drum, the wacky irreverence of Such is Life (available for viewing above or here) is a wild ride. While dark comedies have made their mark in Singaporean film in the past, Thng’s short takes enough extravagant creative liberties to make it stand out as an ambitious, Wes Andersonian take on the genre.
Thng confirms that Anderson, Tim Burton, Pixar, and The Addams Family have all influenced Such is Life. He and his crew built their own set in order to maintain a uniformly idiosyncratic vibe throughout the film, resulting in one of the more striking shorts on the Viddsee Juree slate. Per Thng:
“Bringing to life a quirky film like this calls for a make-believe world. Unfortunately, Singapore does not have spaces that [look like that] in a Singaporean’s eyes and I know this. I see a HDB [public housing flat] in the background of a sci-fi or fantasy film, and my suspension of disbelief vanishes.”
Such is Life is all about pushing boundaries beyond its visual element, too, due to its keen and sometimes inappropriate comedic approach to the gnarly subject of death. “It’s a unique skill to be indirect, [when] crafting satire content,” Thng notes as he describes the way in which his film sidesteps potential censorship mishaps despite its touchy topic.
Research for the film included chats with real morticians and discussions of the gory details regarding their most amusing funeral parlor stories. “Some of the replies we got was shocking and even more crude than what was put on screen.”
Still, as is the case for all good black comedies, a poignant core lies beneath the vibrancy of Such is Life. The film is thoroughly entertaining although it is not void of emotion in the slightest – it simply chooses to temper its sentiment. Such is Life packs a distinctive punch through its own story about generational differences between old-school mindsets and evolving ideas, despite the fact that these concepts are presented in a more playful way.
The Drum and Such is Life demonstrate the range of possibilities inherent in Singapore’s cinematic voice. They stack up beautifully next to the consistent international film presence the country has managed to maintain over the past few years. After all, Anthony Chen’s Caméra d’Or-winning Ilo Ilo, Boo Junfeng’s Apprentice, and Kirsten Tan’s Pop Aye are just a few noteworthy features that have recently led the charge towards Singapore’s filmic salience on the world stage.
However, when asked about their impressions of Singapore’s movie-making identity in general, both Ler and Thng are quick to note that the industry actually has a lot of room to grow. In fact, it must, because for the time being, the concept of “a Singaporean film” remains elusive at best. Ler states:
“Our film industry, like our young country, is still trying to find its own identity. And this is just a natural part of the process. We need to make more films. Hopefully, with enough volume, we will be able to create a kind of identity of our own.”
Or perhaps for some, the local scene is in desperate need of a shake-up. As Thng puts it:
“Every time I see the same kitchen, window, or the same playground, I tune out as they are constant reminders [of] just how unprogressive we are as a nation to embrace other forms of stories, genres and visual representation of our spaces. Do a musical, do action, do a noir film… there are so many forms of stories, styles and methods of storytelling. Go, venture out and bring the camera with you. Learn from what you do not know rather than staying stuck in the limited pool of what you do know.”
In my view, both filmmakers definitely have the right idea. There continues to be a way to make tried-and-true genres and conventions work in Singaporean film, and not all family dramas will be a bust. That said, experimentation — particularly those of the more colorful and risky variety — can allow a healthy diversity of ideas and impressions to flourish. That’s what makes initiatives like Viddsee so important, even outside the competitive setting of their Juree Awards — they concretely foster onscreen identities.
Singapore is brimming with its own stories to tell and has a great head start already. So, even from the outside looking in, there are certainly alternatives to the Crazy Rich Asians model of representation that can be found in the Lion City’s homegrown artists, so let’s celebrate them without hesitation.