Medium Rare (1991)
‘Medium Rare’ was the first first full-length English film made in Singapore. Although it received mixed reviews (at best), it is nevertheless important for the role it played in kickstarting the local film industry.
The film is loosely based on the infamous case of Adrian Lim, his wife Tan Mui Choo and his mistress Hoe Kah Hong, who were executed in 1988 for murdering two children.
The film deserves a viewing because of its use of well-known Singapore locations and local actors. However, some may be disappointed because, despite the subject matter, the film is not especially gory and lacks real suspense.
12 Storeys (1997)
Eric Khoo is Singapore’s most established film director and ’12 Storeys’, his second film, remains one of his most popular works.
The setting of the film is quintessentially Singapore in that it takes place in a HDB housing complex, where the majority of Singaporeans live. There are three plot lines running through the film and a number of different languages can be heard. The action takes place within the space of 24 hours.
A middle-aged man has married a younger Chinese woman, but she is disappointed that he is not wealthier; a spinster contemplates suicide after a life of abuse from her mother; an older brother tries to instil some discipline into his rebellious younger siblings. From this seemingly unpromising material emerges a poignant, but yet at times very funny, portrait of Singaporean life.
Money No Enough (1998)
Directed by Jack Neo, ‘Money No Enough’ is the top-grossing Singapore film of all time.
Featuring quirky, offbeat characters and set amongst the hustle and bustle of city life in Singapore, its satire on the desire of the young for material gain and social status, by whatever means necessary, certainly struck a chord
Three friends who are down on their luck come together to plot a way to make their fortunes. Perhaps the most surprising element of the film is that one might somewhat cynically expect the characters to go through a series of disappointments and then ultimately triumph, having learnt some valuable life lessons on the way, but this is not the case here. Neo is more interested in creating a vivid and dynamic portrait of life as it is lived by young people rather than offering any moral advice or guidance.
Perth: The Geylang Massacre (2004)
Djinn Ong’s film explores the dreams of the many Singaporeans who long to resettle somewhere quieter where life can be lived at a more leisurely pace; in this case Perth, Western Australia.
There are obvious references to ‘Taxi Driver’ in the film, in that down-on-his-luck Harry Lee, in order to save enough money to make his dream move, takes on a job driving prostitutes to their meetings with clients. Harry’s life is going nowhere and he is full of disappointment and rage, venting his fury on all and sundry around him.
The film is interesting in its depiction of a variety of dubious and shady figures from a section of Singapore society that is rarely discussed, let alone portrayed on the screen. The film also engages powerfully with the issue of what happens to under-achievers in a society that values success so highly.
Royston Tan’s film is available in both censored and uncensored versions, as the gritty depiction of gang life was deemed by the authorities to be too controversial at the time of its release (Tan responded to this by making a hard-hitting satire entitled ‘Cut’).
The film does not use professional actors; instead three young Singaporeans from the suburbs take the central roles and the film is largely improvised. Gang life is all the characters have as they are largely abandoned by mainstream society, and Tan explores in close detail the intimate and unbreakable bond that this creates between them.
The vivid presentation of a Singaporean underclass shocked many on the film’s release and it continues to provide an alternative perspective on life in a country that prides itself on its meritocratic system and its culture of supportive family life.
‘881’ proved to be a huge commercial success for Royston Tan, which is somewhat surprising given its ambitious and inventive eclectic style.
This highly engaging musical-comedy-drama follows two friends who dream of becoming getai singers (who perform at concerts held during the Festival of Hungry Ghosts). The film moves between styles and genres, and features eccentric characterisations and supernatural cameos, while at the same time vividly and accurately depicting Singaporean working-class life.
The plot is fast-moving and although the dreams of the characters are small in practical terms, they are nevertheless universal in that they represent a longing for colour, for excitement, for anything to take them beyond the bounds of their everyday existence.
This is a vibrant, exuberant film that is also touching and full of compassion, and is deservedly one of the most popular movies the country has ever produced.
Be With Me (2005)
Eric Khoo’s film was inspired by the life of Theresa Chan, an elderly woman who has been deaf and blind since her youth. The film opened the Directors’ Fortnight programme at Cannes in 2005.
There are three stories running through the film: we meet a shopkeeper whose life is transformed after reading Chan’s autobiography; a solitary fifty-year-old man overwhelmed by unrequited love; and two schoolgirls who meet each other over the internet and fall in love. Loneliness and a sense of separation from ‘real life’ is the theme that unites the stories and Khoo explores his characters and ideas with sensitivity and passion.
The film is visually engaging and ultimately its optimism and depiction of the redeeming power of love are captivating.
Singapore Dreaming (2006)
‘Singapore Dreaming’, directed by Colin Goh and Woo Yen Yen, follows an archetypal Singaporean family and explores the pressures that come with overriding social and financial aspiration.
The Loh family live a working class life but very much have middle class dreams. A lottery win of two million dollars would seem finally to provide them with the means to fulfil their social climbing aspirations, but this apparent good fortune only succeeds in tearing apart the fabric of their lives.
The film is both moving and funny and has a great deal of resonance for many Singaporeans, whose lives are sometimes only measured in terms of social status and financial position.
I Not Stupid (2002)
Jack Neo’s film sets out to satirise the Singaporean education system and the consequences of its undue emphasis on examinations and ranking children from a very early age.
Kok Pin, Boon Hock and Terry are 12 year-old boys who, it has already been decreed, are destined to be seen as academic underachievers. Despite the boys’ efforts to fight against this perception, the system conspires to thwart them at every step of the way.
The boys all come from different backgrounds, which allows Neo to explore various strata of Singaporean society and their attitudes both to education and authority. The film is very funny at times and overall has a light-hearted feel, but nevertheless it can be confronting to watch in places. However, we are throughout sympathetic to the plight of these boys who only want to be given a chance.