Go with a smile!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Ilo Ilo

I first heard about this film because the social media was abuzz with news that this film had won the Camera D’or. This was the first time in living memory that a Singaporean film had won such a major award. So I was innately curious to watch it. This film was interesting for a few reasons. First, the title was strange: Ilo Ilo – most probably the Filipino province that the maid came from. After watching the film, I sensed that the allusion was more to Edward Yang’s great “Yi Yi” rather than the place in the Philippines.

Maybe one day people will make a film about Singapore during colonial times. There were so many television serials in Singapore during the 80s that were about colonial times that I’m a little surprised that Singapore has not attempted to make a period drama.

The second thing that I learn about this film, other than the Camera D’or, is that it’s about a Chinese family staying in the HDB flats, that means it’s somewhat like “12 Storeys” or “Singapore Dreaming”. One way you can look at it is that it’s like British cinema where everybody’s a middle class person living in the townhouses. But that’s the problem with British drama and also Singaporean drama – lives are so predictable and staid that most of what passes for drama are the subtle nuances. This is a subtle nuances drama.

To be sure, there are a few jokes, and they are told well. Like “Yi Yi” the discipline master is the butt of jokes. There are sly digs at the 4D buying culture.

There are no heroes in this film, except maybe the maid. The father is emphatically not successful in his career, and in the financial crisis, he had to work as a security guard. The mother nailed down a steady job, but has to oversee a whole range of layoffs. And while she has always been civil towards the maid, the kindness at the beginning eventually got replaced by the jealousy that Jiale was getting closer to the maid. Jiale was a brat, and while the bond that he developed with the maid is the center of the story, he’s always been a brat. And there is nothing especially heroic about having a maid wait on a 10 year old boy hand and foot. But even the maid is definitely an imperfect person. She was guilty of moonlighting in order to raise money for an emergency that was not very clearly explained.

The film suffers from the first film syndrome: the author was so excited about making the film that he tries to cover too much ground without developing them more tightly. We know relatively little about Jiale’s classmates, or the mother’s colleagues, or about Terry’s friends and who she’s speaking over the public phone to. We hardly see very much about the neighbour’s maid. There are loopholes, like when the father drunk too much at a banquet, we never figured out who drove the family home. Somebody who got laid off from the shipping line killed himself, but other than that, we didn’t know anything about him. The death anniversary (it’s not qing ming or 7th month because if that were the case the cemetery would have been very crowded) of the grandfather does not serve any purpose. In fact, the grandfather doesn’t serve any purpose. The net effect of all this is that the family seems to exist as an entirely self-contained and atomic universe, cut off from the rest of the world, even as it is paradoxically cramped side by side with so many other similar families in the same HDB block. Perhaps this is the intended effect, but I don’t know. Anthony Chen knows which aspects of Singapore life are truly iconic. The HDB flats. Jurong Island. The drive on ECP to Changi airport, and the anchorage. Popular book store. The crappy Chinese banquets at family gatherings. The void deck funerals. Lucky Plaza. The 4D results on the radio at 7pm on Saturday. (There is a loophole here: the 4D results are also available on teletext). Container terminals. The Singapore pledge. The public corporal exhibitions. Lim Chu Kang cemetery. The sleazy motivational speakers.

As a Singaporean living abroad I know that when you are trying to explain Singapore to the Americans, you do not present it as some exotic island paradise. You present it as a mutant version of America. You remind them that there are the trappings of western modern life everywhere, but the vestiges of something strange and foreign is always lying around somewhere. Even the Singlish had to be subtitled to make it comprehensible to the westerners.

Because this is the malaise of Singaporean films in general: there is perhaps an over-eagerness to introduce aspects of Singaporean life to the world. To celebrate the lower middle class the way the Kinks and Pulp and Britpop celebrated the “essentially British” lifestyle: the parks, the cramped lifestyles, the weekend football, the messy traditional English breakfast, the tacky wallpaper and the afternoon tea. “Ilo Ilo” is the Singaporean version of that. But while you get high marks for style, what about the substance? There is no Big Story here. It is merely a series of vignettes. It is a portrait. It does not illuminate something that is truly essential about the human condition. There is something flat and stale about this movie – but admittedly even that is authentic, because life in general in Singapore is flat and stale. You will not see meaningful and deep conversations between Singaporeans because they don’t do that. You will not see extravagant displays of affection, you will not see people expressing their emotions in a manner that is not inept, you will not see people having frank and deep inquisitions into their existential situation. Because that is not Singaporean. One thing that's conspicuous about the movie: there are few minorities, other than Terry and the school principal. No Malays. But given that I've just complained that this movie keep on putting elements of Singapore front and centre, maybe I should be glad that there's no lame excuse to put in a spontaneous celebration of Singaporean Hawker Fare.

In fact, I struggle to think about meaningful relationships that take place between the principals. This movie is billed as the relationship between the maid and the child because it is the only fully fleshed relationship in the whole movie. The parents are unfailingly dutiful and loyal to each other but you sense that the love is gone. The kid and the parents are driving each other up the wall. Birthday celebrations are nice and warm but there’s nothing much more to it.

But the upside is that the sure-footedness with which Anthony Chen avoids some of the traps he could have fallen into. He could have turned Terry into a saintly figure. She is clearly a good person but she’s had to break the rules in a big way by moonlighting, and even considered working in a sleazy pub. There is an awkwardness of a boy who is only one or two years away from puberty being bathed by a young and attractive female. That angle has hardly been explored, except in subtle hints like “your hair is so smelly” and the snipping it off as a keepsake. He could have demonized the mother by making her do something monstrous, but in the end she is just reduced to petty sniping. The father could have been a hero but instead he’s the passive victim of his own circumstances. The child could have been a brat redeemed by the care and love of the maid and turned into a better person. But thankfully this puke inducing possibility was carefully avoided. The jealousy of the mother for the burgeoning relationship between the maid and the child could have escalated into something more substantial than a petty quarrel about a misplaced cigarette butt, but it didn’t, because ultimately the decisive factor was that the family could no longer afford to pay Terry’s wages.

The downside to Anthony Chen’s decision to avoid all these flashpoints of melodrama, though is that this movie turns out to be more horizontal and flat.

The hilarious venality of the discipline master is a nice touch, as is the obsession with the lottery that runs through the family. The cramped workplace of the mother is very true to reality. I like the way that the story puts all the adults under pressure, even Terry’s moonlighting was the cause of the fight that almost got the child expelled. If there is a word that I would describe the virtues of this film, it would be that it’s “authentic”. The details are authentic. This is the pre-internet age, and probably the last time that you will find telephone booths everywhere, and where people still use typewriters. The car is a mid-80s Honda destined for the scrap heap. The accents are obviously authentic. The corporal punishment is authentic. All the good things said about “Ilo Ilo” are true. The director is mature beyond his years. He makes very few false steps other than the loose ends I had highlighted above.

Contrast this with “12 Storeys”. “12 Storeys” is obviously made by a person who has never lived in a HDB flat in his life because he’s the son of one of the richest people in Singapore. As a result, it is a highly stylized caricature, how an upper class person might imagine the lower middle class living their gritty and highly imperfect lives. The caricature of Koh Buck Song as the straight edged, repressed civil servant is a very crude one, and the Jack Neo portion with his China bride is very – well – Jack Neo. “12 Storeys” was a great step forward for Singapore cinema at that time, but it was a very limited film, and way too self-consciously arty. “Ilo Ilo” is something more organic and heartfelt, and would represent another step forward.

But as you can probably guess, there is an underlying theme to this critique. Because I don’t really know if this is a critique of the film or a bigger, deeper critique of the way that Singaporeans live their lives. There is no drama. We don’t live lives that make for great cinema. “Ilo Ilo” is a very good film. I would have given it four stars out of five. I saw this as part of the Mexico film festival, and there was a voting slip. The patriot in me gave if five out of five. But I think the it might be impossible to make a great film that was true to the lives that Singaporeans lead – it’s too staid. When I think about the great stories behind TV serials, they are people put in dramatic, extreme situations. A crystal meth lab in “Breaking Bad”. A middle class gangster in “The Sopranos”. People living the frontier life in “Lost”. Maybe if we made a life of the older generation, in their natural surroundings, there might be more scope for greater cinema. Maybe I should meet up with Anthony Chen and ask him to do a film about my dad’s family.

If I could just contrast this to what Edward Yang achieved in “Yi Yi”. I would say that “Ilo Ilo” was the movie that I had expected to watch when I stepped into the theatre at Snowy Hill more than 10 years ago. But “Yi Yi” had achieved something greater than the sum of its parts. Yes, it does seem as though the different family members are living separate lives, but there is a coherence to all their struggles. The teenage daughter struggles with growing pains and the jitteriness of first dates. The parents struggle with their respective midlife crises. The father goes on a date with his old lover, and skirts dangerously close to beginning an affair. Even then there is something eerie and ghostly about how the father’s date with the lover is interspersed with the daughter going on a date with her boyfriend. Every one of the characters is struggling with the big question: what is the meaning of life? The father wants to be creating something vital and new with his work every day. The daughter is grappling with entry to adulthood. The mother is finding life meaningless and ebbing away from her. Yes, on the surface this is “just” a drama about a family, and to be sure it is a pretty good one. But it never loses the bigger picture. The younger son, Yang Yang is a cheery and happy person who makes such a contrast with the adults – he doesn’t seem to have a care in the world. And the grandmother who has passed on is the guardian angel who watches them all. There is a cohesion, a deeper underlying structure to this cosmos that “Ilo Ilo” does not achieve.

That said, it is also true that “Yi Yi” is a singular achievement, one of the greatest films ever made, and it’s pretty unfair to compare any film to “Yi Yi”.

So the issue seems to be: how can Anthony Chen follow this up? I was thinking that maybe you could do it like Antoine Doinel and make a few more films about Jiale. But the problem is that one of the most compelling characters - Terry - has been exiled. The problem with Singapore cinema is that it is almost impossible to make a fictional film. I can't conceive of a science fiction film set in Singapore. Unless you have a time travelling Samsui woman or something. Or a time travelling Japanese soldier. Would it be possible to make a film about Jemiah Islamiyah? Internal Security Department? World War 2? The classic TV series "Kopi O" is the closest thing we have to a "Cheers", where everybody knows your name. But how many places truly exist in Singapore where everybody knows your name?

The possibilities of cinema in East Asia face the problem that we are a highly structured and straitened society, and there are plenty of constraints on the possibilities. Plenty of Singapore films that have been made face the problem that if the audience is assumed to be foreign, almost half of the movie will be "Introduction to Singapore 101". The realism is overwhelming and it acts like a vice on the possibilities. Here, look at our coffeeshops! Look at the HDB flats! Look at our Peranakans! How are we going to solve the problem?


Forgotten Wars

After my graduation, it had become possible once again to do some leisurely reading. I went on a borrowing spree, not certain when they would take my library card away from me. (As it turns out, I graduated in June 2013, and my lending privileges would be revoked on Sept 2014.)

One of the books I borrowed was “Forgotten Wars”, which was an account of the armies of the British empire in Southeast Asia right after The War. So it was mainly about three countries: India, Burma and Malaysia, although I’m sure that the Indonesian war was mentioned.

I’ve only gotten through 1 chapter, but it’s great to read a book about WWII which is actually about your own country, rather than some far-flung place in the middle of Ukraine or North Africa or whatever. Anyway, three thoughts:

1. It was so chaotic in Malaya right after the Japanese surrender. There was one faction of Malays who thought they were going to declare independence with support from the Japanese. There was the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army, and within that there were some guys from the Communists and some other guys from the Kuomingtang. There were the Malay villagers. There was the Japanese. There was the British who had come back. There was Lai Teck, who turned out to be such a backstabber. He was the one who sold out Lim Bo Seng. There was Chin Peng, who reported to Lai Teck. There was the Malay aristocracy, and one of them was a young playboy called Tunku Abdul Rahman. There were the village bomohs. There were the secret society Chinese gangsters.

Things were so chaotic. The Plen ordered the MPAJA to stand down, and some of them obeyed the order and some others didn’t, and in the end both sides ended up fighting. The MPAJA were figuring out what to do with the British when they came back. The Malays thought that the Chinese were taking over the country so they fought them. Some of the British were joining the MPAJA. The MPAJA marched into Singapore and killed a lot of the local Chinese businessmen who set up shop during the Japanese occupation (this took place at Selegie Road). They were at war with the Malaysian nationalists cultivated by the Japs.

2. Us overseas Chinese raised a shitload of money for the KMT to fight the Japanese. At one point we were responsible for 1/3 of the KMT’s budget! And by way of thanks, the Japanese cut down 50000 of us upon entering Singapore. (All you ppl from China reading this better be grateful for what we did for you guys, even though strictly speaking KMT and CCP are enemies).

3. OMG Nee Soon camp – the same place where I did my BMT – was an internment camp for British soldiers during WWII. All those wretched starving angmohs were hanging out in the areas where I was getting pumped for being stupid! Also – the victory parade at the Padang featured a march-past Mountbatten was trying to impress upon the Japs that if they didn’t lay down their arms, the British would have stuffed them good. Nice job Louis but 4 fucking years too late. Also – march-past at the Padang – reminds you of the National Day Parade? It's really fun when you read about places and names that you know.

Good accounts of the war in Southeast Asia are long overdue. The problem is that the reporting is hampered by the level of secrecy in the countries in our region, and they don't allow the story to be told for the historical record - as opposed to countries in Europe and North America where the stories of war are told over and over again ad nauseum. I'm sure that Africa has had an extremely eventful 20th century, and none of it is told. I'm sure that the level of human suffering in that place is as high as anywhere else in human history. And what about the military dictatorships in South and Central America? What about the dictatorships in Central Asia? Even the events surrounding Indonesia's year of living dangerously are not well understood, up till this day.

Also, I wasn't aware but Singapore was some sort of headquarters for nationalist movements. Subhas Chandra Bose of the Indian National Army was operating out of Singapore in the last few years of WWII, getting ready to overthrow the British.

4. Vietnam after WWII was such a mess. The Vietnamese were ruled by Vichy France, who were allied with the Japs because of the Axis. The British stepped in to "restore order". The British and the Japs were fighting each other but they ganged up with the Japanese and the French against the Vietnamese. What a complicated situation!


Sunday, December 15, 2013


Back in the old days when I was working for the Factory, there were at least two colleagues of mine who were really into the TV series “Lost”. It was the dawn of the smart phone age (In fact up till now, I don’t have a smart phone. I’m watching “Lost” on the same laptop which I’m bashing this out on, which is the one that I bought for myself for my trip to Mexico just before I left Singapore. ) So it’s some form of curiosity that brought me here, since somehow this is the one show in the 00s that people talk about. To be sure, the TV series of the 00s are a sad and sordid affair mostly. If it’s not boring shit like “Who wants to be a Millionaire”, it’s manipulative reality TV shit like “Survivor” or “American Idol”. Where the 90s was the decade of the consumer rebelling against the producer and demanding more intelligent, or at least more independent minded fare, the 00s was the decade of the producer taking revenge and lulling the consumers into a long torpor.

But there are a few good exceptions. I have to remind myself that “Lost” is one of the all time greatest TV shows. It’s a classic, up there with the Sopranos, Mad men, Six Feet Under, the X Files, the Wire and Breaking Bad.

The first thing is – this is the classic allegory of America. “Lost” is what America is all about. It’s a story of the frontier, and the brave men and women who brave the elements, and how they struggle and find something in each other. How people from vastly different backgrounds come together and grapple with their common humanity. The story of immigrants is both the story of their new life, as well as the lives they left behind.

In a way, America is this totally crazy and wondrous place, a human laboratory where a lot of invention takes place. Weird and wonderful creative ideas sprout out of nowhere. In history, this is the place which has an unparalleled record of innovation. The phonograph. The light bulb. The atom bomb. Airplanes. Putting a man on the moon. Jazz. Rock and roll. Hollywood. The internet. The personal computer. ENIAC. In a lot of ways, America is a very crazy place.

I had been acquiring the old DVDs for “Lost”. It’s pretty affordable now: DVDs are pretty affordable after x number of years (usually x is 4 or 5). I bought the first season at a closing down sale of Blockbuster a couple of years ago, and I didn’t watch it until after I graduated from the University of Mexico. The DVD extras often contained commentary on the episodes, and they talked about how they were able to establish the characters based on certain techniques for the pilot episode. Yes, it is possible to join Netflix, but I don’t know if I’d ever watch enough stuff to justify that, and anyway I don’t have a steady internet connection. If I have the physical DVDs, then I can always sell them off in Singapore and get more than my money back. One thing I liked about “Lost” is that it made me think back on my days as a playwright. I liked to write plays which had plot twists, where something truly improbable happens, but the improbable thing happens in order to illustrate some truths about peoples’ characters. So the problems that people were trying to resolve were very similar to those that I used to think about. As another playwright gave me as advice: a few things can be incredible, but most of the things must be believable. Credibility is one of the most important things you can have as a work of fiction. That contributed to the school of thought about playwriting. It had to be some kind of a social experiment. It had to be believable. For me, I was more interested in plot, so it was imperative for me that you figured out the plot. If you concentrate on the plot, you have a nice narrative arc, and even if you don’t do the characterization very well, people can always enjoy the story. And plot is not incompatible with characterization, since one of the best ways of establishing character is to put a person in a situation and demonstrate how he’s going to respond to things. For me, plot drives character.

I suppose at one point I would have said that “Lost” was my all time favourite TV show, even ahead of “X-Files” which I used to videotape every week during the first season that it played on TV. But now I’m not so sure. It was great in the first season when everybody was getting to know each other and there were a few shocking revelations. It was great in the second season when they could always hang out in “the hatch”. (Was the station called “the pearl”?) But with the third season, when it was about the Others, a few episodes dragged, and when the episodes were not dragging, it was exciting, but the core batch of survivors were no longer chummy and trusting each other. Locke had his own agenda, and Jack, because of Julie, started getting mistrusted. Suddenly even Sawyer had to be the good guy.

There are a few nods to other things in pop culture, which is something that came up in the 90s. A lot of the characters are named after philosophers like Rousseau, Locke, Edward Said, Burke, Austen, Mikail Bulkanin. There are nods to hippie communes of the 70s – the Others camp slightly resembles that one. Mikail Bulkanin looks like a typical Bond villain. The DHARMA initiative suits look like the ghostbusters suits. I thought it was hilarious that they had a hatch in the middle of a tropical island, and that the island was a part of a great big scientific study. I suppose geeks like these things, things that look like university campuses.

There was also a big nod to “Solaris”, which I saw in Snowy Hill. That was a classic Soviet movie about a guy who went to a space station near a planet which somehow had a mystical connection to your subconscious. It was able to impersonate dead people in order to show how the characters would interact with them. (Sounds familiar?)

Another way “Lost” is similar to something I would personally write is this: it may be science fiction, but it doesn’t neglect the traditional elements of storytelling, like plot and characterization. There’s a lot of magic around, but the magic is used to advance the themes in the storyline, rather than to cover up holes in the plot. Although – there are some instances where something not very credible happens in order to serve the purposes of the plot. For example, a lot of people conveniently escape capture, facilities are blown up, people are conveniently killed off so that they can no longer reveal plot points before it is the right time to reveal them. The deaths of Ana Lucia and Libby took place because the actresses who played both of them were caught for drunk driving. Mr Eko was killed off because his actor did not feel at home in Hawaii, which is a shame: I wonder about how those three would have been like if they had gone through the series.

Myself, I identify with the characters of “Lost”. I am happy-go-lucky like Hurley Reyes, I’m a musician like Charlie Pace, I’m a big nerd like Daniel Faraday, and I’m sarcastic and quick-witted like Sawyer. But the one I identify with the most is John Locke, the guy with the intuitive connection with the island. Of course, as a Singaporean, I instinctively understand what it’s like to be on an island with magical properties.

One aspect of the show, and this was probably true of a lot of TV series that were made in the new millennium: it benefitted a lot from viewer feedback. The writers at any time probably didn’t allow the viewers to dictate what was on the show, but they also could benefit from taking into consideration all that feedback. In a way, the show was largely made up on the fly: in this aspect it reminds people of the Arabian 1001 nights. But they also had to follow a certain arc of the story.

In the first three seasons, the format of the show was that it interspersed events on the island with the flashbacks of the characters’ lives before the island. And every one of them was unhappy in a certain sort of way (except maybe Nikki and Paulo, but they’re not very important characters). Then what happened was there was an episode that was derided as the worst ever “Lost” episode: “Stranger in a Strange Land”, (and not surprisingly it co-starred Bai Ling). It was an episode with no other ostensible purpose than to explain Jack’s tattoo. That was when it was decided that there would only be three more seasons (And those seasons would be shorter than the first three). Then there would be a change to the formats. Season 4 would be flash-forward: the attempts of the survivors to get off the island would be interspersed with their lives after the island, which would also be unhappy in their own way. Season 5 would have a lot of time travelling, and they would be going in all directions. I haven’t watched season 6 yet but I heard of the concept of “flash sideways”.

One interesting concept that was brought up in time travel was whether it was possible for people to go back and change their destiny. Up till season 5, it seemed that the answer was no. In fact, there was a big rebuff to “Back to the Future” when Hurley was trying to figure out whether his hand was fading away yet. But if you were to read the script that I wrote for the 24 hour play writing competition, I wrote about a person who declined to change his past, in spite of his being given the opportunity to do so. So I did write a play that was pretty similar to what would have appeared in a “Lost” episode – except, of course, my play was written in the 20th century.

The last three seasons are somewhat different from the first three. The first three were about unraveling what happened to the survivors, and trying to unfold the mystery of the island. By season 4, most of the questions had already been answered, and it would be about raising new questions and answering them. So in a way the plot was freed up to move forwards, instead of being mired in having to always be answering questions about the past all the time. That said, all the way until the sixth season, we did not really understand the nature of the smoke monster, which was introduced in the pilot episode.

There was probably a lot of suspension of disbelief involved in the storytelling. You had to believe that the island had natives, that there were polar bears, that there was an underwater station jamming the radio signals, that somebody had built so many stations around a desert island in the middle of nowhere in order to study its mythical/mystical properties.

But ultimately the series succeeds because of what I call the human interest stories. There were other movies where the main characters escaped to a monastery or a sanatorium to make sense of their lives – Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona”, Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” and Thomas Mann’s “Magic Mountain”. And back when I was in Snowy Hill, I liked these stories, because in a way, Snowy Hill was my sanatorium. There’s an element of religiosity to those stories. There’s a lot of murder, just like in the Bible. People are looking for solutions to their personal situations. The character development is good. Jack is the all action hero, extremely stubborn but committed to people. Kate is the caring and brave heroine, but flighty and sometimes dishonest. John Locke is the typical priest – spiritual and a commanding leader but also liable to think that he has to lie to you for the greater good. Sayid is capable but cold blooded. Sawyer can be caring but he can also be selfish, and is a closet intellectual. Juliet can be a caring doctor but she is equally capable of backstabbing people in order to get her way. She isn’t short of people who want to get into her pants (Jack, Benjamin, Goodwin) but eventually she ends up with Sawyer. I suppose the reason why you care about all these people is that they’re good and selfless in their own way – even Sawyer. Half of Lost is people trekking through the jungle to find something, and I suppose it’s a series designed to appeal to the hunter-gatherer in all of us.