Over the past year, I’ve been delving into the local contemporary film and poetry scene, and here’s what I’ve found.
The maligned in Singapore have been turning to art to build a strong voice in political and social subversion.
For them, it seems, the concept of poetic justice is particularly seductive in an environment where they have indicated feeling sidelined and discriminated.
The new generation of local artists, such as poet-playwright Alfian Sa’at, multimedia artist Brian Gothong Tan, poet-soprano Cyril Wong, filmmakers Kan Lume, Royston Tan, and writer Ng Yi-Sheng have all been noted for producing works that take potshots at socio-political structures.
Contentious issues such as censorship, identity and National Service are topics that constantly come under their metaphorical microscope.
Because of the controversial nature of the productions, some of their works have not been publicly screened or marketed. But this doesn’t appear to have an effect on them.
Kan Lume, co-director of 2008 feature film Solos (starring theatre stalwart Lim Yu-Beng and co-director Loo Zihan), should know what he’s talking about. Solos is a dialogue-less film about a schoolteacher in love with his student, and how the boy’s depressed mother blames herself for the turn of events. The film was pulled out of screening at the 21st Singapore International Film Festival due to the cuts required by the Board of Film Censors, and had its world premiere at the 12th Pusan International Film Festival in South Korea instead.
Kan said in an interview published on the film’s official website: “Every important piece of work worth its grain of salt is controversial. The reason we need to make this film is that it changes things, brings about culture, opens people’s minds to examine their beliefs, strengthens, encourages, enrages, brings about healthy discussion, and inspires. The most important thing for us was to do it truthfully, openly and without fear. Unless we are able to face up to our demons in our Art, we can never fully mature as a people.”
The film’s co-director, Loo, is now working on a string of other similarly-themed projects.
And they aren’t the only trailblazers.
Boo Junfeng, the 25-year-old writer-director of critically-acclaimed and award-winning short films Katong Fugue (starring veteranactress Neo Swee Lin and newbie Luke Kwek), Keluar Baris (starring university student Daryl Pan) and Tanjong Rhu (starring screen and opera artiste Nick Shen), also has his feet rooted in controversial subjects.
The last film was based on a true story where 12 men seeking same-sex relations were arrested (and named and shamed in the local media) in a police entrapment exercise 16 years ago.
Boo told Asian gay lifestyle portal Fridae last May: “The incident has always kind of intrigued me. If you ask me for the impetus, I guess it was when I was in secondary school. I remember my Moral Education teacher warning the boys in my class about carrying water bottles at East Coast Park because there were ‘perverts’ hiding in the bushes. And I think that came shortly after the publicity from the Tanjong Rhu incident. So I always kind of knew something like that had happened.
His gamble paid off. British cinematic icon Lord David Puttnam praised Tanjong Rhu, saying: “The film is magnificent. It is beautifully realised”.
The contemporary literature scene here isn’t much divorced from its celluloid cousin.
It is precisely in the need to rescue themselves that young literary stars have found their voice. A large number of their works, particularly from younger writers like Ng Yi-Sheng, 32, Alfian Sa’at, 32, and Cyril Wong, 31, seem to be established in confessionalism – a style involving emotional, honest and sometimes brutal self-expressions.
An example is Young Artist Award winner Sa’at, who, in a poem titled field training from his second poetry collection A history of Amnesia, wrote about one of his experiences in the army:
nobody ever spoke of dying
digging trenches we exhumed ourselves
we buried mines in the loose dirt
as weightless as our conscience
it was enough for anyone to say:
I want my death in another life.
In another poem titled The Merlion from his first poetry collection, One Fierce Hour, he began his conversation about the iconic Singaporean figure as follows:
“I wish it had paws,” you said,
“It’s quite grotesque the way it is,
you know, limbless; can you
imagine it writhing in the water,
like some post-Chernobyl nightmare?
Openly-gay Wong, 31, a Singapore Literature Prize winner, wrote in a poem titled i saw you read my book from his sophomore poetry collection titled the end of his orbit:
in the evening, when father was
asleep and you were in the living
room, a shred of cloud inside
your loose night dress the colour
of flesh in this light. I stared
at your face from the silence
of my bedroom, arms folded
like iron bars across a door,
fearful of eruption – this mob
within me you could easily set off.
And I noticed how you paused
after a poem to peer beyond
the gold-flicker rim of your glasses.
From where I sat on the floor now
falling away from under me, you appeared
to watch the altar with its singular flame,
the bible at a corner of the table praised
fervently by dust, a portrait of
Mary and Christ, Mary with Christ
yet unbroken in her arms.
I will leave it to you, dear reader, to make out the subtexts and meanings of the above.
If this is the direction of local creative output and if this wave of hard-hitting issues-based output continues to be produced, then there is huge cause for celebration. I, for one, am excited and deeply touched by the strength, fearlessness of authority, the beauty of humanity and juxtaposition – of purity amid “immorality” – presented by these brilliant sons of Singapore.