Beyond “Crazy Rich Asians”: How Singaporean Films Highlight Grittiness, Not Glamor

Unlike "Crazy Rich Asians", most Singapore-made offer social critique, not glitz—here are 11 Singaporean films you ought to watch.

By , 31 Dec 18 00:00 GMT
A scene from the 2013 film Ilo Ilo (Courtesy of Ilo Ilo).

With Crazy Rich Asians, Hollywood highlighted Singapore as a land of abundance populated by Asian high society. However, Singapore’s own cinematic industry paints a different picture.

As former Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong once famously said, Singapore is divided into “heartlanders” and “cosmopolitans”. While Hollywood chooses to shed the spotlight on rich, jet-setting “cosmopolitans”, Singapore’s local cinematic industry focuses on “heartlanders”.

Instead of showing the extravagant luxury of Crazy Rich Asians, contemporary Singaporean films usually highlight working and middle class concerns around how rapid urbanization and development belie socio-economic inequality and anxiety in Singaporean society .

Let’s explore key Singaporean films from the 1990s and 2000s that address “heartlander” social challenges instead of glamor, and contextualize these movies within the city-state’s socio-economic landscape.

Why Do Singaporean Films Focus on the Unglamorous?

Singapore’s film industry languished in a state of decline throughout the 1970s and 1980s, producing films only occasionally. However, in the 1980s, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) government began to realize the film industry had economic value.

State efforts, combined with the initiatives of aspiring filmmakers, catalyzed the revival of Singapore’s film industry in the 1990s. Despite its firm stance on censorship, the PAP government allowed a crop of socially-conscious films to flourish for their critical acclaim, which aligned with government objectives to boost Singapore’s creative economy and global standing.

Filmmakers started producing films that counter the official image of Singapore as an attractive cosmopolitan city–an artistic form of resistance against state narratives. The films are, to a certain extent, a cathartic expression of pent-up anxieties and frustrations about Singaporean society.

Consequently, certain social issues became recurring themes in 1990s and 2000s “Revival Era” Singaporean cinema. These issues include urban alienation, the pitfalls of the materialistic “Singapore Dream”, and the complexities of Singaporean identity.

Films About Urban Alienation

Unsurprisingly for a city-state, Singapore has a 100% urbanized population. However, the scale and fast pace of city life also leads to loneliness and marginalization, especially among working class “heartlanders”.  Two films portray the perils of urban alienation, as well as the stark contrast between Singapore’s glittering surface and gritty underbelly, in an especially compelling manner.

Mee Pok Man (Eric Khoo, 1995) tells the story of a stuttering, socially awkward mee pok (flat egg noodles) hawker (Joe Ng) toiling in Singapore’s red-light district, who has a chance encounter with a similarly ill-fated prostitute named Bunny (Michelle Goh). A somber depiction of working-class “heartlander” life, the film conveys the isolation of urban dwellers living on the margins of society, and their desire for human connection.

Another Eric Khoo film called 12 Storeys (1997) offers glimpses into the lives of the motley inhabitants of a block of Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats. The film’s characters struggle to forge meaningful connections, and find themselves isolated and overwhelmed by feelings of powerlessness and misery as lack of social capital thwarts their aspirations. Given 80% of Singaporeans live in HDB flats, 12 Storeys provides a stirring portrait of life that many of the city-state’s residents can relate to.

Amidst the prevailing bleakness, the characters in Mee Pok Man and 12 Storeys experience pressure to keep up with societal demands and expectations to be “good and productive” citizens. They eventually realize that their personal lives are far from ideal, and that self-delusion is futile.

Films About the “Singapore Dream”

Many Singaporeans aspire for the “Singapore Dream” – defined as having the “5Cs” (cash, car, condominium, credit card, country club membership). Two Singaporean films question whether everyone can achieve this “Dream” through sheer hard work, and highlight the fine line between aspiration and burden.

Singapore Dreaming (Colin Goh and Woo Yen Yen, 2006) depicts the daily struggles of average working-class Singaporeans through the Loh family, whose members earnestly pursue the Singapore Dream. However, as much as the family strives to fulfil idealistic standards, they constantly fall short. The Lohs’ dilemmas likely resonate with the average Singaporean. En route to the Singapore Dream, they face hurdles like the costs of owning a condominium unit, the high price of car ownership, employment discrimination, and worrying unemployment rates.

I Not Stupid (Jack Neo, 2002) is a satirical take on the academic pressures associated with achieving the Singapore Dream. The pressure-cooker environment I Not Stupid depicts is a familiar yet disquieting projection of Singapore’s exam-oriented, intensely competitive education system. The city-state is no stranger to cases of child suicide from academic stress, when young students perceive their own worth as inferior to that of their exam scores. The proliferation of tuition classes priming students for academic success is also a worrying trend amongst ambitious parents piling excessive pressure onto children. I Not Stupid was so resonant among Singaporeans that it spawned a broader franchise of sequels.

Both Singapore Dreaming and I Not Stupid explore the elusiveness of the Singapore Dream for Singapore’s working class. Furthermore, they critique a conservative, narrow definition of success – and the toll it takes on those who internalize it. Achieving material success might grant a ticket to social superiority, but at what cost?

Films About Singaporean Identity

Singapore is a diverse society not just economically, but also socially, ethnically, and linguistically. Despite this, there’s still a “norm” of Singaporean identity. “Normal” Singaporeans not only are competitive and achievement-driven, but also speak standard English and Mandarin (as opposed to Singlish and Chinese dialects, which government policies deem less practical). As three films show, those who stray from the norm might find themselves labelled as outcasts.

15 (Royston Tan, 2003) centers on a cast of unruly boys who depart from the Singaporean “norm”.  All the film’s protagonists are the titular age of 15—but, even at this young age, Singapore condemns them as failures for lack of educational achievement. Furthermore, 15’s characters make liberal use of Hokkien profanities, creating an impression that they’re “less refined” than standard Mandarin speakers.

Cult classic Eating Air (Kelvin Tong and Jasmine Ng, 1999) echoes the plight of alienated youths and juvenile delinquents who also don’t adhere to a “standard” Singaporean identity. The film provides a raw yet evocative portrait of working class youths’ coming-of-age uncertainties through late-night motorcycle joyrides and drug deals. Eating Air also hints at Singapore’s limited social welfare provisions. The film’s youthful characters resort to delinquency in part because their parents struggle to make ends meet and thus cannot nurture their children adequately in the absence of a social safety net.

Singapore GaGa (Tan Pin Pin, 2005) is a documentary that captures everyday scenes from an eclectic cast of personalities across Singapore’s diverse social fabric. The personal stories featured in Singapore GaGa piece together a nostalgic tapestry of Singaporeans and their sometimes ambivalent relationship to their country. Each of the documentary’s stories speaks to how personal history and socio-economic status shape Singaporean identity.

Though many might still think there’s a “norm”, Singaporean identity is complex, entailing questions of race, religion, language, and class. 15, Eating Air, and Singapore GaGa offer a glimpse into the ties between nation and identity; ultimately, they force viewers to reassess what it means to be Singaporean.

What’s Next for Singaporean Cinema?

Though most of the films highlighted above come from the 1990s and 2000s “Revival Era”, Singapore’s cinematic production continues apace today. As we move into the late 2010s and beyond, what does the trajectory of Singaporean film look like?

For one, locally produced Singaporean movies continue to tackle similar social themes seen in their “Revival Era” counterparts. This isn’t particularly surprising, as issues like urban alienation, the Singapore Dream, and Singaporean identity all remain just as pertinent as they were back in the 1990s and 2000s.

For example, Lei Yuan Bin’s 2014 film 03-Flats continues the tradition of films like 12 Storeys by exploring heartland life in Singapore’s public housing. Similarly, 2013’s Ilo Ilo (directed by Anthony Chen) features a middle-class family struggles to achieve the “Singaporean Dream” in the midst of 1997’s Asian Financial Crisis.

However, Singaporean society—and cinema—hasn’t stayed exactly the same.

Films like Apprentice (Boo Junfeng, 2016), which features a Malay cast in a story about capital punishment, highlight a growing recognition that ethnic Chinese Mandarin-speakers aren’t the only force of Singaporean identity. Beyond more visibility for Singapore’s Malay minority, younger Singaporeans are also gaining a renewed appreciation for non-Mandarin Chinese dialects—creating fertile ground for more dialect films in the future.

Singaporean directors have also spearheaded more international collaborations like the Thai-Singaporean Pop Aye (Kirsten Tan, 2017) which reflects disillusionment with city life through an endearing story about an middle-aged man and en elephant. After Pop Aye won numerous overseas awards, Singapore’s Minister of Education cited the film’s director in a speech to parliament as an example of why Singapore needs to encourage more freedom in its education system—something that might not have happened back in the 1990s.

Regardless of this evolution, one factor remains constant: as the Lion City continues to prosper and progress, its film industry continues to set aside glamor for more realistic portrayals of life in Singapore. The social issues reflected in Singaporean films might change, but it doesn’t look like Singapore cinema will be treating us to the decadence of Crazy Rich Asians anytime soon.

Choo Suet Fun is a content writer with a keen interest in film, literature, and languages. Undertaking a minor in Film Studies at university cultivated in her an enduring curiosity towards Asian cinema, and she now spends her free time writing and thinking about film and culture. Her favorite films include In the Mood for Love, Memories of Matsuko, and Ilo Ilo.

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