Although the name of the first Singapore film I watched in a cinema eludes me, the experience has endured: I still remember how enthralling and magical it was, to see on the silver screen familiar sights and scenes of Singapore, and to hear characters speaking like locals do.
This excitement induced by novelty, however, quickly fizzled out.
Since then, sadly, the Singapore feature film has more or less degenerated into formulaic facsimiles, like the surfeit of indistinguishable shopping malls that have sprung up in our heartlands. Take a local setting, cast familiar faces who can deliver lines in Singlish or a mix of languages and dialects, throw in the occasional anodyne snipe at the government (or a ghost or two) and, lo and behold, you have the ingredients for a top-grossing local film. Never mind the weak plot, banal jokes, and lackluster or over-the-top acting.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that you can’t find local elements in Anthony Chen’s award-winning debut feature film Ilo Ilo. On the contrary, Ilo Ilo has a realistic late 1990s’ Singapore setting painstakingly re-created under the keen supervision of Chen: his team visited some 500 HDB flats before finally locating one with the specific door grilles and flooring that he wanted.
But unlike other Singapore productions in which a pastiche of local elements is foregrounded and often supplants the story, those that permeate Ilo Ilo are subtly embedded to serve and strengthen the narrative, to the extent that a reviewer comments: “Except for the Tamagotchi toys Jia Le plays with, the late-’90s period background is de-emphasized.”
The late 1990s milieu may appear nondescript to an outsider but is fondly recognizable to a local who has lived through the period. Says a crew member, “Every tiny thing in Anthony’s films is thought through, nothing is accidental.” Continue reading…