The Films of Tan Pin Pin

By Wendy Chui

Singaporean Filmmaker Tan Pin Pin is indeed, curious about Singapore. Unlike most other ‘Singapore’ films, her films explore the space of this tiny little island. Based on viewing the short films included in this retrospective, even when she includes people and cultures in her film, they seem collateral to the space. Yet, if you look at these films closely, you might be able to spot the not-so-obvious witticisms regarding the culture of Singapore… or Singaporeans.

The more prominent films that talk about Singapore and her ever-changing space are The Impossibility of Knowing, Snow City, Moving House and maybe Ivan Polunin’s Sound Archive. The last film is interesting visually but the sounds are even more exciting. We get to hear the running waters of some ulu pandan place in 1950s Singapore and the voices of our forefathers conversing with one another in their dialects. These are not just the common dialects you hear in modern Singapore; their dialects are distinctively native. It’s something we have lost over the years when the government first implemented the ‘Speak Mandarin’ movement in 1979. Hearing the vibrant conversations in different dialects brings about an innate sense of loss.

Similar to Ivan Polunin’s Sound Archive, Snow City is another run at grasping images and sounds of Singapore before she becomes an entirely different landscape in another few years. Her seemingly random footages include parks, beaches, offices, buildings, snow city and the polar bears in the zoo. There is a lingering on the polar bears in their fake habitat. And I feel that Tan could be commenting on something; be it the long-time debate on whether Singapore has a culture of her own or whether it was created by the policies of Singapore government. The first sequence presents the opening ceremony of a public space in Singapore. And the ending shows a close-up of debris, rocks and litter. The juxtaposition between the footage is interesting and the editing is deliberate. What could she be hinting at? The compromise between a world class country and disintegration of her society? I can’t really put a finger to it… maybe that is the best part of Pin Pin’s films; you know something is there, yet you can’t pin point exactly what it is.

In Moving House, Tan investigates the process of the State clearing burial grounds in order to develop the land commercially or for residential use. In a documentary style of filmmaking, the interviews with various family members (or descendants) of the dead reveal some interesting thoughts about the government in regard to the land.

One woman kept repeating the phrase, “You got to accept it”; Because Singapore needs land so badly and because you cannot go against the government. The one line that impressed into my mind was, “There is no land for the living already, how could there be land for the dead?” Another man says, “I don’t have a choice. I was never consulted. So whatever they do, I’ll have to go along with it.” Interestingly, the thoughts coming out from the interviewers echo our own when it comes to political affairs, don’t they? Accept what the government tells you, you have to accept it, they are the pragmatic ones, they know what is good for us. Whatever they do, just go along with it. Moving House is an interesting piece that seems to be indirectly talking about the Singapore government. Perhaps Tan didn’t intend for it to be so… but I’d like to think it is. I felt that the frustration and the resignation that the family show through their dialogues were insightful to our own in terms of political policies put in place by the government. Yes, resignation is the word.

In August 9, different segments in the film follow the sequence of many real National Day Parades across the decades. The people filling up the stadium, the army marching in and inspections by the different Presidents, the entertainment, floats and the ‘Men in White’ in different years and MM Lee aging progressively, the mass display (not to be missed every year!). The film ends with close ups of individual performers contrasting with close ups of individual members in the audience. I think the choice of marching employees by different organizations demonstrates the different ‘eras’ of the government pushing a distinct industry each time. We have the productivity era, the engineering one and the technology era, among others.

But I must admit it was quite enjoyable for me and I was a wee bit teary when I see MM Lee appearing several times, each time more aged and frail…ah, the saga of his wife’s demise now comes back to mind. Such a heart-warming story. No matter what kind of policies he had implemented before (regardless of whether the people accepted it or not), we must remember the good he has done for Singapore. This writing has become so political, I wonder if I will get sued for defamation… I didn’t say anything wrong, right? Well, anyway, this highly political film (if you will) carries several sets of Singapore ideals over a few decades and as with all her films, there definitely is something she wants to say!


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