In film as in literary fiction, the premise of narrative tension can often be generated by, on paper, fairly innocuous stakes. A boy grows up. An elephant gets away from its owner. A man drives around Tehran. The notion of personal involvement and dramatic investment, particularly in such media, is sometimes more attentive to form than substance, requiring just enough breadcrumbs for a recipient to want to know more.
Both Tangle Lah and Condo Cops are not examples as such. In both shorts, stakes figure strongly throughout and are key to their success.
There are at least two plausible ways of looking at the everyday. One is the style best encapsulated in our cultural moment by A24: slices of life, deliberately and carefully observed by audiences as seemingly random moments of time, are read as representative and invested with a beauty and delicacy belying cultural or narrative capital. One might describe this as imbuing a story with a sense of purposive ordinariness. Filmic examples outside of Singapore include Moonlight and Ladybird. A local example might be the short films Love at Fifty and Yi Yi. The second is that of looking at an everyday setting where stakes are not expected and a deus ex machina is introduced as a sort of wrecking ball or test, against which the characters are broken or reconstructed. Filmic examples outside of Singapore include Marriage Story or Poetry. Local examples might include Ilo Ilo or Money No Enough.
The creation of stakes in narrative tension are crucial insofar as they generate momentum for the story. This is perhaps the more immediate, face-value answer: at a subconscious level we need, and want, to get to know something, to sit with a constructed medium. We want to know whether, in sitting with Woolf, we get to the lighthouse. We want to know if, at the end of these two hours, Varda’s Cleo is going to be diagnosed with cancer. We want to know if, after watching Kiarostami, we understand the metafilmic commentaries around Kiarostami. In the context of the presentation of everyday life, however, it’s arguable that the introduction of a glaring dramatic intrusion illuminates the contours of represented lived experience, excavating both beauty and ugliness.
Lim Hong Jun’s short film Condo Cops features the story of Boon, an old “Senior Security Officer” at a condominium who lives apart from his daughter and has to onboard a new security officer, Caleb, before he can head back to spend time with his daughter.
The stakes are consistently raised: we know, instinctively above all else, that Boon only has his daughter, and that this is the only time he has ever taken leave to tend to his family in a moment of seminal transition, or departure. The impending trip is the fulfilment of a commitment he made to visit her before she leaves for another country.
Investment is generated by the sense of possible familial disappointment and even betrayal. The emotional core of the film feels almost like a quest, with the use of a jaunty, upbeat soundtrack, the use of intimate, close-up shots, all while calling back 20th-century tropes of the buddy cop genre.
If the protagonist can successfully onboard the new security officer to the extent that he can act almost as a direct substitute, he will be able to see his daughter, and we are rooting for him to do so.
Ang Qing Sheng’s animated short Tangle Lah!, features the story of a Chinese man in a Housing Development Board (HDB) unit who tries to retrieve his clothes that have fallen into his downstairs Malay neighbours’ airspace.
Here the stakes are literally life or death: in a desperate lunge to fix a clothes pole, he falls out of the window and is held, comedically, by his gradually slipping shorts. All of this is much to the amused chagrin of a group of elderly neighbours at the foot of the block, who form a constant source of commentary and emotional response. A cat and a baby are also involved and duly endangered, the former being rescued by a South Asian construction worker (and the Chinese man in the process).
All of this has the scent of farce, but Ang does well to consistently create and raise the relevant stakes, in ways that even seem believable, up until our favoured group of elderly folk procure a mattress at the foot of the block.
The stakes in Condo Cops are evidently familial and vocational: no one wants Boon to lose his job or his daughter. A number of questions come into play in the film. A slow-burn source of tension throughout is Boon’s status as a security guard. He is consistently treated with disdain and entitlement by residents and spoken of in a derogatory way. Even an intentionally whimsical montage of what he does day-to-day adds to this. Boon’s relegation to marginality in vocationally hierarchical, late capitalist Singapore is troubled by deliberate dignification: we look into his home and his conversations with his daughter, we witness a denouement that sees Boon and his younger partner with fresh eyes by his residents; above and beyond, we spend time with them as subjects of a narrative short. Does it matter that Boon is still doing this job as an elderly man, having to put his daughter through university (that she is now graduating from)? There is some further question of marginality, and any potential dignification, if overcompensatory, bears the risk of romanticisation akin to saying certain Singaporean elderly cardboard collectors do so for the exercise. Boon as the everyman becomes an index for the default preoccupations presented by Gen-X: those of wage and nuclear family.
The stakes in Tangle Lah! are communitarian and highly contextualised. In HDB units with racial quotas, internecine conflicts can be racialised and gendered. In portraying these conflicts with a comically escalating near-death, from the inception point of clothes that had fallen from the bamboo sticks used to hang clothes on, Tangle Lah! holds a mirror up to who we are. Microaggressions dot the film, from the way the characters speak about each other, to the way they ultimately attempt to resolve the conflict. Believability comes in terms of the hostility of the elderly Malay woman and the young Chinese woman, and is a scene witnessed many times before. The little details in the voiceovers are particularly important: the dialect chorus of the elderly Chinese people at the foot of the block is especially vital in that regard. It matters that this instinctively brings a smile out of sheer recognition: these are idiosyncrasies that redeem the realness of living in a time and space, and of people who have occupied these axes for a long time.
In both films, the narrative arcs are satisficing, more so than satisfying. Boon’s love for his daughter and dedication to his colleague, if not his job, as well as the ultimate resolution of the neighbourly conflict in Tangle Lah!, are not so admirable as to erase the indices of late capitalist alterity or community-based difference, but beautiful enough to say, in the words of Mahmoud Darwish, we have on this land that which makes life worth living.
About the Writer
Christian (he/him) is a writer and actor based in Singapore. Having mostly moved in poetry and fiction, he was trained at the Youth Critics Programme of the 33rd Singapore International Film Festival, and has two articles out with the festival publication, Atlas. Find out more at christianyeo.com.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.