In land-scarce Singapore, physical space is highly regulated by the government. Decisions on what, where and how to build rest mostly in their hands. Even our homes are not exempt from this lack of ownership, as most of us live in Housing Development Board flats that exist on 99-year leases, at the end of which possession is ceded to the State. This results in a complicated relationship with the physical, as well as social constructions of our spaces. The ever-changing facades of our built environment lead to the paradox of feeling alienated in one’s own home. Yet, even in the absurd mess of constant change, we find ways to make sense of it.
In Singapore Shorts ‘23, the films Every Floor Looks the Same, RING RING MAMA and 18 face off against our notions of space and identity. Each of these films introduces us to their worlds by way of noise, particularly that which is man-made. This is the soundtrack to the country, the constant movement and change that we have learnt to accept. As new structures are built and old ones removed, how do we find peace within their facades?
Every Floor Looks the Same
The first shot of this experimental comedy directed by Gladys Ng is of trees being pruned by a contractor and his assistants. The off-beat opening music by Louie Zong is punctuated with the sounds of branches falling and whirring chainsaws. Underpinning all of this is the sound of drilling and hammering.
Construction is the ghost that haunts Every Floor Looks the Same and its young protagonist, Os. Primarily through her eyes, we are treated to an earnest and colourful tour of Singapore’s heartlands in all its absurdity and sadness. Cranes and construction sites constantly dominate the landscape and soundscape. They serve as a reminder of the constant change people, including our young main character, are living through: the dust and noise and the infinite possibility of something new on its way. Os’ introduction in the film is of her clinging to the bars of a fence like a prisoner in a jail cell, with only a bright kueh lapis in her hand as a tongue-in-cheek assertion of individuality in the image.
Early in the film, Os goes to her erhu teacher’s house and struggles through a piece. He becomes impatient with her rough handling of the notes and unhelpfully tells her to play it more “beautifully”. As he waters his plants, he tries to impart the poetry of the music onto her, telling her about the changing seasons (which Os has presumably never experienced before) and sudden rain on a summer’s day. “Do you know what it means to be big and small at the same time?” he asks her. A seemingly stupefied Os stares at him in silence.
Indeed, the notion of being simultaneously big and small seems to apply to children more so than anyone else — the supremacy of their id grapples with the vast and unexplored world that they live in. This is part of what makes Os such a fantastic figure with which to view Singapore, itself straddling that line between big and small. Singaporean exceptionalism dictates that we are the ‘little red dot’, but contains no small hint of pride when it comes to our economic development and capabilities.
The heavy burden of contemporaneous bigness and smallness is treated gently within the frame, which favours pastels and long takes. There is no damnation here, only the question being asked of how much the facade conflicts with the internal contradictions of its characters, including the city itself.
Ring Ring Mama
Over the past few years, Nanyang Technological University has been dealing with a macaque problem. As the neighbouring secondary forest recovers, these unhoused monkeys have taken to roaming the campus, opening windows and refrigerators, and stealing items ranging from food to Airpods. The Jane Goodall Institute Singapore (JGIS), alongside other local authorities and university staff, have been running seminars and workshops to encourage the student body to learn to live with the macaques. As JGIS puts it, living peacefully with the wildlife is part of Singapore’s move to become a “city in nature”.
This was what came to mind upon my first watch of RING RING MAMA. The film follows a Singaporean gorilla attempting to understand civilisation, consequently breaking into a house, interacting with the dog that lives inside it, and trying to make sense of a Nokia handphone.
Filled with the sounds of ringing bells, people shouting and horns blaring, the opening of the film is messy and unmanageable. Shots of HDB buildings flash by quickly, before the Super-8 camera focuses on a construction site, zooming out to show a gorilla sitting in the grass. We see it looking out for only a fraction of a moment before the film hurries along to the next scene, being granted a moment of context for where the gorilla is and comes from, before the off-the-rails story picks up. The gorilla explores its surroundings with equal parts curiosity and confusion. Removed from its home by force of cranes and construction, it has been left to wander in search of a new one with little knowledge of where to go.
This displacement hovers over the film, informing the viewer that this is a tale of dislocation and the struggle to assimilate in a place that is meant to be home. Despite its efforts, the assimilator still sticks out with profound obtrusiveness. The visual layers of a man in a gorilla suit in a dress only serve to satirise the futility of trying to find a place in a society that has closed its doors to you — all one can do is try and readjust the facade they present.
Through the eyes of our primatial protagonist, the familiar becomes strange. Its encounters with a housepet or a leopard print blanket become animalistic showdowns. While, to the viewer, these are simple objects, the gorilla faces them with combativeness and initially sees them as bodies of aggression. Can we fault it for jumping to defensiveness? The context of its world has been stripped and a new one applied, and it struggles to make sense of it. Still, it tries and nearly succeeds, until it leaves the film by wandering into the grassy distance. The divisions run too deep. Perhaps a “city in nature” is too futile a cause.
18 is a 2-minute short of 18 different doors, mostly at the ends of HDB flat corridors, although other kinds are interspersed in its runtime. Through an observational lens, it becomes an ode to the persistence with which people take ownership of their space.
As the film opens, the predominant sound is of traffic: a vehicle beeping as it reverses, the roar of wheels across the roads. With time, other sounds begin to be introduced—chatter of numerous conversations in multiple languages, beverages poured into cups, and pedestrian traffic light hollers. Like the other two films, this intricate soundscape does a lot of the legwork, helping to create a dense world around the image. One can visualise the coffee shops, car parks and roads below and around these doors, whatever they may be concealing. These doors become consigned to the larger landscape; as simply part of the background of countless doors one walks past in their day-to-day life.
Still, there is colour and a will towards differentiation. At each HDB flat front door, there is something to notice—different colours, decor, arrangements of plants, even the gate designs become an assertion of a unique personality.
Beyond that, there are the posts and signs that the frame travels past, reminding the viewer of the boundaries that dictate the Singaporean norm. However, even then there are those mild protests. Stickers cover the post of a bus stop sign, a multicoloured and communal vandalism that does not cry out as much as it politely asks for attention. Though we may be bound by rules and routine, people find ways to make the space their own.
What one comes to terms with, before anything else in these films, is the noise. The building of a facade is a loud, demanding business. In all of its constructions, Singapore is unable to stay quiet. Yet, we find ways to co-exist with the noise, without any direct revolt against it. Inside even the most demanding cacophony, we choose how to give our attention and our sentiment. Gladys Ng, Grace Song, and Lee Jing Wei remind us that there are people among the noise, who are in turn absurd, stubborn and profound, who will struggle far beyond their means to make sense of it all.
About the Writer
Pranamika Subhalaxmi is a writer and film enthusiast with a background in media studies and poetry. Her works have been published in the SGIFF Film Academy journal under the Youth Critics Programme. Her interest in film extends to curation and production, having been head programmer for the Perspectives Film Festival 2020. Her thesis film, Between These Bones, won nominations at the National Youth Film Awards and Bangkok International Documentary Awards.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.