by Sasha Han
In this discussion of the animations A Short Walk (2022), The Last Stop (2022) and Traffic Light (2021), I begin by invoking one of the more recognisable proto-animation devices, the zoetrope. Like its predecessors, the thaumatrope and phenakistiscope, a series of images (typically of a human or animal in motion) of slight variation are placed in a circle to form a continuous loop. Viewed through a spinning enclosure, previously static forms are transformed and animated; the illusion of endless movement is achieved. Earlier prototypical animation devices include an earthenware bowl from Iran featuring images of a goat jumping over a tree, as well as a Han dynasty lamp capable of rotating paper cutouts that precede the 19th Century zoetrope by millennia. The ability to ascertain, dissect and control movement for purposes of replicating effortless motion is coveted across known time.
Much like the zoetrope’s capacity to simultaneously break down and synthesise movement, this tropical nation is similarly concerned with destruction and re-building master movement plans through minute and macro planning of and directing movement on its shores. Limited land space is used to justify extensive planning by a government whose policies have extended into every aspect of life. Re-urbanisation of both existing communities and natural land arrive in 5- and 30-year blocks, an effort that is, at least conceptually, infinitely replicable. The only consistency is the dread of contorting oneself to adjust to the new landscape that has sprung up. This begs the question, why can’t these spaces conform to us too? Indeed, observations of spaces with high foot traffic yield an impressive, if sometimes frustrating, lack of pattern of foot traffic. Surely, there must be a logic to this structured maze. Yet, spaces designed for pedestrians teem with infinite possibilities since pedestrians do not yield to anyone or anything but themselves. To navigate such a space, the only option is to go with the flow and dodge from the path of an incoming pedestrian when you need to, then go on swimmingly from there. Fear of disorder must be set aside.
Collectively, the three animated films extensively feature pedestrian movement in Singapore. Walking in a city of perpetual redevelopment is rendered as a mode of casual resistance. This is to say that the random disorder of movement in the midst of recurring attempts at order is not embellished with overbearing calls-to-action. Instead, walking is imbued with grit and tenacity, itself reflected in the tedious labour of animators to convincingly portray characters in motion. What arises is a respectful tribute and honouring of the people who continue moving ahead in spite of abrupt changes, even if they do so with much dread, each bearing the mighty weight of grief, yearning and the tedium of life itself. If agents of war in A Short Walk (2022) sought to take life and legacy away, then the act of walking, in this case, is a catalyst for shared visions of continuity and futurity. In The Last Stop (2022), a woman is engaged in the Sisyphean task of managing impending disasters of day-to-day living. In Traffic Light (2021), the momentum of a walk carries the pedestrian through their commitments of the day and enables a functional system, until a “misbehaving” traffic light refuses to turn green and invokes the wrath of its law-abiding citizens. Across their respective diegetic universes and varied frame rates, the films present a palimpsestic map of different walks of life in Singapore.
The first sounds we hear in Ervin Han’s A Short Walk (2022) are footsteps moving closer to a boy clutching a red toy aeroplane. We hear the boy’s father before seeing him, as if his presence precedes the film’s duration and will persist long after its last frame flickers. The sense of a haunting, events and objects that persist past the point of initial occurrence, is a motif that recurs throughout the film. In the short walk it takes from their house to the screening facility, their whole lives play out in opposition to impending, premature death. Both the past and the future haunt the shifting between father and son’s point-of-view, it is unclear whether the scenes where the boy walks his father through a series of milestones in the life he will live serve to reassure his father, or are visions of life the father desires for his son. How about a collective dream for a future sure to come, that must arrive for the boy. That he will grow into a man, his plane transforming into a red briefcase—an emblematic object of the working man—then into the red dress of a little girl as he becomes a father.
At the end of the film, an elderly man stands in front of Hong Lim Complex at South Bridge Road in present-day Singapore, holding on to the same red aeroplane, though visibly worn. His walk has taken him a long way, past middle age and well into his retirement. He now stands in the middle of a pathway and looks past the building to the moment he last saw his father at the entrance to the screening centre. A lifetime has slipped by, but he is haunted by ghostly impressions of the final walk he took with his father and his grief. Despite its rejuvenated facade, it is equally accurate to say that the complex is itself haunted by the resounding footfall of other short walks that ended at the screening centre.
A woman jerks awake in an empty MRT train hurtling through a dark tunnel. Disoriented, she checks her phone, but the time and hint of daylight do little to affect the loud, stifling darkness. Suddenly, the lights flicker off. Before she can make sense of her location on the rapidly blinking train map, she is thrown backwards as the train rapidly accelerates.
Bervyn Chua’s The Last Stop (2022) portrays the distinct claustrophobia and accompanying vertigo that accompanies journeys in fully underground train systems (especially at peak hour on weekday mornings). It’s no wonder that fully underground trains in the country do not have operators and are fully automated. The film is effectively a Sisyphean loop predicated on the cruelty of modern living. After she fights against the speed of the train, she realises that she must orient herself in order to land on her feet. In the distance, the train begins to collapse on itself. She lets go, falling through the cracks on the glass window left by the phone that slipped out. Then, before any kind of recognition, a flash of light from behind her…
There’s a comment to be made here about underground trains in general. In an infinitely dark tube, it will take passengers to work regardless of time of day, with little light to furnish the train’s direction. It works just as well for the trajectory of any dream career: seemingly bleak, in stagnation, a free-fall through unbearable uncertainty. But you see, she is still falling, and will throw herself again and again through the glass and free-fall to a future that is uncertain for the choice of living a life that is her own. She will not submit to “no destination” that has been imposed on her and she will certainly not submit to being crushed.
Pedestrian responses to Ang Qing Sheng’s errant Traffic Light (2021) are portrayed as equally valid regardless of their age, job or race. Withholding omnipresent judgement and brimming with disarming humour, the viewer is encouraged to observe the scene just as the pedestrians observe and interact with the people who have arrived at the traffic stop. Ang doesn’t stop there but takes it further by bending the physics of the objects surrounding the traffic light. Objects such as street lamps and security cameras are distorted to complement the characters’ inner state of mind. If these objects can bend their will to match that of the people around, we can too. At one point, a migrant worker crosses a busy road with great ease where other castaway pedestrians have failed.
At the halfway mark, the old man cautions a young woman trying to jay-walk, “You think you smart. Gahmen smarter than you. You look, CCTV on there!” Reasons for surveillance cameras are predicated on crime deterrence and protection of the community at large. On the contrary, the interactions at the Traffic Light suggest that it is members of the community themselves that look out for and protect each other’s safety. While it is rendered through self-surveillance, each attempt to cross the road without a green light is a near-death experience as cars speed by, narrowly missing the pedestrians. By the end, the only ones getting injured or getting into accidents are the isolated drivers in their vehicles, each insulated in the private echo-chambers of the vehicles they operate. The machines in this world do not work without human touch.
When it turns out that the “faulty” traffic light only needs to have its button pushed to redirect the flow of traffic, the angst and drama of a near-car crash to avoid a dog that has run out onto the road seems absurd. Then again, why should we not have these little annoyances in making machines work the way we want to trigger a cathartic avenue of expression for our grievances about life in general? When the button is finally and accidentally pushed, a wide overhead shot of people crossing the road shows them all moving along with their lives, their imposed stasis finally lifted. Ang suggests that there is no wrong to be attributed here, neither the pedestrians with concerns bigger than a dysfunctional traffic light nor the machine itself that must consider the vehicles and the larger traffic system too. There is only the quiet realisation that everyone and everything is trying their best to facilitate as smooth a walk in life as possible.
This essay was produced through the Film Critics Lab: A Writing Mentorship Programme, co-organised by *SCAPE and The Filmic Eye, with support from the Singapore Film Society and Sinema.
About the Writer
Sasha Han seeks to reify the fugitive effects of looking through language. She received her BA in 2021 and has worked with HBO Asia, the Singapore International Film Festival and the National Archives of Singapore.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.