There’s something to all these invocations of contemporary Singaporean life. First: The nation. It is hard for me to think of Singapore as a ‘place’ in any conscious sense, but a collection of buildings where everything must be quantified. Our downtown “globalised” space is populated with the towering projects of decontextualised landmarks designed by famous foreign architects. This core is then surrounded by the heartlands—well-organised and reasonably uniform public housing wherein residents sustain whatever you make of ‘Asian’ values and culture amidst these “global” spaces.
Next, the family. This is uncomfortably situated in both the nation’s development narrative and, consequently, the grounding force for the average citizen, to varying degrees of success. When I think of family, I think of the opening line of Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
And lastly, the individual. I think of this as the nexus of the nation and family. I am reminded of the controversial French collective Tiqqun’s figure of ‘Bloom’, inspired by the character of Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Here, Bloom is conceived as “the man who has become so thoroughly conjoined with his alienation that it would be absurd to try and separate them.”
I superficially invoke such references because they provide the vocabulary to articulate these acceptable facts of Singaporean life—Singapore just is, the same way that Singaporean dynamics just are.
One will find, these days, the same paucity of philosophers, artists, or writers: in these acting roles, there is scarcely anyone but Blooms, producing cultural commodities and assuming the referential poses that suit their positions.
In an obvious sense, Nelson Yeo’s Plastic Sonata already alludes to its sustained depiction of the contemporary Singaporean mode of existence in its title. The motif of the plastic bag affords one a particular anonymity conjoined with the alienation of the sonata soloist. The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic is thus accepted as a fait accompli. Yeo describes the film’s portrayal of it as an “aesthetic experience”—like Bloom—an inescapable metaphysical conception. For in Theodor Adorno’s formulation of Aesthetic Theory, concepts like the sublime and beauty are ultimately reservoirs of human experience that determine such aesthetics.
In Plastic Sonata, the narrative’s pieces fall into place at the convergence of the three main characters. We observe the palpable disconnect that persists even in the shared space of the lift landing. Faces remain obscured with masks. Each character maintains their distance. Barely any words are exchanged. Cut to the interior of the lift. The camera lingers on a framed copy of Edward Hopper’s “Rooms by the Sea”. There is an absence of land in its view of the scenery through the doorway. Nothing but the endless sea. Sunlight spills onto the floor, creeps onto the walls, casts shadows, and we see a repetition of such recurring forms in the distance. We assume this remains true for however many rooms lie beyond.
Even if not immediately recognisable by name, the painting’s elements and appearance are unmistakably Hopper’s. In considering Hopper, I think of how one’s interiority interacts with the outside world. By invoking him, one could easily conclude that Yeo shoves a mirror into the viewers’ faces: “Hey, this physical portrayal of alienation kind of condenses what’s been happening with these folks! And with all of us!” Yet this first distinctly referential moment only occurs at the end of the film; the way the rest of the scene plays out is decidedly unexpected, its final images sort of rushing towards us.
A sonata, while famously performed solo, can also occur in a variety of movements. Its form can be found in nearly every type of composition: exposition, development, recapitulation. The short film takes place in the confines of what seems like a mixed-use public housing building, the three characters occupying and moving through various locations within this structure—the rooftop, parking lots, corridors, shopfronts. Characters move in choreographed gestures—sometimes a pair of heels produces a strenuous gait, other times it enables fluidity in dance. When characters interact with one another, portions of their body are physically obscured by objects or their environment—face masks, footwear, plastic bags, enveloping smoke, or even overlays of each other.
Despite these visual flourishes, what remains is the singular overarching building itself. This (what is revealed to be) Singaporean Chinese family occupies an endless present space wherein they outwardly fall into a social grouping expected to maintain their prescribed identity. They are eternally “stuck, unable to flow”.  The ubiquitous heartland setting, like the Hopper painting, delineates an interiority of the better part of Singapore’s urban space. Unlike the swanky high rises of our “globalised” downtown core, mobility and heterogeneity is stunted and possessed under a “palimpsest of suppressed urban cultures”. In Plastic Sonata, what finally emerges as most striking is just how much distance Yeo’s referential images travel in a relatively short space.
The Ministry of Community Development and Sports describes the ideal Singaporean family as such:
At the individual level, families are the primary source of emotional, social and financial support. At the national level, they contribute to social stability and national cohesiveness as they help develop socially responsible individuals and deepen the bond Singaporeans have with our country. 
Turning to Chen Family Awards, Jonathan Choo configures the familial institution as a site of structure and struggle. Billed as a “Super 8 mockumentary”, the short emulates home videos of a bygone era. These perfunctory markers of analogue—the short runtime, its grainy texture, the shaky handheld camera—allude to an outward return to a kind of tradition, and consequently, rhetoric. The rhythm, logic, and boundaries of a home video shot on Super 8mm guide the film in the same way family policies inform life choices in Singapore.
The vocabulary of the titular awards ceremony is non-imposing, like the language of national policies. It seeks to be imperceptible, to go over your head either from benign familiarity or an instilled veil of nonchalance. Cash grants, baby bonuses, and so forth are awarded to citizens who maintain certain acceptable familial practices and forms. A recipient of any Chen Family Award has “excelled in strengthening the family”, the decision process “meritocratic”. Congratulations, your contribution to the family unit is now made quantifiable!
When I think of home videos, I think of holiday celebrations, I think of children opening presents with the chatter of a parent resounding in the background as they record the joyous occasion. The inherent silent format of Choo’s true to form Super 8 film eliminates dialogue, the intertitles providing a pragmatic narration of events. The camera is simultaneously detached yet intimate. It lingers on middle child River’s face as she anticipates the results of the ‘Best Family Member’ award. Are we to presume another family member is behind the camera?
At the 15th instalment of the ceremony, every single family member assumes their respective positions—someone sets up the awards for display, the nominees take their seat on and around the living room couch, and the patriarch dons a blazer to commence his role as awards show host. While the nation continuously strives and claims to have achieved a certain kind of “globalised” modernity, they too claim to have retained certain traditions. An ongoing challenge for development “lies in being able to take what is good from ‘the West’—its technological advances and competitive spirit—and fuse it with the ‘values’ of ‘the East’. The family becomes that which must be protected and that will in turn protect society from the negative fall-outs of economic growth.”
And so it is easy to believe that quantifying things is a very Singaporean impulse. The individual is no longer rewarded for their personal accomplishments here, it can only be measured in terms of arbitrary contributions to the family: ‘Most Improved’, ‘Most Positive’, ‘Best Humour’, ‘Best Family Member’. The family unit functions like the state in the same way it is influenced by it. Boundaries of such relationships are consequently governed by ‘discipline’, understood in the Foucaldian sense as a lateral process of “hierarchisation, self- and mutual surveillance, [where] normalisation and examination depends upon subjects’ participation”. 
To negotiate with this fact to any degree is to acknowledge the push and pull of one’s role within larger entities—not just within the institution of family, but the nation and beyond. This negotiation is much subtler than the thrusts of movement in Plastic Sonata.
When I think of awards ceremonies, I think of Hollywood. I notice the Chinese words inscribed onto the Chen Family Awards trophies and banner and I am now catapulted to the East.
Hopper’s “Rooms by the Sea” comes to mind again as it is comically revealed in Chen Family Awards that every member of the family is designated a water-related name—River, Ocean, Rain, Nemo. Here, Choo appropriates and toys with national conceptions of social order to mirror the flows of contemporary Singaporean life. The Chen family are ideal Singaporeans who will contribute to the country’s economic and global growth because their English names and comfortable condominium family home signal social mobility. All that the Singaporean individual wants is to feel great in their contributions, and in a way that they don’t have to think too much about. It gestures towards something bigger and more far-reaching than it actually does.
Plastic Sonata’s credits roll over Bryan Ferry’s rendition of “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”. The original song was featured in the 1933 Broadway show Roberta, adapted from the novel Gowns by Alice Duer Miller. But the most popular and recognisable recording of the song is by that of doo-wop group, The Platters. The tune itself is rather self-explanatory, telling a story of a man being blinded by love. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield hears this song at a significant moment on the carousel in Central Park. The version that Yeo uses is, curiously, sung by an Englishman despite its distinctly American origins and interpolations. I mention all of this because a “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” needle drop is known to have a vast and well-documented history. To use such a song “is to reference an entire cinematic universe onto itself, filled with moments of slow dances, disintegrating romances, and delusion”. 
Chen Family Awards and Plastic Sonata not only share such an affinity for referentiality, they also give us access to a canon of audiovisual lexicon beyond our shores to reify the anxieties of contemporary Singaporean life. Consider the role of the individual in more complex conceptions of social order, the films say. There’s nothing we can do about it, though.
I first read Tiqqun as a teenager, and Bloom was quite a devastating revelation. I realised self-identifying with almost every object or depiction I encountered made me the exact alienated subject of modernity. Reflecting on this compulsion, what both films in their various invocations of imported references achieve is using mass cultural resources to help fill in some of the blanks. And I think, perhaps, a lot of what Singapore and Singaporeans are good at is simply invoking these larger things. In this reduced position, there is then the potential to spark new action. For as Blooms, we “cannot allow ourselves to identify for long with any particular content, but only with the movement of pulling free from all of them.”
- Wee, C. J. W. L. “The Suppressed in the Modern Urbanscape: Cultural Difference and Film in Singapore.” Positions : East Asia Cultures Critique, vol. 20, no. 4, 2012, pp. 983–1007.
- Tiqqun. The Theory of Bloom.Translated by Robert Hurley. 1999.
- Ministry of Community Development and Sports 2003. Official website. www.mcys.gov.sg.
- Teo, Youyenn. “Shaping the Singapore Family, Producing the State and Society.” Economy and Society, vol. 39, no. 3, 2010, pp. 337–59.
- Benson, Hannah. “The Smoke Gets In Your Eyes Cinematic Universe.” Roger Ebert. https://www.rogerebert.com/features/the-smoke-gets-in-your-eyes-cinematic-universe.
About the Writer
Leticia Sim is a Singapore-based writer. Her work has appeared in RICE Media, B-Side, Sinema, and elsewhere. She is interested in film, music, “culture”, the boys of Frankfurt School philosophy, and polarising internet figures. She holds a BA in English from Nanyang Technological University. Her name is not SEO-friendly. She can be reached at email@example.com.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.