When Language Meets Film

by Valeda Clarabelle Ang (Anglo-Chinese Junior College)

Content warning: Please note that this reflection contains discussion of a racial slur

I was extremely fortunate to be able to intern at the Asian Film Archive (AFA) for the first two weeks of December 2021 as part of an Enrichment Programme for English Language Elective Scholars (ELES). 

I was first given an introduction to the Archive and briefed on the different forms of film storage. I quickly learnt that preserving works of any type of film had its own difficulties. I realised unfortunately that not many filmmakers and stakeholders are aware about the importance of proper care and storage of films. From reels to born-digital content stored in hard drives, it is extremely easy to lose years of effort if the materials were not stored properly.  

This idea was underscored when I got a chance to hand wind and clean a set of reels for the film, Is There Anything Specific You Would Like Me To Tell You About? (1991, dir. Yau Ching). It had arrived at the Archive without its core and was rather sticky. I thought that it also smelt like a box of old acrylic paints; I later learnt that it was the result of Vinegar Syndrome – a chemical deterioration common in films due to fluctuating ambient temperatures and humidity. At the film table, I was guided on how to splice and piece back the torn reel as well as to wind it back. It was an intense process; the right amount of tension was needed to wind the reel for it to hold its shape, yet too much tension will cause the reel to break. The leaders and tails of the reels were extremely brittle, some snapping even without much force. 

Besides films, I was introduced to the related materials that AFA acquires as well. It was really interesting to see a collection of documents – scripts, filming schedules, stills etc of The Teenage Textbook Movie (1998, dir. Phillip Lim). In addition, I assisted with digitising handbills that had been donated. I learnt that in the past, these black/white and colourful handbills printed on thin slightly smaller than A4-sized paper, were given out to people as publicity material for films. 

As someone studying English Language and Linguistics, I could not help but notice how the word “today” was spelt in this handbill for the film “How is the Weather To-day”. In the past, such hyphenations were common. It was only after the 1920s that the hyphens were removed and “today” was used. This style of spelling revealed the era the film was from.

Handbill for How is the Weather To-day? (1974, dir. Pai Ching-Jiu), image scan by Asian Film Archive

Another unique thing that I noticed about handbills is the tendency for their synopses to be lengthy. If one were to read the passage titled “Synopsis” in the image, they would see that the plot is revealed in detail. This was interesting as most of us are only familiar with the brief and suspense-inducing synopses that cinemas or streaming websites release.  

Here is another handbill that caught my eye.

Handbill for The Soul of N****r Charley (1973, dir. Larry Spangler), image scan by Asian Film Archive

In today’s context where we are deeply aware of issues regarding race, I definitely reacted particularly strongly to this pejorative. I also found out that this film is under the genre of “Blaxploitation”. According to the Oxford Languages English Dictionary, “blaxploitation” is defined as the exploitation of black people, especially with regard to stereotyped roles in films. In the current society, derogatory terms would be avoided as people advocate for racial sensitivity. However, it has been recognised that Blaxploitation was an effort in the past to provide racial representation and an attempt to relate to people of the same race (Kench, 2021). This film material was eye-opening because I gleaned insights into the social climate of the past and how racial issues were regarded.

Throughout my internship, I was tasked with cataloguing films. I filled in information about the film, such as the cast and crew, its screening history, awards received as well as a synopsis appropriate for the film. I realised the need to be objective and concise while writing synopses because archival cataloguing was to provide information and not promote the show in the way streaming sites, for example, would do. I also realised that while most audiences recognise that a lot of effort is put into creating films, many do not really know how films are made. Most of us do not even read past the cast list in the credits of a show. However, using the credits to catalogue the film really put things into perspective for me because I got to see the huge number of people involved in the filmmaking process. It gave me a deeper sense of appreciation for the people behind the scenes of a film and I think that more people should be aware of that too.

One of the films that I particularly liked was Dahdi by Kirsten Tan. It was inspired by an incident involving the Rohingya refugees. While I knew of the Rohingya crisis through news reports, watching the film really hit home because I realised the extent of the situation and the importance of films in raising awareness of social issues. It sparks a conversation and becomes an avenue for anyone, no matter how young, to become more cognizant about the bigger world and become advocates for a cause.

Image still from Dahdi (2014, dir. Kirsten Tan)

I was also given a few films to watch for exposure. One particular film, Rajendra Gour’s Labour of Love: The Housewife, surprised me. Having heard numerous stories from my grandmother and mother about how women were treated in the past, I had assumed that people in that era did not recognise the efforts of women and the potential they hold. To watch a work from the 70s that shone light on the stereotypes and misconceptions of housewives was heartening because it showed that there were people that advocated for something that not many might have believed in at that point in time. I am so grateful to the Asian Film Archive for archiving such precious works, for it allows new generations of audiences like me to look back and appreciate how far we have come.

Image still from Labour of Love (1974, dir. Rajendra Gour)

I came into this internship to gain insights of the contexts related to the English Language and to be exposed to different work environments. However I left with so much more. Without the continual effort of the Asian Film Archive, I would not have been able to gain so much understanding of the work of an archivist. I am grateful to Mr Chew Tee Pao and Ms Tan Yi Ping for sharing your knowledge and your patience in teaching me. 


Kench, S. (2021, May 30). Blaxploitation—An American film movement explained. StudioBinder. https://www.studiobinder.com/blog/what-is-blaxploitation-definition/

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.

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