The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

It’s encouraging that works like this can find traction in Singapore, even if its popularity did rely somewhat on the Streisand Effect.

Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is an evocative and multilayered graphic novel that leverages on the medium to its fullest effect to deliver a package that is in part allegorical historical narrative, in part autobiography, and in part a visual archive of visceral images of Singapore, from past to present, seen through a comic artist’s unique perspective.

The titular Chan is fictional, if there was any doubt about that; but the way in which Liew presents him is as if he is a real part of Singapore’s history. Chan cuts a quirky figure; an irascible and opinionated narrator who rips the plastic off comics in bookstores to browse without buying them. Describing himself as “Singapore’s greatest living artist”, he initially fools you with his extravagant self-aggrandizement, but you soon learn that that particular epithet is nothing more than self-deprecation, an ironic reminder or the irrelevance of his craft in the face of modern Singapore.

Sonny Liew presents Chan’s life story as an chronicle of the man and his work, but Chan’s comics are inseparable from the historical milieu. Liew’s artistic range is demonstrated in the number and variety of styles in which Chan works; everything from light-hearted animal-kingdom parables to noirish superhero pulp to Tezuka-style space opera; but always commenting on and shaping the narratives of contemporary historical events. One Tezuka-inspired comic portrays the MCP as a giant robot that only speaks Mandarin; another, Bukit Chapalang, recounts the story of Singapore’s struggle for self-governance in the form of a bunch of forest animals trying to get the lions to allow them to hold a picnic. Over time Chan’s works increase in allegorical sophistication, and you can track his political passions as they mutate through the years, from the communists, to merger, and later on, to criticize the fledgling PAP government’s strictures on artistic expression, as well as some of its more hackneyed policies.

There is also an autobiographical element to this story, as Chan’s aspirations fizzle out in the midst of Singapore’s rise under the PAP. In one of his later comics, he imagines an alternative vision of Singapore in which the Barisan Socialis wins and Lim Chin Siong is the Prime Minister of Singapore, with Lee Kuan Yew in exile, and himself Singapore’s most well-known comic artist. But Chan admits that this grandiose vision is no more than just a mirage and a dream, and stark white reality must needs encroach; this melancholy acceptance of the outcomes of his long and obscure career as a forgotten comics artist provides a large part of the emotional pathos of this graphic novel, as our last scene is of Chan, a lonely and forgotten old man, doodling on his easel in his modest apartment, surrounded by simple accoutrements, in the midst of a modern, PAP-dominated Singapore.

The story is also a loose meditation on two men, Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Chin Siong, and the alternative visions that they represented. There is somewhat of a romanticization of Lim Chin Siong, coupled with what can only be described as an unsalutary portrayal of Lee Kuan Yew, especially in the later years, where Chan depicts, in cuttingly satirical fashion, Lee’s efforts to silence dissenting voices in the artistic and media spheres as necessary to maintain our unity of purpose in the midst of existential vulnerability. Chan’s comics also offered wry observations on some of the PAP’s more controversial policies, such as the Graduate Mothers Scheme. To Chan, art could afford no synthetic boundaries set on it by the state.

The variety of art styles, the careful layering of narratives, the painstaking attention to historical accuracy, and the found-footage nature of much of the ersatz archival material – the portraits, sketches, posters from Chan’s oeuvre of people, places and ideas (especially the hand-made Ah Huat doll) – these are all disparate elements that come together, in breathtaking fashion, to make up the harmonious whole of this graphic novel, which assuredly will stand as one of the finest meditations on Singapore’s past and present that have yet been produced. It’s a wonderful, unified, historically sensitive work, its underlying message about our curtailed capacity for sincere dissension somewhat sharpened by the entire NAS fiasco that skyrocketed it to fame; but most of all, it is profoundly human and melancholy. It’s hard to unpack this work in a few hundred words, but suffice to say that The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye should be required reading for all Singaporeans interested in a brave, critical, and aesthetically accomplished look at Singapore, past and present.

I give this graphic novel: 4.5 out of 5 giant communist robots

Inside Out

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Another year, another dose of Pixar magic.

Pixar doesn’t always strike gold, but when it does, it really strikes hard. Inside Out has that ineffable quality that is so present in the best Pixar films – that profound understanding of the human heart, combined with healthy servings of imaginativeness, humor, and most importantly, compassion. No other animation studio has come close to Pixar’s almost ridiculous ability to make such transcendently wonderful movies.

Inside Out introduces Riley, our young protagonist, from the moment she is born, as well as the five primary emotions that make up her psyche – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust, who, as distinct personalities, occupy the pastel-colored wonderland that is Riley’s young mind. Riley grows up as the very picture of happiness in Minnesota, but when her family moves over to San Francisco, the new surroundings put a dampener on her normally sunny disposition. Inside Riley’s mind, Joy is unable to understand why she’s unable to keep Riley happy. A malfunction inside the control room sends Joy and Sadness out into the wilderness of Riley’s mind, where they must find a way to return and set things right as Riley, bereft of Joy and Sadness, gets more and more emotionally off-kilter.

The conceit of Inside Out is an inspired choice by Pixar director Pete Docter, as it really is, in many ways, a movie about how Pixar makes successful movies. Inside Out teaches us that it’s okay to feel, that the multitude of emotions we face all play a part in what makes us whole. Riley, now an adolescent, can no longer feel unadulterated joy all the time – her experience is now colored by the sadness that she feels upon leaving her friends and hockey club in Minnesota. To feel sadness is important because it is a core component of our emotional landscape. It is the outlet by which we can feel catharsis when we encounter troubles. It is part and parcel of the human experience. And this is the conceit that Pixar weaves so deftly when it creates its films; masterpieces of emotional impact that make their audiences laugh and shed tears in the space of two hours in a darkened theater.

It’s also a meditation on childhood and growing up, and the developments in the psychology of children as they mature. There is a bittersweet vein that runs through this entire narrative, a meditation on what is inevitably lost in the process of growing up. Change, maturation, and forgetting are essential components of this journey. I think it would be hard not to at least shed a tear during that scene in which Riley’s imaginary friend Bing-Bong sacrifices himself in the abyss of lost memories to offer Joy a shot at escaping. It is not only a moment of pathos for a character we’ve come to know, but also a statement of Riley’s inevitable loss of that idyllic childhood innocence that she used to have, to be replaced by other, newer things and a richer, more complex emotional landscape.

This richly textured emotional journey takes place in one of Pixar’s most fully-formed imaginative landscapes so far, a visual representation of our mental landscape in a hundred different clever manifestations – the chamber of abstract thought, the dark forest of the subconscious, and the endless labyrinth of shelves that store Riley’s long-term memories. The sheer acuity of the visual language of the film is astounding and allows complicated plot elements to be communicated effectively to audiences in a way that pure words can’t with as much economy and flair. And of course, in the “real” world, San Francisco comes to life in all its myriad byways; the Golden Gate Bridge as it rises out of the tops of the Marin Headlands, the pastel shades of  the Ferry Building, the hills and the diversity – Riley is the only blonde white kid in a school full of children of various ethnicities.

Also of particular note is the soundtrack by Michael Giacchino, which I thought was a perfect accompaniment to the film as a whole, acting as a wonderful emotive counterpart to the film’s most poignant moments, like Bing-Bong’s sacrifice or that sequence where Joy dances to a memory of Riley ice-skating. The main theme, in particular, is a deceptively simple piece that nonetheless captures that hopeful but slightly wistful sense of innocence, growing up and maturation perfectly.

Inside Out takes a place in my personal pantheon of the best of Pixar, alongside Ratatouille, Finding Nemo and the Toy Story movies. It’s a triumphant return to form for Pixar and a reminder of the sheer, stratospheric potential of animated films to teach us the ineffable lessons of the heart. That a film like Inside Out could so bravely and poignantly illustrate such truths in our human experience is simply breathtaking to consider.

And might I add that the irascible Lewis Black is probably the perfect choice of casting to play Anger?

Coda: The Lava short before the film was sweet, and the song was pretty good, but ultimately, a little trite as things go. And the entire short seemed to have arisen out of the dreadful pun that was made about lava. 3/5.

I give this film: 5 out of 5 broccoli stalks 

Neverwhere

I’ve never really done more than get my feet slightly wet in the sea that is the Neil Gaiman phenomenon, having once read American Gods a while back; it didn’t leave much of an impression on me then. Now that I’ve had the chance to read Neverwhere, I’m still not yet quite sold on his widespread appeal.

That’s not to say that Neverwhere is a bad book. It’s short and moves along at a brisk pace, a good length for an authorial debut. It’s a self-contained story, a nicely-bound narrative package, with a coherent beginning, middle and end (a breath of fresh air after 1Q84). Its strongest quality is its imaginativeness, an evocative sketch of a London hidden from view, a shadow culture that inhabits its forgotten spaces, vast, gnarly and ancient. Eldritch horrors that lurk in the tunnels of the Underground, vast labyrinths within the centuries-old sewers, and markets that never stay in the same place. Places whose natures reveal the ancient and unexpected double meanings behind their names – Knightsbridge, a bridge cloaked in a darkness that torments those who cross it with nightmares from which they may never return, or Blackfriars, housing a community of monks in black robes, et cetera.

Gaiman has some fun drawing out the comedic potential of these names, through the use of his narrative avatar, Richard Mayhew, an initially hapless denizen of London Above who gets dragged into the novel’s main conflict, when he finds and helps an injured girl from the other London. Mayhew is a convenient plot device by which to introduce Gaiman’s vision of London Below, and his incredulity at his new surroundings is an easily-exploitable source of dark humor. There is a palpable sense of ‘lived-in-ness’ in the depiction of London Below, a place that has gone on long before Mayhew entered the scene and will go on long after he has left. Indeed, the concept on London Below is the novel’s chief strength and a good indicator of Gaiman’s early imaginative chops.

However, Neverwhere betrays its status as a first-time attempt in the way it fumbles through plot, prose and dialogue. Plot-wise, the novel is unremarkable; a boilerplate fantasy tome that sketches out a very ordinary heroes’ journey for Richard Mayhew. The narrative relies on plot armor to protect Mayhew throughout the novel – he undergoes trials that he would, as an ordinary person, have no expectation of passing, and the novel never explains precisely why or how he manages to do so – like surviving the Black Friars’ ordeal when so many before him had failed, killing the boar of the London labyrinth. Some might attribute it to a wish to show that normal people like Mayhew can overcome adversity if their intentions are pure, but this strikes me as a little trite and unrealistic. The climax and denouement is cliched supervillain-reveals-his-evil-plan stuff, and is undone by his own hubris and the quick-thinking of the plucky heroes. At the end of his hero’s journey, Mayhew finds himself back in the normal world, but he is a transformed man, and no longer sees value in the accoutrements of his old life to which he so aspired before, and goes back to London Below – a little bit of a twee ending, if you ask me.

There are also a few silly plot-holes that are hand-waved away without much explanation. The Black Friars hand the key to the prison of the big baddie to the protagonists even when they know it’s a trap, dismissing it as “not being their responsibility” to inform the heroes of the true nature of things. Then there’s also the question of why Door made the imitation key – was she so paranoid? Anyway, the villain’s plot was overly intricate and there was no reason why Islington couldn’t just have not revealed Croup and Vandemar until after Door had opened the door. This is decidedly the too-complicated-for-its-own-good plot macguffin.

Other than the plot, Gaiman also has a tendency to be a little too enthusiastic in his cleverness, laying the quirk a little thick. Case in point: they way in which Mister Croup and Mister Vandemar, the two main antagonists of the book, are hammed up to the skies. Gaiman doesn’t hesitate to show us just how weirdly horrible these two gentlemen are – Vandemar, a dull-witted tough who kills and eats small animals for fun, Croup, the brains of the pair, with his extra-flowery way of speaking and his predilection to eat Tang Dynasty porcelain just to derive the satisfaction of having something beautiful taken out of the world; the ill-fitting suits that they wear in a poor attempt to blend in with their surroundings – this is all old-hat stuff, amusing to read but a little overdone.

Then there’s the writing and dialogue in general – which is a bit rough and of uneven quality. There’s also a preponderance of adverbs, like how the marquis de Carabas keeps “yawning hugely” or Lamia “grinning widely”, which are never a good thing to leave lying around in a book – they make the writing seem lazy.

In sum, Neverwhere is a novel of considerable imaginative potential that is nevertheless still hobbled by deficiencies in plot and craftsmanship. For me, its not a novel that would encourage me to take the time to read his other offerings, especially with the backlog I have, but it’s also not an indictment. But its flaws are ones that are usually remedied by experience. I suppose the jury is still out, and I should read more of his books to form a more informed impression of Gaiman’s body of work. Perhaps Sandman…

I give this book 3 out of 5 fops-with-no-names

7 Letters

I watched this anthology of short films on the last day that it was slated to run in theaters here. Insofar as I subscribe to the idea that there are certain “national obligations” to discharge, I felt that watching 7 Letters, especially on the big screen, was one of them. 7 Letters had been described to me as being a heartfelt and authentic homage to Singapore: its history, its monuments, and its people, in stark contrast to the bombastic and critically-panned 1965, which was pretty much a sterling example of what we might call instrumental media, or a piece of media content designed to achieve a specific non-aesthetic purpose, such as national education (disclaimer: I haven’t watched it).

I’m happy to report that 7 Letters is, as a whole, a well-made anthology of films that showcases Singaporean cinema at its best and most distinctive. It represents a wide swath of our cinematic tradition, from Jack Neo’s slapstick moralism to Tan Pin Pin’s documentarian, socially-conscious sensibility. But they have a raw authenticity that shines through, despite the government funding, and despite the SG50 label that sticks to the project; these films allow us to take pride, even for an instant, in being a part of a historical and cultural tradition that we might loosely term Singapore.

That’s not to say this is a uniformly great piece of art, though. Some of the shorts are decidedly better than others, so I’ll discuss them separately and rank them in order of my personal preference.

Sinema by Eric Khoo

As openings go, 7 Letters could probably have done better than Khoo’s Sinema, a somewhat maudlin tribute to the golden age of Singaporean cinema in the 1950s, where people of different races and religions came together to make movies. The film-in-film premise starts out interesting, especially when watching the Nadiah M Din croon out her song, which turns from a wistful ballad to something altogether more sinister, in a faithful re-enactment of a classic Pontianak film. But the tone of the film turns to mawkish sentimentality as we leave the vintage film behind and follow the travels of the protagonist, the director of said vintage film now languishing in a nursing home, as he resurrects his old cast and crew to remake the movie once again. It’s a little self-indulgent and a little too moralistic, but I suppose it does provide a good framing device for the anthology as a whole – we are, after all, watching a film meant to celebrate local cinema’s role in formulating our own Singaporean narratives. I’d give this a solid B-.

That Girl by Jack Neo

The second short is just pure Neo. The slapstick humor, the unsubtle moralizing, wayward protagonists who finally learn their lessons, and the overweening sense of nostalgia for the simplicity of childhood and the kampung spirit of old – it’s very typical Jack Neo. I suppose he’s iconic enough that a Neo film deserves a place on the pantheon as being an emblematic example of a uniquely Singaporean style of filmmaking – but this second film, while technically competent, exudes a bit of a formulaic aura, of something that Jack Neo could conjure up in his sleep. Nevertheless, the casting is excellent, especially of Yan Li Xuan as the spunky but vulnerable Cai Yun. One might suppose that That Girl, which is about a boy who hurts a girl and realizes that he needs to do right by her, might have been inspired by the desire for redemption in relation to certain recent events in Jack Neo’s experience…B.

The Flame by K Rajagopal

I wanted to like this short, but unfortunately this may be, in my opinion, the weakest of the seven just because it takes a very long time to say very little. An Anglicized Indian family, led by its dour patriarch, is granted British citizenship and prepares to leave for Britain as the last troops pull out of Singapore in 1971, but the son and his wife wish to remain in Singapore, their home. It’s a slow and weighty film, beautifully shot in monochrome, but it takes far too much time to build up to its simple premise – that we should stick to the places that we consider home. Such films require acting and direction of surpassing quality to sustain viewer interest, but the actors, although valiant, can’t quite reach those lofty dramatic heights, and so the film falls a bit flat. The film also ends without much in the way of closure. Of note is the film’s unsubtle way of highlighting the cultural gulf between father and son – father speaks English, son speaks nothing but Tamil; father eats a breakfast of eggs and baked beans, son has…some sort of Indian flatbread? Go easy on the full English, Dad. Lord knows you need to keep that blood pressure in check. I’d rate it a C+.

Bunga Sayang by Royston Tan

This quaint little tale about a little boy becoming friends with his elderly Malay neighbor over the song Bunga Sayang is sweet, gently humorous and possessed of an understated elegance. That is, until Royston Tan abruptly descends into a Dadaist nightmare with a scene where boy and makcik sing together on  a psychedelic cyan stage with prop rainclouds and a…I don’t even know how to describe it. Other than that scene, the final scene with the hanging radio, and occasional lapses in logic (like the boy not using English to try to communicate with the makcik the first time) it’s a pleasant bridge film in the anthology that communicates the themes of neighborliness and cross-cultural fraternity with a subtlety and sensitivity that many Singaporean films with similar themes can’t quite match. Although I fear for the boy’s sanity. Rated B.

Pineapple Town by Tan Pin Pin

With Pineapple Town, we venture from the past to the present in this anthology, and with it the tone of the subsequent shorts becomes somewhat more wistful. Tan Pin Pin’s short distinguishes itself from its peers in its allegorical richness. A mother, interested in finding out more about the birth mother of her adopted infant child, goes to Malaysia to try to find her. Unable to locate the  mother, she interrogates her guide and the locals about her, unaware that she is actually the one being observed. The documentary style shines through, with the use of shaky camera, the use of interview and didactic questioning to advance the plot, and just the sense of place that pervades the short, as if you’re really sitting next to the characters, watching them act out their stories in real time. While the story itself is relatively simple, it encases an especially poignant message: you are what you know. It is important for the adopted child, spirited away into a better life than she would have had, to understand the circumstances of her birth. The metaphor can be aptly applied to Singapore and Singaporeans, who, analogously ripped from our mother country in the throes of the nation’s birth, would do well to understand the historical and cultural milieu from which we came – the eponymous Pineapple Town – in order to inform who we are today. But the best part is still the last shot where, as the camera zooms by on the car, you hear the child, five years old, and visiting her birth mother’s hometown, excitedly shouting “Pineapple!” as her photo is taken next to the giant pineapple statue in the center of the town. I give this a B+.

Parting by Boo Junfeng

This beautiful, elegiac short is, without a doubt, my favorite of the seven by a considerable margin. An elderly Malaysian man, in the early stages of dementia, comes to Singapore in a bid to search for his lost love, after having chosen to part with her to move to Malaysia decades ago. It is a meditative, compassionate, moving film, resonating on so many levels: personal, cultural, and national. The man, living in the past in more ways than one, comes back to a Singapore utterly different from the one he left. The railway terminus has shifted from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands; old flats have been demolished to make way for the new, and payphones are obsolete; superseded in contemptuous fashion by ubiquitous smartphones. As he navigates through this transformed landscape, we hear the echoes of the past, revealed slowly in a melancholic epistolary narrative, in the form of a parting letter from the man’s lost love as she writes him from across an insuperable gulf of space and time. As the man finally reaches Tanjong Pagar terminus to revisit the place of their parting, he comes upon a film crew shooting a period piece in the station’s restored interior, and past and present blur its lines. But Boo doesn’t fall into the trap; the moment passes and the elderly man’s only solace is a warm smile from the in the period show as she takes a smoke break, a smile that, if only for the briefest of moments, reconnects him to that love from long ago. Far from just being a perfect vehicle for catharsis, Boo’s short is also a meditation on the sundered fates of the peoples of the two nations, a unity torn apart by the vicissitudes of politics, power and privilege. I give this short an A+.

Grandma Positioning System by Kelvin Tong

Tong’s short, the last of the seven, is Jack Neo lite, with the same folksy humor, a comically dysfunctional extended family, and a moral at the end of it. But it’s a bit more subtle than Jack Neo’s typical fare, an homage to the Singapore of old and the vast changes that have been visited on its physical and cultural fabric. A Singaporean family – a man, his wife, and his mother – goes to pay respects to the children’s deceased grandfather at his grave in Johor. Although he, his wife and his daughter are impatient to return back to Singapore to be in time for their various appointments, the grandmother takes time to sit down and tell the grandfather’s spirit directions on how to visit the family home, no mean feat in a Singapore whose physical landscape is constantly evolving. The film is wistful but not overtly nostalgic, accepting that changes, while regrettable, are necessary, and the only thing to do is to remember our historical fabric, our essence. The story has a latter component, as we return to the grave one year later, only now the grandmother has passed and now resides with the grandfather, and the family’s youngest son decides to continue the tradition of acting as a global positioning system for his grandparents, in order to guide them to the family’s new home, and the whole family, seeing the boy’s actions, decides to take a moment from their busy schedules to join in this act of communion. Slightly trite, perhaps, but heartfelt and even uplifting, and quite an apt close to our anthology of films, as we look toward the generations of the future. A-.

So, to sum, the films in order of preference:

Parting by Boo Junfeng, A+

Grandma Positioning System by Kelvin Tong, A-

Pineapple Town by Tan Pin Pin, B+

That Girl by Jack Neo, B

Bunga Sayang by Royston Tan, B

Sinema by Eric Khoo, B-

The Flame by K Rajagopal, C+

And as for the project as a whole, I give this film 4 out of 5 letters