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

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