Exploring the regional or national cinema of Singapore is a massively enriching experience. Culture Trip has put together a list of the 10 best films, both old and contemporary, that provide a glimpse into what it means to be Singaporean.
A Yellow Bird is the feature debut of up-and-coming director K. Rajagopal. The film broke quite a few boundaries in Singapore for being one of the rare few that tell the story of the city-state’s Indian population, with heavy use of the Tamil language. It is a quiet portrait of a man seeking redemption, though no one is willing to give it to him – it’s a side of Singapore outside of the sheen that is immediately apparent. It landed the filmmaker a Cannes Critics Week Grand Prize nomination.
15 has managed to earn cult status since director Royston Tan developed it into a full feature, building on the source material of one of his earlier short films. There are striking moments in the gangster film where the characters sing tunes – most of it in the Hokkien language – praising their specific triad. Despite this fantastical element, it was a realistic and stark portrayal of gang life among the Singaporean Chinese, and the use of real-life triad members as actors touched quite a nerve when it came out. It’s a less than positive appraisal of Singapore, but its honesty and kinetic style has made it very popular.
Constantly thought of as on ode to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Djinn’s last feature film is an extremely grim and dark take on dissatisfaction with life in Singapore. The main character is a taxi driver who has a dream of moving to Perth, Australia, as he believes there is nothing in Singapore that’s worth staying for. It tackles a not-so-hidden secret that a number of citizens here feel alienated and desire to move abroad – and Australia is a popular choice. The gritty noir take on a controversial issue still sears in the collective memory of Singaporeans.
A real gem from pre-independence Singapore, Pontianak itself is a Malay word that refers to a female vampire that terrifies everyone from schoolchildren to adults alike. When it was first released it was so successful that it screened for almost three months in local theatres. It spawned sequels while rival studios created their own take on the Pontianak myth. The film, which has the uncanny ability of targeting the psyche and fears of the local population, is a fascinating look at the stories that every Singaporean grew up hearing.
Screened at the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival – where it received a standing ovation – Apprentice touches on the controversial death penalty in Singapore. By avoiding the use of cliches and upsetting conventional wisdom in the city-state, the movie’s young director Boo Junfeng manages to craft a delicate film that forces you to confront the humanity in the face of state machinery – a message that translates across many borders.
Winning the grand prize, The Golden Leopard, at the Locarno Film Festival, Yeo Siew Hua has managed to compose a film as poetic as it is unsettling. A Land Imagined is a noir-like detective mystery that involves the search for a missing immigrant worker by a police detective. It confronts the oft-neglected topic of the massive number of foreign workers who toil tirelessly under sometimes terrible conditions to build the concrete structures that pepper the Singaporean landscape. The clash of two different people, the local and the immigrant worker, brings out a fascinating interaction between two different communities that very rarely, if ever, interact with each other.
Birthed in what is considered to be the Golden Age of Singaporean cinema in the ’60s and ’70s, Ibu Mertuaku has continued to have a dramatic presence not just in Singapore but in the wider Malay-speaking world. A critique of the gap between the poor and wealthy, the foresight this film displays is as relevant then as it is now in Singapore. Starring P. Ramlee, well-known in both Malaysian and Singapore cinema, this evocative melodrama moves from comedy to tragedy as the plot progresses and we witness the drama of a love affair between a poor musician and wealthy woman’s only child.
The debut feature by Boo Junfeng had an immediate impact for its exploration of how the Singaporean male is constantly shackled to a legacy he cannot run away from. This powerful meditative film displays an uncanny and piercing ability to bare the soul of its characters without ever taking advantage of cheap theatrics to sway the audience’s emotion. When you consider masculinity in Singapore and practices such as compulsory conscription, it becomes apparent how Sandcastle was such an astute film that dared broach the subject of the island state’s reliance on bodies for its own ends.
A film so controversial that Singaporeans had to cross the Causeway that links Malaysia to Singapore to watch it. The documentary deals with the topic of repression, a storyline partially found in Sandcastle as well, but in this case it deals with the arrests and denial of a trial of hundreds of individuals accused of wanting to overthrow the state for their communist ideals. The documentary has interviews with these people, specifically those who fled before they could be arrested. The film achieved the fascinating feat of humanising these people, showing their lives in foreign lands and how they still keep up with news about Singapore. It’s an emotionally riveting film about a dark era in Singapore’s history.
The second, and widely considered the best, of the famous Bujang Lapok series of films helmed by the movie titan P. Ramlee. Pendekar Bujang Lapok, is a classic David vs Goliath type of story filled with laughs and tunes that are still sung today. P. Ramlee had an uncanny ability to build heartwarming tales that crisscross various emotions. His characters constantly overcome obstacles despite being absolutely ordinary in every way. This made him very popular not just in Singapore but in the wider Southeast Asian landscape. It is debatable that even after many years, no other Singaporean film has come close to the impact he has had on generations of people.