Singapore is one of the world’s most competitive societies, as well as Asia’s unhappiest, and the charming if initially unsubtle “Singapore Dreaming” unpicks the link between these two facts. A fable of a family torn apart by the forces of Western capitalism sounds heavy going on paper, but the pic handles the subject with a pleasing lightness of touch, particularly over its second half.
Helmed by a husband-wife team and produced by superbly-named plastic surgery tycoon Woffles Woo, the pic is far from being the sensual, exotic Asian fare beloved of fest programmers. Still, its urgently contempo feel should find it a home on the fest circuit. Production company 5C Films will be hoping “Dreaming” becomes the first independent Singapore film ever to break even at home when released there in 2007.
The uncouth Huat (Richard Low), heavily in debt, lives in a cramped apartment with simple, traditionalist wife Luan (Alice Lim Cheng Peng), on whom he takes out his frustrations. At one point, he buys her earrings, never having noticed her ears aren’t pierced. His secretary daughter Mei (Yeo Yann Yann) is pregnant and married to unsuccessful insurance salesman C.K. (Lim Yu-Beng), and early scenes show their preparations for the return of lazy son Seng (Dick Su) from college in Idaho.
Seng’s return is followed by an unsuccessful job interview, about which he lies to g.f. Irene (Serene Chen); meanwhile, Mei gently encourages C.K. as he miserably calls up old school friends in the hope of a sale.
When Huat wins the lottery, it tellingly worsens the family’s situation. Seng buys a flash car with money he’s borrowed from Huat, while Huat has a heart attack while awaiting his longed-for interview for membership of a country club.
The relatively leisurely second part of the pic reps a nice counterpoint to the sometimes over-stretched, noisy comedy of the first, and is built around the rhythms of a loving portrayal of the Chinese Taoist funeral of a key family member. A new air of gentle lyricism starts to pervade proceedings at this point, aided by Sydney Tan’s attractive, piano-based score. But even such a long-standing ritual as this one cannot survive the tensions caused by the desire for acquisition of wealth, meaning that the pic broadens out into a study of a society changing too rapidly for its own good.
Script is careful to position the male characters as victims of economic forces they don’t understand, so that even the frankly repellent Huat engages our compassion. Alice Lim Cheng Peng is particularly good as a woman apparently baffled by the modern world, but who ends by revealing that she perfectly understands its machinations.
Visually, things look a little bleached-out. The dialogue shuttles haphazardly between three languages, including the often bizarre version of English (“Singlish”) which is spoken in Singapore, a country in which grandparents sometimes cannot understand their grandchildren’s speech.