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Film Review: ‘7 Letters’

This omnibus commemorates the 50th anniversary of Singapore's independence in uneven but mostly poignant fashion.

You can’t be homesick unless you’re away from home. An anthology of shorts made by seven internationally known Singaporean helmers in response to the Lion City’s Golden Jubilee, “7 Letters” explores national identity and the concept of home, often from the vantage point of an outsider. Far from being flag-waving government mouthpieces, Eric Khoo, Jack Neo, Royston Tan, K. Rajogopal, Tan Pin Pin, Kelvin Tong and Boo Junfeng reveal facets of their society through voices that are by turns argumentative, contemplative, passionate and ironic. The highly cinematic project has garnered excellent reviews and should have long festival legs.

Supported by the Singapore Film Commission and produced by Royston Tan, the picture finds almost all its contributors celebrating their society’s multilingual, multi-ethnic fabric, but they are also uniformly nostalgic about disappearing traditions, landmarks and community values. An out-of-service train station, an old Malay song, a campy horror film, kampung (village) life, kueh and nasi lemak — all these tokens of Southeast Asian heritage somehow hark back to Singapore’s expulsion from the Federation of Malaya in 1965. With separation and border crossing serving as recurring motifs, a wistful mood prevails.

The omnibus commences fittingly with “Cinema,” from Singapore’s leading auteur, Eric Khoo (“In the Room,” “Be With Me”). It’s a rhapsodic paean to the magic of the medium, complete with a cameo appearance by a famous French actress. More importantly, it reps a sublime homage to the golden age of the Singaporean film industry in the ’50s, which pooled together the multicultural clout of Chinese producers, Indian technicians and Malay creatives — as exemplified by “Pontianak” (1957), which jumpstarted the Southeast Asian horror genre.

Like a noir siren, actress Nadiah M. Din casts a darkly irresistible spell on viewers in a film-within-a-film invoking the Pontianak, a mythical Malay spirit who terrorizes men for stealing her infant. Brian Gothong Tan’s smooth lensing glides from onscreen fiction to open-air screenings and back to drab modern reality, and “Cinema” itself rotates through camp, farce and melancholy before culminating in a triumphant expression of movie love and filmmaking camaraderie. The Pontianak’s plaintive song echoes the anthology’s collective themes of separation, loss and blood ties.

The most pedestrian entry here is “The Girl,” directed by local hitmaker Jack Neo (“I Not Stupid,” “Money No Enough”). In this sickly-sweet idealization of puppy love, a boy cruelly humiliates the girl who’s got a crush on him, only to have her rescue him from loan sharks. As in all Neo’s films, the plot is padded with facetious jokes in several dialects and undone by hammy acting. Worse still is its preachy message about young brats and their ingratitude for the silent sacrifices of their parents and government; it’s Confucianism as emotional blackmail. Though the film is supposedly set in a kampung in the ’70s, the flavorless tech package has all the ambience of a TV set.

A family crisis awakens a sense of national identity and augments a historical moment of self-determination in K. Rajogopal’s “The Flame.” Drawing from his family’s own experience, the director dramatizes the conflict between Anglophile Indian patriarch Madhayan (T. Sasitharan) and his son (N. Vighnesh) when they’re offered British citizenship on the eve of the U.K. military withdrawal from Singapore. Nithiyia Roa delivers an electrifying performance as the pregnant daughter-in-law, Leela, who expresses the strength, self-assertion and hope that enabled her generation to shake off the specter of colonialism. Hideho Urata’s clean monochrome lensing of the family’s house in Selatar Airbase emphasizes its hierarchical arrangement of space, and gives the film a stiff-upper lip feel that establishes it as a relic or allegory of colonialism itself.

Harking back to his meditative sophomore feature “4:30,” in which a neglected boy forms an unconventional bond with an equally lonely foreigner, Royston Tan’s “Bunga Sayang” demonstrates how friendship and racial harmony can be fostered by daily acts of kindness. When his tap stops running mid-shower, a boy goes running to his Malay neighbor (singer J. Rosmini ), and is treated to freshly made kueh (a Malay dessert) and repeated performances of the titular song, which translates to “Flower of Love.” Even with minimal dialogue, Tan captures the two characters’ rapport and the languor of a tropical afternoon. The director has said he meant the ’80s-set short to recall the trust and openness among public housing communities in the past, but it also betrays nostalgia for the sort of soul-food dishes that are fast fading with the generation that lovingly made them.

“Pineapple Town” traces the trip that  Singaporean Li Ning (Lydia Look) makes to the small Malaysian town of Pekan Nanas, where she hopes to track down the birth mother of her adopted infant daughter. In tackling the proverbial “search for roots,” this first fiction work from documaker Tan Pin Pin is at once upfront and nuanced about the complexities of cultural identity. The cross-border Causeway that Li drives through reps an obvious symbol for the umbilical cord that connects two countries that used to be whole. But there’s a deeper political subtext in the motif of separation and exile, especially if seen alongside the helmer’s controversial “To Singapore, With Love,” a banned documentary on the pain of political dissidents barred indefinitely from returning to their homeland.

Boo Junfeng (“Sandcastles”) creates a measured mood piece on the power of love and memory in “Parting,” which follows Ishmael (J.A. Halim), an elderly Malaysian who crosses the border in search of his first love, Swee Choo (Cheryl Tan). The intersection of history and romance is encapsulated in a scene shot inside Tanjong Pagar train station, which served as the main gateway between Singapore and Malaysian for 90 years. In an inspired cinematic coup, complete with temporal fillips and meta-cinematic trappings, Boo links the station’s closure to the passing of an intimate relationship. Though the story is conceptually too ambitious to be realized as a short, Boo at least achieves a poetic tone of unfufiled longing through fluid editing, transporting the protag from a disorienting contemporary urban landscape to a half-recalled, half-fantasized past.

“Grandma Positing System (GPS)” focuses on the arduous ritual of ancestor worship that is a legacy of Singapore’s secession. Every Qingming Festival, a real-estate agent has to drive his family across the border to Johor to pay respects to his father’s grave, waiting impatiently for his old lady to reiterate navigation instructions to her late husband for fear that his spirit can’t find its way home. At first mildly absurd in tone, the film builds to a profoundly moving coda — an elegy for a relentlessly changing cityscape that gives its citizens no landmarks to reminisce about. Kelvin Tong, whose resume has consisted mostly of horror (“The Maid,” “Rule No. 1”), is equally at ease observing the dynamics among three generations.

Directed by Eric Khoo. Camera (color/B&W), Brian Gothong Tan.
With: Nadiah M. Din, David Chua, Edward Khoo, Sathiananthen Rasalingam. (Bahasa, English, Mandarin dialogue)

The Girl
Directed by Jack Neo. Camera (color), Harris Hue.
With: Yan Li Xuan, Josmen Lum, Brien Lee, Sebastian Ng, Lynn Tan, Chai Poh Lun. (Hokkien, Cantonese, Mandarin dialogue)

The Flame
Directed by K. Rajogopal. Camera (B&W), Hideho Urata.
With: T. Sasitharan, N. Vighnesh, Nithiya Rao, Fatin Amira. (Tamil dialogue)

Bunga Sayang
Directed by Royston Tan. Camera (color), Alan Yap.
With: Ray Tan Liang Yu, J. Rosmini. (Malay, Mandarin, English dialogue)

Pineapple Town
Directed by Tan Pin Pin. Camera (color).
With: Lydia Look, Nickson Cheng, Rianne Lee, Anne James, Rachel Tay. (Mandarin, English dialogue)

Directed by Boo Junfeng. Camera (color/B&W), Hideho Urata.
With: J.A. Halim, Cheryl Tan, Khalid Omar, Jonathan Sim, Ashmi Roslan, Karen Tan Bee Lin. (Malay, English, Mandarin dialogue)

Grandma Positioning System (GPS)
Directed by Kelvin Tong. Camera (color), Michael Zaw.
With: Zhang Jin Hua, Zheng Ge Ping, Hong Hui Fang, Hazelle Teo, Rey Phua, Mok Tye Par. (Hokkien, Mandarin, English dialogue)

Film Review: '7 Letters'

Reviewed online, Vancouver, Sept. 27, 2015. (Also in Busan Film Festival — A Window on Asian Cinema). Running time: 116 MIN.

Production: (Singapore) A Chuan Pictures production with the support of Singapore Film Commission. (International sales: Chuan Pictures, Singapore.) Produced by Royston Tan.

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