Song to a lost Malaya and a different future

Major ear-worm weekend after watching 7 Letters on Friday night! 

A film funded under Government's SG50 initiative and bearing the theme "home", it was easy for this Royston Tan-led project 7 Letters to go the way of celebratory contrivance. I am glad it didn't.

Each of the 7 shorts ended with a quote from the directors. Tan Pin Pin's seemingly cryptic "We are what we know" (interestingly the only short film to gesture at a future) was for me one of the ways of approaching this film. 

So what do we know?

The strongman's tears when announcing Singapore's separation from Malaysia has been the definitive moment of the nation's birth. Not a mother's, but a father's tears. So singular and protected has this image been that we are hard pressed to write another narrative. In any case, history - whether official, dominant or re-visioned - is so thinly examined that we are at best left with nostalgia. 

6 of the 7 short films investigated the past. And a nostalgia, wonderfully teased out with humour, was indeed their rose-coloured tone - be it Eric Khoo's tribute to Singapore's bygone era as the centre of Asia's multilingual cinema world, Jack Neo's kampong idyll, black-white archival photographs at the end of Kelvin Tong's film, or Royston Tan's perfectly-timed HDB paean. 

There was some inevitable exoticising in the process. This lost greater Malaya that seemed more glorious, more beautiful (oh see, seductive pontianak!), more exciting (oh watch, scary pontianak!) and dramatic than what we know of present day Singapore. 

But I think the filmmakers were also creating alternatives to that official image of trauma, separation - and birth. The short films lived in the aftershocks of separation that are deliberately personal and familial instead, but no less emotive, painful, even romantic (for what greater romance than unrequited or unconsummated love). 

And in so doing, I like to think they also give us alternatives to the present narrative; alternatives that were told through all of Singapore's wonderfully varied languages and dialects.

[warning: spoilers ahead]

Boo Junfeng's inter-racial romance in the 60s is further doomed by cross-border separation. Even as the elderly Malay man returns to present-day Singapore to reconnect with his past, he discovers that what separates them has only widened with time, dementia, a train station that is no more, urban redevelopment, and continental migration. Of course, the film hints of a more tolerant Singapore today - and in that, some relief. 

Royston Tan brings together a latchkey Chinese kid and his elderly and seemingly lonely Malay neighbour through a minor "water crisis" (yes, we are joined to Malaysia that way too), kueh, and Dick Lee's evocative "Bunga Sayang".  And in a Tsai Ming Liang-style musical interlude, we see the child and stand-in-(grand)mother unite in a technicolour paradise. 

Kelvin Tong's film has a different kind of border crossing. In his version, a family makes their annual visit to their grandfather's tomb in Malaysia. But death and borders don't separate as much as the threat of indifference and amnesia. Against this threat we must tell and re-tell our journeys. And it is the grandson's inheritance of this journey-telling ritual that gives hope. 

Rajagopal's tightly acted black/white family drama takes place on the day of British withdrawal from Singapore. He places before his protagonist the choice of following his father to seek British citizenship or to remain in a Singapore where he is born, met his wife, and about to raise a family. It is a moment of separation, but also a moment of independence, however painfully wrought, broken plate and all.

Tan Pin Pin's understated and intelligent drama of cross-border adoption, where the child's "tummy mummy" is from Malaysia's "Pineapple Town", is perhaps the only film that casts its thoughts forward. For that (plus I am biased!), it is my favourite of the 7.

In the film, the adoptive mom and the whole family are shown traversing the causeway - this architectural symbol of separation and of both historical and biological ties. They do so precisely not to deny and bury the past, but to embrace, learn and know of the past and their identities as individuals and as a family.  

All this can happen for us if we, too, are somewhat brave and foolish - as the film's tummy mummy and adoptive mummy has proven. It is the mother's courageous seeking and confrontation of the truth, not the father's tears after all, that promises a different future.

7Letters has ended its gala screenings. It will be screened during the National Day weekend (8-10 August) at the National Museum - visit the museum website for ticketing details. If you still can't get tickets, check the film's Facebook page here for updates. 


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