The inaugural Perspectives Film Festival kicked off tonight with the opening film Lion City, recognized as the first Singapore-made Chinese film. I missed the opportunity back in 2005 to watch this during the Screen Singapore film festival, so in no way would I pass up this rare opportunity to witness this gem of a movie this time around.
For those apprehensive with watching a film from the past, perhaps I can offer my two cents at what could interest you, especially for a "modern" piece such as Lion City. I like old films shot in Singapore, whether or not they are dramatic ones like this, or action ones such as They Call Her... Cleopatra Wong, or even Saint Jack, because they have in them something that is extremely valuable - the moving images of Singapore of the past, sans gleaming skyscrapers, and an environment totally unfamiliar with today's generation. Instead of relying on photographs, films also allow you to get into the psyche of the characters of the time, their attitudes toward issues and universal themes which may still be similar to some faced today.
The first few minutes of Lion City are worth their weight in gold. Shots of Merdeka Bridge (now Nicoll Highway) where stone lions stand guard, will be familiar to the older generation, as are buses with those old-styled strap handles, and of course, jukeboxes pepper coffee shops back in the days of old. There's also a panoramic shot of Singapore City Centre, and I had to use the Fullerton Hotel (then the General Post Office) to orientate myself to the surroundings, peppered by bumboats which no longer crowd the Singapore River, and wherefore art thou Skyscrapers? Not to forget too about the shots of our ports and habour, and Mount Faber being a romantic spot up until this day!
Made in 1960, this movie seemed to also serve a purpose at introducing this young nation to the world, with certain scenes sticking out quite prominently, what with talk about Unions, Elections, and in establishing the identity of the country with the 1.5 million population size, an old map of Singapore where Tuas and Jurong Island don't exist, and the sharing of the profile of its inhabitants, a multi-racial mix of Chinese, Malays, Indians, and in a comedic nature, plenty of other European nationalities as well. The National Anthem Majulah Singapura was also sung, though this sort of mixed up the timeline a little - OK I'm being lazy here in not researching this properly, but I thought that the Anthem didn't exist until after 1965, which is at least 5 years after this movie was made, so should the Malaysian one be sung instead?
Anyway in retrospect, Lion City actually became a very charming film when watched today, chiefly because in being unintentionally funny with stilted acting by today's standards, it brought about a sense of recognition of how far we have improved (for the better I think!) in film production. At its core, it's a romantic tale about a rich man Shao Ming who falls for the daughter of a worker in his factory, Fung Ling, and goes all out to try and woo her. And when I say all out, I really mean all out, and in whirlwind fashion to say the least! You can't help to chuckle at, and at the same time, having your goosebumps raised because of the extremely cheesy dialogue where the lovers whisper sweet nothings, with poetry thrown in for good measure too!
But besides our main pair of lovers, there are other couples in the story too which serve as a contrast between the idealic / true love that Fung Ling and Shao Ming experience, such as that of Fung Ling's brother Zhi Xiong with a bargirl Daisy, and his relationship with Xiao Zhen, however both of which were rudimentary glossed over for the most parts. And the other negative relationship involved yet another rich man, and a girl whom he impregnates and tries to shirk responsibility, hence providing avenue for Fung Ling's mom to be wary of Shao Ming's intentions.
The HDB flat also served as an important setting where a "kampung" like spirit was still active in the early days of the flat dwellers. I thought this can be seen at the extremely easy ways characters come into and out of each other's homes, unlike today's environment of closed and bolted doors, though in this manner, the film looked somewhat like a stage play in the HDB flat setting, with characters coming in from the sides, and exiting the scene through the same. Like Singapore's fast-tracked development, almost everyone seemed to be in a rush to go from place to place, and the short scenes provided some amusement because it was as if folks dropped by, only to leave less than a minute later. To move the plot forward, there were plenty of undeniably super-coincidental scenes too, with characters needed appearing at the doorstep as if summoned from backstage.
But it's not all studio-ed settings with fake backdrops decorating the set. The movie does take us on a simple road trip to the great outdoors, and I had probably not seen the Causeway in that light before, though I remember the trishaw rides in Muar, where I have relatives from the maternal side residing in, and visits up North to Muar back in those days, always had the inevitable trishaw ride!
Lion City does look decently preserved, though there were some noticeable, but minute skips that didn't mar the enjoyment of the movie. Hopefully this film will be restored (if not already so) in time to come, and for future generations to take a look at what the environment and life was like in the early years, just before Independence!
Kudos to the Perspectives Film Festival Team in having organize a film festival from scratch. I have no experience in running a festival, but going by today's experience as a member of the audience, it is in my humble opinion, well run (or at least I don't see any major hiccups) and the subtitles were accurate too. For the other films in the Malay language, subtitles are provided in both English and Mandarin, which will allow the older generation to relive and enjoy the movies this time round too. Having to conceptualize the festival from naught I believe is no mean feat, and what more, to go subtitle all these movies in 2 languages too. From today's experience, I would say Great Job!
Don't forget, this Friday's screening will be outdoors, with the screening of P. Ramlee's Seniman Bujang Lapok and admission is FREE, being held outdoors to promote greater communal bonding and involvement, especially across generations.
Other films in the lineup the next few days include Hussein Haniff's Hang Jebat, Salleh Ghani’s Tun Fatimah and B. N. Rao’s Sumpah Pontianak.
What's the cost you say?
It's only S$7 per paid screening, and concession rates are available. All indoor screenings will be held at the National Museum of Singapore Gallery Theatre (one of my choice screening locations in Singapore).
For more details of the programme, and ticketing information, head on down to the Official Festival Website by clicking on the logo below!