Saturday, April 15, 2006

Singapore Dreaming

I wanted to watch this as part of the SIFF Charity Gala, but in-camp training prevented me from getting tickets, or to volunteer as an usher for the Gala. Which meant I had to wait for the commercial release slated some time in August this year. By some stroke of luck, my friend Richard managed to win tickets to a mystery/test screening by UIP, and it turned out to be Singapore Dreaming (yay!)

I think this local film directed by Colin Goh and Woo Yen Yen is just plain brilliant, and the most accessible one to date, one that has potential to appeal to almost every spectrum of local society, and cinema-goers. It's adult storytelling laced with well placed humour, tackling mature themes and providing a snapshot of your atypical heartland family of four, their goals, dreams, desires and challenges.

Richard Low plays the patriarch of the Loh family, an elderly "lao beng" man whose family is getting together to celebrate the return of his son from overseas study. Like any typical housewife, mum Siew Luan (Alice Lim) holds and takes care of the family but is usually taken for granted. Being the only graduate, Seng (Dick Su) carries the family's hopes of making it big, although he in turn carries with him the albatross of having to live up to expectations, and to repay debts of his father and of his live-in girlfriend Irene (Serene Chen), who had used their savings to send him overseas. Then there is Mei Loh (Yeo Yann Yann), the capable secretary but overlooked-by-family who's expecting their first child with husband CK (Lim Yu Beng), an ex-army regular turned insurance agent (what else?)

But when we start to scratch and chip away at the family's surface, we see plenty of dirt beneath the seemingly happy exterior. We revisit the usual 5Cs preoccupation that most Singaporeans possess, in a refreshing look at the haves and the have nots. Those with power, and those that do not. It's not told in the satirical way that Talking Cock the movie did, but not to worry, humour still sneaked its way into this family drama.

There are topical issues covered in the movie, things like expectations and managing your bosses, of the value of the overseas degree, of striking lottery and the headaches that come with it, of family relations, of domestic maids and misconceptions and prejudices, and even China girls who work as beer maids. Most of the striking conversations were held over tables - the dinner table with family, the mahjong table during funerals, but perhaps the one that stood out was the one at the coffeeshop, where we were generally ribbed with being whiners who complain a lot, but do nothing to attempt to escape our predicament. Fuel for thought, in contrast to those who have no choice, but looking on the brighter side of their lack of choice as still a form of means to achieving their goals.

At the end of the day, just like the characters, you'll probably ask, just what is the Singapore dream? And more importantly, what's yours? Do you dare go down the road less travelled, or would you prefer to give up your aspirations for the well trodden path, or blindly follow the sole collection of material wealth to keep up with the Joneses?

The performances by the casts were convincingly enjoyable, and the characters are layered with much character development, those whom you would actually care about. Especially Richard Low's, who seemed to have cornered the performance of your hokkien speaking elderly ah-beng man with little education. The cinematography is beautiful too, capturing in essence many daily aspects of a heartlander's life. If Singapore GaGa showcases the aural, then Singapore Dreaming showcases the visual.

There are some minor bloopers though, but thankfully only spotted in the beginning of the movie with some continuity errors (like Yu Beng's coffee stained shirt). Not sure if the later scenes did contain any more, because I was completely absorbed by the plot to notice the little nitty gritties. The dialogue's mainly in Hokkien and Singlish, but there are both (proper) English and Mandarin subtitles for non-Singlish/Hokkien speakers to follow. I think this is a good strategy to adopt to make the dialogue believable - most Singaporeans don't speak proper English, at least not in casual conversation, and somehow polished English spoken by locals on screen nearly always gave you that contrived feeling. Here, the dialogue and conversation score.

I'd highly recommend this drama when it begins its commercial theatrical run, scheduled sometime in August this year. Two thumbs up from me, and is in contention for my movie of the year! If you still have not forayed into watching local films in the theatres, don't you dare miss this good opportunity to do so!

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