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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

SEE WHAT SEE (Feb 2021): DESIRE

By Joel Tan

Welcome to my new column1Does “column” still make sense in the context of a website? for ArtsEquator, where every month I’ll be giving you a little line-up of Singaporean and other Southeast Asian streaming content that I think is interesting and worth talking about in my typically TLDR, long-winded way. 

I’m not even talking about Netflix (which I’ve already written about at some length here): a lot of these shows are drawn from free-content platforms like Viddsee, YouTube, even Instagram TV, which – until having to put this article together – I’d never really paid much attention to except for cooking content and Star Wars theory videos. In fact, much of the stuff on this list is completely new to me, or has been hovering around on my socials, unclicked-on, till very recently. Having now watched quite a lot of it, I’m here to make the case that free streaming content is, as others have no doubt been pointing out for years now, very exciting. Especially in the context of Singapore, where state-controlled entertainment guidelines force a diet of sanitised, unrealistic nation-building crap down our TV-gullets. In that context, I’d say some of this stuff is pretty radical. 

I think these programmes offer an important alternative and corrective to Singapore TV’s representations of local realities. By and large, I think because Singapore TV has been very bad for so long, we’ve gotten used to seeing very bad versions of ourselves on screen. We tend not to associate the short-form, highly visual, guiltily consumable form that is serialised TV drama with complexity. Sex, “difficult conversations,” non-normative identities, young people behaving badly in interesting ways… this is simply not the terrain of Singapore TV.2I mean, just last year, we had a character on a Channel 8 drama playing out the “Pedophile Homosexual” trope, which might have been funny if as a society we’d reached the levels of irony required to bend this trope back on itself (spoiler alert: not the case). And meanwhile, across the pond on Channel 5, most people in those dramas tend to look like supermodels auditioning for the next Crazy Rich Asians, who speak in funny American accents and wear too many suits. Often, when I consult Singapore TV for a check-in with reality, it is as if the people who make these shows don’t actually live on the island or know anyone who does. As a playwright, I feel like as a result of shitty TV in Singapore, the theatre has had to bear the brunt of TV-like naturalistic storytelling for the longest time. Or rather, audiences here have developed a taste for stage plays that feel like TV. Because in any properly functioning TV environment, those plays would’ve been made into great TV shows, and we’d just expect different things from the stage. In fact in more advanced TV environments, we’re already at a point where TV’s become super theatrical (think the form-bending I May Destroy You and the fourth-wall breaking Fleabag, or even the Shakespearean heft of Breaking Bad), so it often feels like we’re doubly stuck. I am therefore 100% in support of giving more time, resources, and energy to the people making kickass web entertainment, because opening up the market for good representation is good for all dramatists, screen or otherwise. 

Already in my quick binge of some of the web shows that are out there, I’ve seen stuff that deftly side-steps all the naff, sanitised, unadventurous, audience-doubting3A friend of mine who once did some writing on a Singapore TV show told me that a scene they wrote got axed because, “aiya, Singaporeans won’t understand one lah”. pitfalls of Singapore TV. A lot of it, though much smaller in scale than your average TV show, blows mainstream TV out of the water in terms of production value, aesthetic quality, and storytelling. 

Anyway. I happen to be writing this on Valentine’s Day, so I’ve decided that my first round-up will look at stuff that deals with love and desire in interesting ways. I’ve picked mostly queer stuff, as a reminder to all you cis-hets out there that Valentine’s Day and dating in general can be pretty fucking rough for queer people. I’ve also thrown in some straight stuff that really pulls the furry rug from under the whole heteronormative project, you’re welcome.

 

1. People Like Us 

Many people probably already know this one. It was launched in 2018 to great aplomb by Gayhealth.sg, an arm of Action for AIDS (AFA), as a way to get some sexual health messages out into Singapore’s gay community4It’s worth pointing out that in 2014, the Health Promotion Board (HPB) posted a sexual health FAQ online that made the claim that same-sex couples are no different than heterosexual ones. This became a major controversy, with conservative forces in the country condemning the HPB for condoning “alternative lifestyles”. The original FAQ was eventually taken down. I think about this in relation to AFA having to make a whole-ass, probably very expensive web series just to say things like “gay people can have fulfilling relationships too!” . Subsequently, it received a bunch of award nominations including an International Emmy for Best Short-Form Series. There’s two seasons, five episodes per season, and each episode is about 10 minutes in length. The show follows the subtly intertwining travails of a group of mostly young, very attractive gay men who go about doing what young, very attractive gay men do: get romantically entangled and have lots of sex, which of course facilitates the communicating of positive sexual health messages. Win-win!

For a show of such brevity it covers quite a range of salient gay subjects, like de-stigmatising HIV/AIDS, the toxic racism of Singapore’s gay community, the chemical sex crisis, and the possibility of emotional fulfilling gay relationships. It’s naturally a little touch-and-go in some respects, and never too far away from a handy teachable moment, but the show generally navigates this smartly and subtly.5In Season 2 there’s a particularly pamphlety but vital conversation about sero-discordant couples that happens between a new pair trying to navigate having sex with HIV. It’s followed swiftly by a sex scene of such vulnerability and erotic tenderness that it made me think: sex education can, and should, be sexy! 

Plus, it looks gorgeous with its atmospheric filmic lighting and assured camerawork, courtesy of filmmaker Leon Cheo. It’s very high quality stuff and there’s a breezy naturalism to the writing. Some of the performances have a lot more texture and reality than others, particularly Irfan Kasban as the brooding Ridzwan, a closeted Malay Muslim man who later starts a relationship with Joel (Josh Crowe), an idealistic scenester who falls hard but wants more than Ridzwan can give. Relatable! The warmth and sexual chemistry between the two is very alluring, and I think it numbers among some of the best onscreen depictions of gay male tenderness I’ve seen in Singapore6It’s worth pointing out again that in 2016 a cheeky 1-second kiss between two men during a production of Les Miserables became a (what else?) national issue. The kiss was cut from the show after conservatives put on the pressure. I obviously have a lot to say about this, but I think the steamy blowjob scene in Season 2 of People Like Us says it better.. This thread unfurls into Season 2 and has the most satisfying and ultimately heartbreaking arc of the lot. 

Overall, with its cast of charming, mostly believable characters going through very typical gay male ups and downs, People Like Us gives us a pretty nuanced look at the realities of living under the distorting homophobic structures of this country. It’s not all victimhood and woe-is-me either, in fact there’s buckets of fun, humour, and positivity here. Most poignantly, it makes us think about how to navigate those hard-won romances: with friendship, dignity, mutual respect, and sexiness.

 

2. Thirst – An Anthology

Not Safe For TV (NSFTV) is the perfect example of the kind of content I was talking about at the start: it literally sets out to make challenging, progressive, and finger-on-the-pulse-of-the-zeitgeist stuff that is, well, not safe for (Singapore) TV. A fair bit of their content is on YouTube but their newer releases kick off on IGTV, which makes sense because their material is clearly pitched at a younger, Gen Z to Millennial audience. It’s all very slickly produced, edgy, and formally inventive, if sometimes a touch derivative of blockbuster TV. But it takes a sharp and provocative look at being young in Singapore, with a savvy 21st-century hyper-locality I find exciting and promising.7They’ve already got a huge following of the same hip young things who appear in their programmes, so I’m really just exposing my age (and yours) at this point. 

Thirst is an anthology of three micro-films, and as its name suggests, each film in the anthology is centred on the question of desire. At 7-10 minutes, each one feels just a little incomplete, like mini pilots, but I think that feeling of wanting more is not at all a bad thing. 

The first is What’s The Point of Matching?, which follows dorky Timothy as he discovers that he’s not, in fact, straight! Conveniently, this happens during a particularly steamy hook up with the almost offensively attractive Arthur. It’s got a hilarious self-effacing quality, very Fleabag with its fourth-wall breaking and sarcastic editing. Plot twist: Timothy is already in a very sweet and charming relationship with a girl, which adds some tender drama to this comic confection that wryly captures the awkwardness and pleasures of sexual discovery. 

The second is Min, a bite-sized “experimental film” that follows the apparent suicide of Min, a social media influencer. The film disguises itself as a YouTube video in which another influencer weighs in on the scandal, cleverly replicating the fractured ways in which identities and stories are constructed online. Equal parts satire and miniature thriller, what little story there is comes across in the subtlest of trickles and suggestions, which is really clever and involving for the viewer. The piece is narratively light, and seems mostly interested in how to “story-tell” in this pleasingly meta way, but it generally works. The ending, which cuts to Min meditating on truth and storytelling, is pleasingly ambiguous and haunting.

The third, Able, is a short film that follows a wheelchair-bound teenage boy whose burgeoning sexuality sees him falling for his domestic helper of many years. Shot in black and white, it’s atmospheric and accurately captures adolescent desire in all its bodily awkwardness. There are some moments of implosive power, such as when the boy confesses his desire, abjection, and neediness, which is very heartbreaking. One main criticism is that the film is subtitled “Love In Spite of Human Disability,” which I find just a touch over-determined and problematic. After all, if the film believes in its message of the fundamental dignity of all people, why spell out love “in spite” of anything, least of all disability? That stumble aside, this is gentle, well-observed work. 

 

3. Another Day In Paradise

This comes to us courtesy of Viddsee, a video streaming website for shorts and web-series. There’s a huge bank of Singaporean and regional content, ranging from mini documentaries to short films, much of it student work. They’ve also got more professional Viddsee-commissioned original works, such as this series of five 20-minute episodes by Priscilla Geck Geck Ang, with screenwriting by Gina Chew (also a playwright!). Another Day In Paradise follows a bunch of people living in the same HDB flat, all connected by a subtle daisy chain of encounters and interventions. This looks like it could be straightforward Eric Khoo banality but it surprises with some interesting stylistic and storytelling choices that take us into the surreal and fantastical.

The plot of each episode is mostly self-contained, and imagines the background story to one of numerous bizarre headlines that have caught the nation’s attention in recent years. Think: the mystery of the sanitary pad thrower, which forms the backbone of the first episode. Here, the sanitary pads are thrown by a lonely and bereaved elderly lady, Ah Bee (a delightfully off-beat Adeline Yee who convincingly portrays a woman fraying at the edges from loss). Ah Bee turns to the loanshark business to help out a new neighbour, but you’ll have to watch it yourself to see how it all adds up with the sanitary pads. It’s silly and ultimately quite moving.

The episodes are hit-or-miss, but there’s an assured stylistic boldness and an imaginative freedom in the writing that I think is worth encountering. Overall, the series also draws on a deep well of loneliness and alienation that I find very recognisably Singaporean. Its cast of characters are uniquely lost, bereft, and hurting, and a powerful desire for connection runs through each episode, often thwarted by that most Singaporean of traits: bad communication.

The best one is Episode 2, which follows a Vietnamese teenager, Tien, who turns to cam-girling to make rent while also attending secondary school. Mostly, it’s so she can buy the trivial artefacts of teenage social life – bubble tea, stupid shoes, glittery bags – that she hopes will win her some friends amongst her deeply mean-spirited and superficial schoolmates. Felina Nguyen as Tien here turns in a beautiful and often difficult-to-watch multi-lingual performance of teenage vulnerability and confusion, staring firm-jawed into the camera as she tries to monetise a sexuality she doesn’t yet fully understand. When the consequences come, they arrive hard and brutal, and there is potent social commentary on the wickedness of young people and Singaporeans’s xenophobic snobbery.

Another outstanding episode is Episode 5, the finale, done entirely in unsettling, jerky 2D animation. This takes us ten years into the future, with the pandemic still raging (sigh), further emptying the country of human connection. Singapore has descended into a resigned dilapidation: people walk around fully resentful of each other, and the supermarket shelves have been snatched empty. Also, bizarrely, wild animals have escaped from farms and the zoo, and now roam and breed freely around the city, an absurd extension of our increasing encounters with wildlife in urban spaces. 

Somehow, Singaporeans walking resignedly through this bleak, defeated landscape without batting an eyelid feels incredibly accurate. The city, in this janky animation style, is reduced to a dank and dirty wasteland, i.e. it looks how it often feels to live here. While the context is futuristic, there is nothing speculative about the inhumanity running through the episode. It’s all sadly familiar: strangers are rudely suspicious of each other, families buckle under the pressure of living together, and everyone fails miserably to speak with kindness. At the heart of all this, the protagonist, a lonely butcher seeking connection with other humans, fumbles through his desirous interactions with women, and ultimately finds some kind of tenderness with a pig who wanders into his home. 

Other episodes in the series don’t work as well because they try too hard to work in poorly-realised sci-fi plotlines. I suppose that’s one way to elevate the humdrum of HDB life to (admittedly gorgeous and stylish) spectacle8Joshua Tan in Episode 3 turns in a commendable performance as a very depressed corporate rat who contemplates suicide but is stopped in the nick of time by a flying ant that flies into his windpipe. He later finds he can talk to ants and is exhorted by them to save their colony in a bizarro plot that never fully clarifies itself, nor pays off its diversion from an otherwise very well-observed meditation on mental health. As the tenor of the surreal grows, the otherwise spare and economical storytelling and dialogue start to fray and become maudlin. , but it feels mostly plastic. I find life in Singapore needs only the simplest gestures to expose its inherent menace and theatricality.9I found myself thinking about this a lot while watching Tiong Bahru Social Club (2020), which this series reminds me of in parts. In both, the gesture towards the surreal feels like a mis-recognition of our social dynamics, which are already distorted and twisted. The inhabitants of these dreamscapes are slightly gormless and doddering, well-meaning but silly, and the weirdness in these projects spools out from a kind of innocence and whimsy. But we all know this place is neither innocent nor whimsical, and the heart of the distortion is political; deeply inhumane and spiritually violent. Episode 5, with its gritty animation and spare but effective speculative quality, manages to delight and get under the skin, and it’s a great cap to a refreshing and imaginative series. I would love to see an entire season of this cartoon dystopia.

 

4. Queer Short Films on Viddsee

It seems an obvious point but you literally cannot get complex queer storytelling on Singapore TV. When Pink Dot did a digital livestream last year, I remember how radical it felt to see queer Singaporean stories on the screen at all.10This feeling was accentuated because we’d put up the show on our friend’s massive PRISM+ TV, and outside, through the windows, a landscape of HDB flats drummed in the cis-het family-life ideology of this city. So when I did a little search around Viddsee and found a bunch of freely-available LGBT short films, I was delighted. Granted, many of them are student projects, and are very raw in concept and execution, but there’s an earnestness and boldness to some of them that I find endearing.

Good Seeing You follows best friends Jason and Daniel, and peaks at the point Jason realises he’s in love with Daniel. He makes a move, and it falls apart. The story is simple enough, and is told with subtlety until the big confrontation which is a little overacted and overstays its welcome. Overall, I find the piece lacks emotional and narrative heft, but I appreciated the film, which is stylish and well-observed, for its insight into Gen Z queer energies – at once confident and naive, restless and ambitious11I mean, it opens at an improbably lush and edgy house party that looks like the behind-the-scenes of a Dua Lipa music video. My generation could never. Also, the duo become friends when Daniel teaches an awkward Jason how to smoke a cigarette. I have to confess the sight of ostensibly underaged kids smoking cigarettes raised my heckles. That said, I realise there’s a kind of onscreen/onstage symbolic economy to cigarette smoking in Singapore, especially among young characters. Someone once pointed out that many of my plays feature young people smoking, and so, I realise, do many of these films and series I’m highlighting. I think there’s something about smoking that, in tight-arsed, yellow-boxed Singapore, feels transgressive. Or “cool,” in the parlance of those “just say no to cigarettes” campaigns of my youth. Maybe smoking is a shorthand for virtuous rebellion, edginess, solidarity in marginality, but in a productive and positive way, where these kids are claiming space for themselves through transgression. You don’t see this on mainstream TV, where cigarette smoking tends to be shorthand for “bad person” or self-destructiveness. I guess in Singaporean counter-narrative, no one ever smokes a cigarette just for the nicotine.. Jason, played by the film’s director, Nigel Soh, is particularly well-realised with a nervous and keenly-desiring energy that is immensely watchable. 

Walk (or Lakaw in Tagalog), from the Philippines, is a bracing story that follows a trans club-dancer who, one night after her shift, has to walk a long way home because of a public transportation strike. Drawing on the natural drama of moving through the city as a visibly queer person, the director Martina Espanya finds poetry and calm in late-night scenes of the city, which are then interrupted by moments of deep, shocking violence and tender human connection. Ultimately, the film suggests, it is the kindness of strangers that saves us all, and that comes to define even the most dangerous and marginal of lives. In a particularly powerful scene, a deaf-mute beggar washes the sore, stiletto-ruined feet of our protagonist after she’s been assaulted and is left crying on the street. It is an artful moment of Christ-like kindness that pushes against the intolerant religiosity that suffuses this raw but beautiful short.

This last one is a bit of a wildcard, but I found myself really enjoying In Different by Sabrina Poon. It’s kind of clumsy and cliché, but also deeply endearing in its simplicity. In it, a surly Singaporean teenager, Beng (yes) must now share a room and bed with his dorky Malaysian cousin who’s come to stay for the long haul. Beng starts off bullying his cousin relentlessly, but later this is revealed to stem from a burgeoning homo-eroticism12Question: is it technically incest between cousins? I hope they’re distantly related.. I love this short film mainly for its depiction of an old-school Ah Beng attitude that I’d previously thought extinct in Singapore13Gay bengs are a thoroughly neglected queer archetype, and apart from the ambiguous homoeroticism of Royston Tan’s 15 (2003), rather thin on the ground in local drama., but also for the familiar clumsiness of the boys’ sexual advances and the gentle but assured storytelling that is heartwarming and often hilarious. It ends on a very tender, hopeful note, too, which is refreshing.

 

5. One Take

Another offering from NSFTV, this is a full-fledged web series of nine 7-8 minute episodes. It follows a group of young Singaporeans over a period of several years as they move in and out of each other’s lives. The show explores the unhealthy ways men and women interact with each other under patriarchy, and shows us the grave emotional costs, especially for women. Each episode unfolds over a single one-take shot, a short moment in the characters’ lives that gives us a piece of the bigger narrative. The creators make the most of this one-take device, often deploying surprising shifts in perspective and unusual camera angles to delightful effect. 

There is quite a bit of weighty exposition, a natural downside to this fleeting storytelling mode that nonetheless tries to make numerous connections across all its episodes. Mostly though, it works well, because the show is anchored by some very compelling and complex situations, and the dialogue frequently sparkles.

The plot largely centres on James (Salif Hardie) and Claire (show-runner Tan Hui Er), and is book-ended by a missed romantic opportunity between the two, once as teenagers, later as adults. They just never seem to be in the right place at the right time! And as they slowly move past each other like ships in the night, their other romantic entanglements spread out in a series of bad decisions and broken relationships. For all the high-stakes drama – teenage pregnancy, domestic abuse, Internet humiliation are some of the plot-points – the storytelling feels mostly honest and humane, never ham-fisted or cliché. It’s a credit to the acting in this series, which is top-notch, and there’s an ease with which these actors portray the roster of moody millennials.

The most compelling arc is Claire’s: while studying abroad, she becomes the centre of a humiliating leaked nudes scandal that causes her studies and career to tank, a bracing commentary on the unjust and disproportionate consequences faced by survivors of sexual abuse. One particularly good episode sees Claire on a Tinder date with a gormless and out-of-his-depth young man. When the topic of her leaked nudes comes up, the young man dresses up his sexist beliefs with cringe-inducing jokiness. The desire to keep the date on positive terms clashes painfully with the mismatch in politics, and amidst this, Claire advocates firmly and touchingly for her dignity in a brilliant exchange that’s superbly written and played with delicious ambiguity. 

Overall, One Take is really exciting drama that manages to be formally clever, while telling punchy, hard-hitting contemporary stories. The characters are compelling and easy to spend time with, and it’s a formula that’s worked very well for NSFTV’s other series, which together seem to be creating a mini cinematic universe that includes several of these characters. 

 

So! That’s my line-up for the month. It’s personally been a great introduction to the wealth of edgy streaming content that’s out there, and the talent is truly outstanding. One thing I’ve been wondering about with all of these shows is how we can get more money to these super-deserving creators. They ought to be making longer-form shows and getting much wider distribution. Directing more eyes at their work is obviously a good start. In any case, this is only the indie side of the equation: in future editions of this column, I’ll include more mainstream stuff like TV and films from Netflix, and I’ll also turn an eye to more regional content as well. Let’s get watching!


SEE WHAT SEE is a new monthly column that reviews and responds to TV shows, films and web content about Singapore and the rest of Southeast Asia.

Joel Tan is a playwright and performer based between Singapore and London. Previous Singapore TV criticism includes his reviews of MasterChef Singapore, though he’s more well known for his plays, none of which are relevant here. Joel is one half of the podcast, T42, which you can listen to here. Follow Joel on Twitter @joeltheobscure and on Instagram @joltahn.

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