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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

SEE WHAT SEE (Mar 2021): GENRE FICTION

By Joel Tan

Welcome back to See What See! It’s our monthly round-up of interesting stuff by Singapore and regional makers that you can stream right here on the Internet. In this edition, I thought I’d pay a little attention to film, TV, and shorts with a genre fiction flavour, so I went around sniffing for elements of horror and sci-fi, with a little detour into the high school romp. I think genre’s interesting in the regional context because genre tropes tend to arrive, ready-made, from the established content-mills and cinematic canons of the West. And so between straight-up derivation and genre-bending subversion lies a kind of middle ground that I think is ripe for exploration and innovation. But that’s too much serious talk, let’s watch some shows!

1. HORROR

The horror genre has generally had a good and long run in this part of the world. I’d argue that it’s because our ghosts are generally scarier than Western ones. I’ll always remember my first Japanese horror movie experience: Dark Water (2002) and not being able to use the toilet unaccompanied for weeks after. I think the Asian innovation on horror has to do with introducing a deep well1Sadako pun fully intended, though fun fact: did you know I’ve never watched The Ring (1998)? I’m shit at watching horror, generally, and with The Ring in particular, I’m horrified at the meta-cinematic conceit of how if you watch the film you might actually get cursed by the in-film curse which is, omg. of melancholy to the proceedings: imagine on top of being a senseless, child-devouring hack and slash demon, that the phantasm might also be lonely? Or bereft? Or a feminist? I’ll never forget how, in Dark Water, the ghost girl in the water tank basically wanted a mother, triggering all my childhood separation anxiety and the waterworks. 

I think about this a lot in relation to Shutter (2004), possibly one of the most frightening vengeful-lady horror movies ever made. For the kids among us, this is a Thai horror movie that for a long time was the only thing people in my generation could talk about. It’s about “spirit photographs”2Spoiler alert: haunted photographs, which for a whole season in my teens was an actual Internet meme. Does anyone remember being sent those GIFs that told you to stare at the photo for ten seconds only for a ghost to jump out at you from the corner? Shutter is that times 100. and came out just as digital cameras were getting more popular. Incidentally, it’s streaming on Netflix, and I wanted to include it in this round-up but was too scared to watch it again. It is very good though. Shutter has lived in my head rent-free for almost twenty years, not for the horror so much as the elegant and mournful poetry of a ghost (spoiler alert) sitting on the back of her violator, weighing him down with a mixture of guilt and shame, a really powerful image for the intractability of trauma3I can’t place what is quite so quintessentially Asian about this, except that if I ever became a ghost, I’d specialise in this sort of super-involved haunting, one in which I’m caught up in the same roiling self-loathing and melancholy as being alive. I guess there’s also something in these movies about your responsibility to others, and the community formed between the living and the dead. There’s a whole system of rituals that keeps peace between the two which, if disrupted, brings chaos onto everyone. I think about how, when I was a kid, during 7th month, I was told to avoid walking on the grass so I wouldn’t step on joss sticks, which would bring a curse onto me and everyone I touched. Try growing up with that kind of haunting on your brain! The best your average American hack-and-slash can muster is Satan trying to claw himself into the world. I mean, get in line, Satan.

I guess the porosity between the living and the spectral is key, and here I think Southeast Asia is quite well-placed. I mean, anyone who lives in this part of the world just understands that ghosts are a daily reality: they’re in the trees, in the rocks, in your cat, or minding their own business in dark office store-cupboards… Plus, most of us grew up with some education or another about the phantasms that lurk outside the window. But none looms quite as prominently as the Pontianak.

Revenge of the Pontianak (2019)

There’s actually a whole canon of old-timey Pontianak movies streaming on Netflix, but obviously the one that caught my attention was 2019’s Revenge of the Pontianak. This was written and directed by Glen Goei and Gavin Yap, and is a Singapore-Malaysia collab featuring a Malaysian cast. Set in a Malaysian kampong sometime in 1965, it’s a sort of homage to the glory days of vintage Malay filmmaking, cue lots of old-timey costumes, colourful kebayas, and cluttered ‘60s set pieces. Amidst all this gorgeousness is a camp, spooky romp with lots of gorgeous shots of the Malaysian landscape and, uh, banana trees. 

There’s not much of a plot. I mean, it’s basically there in the title. The central mystery is: what happened to the pontianak before she became a pontianak, and by that I mean– what exactly did the man, Khalid, played by the criminally handsome Remy Ishak, do to deserve said revenge? No spoilers here, but the guy is a douchebag. The pontianak, whose name is Mina, is played by the gorgeous Nur Fazura with great tenderness4Inexplicably, also, a kind of unspooky “tee hee hee” hand over the mouth sort of giggling.

There are some interesting feminist innovations here, namely the sheer indefatigable rage of the pontianak that no man with his feeble little metal rods can harm. There’s an extended action sequence near the end where Cik Pon basically becomes an MCU-level heroine5To wit: she can fly, pass through walls, she has telekinesis, monster claws, and telepathy! I mean if someone made an action flick with a crew of justice-seeking Southeast Asian phantasms clearing the streets of bad men, I’d pay to see it. Pitch: Hantu Squadron. and tears through a mob of braying demon-hunters like tissue paper. It all builds up to a pretty touching scene saturated with maternal longing and pathos6I mean, even here with its good intentions, the film cannot outpace the tropes of monstrous motherhood baked into the mythology.

The film has a pretty short runtime but even then it sags in places and loses a lot of energy by the final act. And the pontianak is never really as terrifying as I think the film wants her to be, especially when she reveals herself in her full spectral form and then anticlimactically sticks around for a bit too long, long enough for you to notice the costume store fake nails and dubious make-up job. 

Still, good fun, and as you might expect with Glen Goei at the helm, it’s a pretty and reliably entertaining confection, iced with fake blood, camp horror, and a loving if somewhat musty timelessness.

Bunohan: Return to Murder (2011)

Steering a hard left is Bunohan (2011) by Malaysian filmmaker Dain Said, streaming on Netflix. I don’t really think this is a horror film, or a genre piece at all, but I do think this moody, mysterious feature film lingers somewhere in that dark and violent universe. It’s a bit of a genre-fucker, and combines elements of horror, noir, and thriller to tell a story of the death of land, culture, and spirit. 

Briefly: it follows the stories of three brothers (or half-brothers depending on how you see it) who individually make their way back to their hometown of Bunohan near the Malaysian-Thai border. The eldest, a switch-blade wielding assassin, is in pursuit (unknowingly) of his half-brother, the youngest, who’s a kickboxer; and the middle son, a KL-based professor, has basically returned to “en-bloc” the land on which the village sits. They’re all connected by Pok Eng, their father, a cryptic shadow play puppeteer, who hides a dark secret that only ever half emerges from the shadows. 

To be honest, the plot is a bit of a chin-scratcher, but that’s fine because the film seems to be operating at a deeper, spiritual level. It paints a world of intense, aggravating violence peopled almost entirely by men. Tainted money is shown constantly changing hands, people are carelessly slit at the throat, sons turn on fathers, brother on brother… It’s soon clear that what we’re witnessing is a rotting spiritual landscape. Set against a haunted ecology of marshes, mangroves, and endless dark jungle, the horror here isn’t so much a vengeful spirit, but a waning one; of what men, abandoned by the custodianship of tradition, ritual, and women, end up doing to themselves, and each other. 

The ghostly dimension is never far away: a mynah speaks, a water spirit manifests, and pockets of life are still saturated with the old ways. But the life of the spirit is greatly weakened; here men openly desecrate graves and shrines, healing rituals are forgotten, and spirits are driven to the edges of the land. Throughout the film, you sense their presence but, except for a few key moments, they cannot come into the frame. All they can do is stand apart and watch. The evil spirits who must be cleansed are in fact the men from KL on their way to turn the land into a resort. 

None of this is to say the film isn’t scary: it grabs you by the throat from the start and drags you through its beautiful and eerie shots of North-Eastern Malaysian mangroves, lalang fields, forests, and dirt paths. You feel a constant sense of suffocation and stifling heat. Each scene is saturated with tension and the threat of violence. You feel, at the film’s end, that you’ve gotten a glimpse at a part of the world where man and spirit interface freely, but unlike the conventional tropes of horror, it is man who violently overcomes. 

I first saw this film in a small cinema in 2012 and it’s stayed with me since, its fable of spiritual failure one I recognise more and more here in this city where rainforests give way to golf courses.

 

2. SPECULATIVE SCIENCE FICTION

In Southeast Asia, onscreen science fiction doesn’t seem to occupy the same pride of place as horror. I’m prepared to be 100% wrong about this, but not a lot comes to mind. In the Singapore context, at least, all I can think about is VR Man which, you know, I’m absolutely astonished to learn is not streaming on Netflix along with all that other culture-resetting Channel 5 stuff

I guess I’m saying what does exist tends to be largely derivative, either of Western sci-fi tropes, or Japanese Anime7I think a lot about how so many cities in Asia basically look like they were lifted straight out of a science-fiction movie. This is probably not accidental, and has to do with the interplay of architecture, history, and cultural imaginations of modernity. The rash of ostentatious glittering glass skyscrapers across the metropolises of Asia is charged with a sense of belatedness, almost as if they say: we can do your modernity better than you. Of course, this strand of modernity is an inherited idea, certainly a colonial one. And insofar as it informs science fiction and imaginations of hyper-modernity/futurism, there’s this eerie sense that our cities are flickering dreamscapes given solid form. When I walk through the hideous space-age megalith, Marina One, I don’t feel its outward gestures of techno-sublimity as much as I do its keening, cloying need to please and impress.: there’s 2004’s Avatar, which is neither the blue aliens one nor the element-bending monk one, but a Singapore-made The Matrix-inspired sci-fi fable about taking down big business conglomerates8Western science fiction futures, especially in film (e.g. Bladerunner, The 5th Element, The Matrix), have historically presented Asianness in very regressive ways, often as an antediluvian foil to the hyper-modernity of flying cars, robots, and space-ships. How often have we seen seedy megacity underworlds dotted with noodle bars, neon lights in Chinese script, wet -markets, red -lanterns, and 25th century Yakuza types? Years into the global future, Asian-derived visual language still codes as foreign, faraway, exotic. (cf. Techno-Orientalism). The reality is rather more banal: we’re so anxious about our place in the modern world order that the “grit” that white tourists so love about our cities will soon all but disappear, replaced by glass and steel wherever you go. Again, “we can do your modernity better than you”. I mean look at Singapore, the demon-baby of this strand of modernity, constantly getting tapped to play City of the Future. Arthur Yap, as always, is instructive here, writing in 1980: “the wind that weaves across buildings / carries the calculus the city is reckoned on,” seeming to foresee the soulless City of the Future (“Unreal City,” as T.S. Eliot calls it) being blown in on a cold, algorithmic wind.. Then there’s Kaiju-style creature features like Garuda (2004), where the eponymous mythic beast goes on a rampage after some ang moh archaeologists poke about the wrong rock. That said, the genre is really well-covered in literature of the region, so it’s probably any time now before we get some kickass Silkpunk screen adaptations. 

Anyway, what do I know, I’m just here to watch some TV! I did manage to find a few quite interesting sci-fi offerings, and they’re all free-to-stream on Viddsee.

The Multiverse at 13 Hill Ave

This Viddsee original is a 5-part web-series, and each part is about 15-20 minutes in length. The conceit is simple: in a terraced house at Hill Avenue lives a family of three who unknowingly live on the site of some multi-dimensional jamboree. Alternate-dimension versions of themselves weave in and out of the air, causing distress, confusion, and traumatic family drama wherever they go. The sci-fi concept here is pretty simple, and is used as a way to hold and dramatise grief, loss, and the sense of missed opportunities in life. There are some interesting storylines, such as the terminally cancer-stricken father who records videos of himself before dying so his baby son grows up with someone to guide him through stereotypically “man of the house” jobs like fixing the cabinet (yawn). Said father one day literally walks into another dimension and wanders for ten years before finding himself in his home dimension, and is reunited with his family. 

“Wait, what about his terminal AF cancer?” you ask. Me too! This is the kind of basic plot-line level question I find myself asking a lot through the series, and you do get a sense that the makers got a little lost in the reeds trying to hold together this multiverse while still having clear dramatic pay-offs. The cast of three acquit themselves generally well playing various versions of each other, assisted by comically bad hair and make-up (there’s a beard in the show that should have its own show). Some of the plotlines are a little maudlin and over-acted, but with the brain-tickling sci-fi and pretty impressive CGI, this ultimately makes for a diverting afternoon.

Ratri 

This 15-minute Viddsee short takes place in Bangkok and is more grungy modern fantasy than it is sci-fi. Basically, the goddess Ratri has come down to earth for a good time and is being pursued by her vicious brother Agni, who with him brings the sun, throwing the world into an unending night. Sean, an American tuk-tuk driver (yes) gets embroiled in this sibling drama. Okay, it’s kind of an American Gods rip-off, but given that Neil Gaiman and the TV adaptation didn’t give us any Southeast Asian representation, I’d say this works as a kind of deleted scene from that universe. It’s slickly made and has some really great shots of Bangkok at night, which might be the only way you’re going to see the city for a long, long time. Sneaking suspicions about the American gaze abound: Why is there an American tuk-tuk driver busying about in Bangkok with what seems like minimal Thai language ability? Why is it that the non-American characters get virtually no speaking lines? Why is there an extended sequence where the action stops so we can see Ratri dance badly for almost two minutes in some shitty bar? These questions aside, this is a fun and imaginative tuk-tuk ride through a beautifully-shot Bangkok.

Republic of Food

I can’t believe I didn’t know this existed given how many Singapore stage and screen stalwarts are in this. This film by Kelvin Tong, available as a web-series in six 15-20 minute episodes, stars Adrian Pang, Yeo Yann Yann, Oon Shu An, Shane Mardjuki, Patricia Mok (!!), Bobby Tonelli, Patrick Teoh, and even food consultant KF Seetoh (!!). Caveat: this is apparently sponsored by Singapore’s Ministry of Communications and Information, so stop reading if that’s the sort of thing that bothers you. 

This show is set in 2025. A devastating pandemic (omg!) of some food-borne virus has swept the world, leading to the end of food as we know it. An international accord aims to stop the spread of the virus by banning the sale, consumption, and production of food. In place of food, there’s Phood, a kind of artificial food product, very Soylent green type shit. It’s manufactured by a mega-corporation led by Bobby Tonelli who here is serving us intense Zachary Quinto as menacing bossman fantasy. Adrian Pang plays KP, a down and out former food-show presenter who stumbles on a mysterious underground rebel network that goes around sourcing out the last purveyors of real food.

It’s a zany, technicoloured, vaguely sci-fi9Vaguely sci-fi because apart from the premise, the show goes to great lengths to make you remember we’re in the future through a series of beep-beep boop-boop sound effects that, given the farcical style, I’m pretty sure is a tongue-in-cheek piss-take. farce10Oh! On the topic of sci-fi farce there’s also Cicak-Man (2006) which is streaming on Netflix. Sadly I didn’t have time to properly watch it in time for this story, but it looks really good, kind of like The Fifth Element meets The Fly meets The Tick. Basically it’s Spiderman but shot through with a devastatingly corny Malaysian sense of humour. anchored by Adrian Pang who turns in one of the most delightfully stereotypical Adrian Pang performances I’ve seen him do. The supporting cast are silly, raucous, and clearly having a lot of fun, which accounts for most of the enjoyment here. 

Story-wise the film is trying to do a lot: an allegory for the waning of hawker culture, a Marcel Proustian meditation on “food is memory”, and, most bizarrely and awkwardly, a ham-fisted corrective to anti-immigrant sentiment in Singapore. I put this last one down to the government wanting to put positive messaging about immigration out there.

Frankly, it’s a little skin-crawlingly obvious, but it’s farcical in a way that’s actually quite enjoyable: the “from China to steal our jobs” bogeyman, Zhang Yi Mao, is played with great energy and code-switching virtuosity by Jeffrey Xu, to laugh out loud effect. And in a time when theatres are still shut, let me just say that this is the closest thing to the Wild Rice pantomime I’ve seen since COVID. It’s so silly!

The climactic moment is when everyone, immigrant and Singaporean alike, comes together to defend our food culture against the evil American conglomerate, which, okay, I guess there’s always got to be a villain11Sometimes I wonder if the government has like an inter-ministerial Writers Room that plans out a holistic, multi-pronged cultural messaging model. Is our government basically run like the MCU? Except here instead of Avengers: Infinity War, we’ve got The Culture War. What is the end-game to this completely ahistorical moment in Singapore’s public discourse? I don’t wanna know. Don’t tell me.. Government messaging aside, I found myself laughing very hard at several moments, mostly at the transparent fun everyone in the show seems to be having, and was genuinely moved in parts by the film’s simple message that food, memory, and community are powerfully intertwined.

 

3. TEEN MOVIE

Okay I included this category mainly so I could talk about The Teenage Textbook. To be fair, the Teen Movie Genre is one of the best, with Clueless (1195), Mean Girls (2004), 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), and others taking pride of place in the popular imagination. Teenhood, after all, is that time of life when everything feels so important and high stakes, especially sex, romance, and popularity. It’ll never go out of style. And the genre celebrates being true to yourself, not being an asshole, and the giddy tumult of puppy love. I mean, I love teen movies because in many ways I feel like I’m still, at 33, stuck in a horrible form of arrested development, and I wish my teenhood had been quite as exciting or fun to watch. And as far as I’m aware, there isn’t much out there that speaks honestly to the teen experience in puritanical, pressure-cooker Singapore.

Which is why I was interested to catch The Teenage Textbook TV Series, produced for Mediacorp and available for streaming on meWATCH. It’s an adaptation of the 1998 cult classic of the same name, itself an adaptation of the hugely popular novel by Adrian Tan. Having never seen the 1998 film, nor read the book, I guess you could say my expectations were tempered, but even then I was, suffice to say, thoroughly disappointed by the TV adaptation. 

It re-routes the action to a fictional polytechnic in Paya Lebar somewhere, and follows the travails of the book and film’s main characters: earnest if somewhat gormless Mui Ee, the lovelorn but otherwise plain Chung Kai, disgustingly rich playboy Sam, and popular it-girl Sissy Song. Here, they’re given a kind of cosmetic zoomer update, and you can tell it was written by elder millennials like myself because no zoomer reflects quite as much on “the difference between our generation and theirs” as they do on the show12There’s a particularly belaboured plot-point where Mui Ee’s father, played by Tay Ping Hui, wants to create an app (eyeroll) to serve as a guide to being a teenager in 2021, inspired by The Teenage Textbook, which it is implied he may or may not have written. The show makes a whole thing out of him copying down young people’s lingo for comic relief which is seriously the most cringe-inducing thing I’ve ever seen. I guess they needed to find a way to pad out the series.

What doesn’t work for me is the usual mangled realism that you get on Mediacorp shows: the language is bland and stilted, and nothing sits naturally in the mouths of these characters nor the actors who play them. And the whole thing seems to exist in some badly-imagined version of what Singapore looks and feels like. There’s a kind of scrubbed-clean but pretending-at-being-edgy quality to this world that I can’t imagine being appealing to your average young person whose life is spent on TikTok, so that really begs the question: who’s this for? 

I say skip the reboot13I did, after two episodes, sorry about it, I’m not being paid enough to sit through the whole thing. and go straight to 1998’s The Teenage Textbook Movie, which is streaming on Netflix. This was my first ever viewing of the movie and I loved it. There’s a breezy and effortless naturalism to the writing and acting, and some incredibly hilarious writing.14I mean, in the credits, it says the screenplay was written by Haresh Sharma. You get a sense of a young person’s world totally saturated, as it would have been in the ‘90s, by music, radio, and magazines, and the pursuit of cool15Cf, this great essay by Pooja Nansi about buying jeans at Far East Plaza in the ’90s.. There’s also some really gorgeous footage of Singapore in the ’90s16Totally vintage by this point, I might add.

The film really captures the restless MTV generation and its awkward shuffle between the Western hinterland of pop culture and the sleepiness of conservative Singapore, and has a biting and sarcastic MTV sense of humour to go with it. It also manages to be a really good teen movie with its stories of hapless teens talking like they know the world when they really don’t, and scrabbling about in the dark for what feels good and right and true. There are awkward first kisses in flashy cars, and tender bus rides home after first dates, all set against a backdrop of a city where people don’t stop often enough to ask: what do I really want? You come to really feel for all the characters, particularly Mui Ee, who learns the hard way not to trust the lies of handsome men. At one point, Mui Ee finds herself stranded morosely at a bus stop after seeing her paramour Tom D’Cruz get into the car with some other woman, and I find myself yelling at the screen: I AM MUI EE. We are all Mui Ee.

 

Anyway that’s my round-up for the month of March. I expect we might soon see a lot more genre-orientated content coming our way as the big streaming platforms start commissioning more regional creators17If Netflix is reading, btw, I’m highly available to create some Singapore-inspired genre fiction, think: MARINA BARRAGE, a TV show set in a mid-Apocalyptic world. The world is quickly going underwater, but the Life Ark on the top of the Marina Bay Sands has 10,000 places for the best and richest of the region. Bruneian princes, Thai kings, abalone magnates, and anxious Singapore politicians rub shoulders in a floating hotel of the Apocalypse. Meanwhile: everyone else must fight to death for a spot in the third class cabin. It’s Crazy Rich Asians meets Snowpiercer. DM me. , which could mean more blandly derivative stuff or, hopefully, really high quality shows that combine genre conventions with richly idiosyncratic regional flavours and stories. Until next time, streamers!


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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