By Joel Tan
To borrow and distort the title of David Shield’s lyrical manifesto against fiction: I’ve been HUNGRY for reality in the month of May. And so for this month’s edition of SEE WHAT SEE, I’m training my sights on documentaries from Southeast Asia or about Southeast Asian subjects that you can stream right here on the Interwebs.
I consume documentaries like popcorn. It might have something to do with David Shield’s pretty accurate diagnosis that in an era where the hidden secrets of fiction have long been exposed, and in which reality itself often comes to us mediated to the point of being fictional, we have all become a little desperate to interact with as much unfiltered reality as possible. That said, I’m under no illusions about the innocence of documentaries. Like mostly everything else, documentaries are obviously heavily curated, definitely mediated, maybe even distorted, versions of reality. But that just adds to the fun for me: where is the line between reality and mediation? What I like about documentaries as a storytelling form is that I feel like they tend to fight harder for my belief than fictional drama does, and maybe that in itself is kinda pleasurable. My favourite murder mystery game is detecting the documentary-making in the documentary, so maybe a fun drinking activity as you work your way through this line up might be to take a shot every time you start to doubt what’s going on.
1. ANDRE AND HIS OLIVE TREE (1h 43m)
This is now out on Netflix Singapore, having finished its run at local cinemas. This 2020 film takes as its subject one of the more controversial stories from the world of Singapore fine dining. In 2017, when the newly-minted Michelin Guide Singapore doled out its first-ever ratings, Restaurant André, led by the eponymous and legendary Taiwanese chef André Chiang, was given two stars. Shortly after, André Chiang not only returned those stars but closed the restaurant, to the shock of people who care about these things. André and his Olive Tree follows Chiang in the weeks leading up to the restaurant’s final service, and in the months after, when Chiang returns to Taiwan.
I went in thinking this was going to be one of those documentaries about fine dining with lots of urgent piano music in the background and close-up shots of food I could never afford. Thankfully, this isn’t it. There’s barely any food in here, nor lengthy ruminations about creativity. In fact, there’s an odd banality to this documentary that concerns itself mostly with Chiang’s life and the people around him, most notably his firecracker wife, Pam, and their (late) golden retriever, Lucky (RIP).
In parts, it’s a sort of biography of Chiang, in other parts, a peek behind the scenes of one of the city’s most dramatic restaurant closures. In other parts, it’s a fly-on-the-wall look at the dynamic relationship between a Michelin-starred chef and his wife-cum-business-partner. In other parts, it’s kind of about food, but not really. We get some interesting accounts from his staff in the kitchen, who reflect on Chiang as a boss (apparently quite a good one, if sometimes difficult), and a few talking heads from the professional food world wax lyrical about Chiang, but otherwise don’t offer any great insight. If I sound a little on the fence, it’s because, while pleasant and occasionally entertaining, the film is frustratingly unfocused.
Structurally, it’s a little all over the place. The story at first seems mainly to be about the dramatic closure of the restaurant, but then it kinda forgets that it’s doing this and goes down a few charming rabbit holes, e.g. a cute but ultimately distracting day out of the restaurant featuring Pam taking Lucky out for a walk around the neighbourhood. The film also flirts with the idea of being a food documentary, especially given how it’s broken into chapters titled after the eight principles of Andre Chiang’s totemic “Octaphilosophy” of food. Eventually, you realise this structure is loose and gestural at best. “Loose,” in fact, is the word to describe this documentary, which is fine in and of itself, but after a while it’s kind of boring because no true line of inquiry truly emerges.
Why did André Chiang close his restaurant at the beginning of Michelin recognition? Very little in the documentary goes beyond Chiang’s vague official statement at the time. What accounts for the myth of genius around André Chiang? The documentary, so eager to avoid being that sort of film about chefs, doesn’t really press Chiang on that either. So what, in the final assessment, is this documentary about? André Chiang, duh! Oh and also… his olive tree, which gets lost as both metaphor and subject by the first third of the film, literally a tree in the background.
So… just André Chiang, then? I suppose the documentary is most effective as a watery portrait of the man, who manages to be both weirdly reticent and chatty at the same time. But what does the film have to say about Chiang, really? In this documentary, we learn that he’s obsessive, he’s very unorthodox, and he’s loyal. He’s basically that sort of creative genius archetype we’ve all come to recognise from documentaries like these. Creepily, you get the sense, in fact, that Chiang, so exacting and controlling, is carefully managing his own portraiture in this instance. Without a clear documentary angle, the film seems content to take whatever Andre is saying at face value.
Josiah Ng, the documentary maker, approached Chiang after reading about the decision to close Restaurant André, stirred and fascinated by Chiang’s strange resolve. Sadly, that fascination doesn’t amount to much drive or clarity in the documentary-making. I get the overwhelming sense that Ng is either totally incurious about or so in awe of Chiang that he never really develops an investigative point of view about his subject.
Possibly the best part of the film is when Chiang returns to Taiwan after the closure of Restaurant André. We arrive at the verdant, mountainous region of Shilin. Chiang stares out at a windswept field, then cheerfully gives us a tour of a massive luxury home he’s just bought for his family. We meet Chiang’s mother, an early culinary influence, as they visit a market. They cook together for Mother’s Day. It’s sweet and touching. Chiang takes us on a tour of the famous Shilin night market. He’s flush with nostalgia for his childhood and the wonder of Taiwanese street food. He’s a different man. Here in Taiwan, he seems freer, more relaxed. We cut back to the night before the closure of Restaurant André. He’s making what looks like Taiwanese beef noodles for the closing party. He quips that he’s more excited about the beef noodles than he is about his last-ever service. At the closing party, he’s sad, but not as sad as his wife, who bawls throughout the closure.
You get the sense in these moments that in quitting Singapore, he’s cutting his losses, or at least cutting himself free from something. What is it? The dodgy Michelin star system? His own mythology? His own success? Singapore? We never really know, because the documentary, well… it never thinks to ask.
Watch Andre And His Olive Tree here.
NSFTV (Not Safe for TV) position themselves as makers of edgy content about Singapore, and they take pride in doing so in a formally and visually challenging way. Living in SIN is a mini-documentary series on their YouTube channel that unfolds in five short 12-14 minute episodes, each one taking as its subject people who live on the edge in straight-laced Singapore. No, we’re not talking heroin addicts or political dissidents here, but a motley lineup of underground rappers, street artists, a 1970s crime lord, motorsports enthusiasts, and Pann Lim, founder and director of award-winning design firm Kinetic.
The idea is to cast a spotlight on Singaporeans who’ve strayed off the beaten path in search of out-there ways of life. I find it kind of weird that a murderous crime-lord, Roland Tan, who died in August 2020 after a wildly lucrative and bloody criminal career in Europe in the 70s, is lumped in with artists and sportsmen. That’s the final episode, and curatorially weird as it is, the episode is done in delicious animation and of the lot is the most gripping story, if only for its distinct what-the-fuck quality.
The first two episodes are the best. Episode One features underground rappers ABANGSAPAU and Mediocre Haircut Crew as they talk frankly about their music, and goes behind the scenes at some of their gigs and recording sessions. Episode Two narrows in on SKL0, or Sam Lo or, less desirably, “Sticker Lady,” who in 2012 attracted public interest for marking the streets with provocative stickers and stencilled art, igniting a debate about the line between vandalism and art.
In each of these episodes, the invisible character is the crushing orthodoxy of life in Singapore: censorship, the law, and the daily negotiation of what it means to be upstanding and proper. There’s a genuine and palpable sense of anxiety and fear hanging about these people whose work– spitting bars at the system and turning the city into a canvas– by definition takes them into dicey territory.
There’s a very affecting and telling scene during Episode One, about the rappers, where the hilarious and frank-speaking Mediocre Haircut Crew are putting together a setlist for a public gig at Aliwal Arts Centre. “Eh this is a clean set lah,” one of them says, “that song got a lot of vulgarities.” They then land on the brilliant idea of having the audience fill in the blanks themselves, which we later witness at the gig. “Eh that one is you all say one ah, not us,” MHC yell at the crowd in jest.
It’s weird and ultimately a little sad to see rappers mind their words so carefully. And the juxtaposition of this caution with the glimpses we get of the underground hip hop scene– robust, angry, and vigorous– is a recognisably Singaporean contradiction. The bodies in the audience writhe in pleasure and rebellion, the bars from the stage are angry and provocative, and the rappers are (mostly) unapologetic. But like all artists in Singapore, they’ve already had that slightly lame “can anot ah?” conversation in back rooms.
Much the same dynamic comes alive in the profile on SKL0, whose account of their 2012 arrest is very sobering. The law, SKL0 wants us to remember, is everywhere. Their more recent work centres a lot on the imagery of the CCTV camera, and mice writhing in traps trying to get free. “If there’s a field,” one of SKL0’s artist friends and collaborators notes, musing on what really constitutes public space, “there’s a sign that says it’s state land, it belongs to the government”. Art, let alone street art, is not free, and never has been. SKL0 says they went on the downlow after the events of 2012, and it’s clear why. The law is scary. There’s a moment when SKL0, sitting with their aunt, theatre actor Karen Tan (in a surprise cameo), gets emotional recalling how the traumatic period still sits with them, several years on. It’s hard to watch, and makes you ask of Singapore: really must lidat meh?
These artists have to make certain hard decisions when it comes to making a living in the city, and it’s in these moments that some very fascinating tensions come into play. What does it mean for SKL0, the rebel street artist, to now take on commissioned corporate gigs, even government ones? SKL0 bristles at the idea that they can only make fringe work just because of what happened in 2012. Their identity as an artist, they say, is much bigger than that criminal charge. “I lay low after that. I’ve been working on myself, getting good,” they say, “but people don’t see that.” It’s a fascinating picture of how repression distorts artistic identity. Because so few people take one for the team, singular acts of rebellion become etched into an artist’s mythology, and a refracting lens on their work.
SKL0 now negotiates with state agencies to procure “legal walls” on which to make street art, greatly adding to the city’s hip veneer. Here the lines between authentic rebellion and state-sanctioned “edgy art” blur: what happens when an artform of the streets becomes approved, even instrumentalised by the state?
The same question is asked by the braggadocious rapper, ABANGSAPAU, whose social justice-themed rhymes recently made it onto Mediacorp’s New Year’s Eve Countdown show, a family variety programme. Even as we process the slightly depressing sight of moody hip hop co-opted into happy clappy national optics, a stream of racist and derogatory comments on the event live-chat during ABANGSAPAU’s spot reveal that even on a mainstream stage like this, the rebellious artist is still rendered an outsider. Sitting on the street after a gig, ABANGSAPAU muses on being accused of “selling out” and going mainstream. But what else is a musician to do in this country?
These tensions are familiar to anyone working in creative fields in Singapore, and the answer seems to be: just keep doing. Lucky, in fact, to be able to do at all. In episode 4, Singapore sports car racer Andrew Tang and Ah Boon, an illegal racer turned big brother of the local motorsports scene, both complain how little space for local motorsports there is in F1-addled Singapore. Nonetheless, they push on, funding their own training and building their own communities. The story is of two people who desperately make space for the things they love in a place where the opportunities aren’t always forthcoming.
Episode 3, which features Pann Lim, a sort of creative agency superstar in these parts, muses on what it means to live the creative life. It’s a story of obsession, high standards, and pushing on despite the odds. Pann and his family, who together publish a popular arty zine, are proudly and fiercely weird and creative. If the overarching question of the series is “Singapore got this kind meh,” the answer, in episode 3 is: yes, got, and they can be very excellent too.
In fact, this series, as a whole, is excellent: the visual and storytelling style in each episode is unique and crafted to the personalities being profiled. This is most apparent in Pann Lim’s episode, which plays out as an homage to Lim’s pop-retro sensibility. Overall, you get a nuanced and often very honest and affecting portrait of the people being featured, and the series as a whole speaks powerfully to the fraught condition of living passionately and rebelliously in this country.
And yet, something odd lingers about the whole series. The Singapore Tourism Board is listed in the credits, and it’s unclear what their involvement is. With the series’ focus on shedding light on edgy Singaporeans, the whole thing feels suspiciously in line with STB’s more recent push to dismantle the “Singapore is sterile” narrative. This makes you wonder about the series: what does it mean to fold creativity and rebellion into the storytelling project of the state? If anything, it seems to clarify some of those old and mysterious OB markers: it’s okay to say it sucks here, in fact it’s okay for your work to say it fucking sucks here, as long as you make something good out of it. Scratch that: something useful, something usable.
Watch the Living In SIN series here.
3. THE ATLANTIC SELECTS: DUTERTE’S GRAVEYARD (12 min) & LOST WORLD (16 min)
The Atlantic Selects is a documentary platform featuring short docs made by independent filmmakers, and made available to stream on YouTube at The Atlantic’s page. Amongst them are these two short documentaries, Duterte’s Graveyard and Lost World, each focusing on extreme political injustices happening in the Philippines and Cambodia respectively. A word of warning: Duterte’s Graveyard contains some very distressing and graphic images.
In Duterte’s Graveyard, made by Anders Palm Olesen and Simone Andrea Gottschau, a cemetery in Manila is getting over-crowded. The number of bodies from extrajudicial killings sanctioned by president Duterte and his war on drugs, far exceeds the available space in the cemetery. A band of weary cemetery workers labour to build more graves, all the while musing on how, because they too live in the slums and fit the arbitrary profile of a drug addict (young, male, skinny), they might be next. This is intercut with an activist’s account of how senseless, and sinister the drug raids on the slums are. The police, desperate to meet their quotas, and licensed to use lethal force, terrorise the slums, executing people summarily and arbitrarily. We’re told that a street-sweeper named Michael is unlucky that the police are looking for names that start with M the night he is killed.
The power of this documentary lies in its liminality. Its subject is not the well-rehearsed theatre of politics but its gruesome margins: the fetid, undignified clean-up operation. To make room for new bodies, old unmarked graves are unceremoniously exhumed, and bones are bagged to be tossed. It’s a horrific landscape of human and spiritual detritus. Some of these images, like a sock clinging to a leg bone, are indelible. This is what power truly looks like, not parades and medals, but rotten bones.
Forced to defile these graves, the workers curse freely and angrily at Duterte. In these gutters, where the grave workers’s hands are dirtied by a corruption that isn’t their own, there’s a grim, pragmatic approach to danger and mortality. One of the workers, Bibi, recounts the night he feels a gun pressed to the back of his head, as a policeman threatens him for no reason at all. Bibi, who lives in a cemetery and is surrounded by death, seems at first stoic in the telling of this story. But in the long silence that follows, his eyes well up; the horror is still raw and present.
This isn’t an easy watch, and often feels intensely perverse and intrusive. To watch this at all is to bear witness, and to arm oneself with the knowledge that, in principle, strongmen in power do not value human life, and whatever they say to the contrary is a lie.
The strongman in Lost World, directed by Kalyanee Mam, is none other than the Singapore state, exercising a grotesque form of neo-colonial power over the riverbanks of Cambodia. We follow Vy Phalla, a Cambodian woman who’s grown up in a fishing community along a river that’s rapidly being destroyed by sand dredging activities. The sand is being dredged for sale to Singapore, the world’s largest importer of sand, desperate to reclaim more land from the sea.
This is a beautifully shot documentary, a prayer for and tribute to a disappearing landscape. More importantly, it is a clear-sighted condemnation of Singapore’s role in ecological destruction, and a precise snapshot of the dynamics of power and inequality at work in the region.
The short opens with sand dredgers clawing ravenously into a river bed. Then, we see Vy Phalla walking through a sand depository in Singapore, a barren desert landscape made up of mounds of white, imported sand. “The size of this country’s sand facility,” she says, staring slack-jawed at the scene around her, “is almost like a chunk of Cambodia. They’ve shipped over all our land”. This moment is brilliantly bookended when, later, Vy Phalla visits Gardens by the Bay, a palatial garden built on reclaimed land. Wandering through this Disneyland of flowers, artificial and sterile, she looks into a hibiscus. “This flower is really beautiful. Except it has no seeds.” Later, she sees some Camellias and dabs her face with them, an almost ritualistic ablution in a spiritually bereft landscape.
These spare but potent filmic metaphors account for much of the film’s power. It’s a savage condemnation of the way land is moved without thought for its spiritual and human properties, dwelling on the idea that sand has an identity beyond being matter for building on. It’s fascinating to see Singapore from this point of view. Everything about the city becomes saturated, in this way, with a plastic complexion: tacky, artificial, soulless. A mountain of imported plants growing from a bed of imported sand, cut off from its spiritual geography, becomes metaphorical of our city.
Throughout the short, Vy Phalla seems to perform a sort of mourning ritual for exiled land. There is also grief for a disappearing way of life. The short shows us how, as the riverine ecology rapidly deteriorates, so do the complex relationships Vy Phalla and her community have with the mangroves. Generations of people have lived off the river, developing an entire system of knowledge about how to harvest the wetlands. Now, the water is cloudy, and everything is dying.
Vy Phalla sings a song as she takes a boat ride down her home river. It’s a paean to the mangroves, whose beauty “rivals the palace gardens / It is a place where pure love grows / The more I gaze, the more I crave to see / A true and rare beauty is revealed to me”. It carries with it such deep, unbearable longing, and a way of knowing foreign to the cold neoliberal algorithms of our science-fiction city.
Both these short documentaries are essential viewing. They ushered me into a state of deep mourning for the devastated spiritual landscape of our region, constantly in flux, and caught in the grips of a maniacal, inhumane will to power. In the case of Lost World, it also revealed the deep roots of complicity that tie Singapore to this pattern of abuse and destruction.
Watch Duterte’s Graveyard here.
Watch Lost World here.
4. ISLANDS OF FAITH (1h 28min)
On a much more uplifting note is Islands of Faith, a gorgeous feature-length that’s streaming on Netflix. Centering on Indonesia, the film observes seven communities spread throughout the Indonesian islands, and the ways in which each of these communities tackles the problems of climate change. In each of these cases there’s a wonderful interfacing between spiritual and ecological worldviews, showing how conservation is inextricable from faith and spirituality. It’s a powerful take on ecological issues that ushers you into a contemplative state, a reminder that the climate crisis is at its heart a spiritual one.
As the film observes, the compulsion to conserve the earth and live in balance with it is central to a diverse range of faiths. A Christian community in a sea-side fishing town in West Papua has consecrated a patch of the sea for conservation. The community rallies and prays for God to bless the reservation, and their pastor blesses a sign that’s erected to mark the area as off-limits for fishing. In Bali, the Balinese-Hindu festival of Nyepi sees the entire community confine themselves to their homes for a day of mandatory rest and silence, a way of resetting the natural balance. In Kalimantan, an indingeous village prepares for a harvest festival, where they thank the gods for a bountiful harvest and remind themselves of their sacred mandate to protect the forest in which they live. In Yogyakarta, a Muslim family has built a sustainable farm for themselves, practising and teaching a form of permaculture that’s deeply informed by Islamic principles.
It’s a fascinating picture of how religions aren’t monolithic, not even major world religions like Islam, Christianity and Hinduism. As is the case with each of these Indonesian communities of faith, these religions are robustly adapted to local tradition and contexts, and flow naturally and beautifully with people’s ways of life.
A lot of nature documentaries contain an inherent tragedy for me, what I call the melancholy Attenborough effect of showing something breathtakingly beautiful on screen while gesturing constantly to its rapid disappearance. I argue that with Attenborough in particular, there’s something quite discomfiting about that plum British voice going on about climate change when the role colonialism played (and plays) in ecological devastation goes unremarked. There’s some of that disabling grief in Islands of Faith, but overall the film is a welcome antidote to the usual helpless and catastrophic point of view: here we see communities getting off their butts and doing something about it, employing culture, faith, and tradition to make meaningful changes in their immediate contexts. It’s very moving, and an inspiring reminder of the deep spiritual heritage of the Southeast Asian archipelago, one that’s tied so intimately to our forests, and seas, and mangroves.
Watch Islands of Faith here.
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.