Yawning Bread. 2 April 2008

Cinema: Lion City




"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." So wrote Leslie P Hartley in the opening lines of his celebrated book, The Go-Between. I was acutely reminded of this as I watched Lion City, the first Chinese-language film ever made in Singapore. A 1960 production by Cathay-Keris Studios, almost everything about it the clothes, the locations, the concerns were so removed from present-day Singapore, it was positively quaint.

It's a story about a young woman, Fengling, living with her parents and brothers in a block of flats around Old Airport Road. She is pursued by, and soon falls in love with, the scion of the wealthy family I don't recall this character having a name, but is always referred to as the "Young Master" who runs the rubber business in which she works as a lowly packer. While true love wins out in the end, there are attempts by the director and scriptwriter to make it seem difficult along the way. I say 'attempts' because the story really wasn't convincing at all.

Directed by Yi Sui, said to be a relatively unknown Hong Kong filmmaker from the Cathay-Keris stable, with dialogue written and dubbed into Mandarin Chinese - in those days, the lines weren't spoken and recorded as the scenes were filmed, but were instead dubbed in later - no one will say it was a technically good production. The script was hackneyed, the language much too literary for a lower-class family, the acting overdone, the background music constantly elbowed its way forward in an effort to wring pathos out of a scene, and the editing amateurish at best.

It had an excess of subplots, often leading nowhere. Partly, I reckon, it was to make up for the fact that the main plot was too bare: The film might have been intended as a "love conquers all" kind of story except that in this film, there wasn't much to conquer. The boyfriend and girlfriend characters had no flaws to speak of and most of the other characters around them took a politically correct position with regard to the class difference between the two, perhaps in keeping with the socialistic mores of the time. However, that only meant that there was no more dramatic tension left. The film didn't need all its 105 minutes to tell its tale.

Seeing it with modern eyes

"If I was just watching it alone at home," documentary filmmaker Tan Pin Pin told me, "I'd think it was a bad movie, and that's all there is to it."

"But watching it with an audience, and sensing how they saw it with modern eyes, made it quite an interesting experience." 

Indeed, by about the one-third mark, the audience began to snigger at certain points in the film, and this gradually became unsuppressed laughter by the end. I felt sorry for the cinematographer and one of the actors sitting in the audience during the screening and who were asked to stand up and be recognised afterwards.

What was I, for one, laughing at? Let me start with the lead actress: Throughout the movie, she never quite walked. She mostly skipped around like some 9-year-old child, and at points, became quite coquettish as did other women in the film. Then there was the utterly unreal formality of the language. Even I, who do not claim to know Chinese, could detect that the dialogue in the various home settings were too structured, the intonation of the dubbed lines too mainland Chinese rather than the dialect-influenced speech that would have been more typical of the time and place.

But what made me laugh loudest was the instructional tone, ballooning to outright propaganda at times, of the whole film. For instance, there was one point in which Fengling and her beau were standing atop a hill, looking across to the harbour, and he tells her that Singapore is located between the Straits of Malacca to the West and the South China Sea to the East.

Another moment, we see the Fengling attending night class, with a geography lesson in progress. We, the audience, learn that Singapore has a population of 1.5 million, of whom 80 percent are Chinese, while in Malaya, the majority are Malays.

Taking the cake must be the subplot involving a general election, which gives Fengling's mother the chance to educate us that the vote is secret but one should exercise one's vote responsibly in choosing the right government. If that wasn't enough, the family is shown listening to the radio during vote-counting and we hear that the People's Action Party has won Redhill consitutency.

By then, it was no longer funny. My skin was beginning to crawl.

Why did the film have this quality? One possibility was that that was what it took to get permission from the then Ministry of Culture to shoot the film in Singapore. In order to get various permits to shoot scenes in the streets, a filmmaker would have to submit his script to the government for vetting.

Another possibility was that it was intended for audiences across Southeast Asia, who might not be familiar with Singapore. Its name, Lion City, being more related to the location than the story, supports this thesis. In the end though, I am told, the film was not a commercial success.

Showing us how removed we are from our past

Despite its flaws, as Pin Pin said, it's the seeing with modern eyes that made the film interesting. The buses that the characters rode in were small, crowded and looked appallingly stuffy. Many of the women wore the samfoo, which virtually nobody now wears. Occupations that the characters had are now obsolete: Fengling's two brothers were a lighter boatman and a pirate taxi-driver respectively.

However, what was most telling was how the young Nanyang Technological University students who organised this screening, failed to recognise the rubber factory in the early scenes of the movie. In their film notes, they described it as a "clothes factory" perhaps they thought the workers there were handling denim, instead of rubber sheets. These kids are so removed from those times!

Another mistake they made in their film notes was to refer to the harbour as Pasir Panjang Port. No, my dears, it was the Empire Dock we saw, with Pulau Brani in the distance. Paris Panjang Port did not exist in 1960. Yet, you can hardly fault them, for Empire Dock is no more. It's been filled in and become a huge container yard.

In that sense, the film now has historical value, but more specifically, a historical value closely intertwined with the socio-political ethos of the age. Russell Heng, my friend who first told me about the screening, was struck by the "birth of a nation" feel of the movie: a new Chinese community in a new home outside China, conscious about the multiracial character of this place (there were the token Sikh and Malay characters), looking forward to a bright future. There was evoked a sense of solidarity and comradeship, and a clear distinction was made between the morally upright characters (the future) and those who engaged in vice (the past).

Giving up your time to help organise workers into unions was portrayed as the socially responsible thing to do, taking the trouble to educate oneself politically and going to vote was the obligation of new citizens, and the eradication of jukeboxes, pinball machines and drinking shops a mark of modernity.

Really a different country

In my case, I was most struck by what the Muar sequences represented. Muar is a small town in Malaya (and the film takes the time to educate us viewers that its proper name is Bandar Maharani) a good day trip away. Fengling leaves Singapore to spend a few days there with her sister-in-law, whose family has a coconut plantation nearby. To me, it represented a time when Singapore and Malaya were one socio-cultural, economic and kind-of political space. It was not remarkable to marry across the boundary because the boundary then wasn't perceived as one, nor did you need a passport to cross into Malaya. The Chinese in Singapore had more relationships with the Chinese in Malaya than they had with the non-Chinese here.

Those days are gone. Malaya has become Malaysia and we now see it as a separate country. Passports, immigration hassles and even language stand between us, and the English-educated Singaporeans don't see themselves having much in common with Malaysians, of any race.

In fact, I wonder, noting how the audience responded to the film, how much the Singaporeans of today can identify with early Homo singaporeansis as depicted in the film. 48 years have elapsed since Lion City was made - many of the actors are probably still alive - but it seems so, so distant.

Yawning Bread 


The screening of Lion City was the opening film in a short film festival, called Perspectives, organised by a group of students from the Wee Kim Wee School of Nanyang Technological University as part of their practicum coursework, with support from the National Museum and others.

Besides the logistics of organising the film festival, the students also had to subtitle the old films, which is back-breaking work.