JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Mee Pok Man
visual analysis

4. Closing montage. The closing scenes have the feel of documentary verité and contain many rapid cuts...

...Mee Pok Man wears a tattered tee shirt and the corpse’s hand is in advanced state of decay. He holds it and at one point kisses it. On the sound track is Bunny’s girlish voice narrating a happy incident from her childhood. The composition of the image is like that of the earlier scene, but with closer framing....

...A series of rapidly presented unmotivated images from different locations...

...Taken from a tripod-mounted stationary camera, this scene shows the crowd at Orchard Road, the country’s shopping mecca, around Christmas time. We hear the sound of chiming bells...

...Mee Pok Man in bed with the dead Bunny...

...Christmas fairy lights over Orchard Road and other shots of the decorations ensue, as seen from a moving vehicle...

...Bunny’s younger brother in an MRT, Mass Rapid Transit Train, moving through an underground tunnel. It is not clear whether it is night or day. ...

...More shots of the Orchard Road Christmas decorations as seen from a moving vehicle. Here, a jolly snowman effigy, about 10 meters high...

 

...Bunny’s younger brother in th same train, followed by other “portrait” shots of young passengers traveling alone...

...An HDB estate seen during daytime from a moving train is followed by various shots of the rapid transit environment, including one of a train running along an overground track...

...A shot, taken with a still camera on a tripod, of downtown commercial buildings. Audio is an increasingly loud drum tatoo...

...Various shots of the crowd in the commercial business district, taken from a still camera on a tripod...

...Low angle shot of landmark downtown building, the Overseas Union Bank headquarters...

...HDB housing units from the back, looking less clean and functional than from the front.

Dark side of the Singapore moon

For the most part, the secrets indicate severe family communication problems, between mother/daughter, parents/son, husband/wife, and sibling/sibling. (In the next section we will discuss the specific nature of these secrets.) Analogically, the storylines about secrets expand to develop a whole mood of urban alienation and isolation. The particular discursive paradigm of lack of communication extends to HDB neighbors, since the four households never talk to each other. On occasions when the households’ respective members pass by each other, they maintain a “healthy” distance. Thus when San San shares a lift with her neighbor, the anonymous man before his suicide, upon seeing him enter the lift, she turns away.

Even in supposedly social and friendly environments, this turning away occurs. After marriage, Ah Gu (played by Jack Neo) minimizes his contact with buddies who usually congregate at the neighborhood coffee shop. When he and his wife happen to run into them, his first reaction is to keep up the false pretense of a happy marriage. Furthermore, in other scenes at this coffee shop where anonymous taxi-drivers, including Ah Gu’s buddies, gather to exchange gossips, and to make idle conversation about current state affairs such as the caning of Michael Fay,[69] the gathering does not show a strong sense of communicative communalism.

Finally, this same theme of non-communication imbues the film’s bizarre dimension. When the family —such as father, mother and ghost son—occupy the same frame, physical and psychological estrangement still prevails. Here, the parents (Mother: Tan Kheng Hua; Father: Ng Sway An) cannot establish eye contact; they sit apart from each other and speak in monologues.[70] Though clearly in deep sorrow over their son’s death, they are unable to offer each other comfort. Meanwhile Spirit watches quietly; its very presence serves as an ironic amplification of the humans’ inability to connect (images).[71]

All these scenarios provide an index, both literal and analogical, to dysfunctional relations in modern Singaporean society. Such relations are portrayed as ingrained and persistent. When viewed in the overall context of the film’s HDB setting, 12 Storeys’ critical commentary is intensified. The housing projects were originally founded in 1960 on democratic socialist principles for “creat[ing] social justice,” and provid[ing] a “‘safety net’ [for] ... families who did not have enough to meet their minimum needs.”[72] HDB has since become a definitive statement about the PAP-led government’s vision and achievements in the last 37 years (at the time of 12 Storeys). As the pride and glory of that government, these housing developments have also granted political legitimacy to the regime.

Yet the HDB of 12 Storeys (or for that matter, Mee Pok Man) tells a starkly different story. Miserable and dysfunctional HDB-dwellers here counter the official image of HDB as a successful public housing project. Indeed in consciously probing into domesticity in public high rises and in developing the attendant themes of urban isolation and alienation, Khoo’s two films amount to, in the words of Cherian George, “deeply political creation[s]”[73] that reveal the dark side of the Singapore moon.

In addition to their settings and themes, both 12 Storeys and Mee Pok Man are unconventional in terms of the official agenda for the arts, perhaps most exemplified by the following technocratic pronouncement:

Performing arts in Singapore, apart from being an enrichment experience for the people, will form an integral part of Singapore lifestyle no different from its greenness and cleanliness, which together will affirm its position as a centre of excellence and an attractive place in which to invest.[74]

Mee Pok Man and 12 Storeys eschew such an agenda. They are not the sort of artistic tract that government bodies such the Economic Development Board (EDB) and Singapore Tourist Board (STB) would rush to get hold of to promote Singapore as “a centre of excellence” and “an attractive [investment] place.” Amidst Singapore’s renowned “greenness and cleanliness,” Khoo shows drabness and dreariness. In addition to plotlines about dysfunctional HDB-dwellers, the two films have Singaporeans of whom even mothers might be ashamed—pimps, prostitutes, and gangsters. In short, Khoo’s characters are not representative of model Singaporeans. Nor are they like the much-favored “cosmopolitans,” who, as Prime Minister (PM) Goh Chok Tong points out in his 1999 National Day Rally speech, would have an international outlook:

[Cosmopolitans] speak English but are bilingual. They have skills that command good incomes – banking, IT, engineering, science and technology. They produce goods and services for the global market. [They frequently] use Singapore as a base to operate in the region. They can work and be comfortable anywhere in the world.[75]

Goh also gives us the converse to this paradigm, the not so highflying “heartlander” Singaporeans who

make their living within the country. Their orientation and interests are local rather than international. Their skills are not marketable beyond Singapore. They speak Singlish. They include taxi-drivers, stallholders, provision shop owners, production workers and contractors ... If they emigrate to America, they will probably settle in a Chinatown, open a Chinese restaurant and call it an “eating house.”[76]

The PM’s highly polarized categories indicate a persistent imaginary running through governmental discourses before and after the PM’s speech. These two groups have long existed as unnamed entities, especially earlier in the 90s in government discourse on globalization consequent to the advent of the Information Technology (IT) revolution. This discourse hails the interconnectivity of a borderless world made possible by the Internet. With that sense of “cosmopolitanism,” the government seeks to transform Singapore into a regional/international hub for commerce and the arts as a response to the “challenges of globalization.”[77] It concurrently encourages Singaporeans to cast an entrepreneurial eye beyond the local. Those who have succeeded are the unnamed precursors to “cosmopolitans,” while those who have not are compelled to seek their livelihood at home, and thus are here belatedly classified as “heartlanders.”

The globalizing push also gives credence to the related discourse of “foreign talent,” with ideas about increasing the country’s talent pool and accordingly raising its talent pyramid.[78] By the time of the 1997 recession, a consequence of regional financial crisis, however, discourse about foreign talent rebounded back on the government, who had to deal with growing criticisms from the middle-class. Thus the PM also said in his 1999 address:

Foreign talent will not take away jobs from Singaporeans. Instead [they] will create more jobs and prosperity for all of us.[79]

“Foreign talent,” though not named as such until the late-1990s, previously came in the form of “foreign technological know-how” or “foreign expertise.” Such expertise played a role in the country’s developmentalist economism and move toward rapid modernization and industrialization. Historically, foreign elements had a revered status in the official annals, variously regarded as visionary architects, builders and developers of modern Singapore; the most exemplary was Stamford Raffles, fondly remembered as “founding father” rather than as an Englishman who colonized the island in 1819.

While we do not want to insist that Khoo’s “foreign” characters indicate a direct critical response to the official discourses around “foreign talent,” the various manifestations of foreign elements in Khoo’s early films do depart markedly from official annals and “foreign talent” discourse. In these two films, for example, we see an “Oriental pussy” seeker from London (Reese in Mee Pok Man) and a scheming China-bride (Lili in 12 Storeys[80]), and hear about a young American vandal (Michael Fay in 12 Storeys).

Chinese-Singaporean characters in Khoo’s early films, including Mee Pok Man and 12 Storeys, or “heartlanders” as the PM would put it, would not only speak Singlish but also other tongues long disowned by the government. These languages run the gamut of non-standard English and Mandarin, and local Chinese dialects such as Hokkein, Cantonese and Teochew. These are languages which the PAP-government has actively sought to rectify or eradicate from the public sphere since the 1970s. The government has assumed that these languages would impede the country’s economic prosperity and international competitiveness. Their return via Khoo’s early films and many “revival” films (as well as other cultural forms such as popular songs) constitute—as Chua Beng Huat might put it—a form of protest against their continuing marginalisation in state discourse.[81] At the same time, the very presence of disowned languages in Khoo’s early films and elsewhere serves as a terse reminder about the state’s failure in language policing.[82]

The unorthodoxies of Khoo’s early films collectively undermine slickly packaged national myths built with official clichés such as “wholesome, clean, upgraded and upwardly mobile,” and a country noted for “its affluence... discipline... skilled workforce...[and] immaculate streets.” In this sense, Khoo’s early films resist officialdom. In the next and final section of this paper, we look further at Khoo’s early films as counter-discourse with particular reference to themes of secrets and secrecy in 12 Storeys, and we also look at how Khoo’s work comments on and undermines the national “Shared Values” ideology.

Continued: 12 Storeys’ secret world