5. Closing scene in Mee Pok Man’s apartment...
...In his kitchen, Mee Pok Man makes an offering to his late father, looking at his father’s picture...
...The father’s picture...
...Reverse shot of Mee Pok Man...
...Ghostly father against the wall...
...The late father’s ghost sits and looks on vacantly while Mee Pok Man holds breakfast in his hands...
...Mee Pok Man snuggles up to the dead Bunny’s corpse, now wrapped in a blanket.
12 Storeys’ secret world
First conceived by PM Goh Chok Tong, then the First Deputy Prime Minister, in 1988, the Shared Values ideology was nationally adopted in 1993. Spelled out in the first epigraph of this section, the ideology officially proclaims a set of beliefs as part of Singapore’s cultural heritage. The ideology thus proclaimed, as Gunther Kress and Bob Hodge might put it in a different context, has the modality of being real, natural, transparent, inevitable, factual, unquestionable, and doubtlessly true.
With a propaganda machine supported by the mass media publicizing its launch and its ongoing regurgitation in public discourse, the ideology has a widespread, even hegemonic reach. When we did a Yahoo.com search on the phrase, “Shared Values Singapore,” we found e-domains that encompass target audiences ranging from “Singapore Kids” to educators and students to “Expat Singapore.” The last website is meant for expatriates or foreign talents, living and working in the nation-state, including those who plan to do so.
These sites may hint at the pervasive extent of the e-reach of the Shared Values ideology, but they do not prove that Singapore’s population, locals and expatriates, has pervasively internalized it. In this connection, Khoo’s early films would arguably stand as both witnesses to and contenders against the Shared Values’ presumed hegemony.
12 Storeys was made four years after the Shared Values were promulgated. In terms of plot and themes, the film seems to represent a partial critical response to that ideology, partial in being ambivalent toward the fifth shared value, racial and religious harmony. In the case of 12 Storeys, Khoo gives “race” a fleeting nod via a strategic sprinkling of multiracial snapshots throughout the film. If 12 Storeys does not actively problematize the issue of race and religion in multiracial, multireligious, multicultural Singapore, does this constitute an act of self-censorship on the part of Khoo?
Eric Khoo makes no secret about the fact that he applied “self-censorship” to 12 Storeys when making it. His reasons were clear. He wanted to ensure a Parental Guidance (PG) rating so that the film would have a wider circulation than his earlier Mee Pok Man, which was slapped with a Restricted (Artist), or R(A), rating, thereby limiting its exhibition to viewers over 21 and in selected cinemas. In that light, Khoo’s self-censorship was both pragmatic and voluntary. Beyond this, he gives no details of what 12 Storeys might have looked like otherwise, though he told a reporter around the time of Mee Pok Man that his second feature would “centre on the lives of Singapore teenagers.” As it turns out, the finished version of 12 Storeys is more about HDB-families and their secrets than about Singapore teenagers and their lives.
There is therefore a gap about our knowledge of 12 Storeys the made version and 12 Storeys the shelved version. This gap makes a close reading of 12 Storeys a challenge, all the more so when the film’s plotline is packed with secrets of multiple shades and colors. Perhaps because of this gap 12 Storeys would eventually have a distinctively loose narrative structure characterized by a fragmented, elliptical storytelling style. In a different context, such a style reminds us of Michael Levine’s psychoanalytic study of writing under censorship, in particular his useful notion of “writer’s blocks,” in this case, blocks that emanate from self-censorship activities.
Khoo’s self-censorship raises questions about compromises he made that result from a fear of political consequences. If this fear came from social conditioning and political immaturity, it would readily challenge our thesis that 12 Storeys has contestatory status primarily by taking official discourse as its object of critique. Here, our analysis of Khoo’s social thematics is predicated upon Michael Levine’s theory of self-censorship that takes such questions about or suggestions of compromise as a point of reference as well as a point of departure. Generally Levine’s model recognizes that censorship is endemic in all human societies so that self-censorship is an inevitable response. Because of this, Levine rejects the notion that artists’ acts of self-censorship are simply compromises based on fear of censure from a high authority such as the state.
More pertinent to our present context is Levine’s discussion of the complex relations between self-censorship and state censorship, and their bearing on producers of texts and textual production. For Levine, producers of texts (here, films) are faced with a dilemma: to pre-censor their works (since they would be, in one way or another, subject to some form of state censorship), or to allow the state to censor them on their behalf (since it is empowered to do so). The former is a private decision, while latter is an institutionalized practice. To avoid state censorship, producers of texts are thus compelled to self-censor their works in one way or another. The advantage here is that they still consciously retain creative power. As Levine points out, this type of self-censorship:
When externalized, adds Levine, the “writers’ block” manifests itself in texts in the form of “narrative interruptions,” “deletions, blanks and disguises,” “reversals,” “distortions” and/or as games of concealment that include “excisions, approximations and circumlocutions.” Underscoring strategies of “conflict and compromise” (as opposed to just compromise), these textual elements make self-censorship “an elusive object of investigation [for the state]” since it is “difficult [for the state censor] to grasp without in turn becoming caught in its grip.” They also underscore “stylistic innovation ... [that] makes another, more equivocal and double-edged style of writing possible.” The net result, says Levine, is a “positively paralyzing effect” on state censorship. Thus conceptualized, self-censorship can offer itself as a “political weapon,” albeit an unwieldy one. In sum, self-censorship gives the appearance of being compliant when it may be a conscious strategy to deviate from state control and surveillance.
Put contextually, Khoo’s particular self-censorship with respect to 12 Storeys achieved its primary goal: the film received a PG rating as intended. Being elusive, the self-censorship process is difficult here to put a finger on. In the context of 12 Storeys, it has an uncanny relation with the film’s leitmotifs of household secrets and secrecy discourse. It is almost as if Khoo has underscored his film with a wicked private joke. “Writers’ blocks” clutter the diegesis and contribute to the film’s recurrent jarring discontinuities, often characterized by fragmented narratives, unmotivated cuts, elliptical editing and the deficiency of reaction shots. In this way, the style reveals or comments on Khoo’s self-censorship strategies. To know it is, then, to unpack the secrets, and vice versa
12 Storeys is full of secrets, so much so that all key characters have secrets to manage, conceal or divulge. These secrets are either personal or household ones and can be open, manifest, latent and/or absolute. The secrets’ disclosure, whether covert or overt, is for the most part witnessed by the presumed omnipresent Spirit. In scenes where Spirit is absent, its presence is inferred, if not felt. In instances where it appears next to the “living,” it is invisible to them. (images)
Not all secrets are divulged, however. Though having privy to the secrets of others, Spirit harbors one of the film’s absolute ones: No one (including his parents and the viewers) has a clue as to why Spirit the man killed himself. By contrast, open secrets circulate in the realm of gossip, as with a passing comment with regards to Ah Gu’s lack of filial piety overheard at the neighborhood coffee shop. Manifest and latent secrets, on the other hand, occur only behind closed doors, not for public purview. Latent secrets, unspoken and unspeakable, do not lend to ready representation on screen. Nonetheless they cue us into their shadowy presence by leaving traces and clues.
In his essay, “Dead Man Gazing,” Michael Lee dwelled on the film’s many secrets and its secrecy discourse in great detail. In Spirit’s household, he said, there are two secrets. One is Spirit’s absolute secret. The other belongs to “his” parents. Theirs is a latent secret which hints at a highly dysfunctional family and an unspoken failed spousal relation. In another household, the failed marriage between Ah Gu (a Chinese-Singaporean) and Lili (a “China- bride” from Beijing played by Quan Yifeng) is a manifest secret; as depicted in the film, it stems from a dance of mutual lies and betrayals. In a marriage as good as over, they, especially Ah Gu, keep up the public façade of happiness.
This household has another secret: the photograph to which Lili masturbates, late at night. This photograph, showing Lili and a Chinese man (possibly an ex-lover), is an index to Lili’s undisclosed past in China, her absolute secret. There is no absolute secret in the third household, but personal secrets abound. For example, the eldest child, Meng, has incestuous desires for his younger sister, Trixie (played by Lum May Yee), while young Trixie has illicit underage sex with friends. There is no sex in the final household, though it has been home to San San and her late “schizogenic mother.” It is not clear if San San is in fact a schizophrenic. But if she were, then the constant verbal abuse from her late mother (played by Lok Yee Loy) which she had to endure would have been a major contributory factor to her present schizophrenic-like state of existence. (images) Finally Lee suggests that in this household, there is the possible act of matricide.