This article is part of a guide to Singapore from FT Globetrotter
You can still find the old Singapore on display – the vegetable farms of Sand cut, the hawker markets that would be turned into shopping malls, the buzz of Boat Quay as a working-class port. But the movies that captured those sights are mostly now lost like the landmarks themselves, which can be found in the grain archive on YouTube.
Instead, the (excellent) cinema of Singapore that you will find on streaming platforms in 2022 was made in the wake of the urban redevelopment that defines the modern city. That transformed landscape is a constant presence in those movies, and often the key to their stories. They testify to a place that, now as then, is a patchwork quilt of global influences – with a soul of its own.
Ramen Tea (2018)
Where to look: Available to stream Amazon prime
If a single director offers a one-stop-shop guide to modern Singapore, it’s the prolific Eric Khoo, who broke through in the 1990s. His work contains panoramic social dramas set in the city-state’s ubiquitous apartments of the Housing and Development Council (12 floors) and a report of the slow disappearance of his beloved hawker stalls (Wanton Mee). His most recent movie is another story of food and identity, Ramen Tee (Ramen Shop), a cross-cultural family drama with a Japanese-Singapore chef searching for his roots – softer than his earlier films, but just as evocative as a portrait of Singapore.
A Land Imagined (2018)
Where to look: Netflix
Cranes dot the horizon in director Yeo Siew Hua’s 2018 thriller A Country Imagined. The red security lights against the night sky make a perfect emblem for a city that is constantly rebuilding itself to the point of rediscovery. But the endless construction sites are more than just sitting in a 21st-century noir in which a Chinese migrant worker goes missing while toiling on a land reclamation project. The mystery is related to the physical drama of Singapore’s transformation – here where large tracts of sand imported from other countries are used to expand the mass of the city.
Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
The same year that A Country Imagined tackling the darker realities of Singapore, the city-state also hosted a dizzying cultural drive that seduced audiences worldwide. Crazy rich Asians is the tale of a New Yorker who discovers her boyfriend is part of an extremely wealthy family of Singapore aristocrats. Beneath the soapy surface is a dull clash of old and new money, themes of class and social climbing. The glamor of modern luxury also comes with a hint of the larger end of the city’s past. The palace-like interiors – stuffed tiger included – were based on old family photos contributed by the author of the best-selling source novel, Kevin Kwan, who is descended from the founder of OCBC Bank.
Ilo Ilo (2013)
As Crazy rich Asians had a whiff of autobiography, the award-winning Ilo Ilo was also shaped by the early life of its creator. But director Anthony Chen’s experience was very different from that of Kevin Kwan. Background by the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the film was linked to the lack of work-life balance that has plagued ordinary Singaporeans for a long time. Its Chinese title is “Mom and Dad Are Not Home” – and for the parents of an almost-criminal 10-year-old, their job is so demanding that a Filipino domestic worker, Teresa, is hired to take care of the boy. The story that follows is steeped in the detail of Singapore, from “Singlish” dialogue through haircuts and fashions to the financial uncertainty of the central family – and Teresa’s uncertain place in the city.
Saint Jack (1979)
Where to look: Amazon prime
If most of the films here are rooted in modern Singapore, the sly brio of Sint jack captured the city in a moment of transformation. It’s also a Hollywood curio with a rum back story. The starting point was Paul Theroux’s novel of an American pimp. The book caught the attention of no less than Orson Welles; he recommended it to actress Cybill Shepherd; she duly secured the film rights as part of a legal settlement, after suing Playboy for printing photos of her on set in the late, great Peter Bogdanovich’s The last picture show. The film of Sint jack continued in 1979 under the direction of Bogdanovich. With a local cast supporting star Ben Gazzara, Bogdanovich shot in Singapore to soon be literally demolished or – like the infamous Bugis Street night market – transformed from meat pot to tourist attraction. The whole thing was too much for the authorities, who banned the movie until 2006.
Singapore Dreaming (2006)
Where to look: DVD
Former President SR Nathan was one of those who praised the realism of the 2006 comedy Singapore dream. Yet the movie lies some distance away from the rosy visions usually enjoyed by politicians. Instead, it’s a satire of life on the sharper side of the city – state’s economy, where a lottery win is only the beginning of the problems for an ordinary family plagued by their aspirations for the “5Cs”. which makes up the Singapore dream. (cash, car, apartment, credit card and country club).
Where to look: Netflix
Another snapshot of Singapore at a time frozen in time, Shirkers is a charming punk comedy thriller made in 1992 by young director Sandi Tan and two friends – and a documentary about the strange events that followed. This movie-after-the-fact focuses on the American expat movie tutor who acted as Tan’s mentor, and then started with the footage. Three decades later, Tan returns to the mystery of her movie – and tells a story of youthful vision and adult pranks that also serve as a turbulent time capsule of the city in which it was made.
What is your favorite movie set in Singapore? Tell us in the comments
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