Cities on Screen: Seven Shots of Singapore

This article is part of a to guide to Singapore from FT Globetrotter

You can still find old Singapore on screen – the vegetable farms of Potong Pasir, the hawker markets that would be transformed into shopping centers, the hubbub of Boat Quay as a working port. But the movies that captured those views are for the most part now lost like the landmarks themselves, left to be found in grainy archives on YouTube.

Instead, the (excellent) Singapore cinema you’ll find on streaming platforms in 2022 was made in the wake of the urban redevelopment that defines the modern city. This transformed landscape is a constant presence in these films, and often also the key to their stories. They bear witness to a place which, today as then, is a patchwork of global influences – with a soul of its own.

Ramen Teh (2018)

Where to watch: available to stream on Amazon prime

Takumi Saito stars as a Singaporean-Japanese chef in Eric Khoo’s family drama ‘Ramen Teh’ © TCD / Prod.DB / Alamy

If only one director offers a unique guide to modern Singapore, it is the prolific Eric Khoo, who broke through in the 1990s. His work includes sweeping social dramas set in the ubiquitous apartments of the Housing and Development Board of the city-state (12 floors) and an account of the slow disappearance of his beloved hawker stalls (Wanton mee). His most recent film is another story of food and identity, Ramen Teh (Ramen Shop), a cross-cultural family drama with a Japanese-Singaporean chef searching for his roots – sweeter than his previous films but just as evocative as a portrayal of Singapore.

An Imagined Land (2018)

Where to watch: Netflix

Director Yeo Siew Hua on the set of his neo-noir film 'A Land Imagined' in Singapore

Director Yeo Siew Hua on the set of his neo-noir film ‘A Land Imagined’ in Singapore © TCD / Prod.DB / Alamy

Cranes on the horizon in director Yeo Siew Hua’s 2018 thriller An imagined land. Red safety lights against the night sky make a perfect emblem for a city continually rebuilding itself to the point of reinventing itself. But the never-ending construction sites are more than sets in 21st century darkness in which a Chinese migrant worker disappears as he works hard on a land reclamation project. The mystery is tied to the physical drama of Singapore’s transformation – here where vast expanses of sand imported from other countries are used to expand the city’s sheer mass.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Where to watch: Amazon prime, Apple tv, Youtube and other platforms

Kris Aquino and Constance Wu in the box office hit

Kris Aquino and Constance Wu at the box office hit ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ © Warner Bros. Pictures / courtesy The Everett Collection / Alamy

The same year as An imagined land tackled Singapore’s darker realities, the city-state was also host to a dizzying cultural juggernaut that wowed audiences around the world. crazy rich asians is the fairy tale of a New Yorker who discovers that her boyfriend is part of an immensely wealthy family of aristocrats in Singapore. Beneath the soapy surface lies a fun clash between old and new money, themes of class and social escalation. The sparkle of modern luxury also comes with a hint of the awe-inspiring end of the city’s past. The lavish interiors – plush tiger included – were based on old family photographs provided by bestselling source novel writer Kevin Kwan, a descendant of the founder of OCBC bank.

Ilo Ilo (2013)

Where to watch: Amazon prime, Apple tv and other platforms

In 'Ilo Ilo', Angeli Bayani (left) plays a Filipino domestic helper hired to care for a tearful 10-year-old boy (Koh Jia Ler, right)

In ‘Ilo Ilo’, Angeli Bayani (left) plays a Filipino maid hired to care for a 10-year-old boy (Koh Jia Ler, right) © Film Movement / courtesy The Everett Collection / Alamy

Yes crazy rich asians had a hint of autobiography, the famous Ilo Ilo was also shaped by the youth of its creator. But director Anthony Chen’s experience was very different from Kevin Kwan’s. Against the backdrop of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the film was linked to the lack of work-life balance that has long plagued ordinary Singaporeans. Her Chinese title is “Mommy and Daddy Aren’t Home” – and for parents of a 10-year-old quasi-delinquent, their job is so demanding as a Filipino domestic helper, Teresa, is hired to. take care of the child. boy. The story that follows is steeped in details of Singapore, from ‘singlish’ dialogue and hairstyles and fashions to the financial precariousness of the central family – and Teresa’s uncertain place in the city.

Saint-Jacques (1979)

Where to watch: Amazon prime

Ben Gazzara sails in a Singapore now largely vanished in

Ben Gazzara sails a Singapore now largely missing from ‘Saint Jack’ © New World / courtesy The Everett Collection / Alamy

While most of the films here are anchored in modern Singapore, the sleazy brilliance of Saint Jacques took the city in a moment of transformation. It is also a Hollywood curiosity with a history of rum. 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 obtained the rights to the film as part of a legal settlement, after suing Playboy for printing photos of her on the set of the late great Peter Bogdanovich The last picture show. The cinema of Saint Jacques went ahead in 1979 with Bogdanovich directing. With a local cast backing star Ben Gazzara, Bogdanovich has turned a Singapore that will soon be literally demolished or – like the infamous Bugis Street night market – transformed from a pot of flesh to a tourist attraction. It was all too much for the authorities, who banned the film until 2006.

Dreaming of Singapore (2006)

Where to watch: DVD

Unlucky for some: winning a fortune in the lottery causes family conflict in satirical

Unlucky for some: winning a fortune in the lottery causes family conflict in the satirical “Singapore Dreaming” © 5C Films

Former president SR Nathan was among those who praised the realism of the 2006 comedy Singapore dreaming. Yet the film falls far short of the rosy-tinted visions usually enjoyed by politicians. Instead, it’s a satire of life at the sharp end of the city-state economy, where a lottery win is just the start of trouble for an ordinary family in the throes of the city-state. to their aspirations for the “5Cs” which would constitute Singapore’s dream. (cash, car, condo, credit card and country club).

Shirkers (2018)

Where to watch: Netflix

Director Sandi Tan Explores The Mystery Of Her First Film In

Director Sandi Tan digs into the mystery surrounding her debut film in ‘Shirkers’ © Netflix / Courtesy The Everett Collection / Alamy

Another shot of Singapore at a frozen moment, scammers is a charming punk comedy-thriller directed in 1992 by young director Sandi Tan and two friends – and a documentary on the strange events that happened next. This after-the-fact film centers on the expatriate American film teacher who acted as Tan’s mentor and then fled with the footage. Three decades later, Tan returned to the mystery of his film – telling a tale of youthful vision and adult skulduggery that also acts as an intoxicating time capsule of the city it was set in.

What’s your favorite movie set in Singapore? Tell us in the comments

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