Feature by: Tiffany Limsico
Five Letters: With Love from Singapore
From Ben Slater
1. No. 8 Jalan Ampas
I want you to go somewhere.
Tucked away off Balestier Road, just north of Singapore’s city center, you will find the neglected remains of a magnificent factory of dreams. This collection of buildings behind the gate at Jalan Ampas were built in 1947 by the Shaw Brothers for a million dollars. Runme and Run Run Shaw, two shrewd movie merchants from China had a plan for Singapore. They flew in talent from all over Asia, groomed and manufactured their own stable of stars, and in this highly systematic way, churned out a steady supply of commercial product – comedies, melodramas, musicals, horror flicks – aimed at the vast regional Malay audience. Each day the interiors of Jalan Ampas transformed into fully lit simulacra of Malay kampongs (villages) populated by actors as they argued, sung, danced, romanced, fought, joked and haunted each other across two decades and nearly 160 films. But by 1968 it was all over. After several sluggish years, the gates were locked, the staff let go, lighter equipment was hauled out, and the rest - left to rot. In P. Ramlee’s playfully self-reflexive Seniman Bujang Lapok (1961), Ramlee and his buddies turn up at Jalan Ampas, hoping to make it big, and are turned away by an Indian guard. Today, the loose chain on the green corrugated gate doesn’t keep anyone out, but few want to go in. A small plaque outside is the only indicator that this place is significant. Inside, a lone caretaker occupies what was once the front office.
This is what I want you to do. Go inside, walk around, listen hard for the sounds of the past - of stars and extras and directors and technicians who once toiled so that we might enjoy ourselves in the dark. Stuck on the office window is an old sign that once hung illuminated above a studio door. It says SILENCE.
2. Abu Bakar Ali
Can I tell you about the gardener?
In 1942, the Japanese took Singapore and renamed it Syonan-to, Isle of the Southern Light. One aspect of the physical, economic and cultural subjugation that followed was the making propaganda films, such as Shingaporu Sokogeki (1943), a celebration of Japanese triumph. Film director Yasujiro Ozu, a conscript in the imperial army, was sent to Singapore to help with the film-making effort. While there he stalled his superiors with long-winded discussions about a film he never made, and took advantage of his access to a stash of confiscated Hollywood prints. Citizen Kane (1941), he decided, was his favorite. Ozu’s pre-war films were shown to the Singaporean public to promote the greatness of Japanese cinema, along with films by other Japanese directors. They were being shown for the wrong reasons, but they were good.
I want to tell you about the young Abu Bakar Ali who was perhaps in the audience one of those nights. He might have passed Ozu himself on the way out of Ukikusa monogatari (1934), still absorbing the extraordinary beauty and clarity. Pak Bakar had the eyes, and he could see, not just the images, but the framing and the movement and the light. In the ‘50s he got a job as a gardener at Jalan Ampas, then side-stepped into a technician’s job and worked his way quickly up the photography line. As a cinematographer, he collaborated closely with the singer turned actor turned comedian turned film director P. Ramlee to develop a simplicity of style and look that allowed the comedy or the tragedy to breathe. He made horror films too, and invented ingenious optical effects. He picked up Asian awards for his ‘black and white’ even when many had turned to color. He had the best eyes on the island, everyone knew that. And then he ran out of things to see.
When Jalan Ampas closed he didn’t go to Malaysia with his director, who went to keep the dream alive up North. Pak Bakar stayed in the South with his family, getting pieces of work on government campaign films for television and commercials, but like the film industry, gradually, quietly, eventually stopping.
He tended gardens again.
We often talk about movies and vampires.
As you know, I’ve often wondered what it is that draws them close to each other. Count Dracula’s arrival in England coincided with the Lumière brothers’ early screenings in Paris. Both were against nature – to animate a photograph was akin to reactivating a corpse – making an image that went beyond death. Then, there is desire. The vampire incarnates lust in the form of an attractive, sensual monster, all who gaze upon it are helpless to resist. In other words, vampires are movie stars. Malay cinema needed its own vampires and it found them in local folklore. There’s no shortage of Malay huntus (ghosts), but the most enduring is the myth of the pontianak, and that’s in part because of how it was embraced by cinema. Pontianak are female vampires, said to be women who have died in childbirth, they appear at night in a guise of beauty (although really they are hideous) and accompanied by a sweet floral aroma. Not only does the pontianak then suck the blood of entranced victims, but eats their intestines as well. Tamil director B. N Rao, a defector from Shaw to its chief rival, Cathay-Keris, another family movie company run by Ho Ah Loke, saw the potential of the pontianak to be the equal of Dracula in the west. His first attempt, Pontianak, was such a success in 1957 that Rao shot and released a sequel, Dendam Pontianak, before Christmas and a third film, Sumpah Pontianak, the following year. Dozens of remakes, reiterations and down-right rip-offs would follow. The robust pontianak could withstand even the most ungracious of resuscitations. Her oscillation between beauty and grotesquerie, victim and attacker, innocence and corruption, was too vividly cinematic to be left in peace. The original pontianak character, Chomel, was played by the luminous Maria Menado, a young woman from rural Indonesia who arrived in Singapore and won a beauty contest and a chance to be in movies. That too is an old story that you know only too well my love - one in which cinema is a vampire of sorts, reviving itself through the constant supply of new flesh.
In the 1970s, Ho Ah Loke had the first two Pontianak films thrown in a mining lake in Singapore. They say it was to free up storage space, but what a way to destroy an image forever!
4. Mat Sentol
Were you there that night when someone drunkenly tried to psychoanalyze Malay cinema? If P. Ramlee was the Freudian ego of Singapore’s golden age of film-making, the decent everyman striving to do his best, then they claimed pompously, Mat Sentol must be pure id.
Perhaps there’s something in that. A Dionysian trickster who’s driven only to parody, exaggerate and finally blow up everything he can get his hands on. Like P. Ramlee, Mat Sentol wasn’t satisfied with simply being a talent in front of the camera. He had regularly played the undernourished, clumsy doofus (appearing in Sumpah Pontianak and many others), an archetypal character for Malay cinema. But the comedian was curious as to how the gag could be constructed, not just how it might be performed. Mat Sentol saw the potential of the medium to be a magical toy box, and so, at their best, his films have a giddy sense of excitement about what only movies can achieve. Mat Tiga Suku, Mat Bond, Mat Magic, Mat Lanun and the others are Pop films, made on the run, in bursts of slap-dash slapstick creativity and fearlessness. Popular genres are roughly kidnapped and turned inside out. There was a taste for excess, and his films have a surreal, quasi-psychedelic strain of wild, anarchic imagery and bikini clad go-go dancers. Mat Sentol became one of Cathay-Keris’s major directors and stars, clinging on till the end of the industry in Singapore, shooting increasingly on location as the studios shut their doors.
When it was all over he created and starred in the popular and bewildering children’s TV show, Mat Yoyo, about cats (played by kids), which ran for 12 years and left an indelible impression on all who witnessed it. Especially you.
5. Yangtze Cinema
There’s one more place to go.
Down in Chinatown, at the top corner of a decrepit shopping complex called Pearls Centre you’ll discover the Yangtze. Its powerful name may once have been apt when the cinema, then a grand single hall, was opened by the Shaw Brothers in the mid 1970s. It specialized in Chinese martial arts movies at a time when they exercised an extraordinary grip on the minds and bodies of young Singaporean men. A decade later, the flood of these films became a drought. The venue failed to reinvent itself and the Yangtze closed its doors for several years.
An empty cinema is a crime. Develop it, convert it, but don’t just leave it so that the empty seats rot and the blank screen is gradually enveloped in dust. Cinemas are places for silent gatherings in front of images, even if it’s just a few people, or just the projectionist (Ozu in Singapore, secretly watching American movies alone). It shouldn’t be left for the ghosts.
In 1991 a surprising thing happened that brought the Yangtze back from the dead - classification of films was introduced. Prior to that films were either passed, cut or banned. Now, although the cutting and the banning wouldn’t cease, if you wanted to see some naked flesh you could under a new certificate - ‘Restricted’ for those 21 and above. Small-time distributors saw a fast way to cash in on a new liberty, importing erotic, softcore, exploitation movies from outside Singapore (sadly, nobody thought to make them here). They needed places to screen them. Someone found the keys to the Yangtze (and divided its big hall into two smaller ones), and the fun began. ‘Restricted’ didn’t last long, it mutated into ‘Rated (Artistic)’ - the same age restriction but now only for ‘city center’ (supposedly away from letter-writing parents) and the films were justified as ‘artistic’, an idea not strictly enforced (the censor can’t ever know art). The energetic young men who’d admired Gordon Liu at Yangtze two decades before were the tired ‘uncles’ now, flocking in to catch the steady flow of Filipino ‘bold’ films (you hated them so), Japanese pink-tinged sado-erotica, and American softcore thrillers that were now the repertory. Needing respite from the office or a cramped government flat, come to the Yangtze to escape for an hour or two, to be thrilled and disappointed by the coming attractions. The formula endures.
It’s also the last cinema in Singapore to commission painted signboards depicting the movies on show. There was a time not too long ago when all of the cinemas did this, but now it’s just at Yangtze.
In his living room, Mr Neo hand-paints a fresh batch each week. Ironically, there is an innocence in those artworks. They turn tawdry fantasies into tantalizing, sensual dreams. I see your face in every starlet, your eyes in every sultry gaze.
And now I wish you’d come back again and make it all come true.
A different version of this writing entitled ‘Singapore Cinema: Alternative Snapshots’ appeared in the catalogue for Ming Wong’s Life of Imitation (Venice Biennale, 2009).
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