Seminar on Ironies of Theory and Practice: Singapore New Wave Cinema

Running the Singapore “new wave” through Gilles Deleuze’s ruminations on the “movement-image” and “time-image”, Gerald Sim recalibrated our understanding of film history and world history, retheorised local film aesthetics, and proffered an understanding of Singapore’s spatial imagination. 


Arts in Southeast Asia Seminar Series


Friday, 23 February 2017 – This was the eighth session in the Arts in Southeast Asia Seminar Series, organised by the Regional Social & Cultural Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. ISEAS warmly welcomed Dr Gerald Sim, associate professor of film and media studies at Florida Atlantic University for a presentation titled “Ironies of Theory and Practice: Singapore New Wave Cinema”. More than 20 participants from local institutions, including museums and film archives, universities and the media attended the talk. 

Dr Sim began the seminar by observing that Singapore film is known for two ‘successful’ periods; its ‘Golden Age’ between the 1950s and 1960s which saw the production of mostly Malay and Chinese movies; and a cinematic revival in the 1990s known as the ‘New Wave’, which coincided with Singapore’s self-definition as a ‘global city’ with world class infrastructures.

Dr Helene Njoto, ISEAS, moderating the seminar with Dr Gerald Sim (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Sim argued that it was during the latter period of internationalisation that Singaporean films, in seeking outside recognition, started to address Western audiences at international festivals. Singapore New Wave film-makers borrowed their aesthetic identity and film language from North American and West European cinema.

The themes covered by many of these movies made in the 1990s and early 2000s often depicted anguished and marginalised individuals living in their own isolated spaces. Such depictions were often accomplished with frontal frames and long shots of concrete corridors of HDB flats or empty SMRT train to emphasise their psychological afflictions. According to Dr Sim, this aesthetic language is a criticism of both the effect of modernity and capitalism. It also echoes the authoritarian involvement of the state in everyday living and of lower classes’ inability to break away from their circumstances.

Using Eric Khoo’s 12 Storeys, as a first example, Dr Sim described how suicide became a recurrent theme in Singapore films. However, borrowing from Deleuze’s concept of ‘time-image’ and ‘movement-image’, Dr Sim argued that the New Wave filmmakers preferred the former and had developed a fascination for urban ‘spatiality’, showing repetitive and recursive (mise en abyme) images of anonymous, empty modern urban landscapes and concrete buildings.

Participants at the seminar (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

He also argued that Singapore New Wave directors borrowed cinematic vocabulary from the West without irony or awareness, often layering such vocabulary into the spatial imagination/vision of the city-state. The reason for this lack of irony and awareness, he argued, is because of the nation’s warm relationship with its former colonial master. And since many Singaporeans do not have any postcolonial “hang ups” with the former British Empire, borrowing from the metropole is not done with sensitivity or sentience.

Questions during the Q&A session included possible parallel developments in Asian cinema, such as China’s 6th Generation movement and Thailand’s ghost movies. Other questions pertained to the films’ political criticism, the Eurocentric approach of the seminar and the strong emphasis put on spatiality.