Saturday, February 20, 2016

Asian Film Archive - State of Motion 2016

As a avid fan of old Malay P. Ramlee films, I really took the time to expand and gain knowledge on my interest. From listening and watching the classic Malay films to even begging my family to come with me to the P. Ramlee Memorial in Kuala Lumpur.
Regardless, I stumbled onto the Asian Film Archive - State of Motion 2016 on Facebook and thought it would be a great idea for me and fiancee to go for this.
The Asian Film Archive - State of Motion 2016 is part of the Singapore Art Week

Start Point: National Library Building

On the 24th of January, me and fiancee booked tickets for the State of Motion tour. It is an roving art tour that revisits the former filming location of a selection of classic Malay films made by Cathay Keris Productions in the 50s and 60s. At the locations themselves features an artwork inspired by the a particular film and location.
Fiancee next to the van that brought us to the various locations.
Tickets are sold thru a mobile app called Peatix. Costing at $12 per ticket, we personally feel that we got our money's worth and much much more. We booked a 2pm slot and we were to report to the level 8 atrium at the National Library.
Our speaker letting us know what is the format of the tour.
Screening an extraction of Chinta Kasih Sayang (1965).
First, we are briefed on how the format of the tour will be. We are shown an extraction of clips of some Malay films. The purpose of this is to show the essence of the scene and backdrops used in relation to the scene, filming location and artwork as depicted in the film.
Some words on Cathay Keris Studios and the filming locations
The route of the roving are tour.
Before there was landed housing estates, there were kampungs
On relations of the movies and the political times of the era.
While waiting for the tour to begin, we were given some time to read up on some displays and exhibits in the National Library atrium in regards to the film tour. Some of the topic include the filming locations of the respective movies, the roles of the police force within the films, the various icons and landmarks that represents the vision of a Malayan independence and how much the landscape in Singapore has drastically changed in 50 years. All these topics can also be found inside the handouts given to us.
The tour itself.
Up next, we took an elevator and hopped straight into the van for the film tour. As it was a Sunday and due to damp weather conditions and heavy traffic, the Cathay Building pass by was cancelled and we were headed for the site of the former Outram Prison at Outram Park.

Location A: Former Site of Outram Prison, Outram Park

Outram Prison
As stated in the booklet, Outram Prison started out as a civil jail constructed in 1847 by Captain C E Faber. The complex was expanded in 1882 to accommodate criminal prisoners. Outram Prison was historically significant for imprisoning political prisoners akin to the political times and rulers such as Chinese civilians with communist related links during the Japanese Occupation in the 1940s and Malayan nationalists and left wing political activists by the British.
Outram Park Complex nearing completion
Outram Prison was finally demolished in 1966 for a HDB housing project, Outram Park Complex. That too was demolished in 2002.

Film Synopsis: Korban Fitnah (1959)

Korban Fitnah title screen
To be perfectly honest, I wasn't able to write up anything in this section as I cannot find any source to watch the full movie on YouTube or the internet after extensive searching.

However, as stated in my booklet, the film follows Hussien. He is led out of the prison by policemen and escorted him to the district court to face trial for attempted suicide. When facing with the judge, Hussien relates how he came about committing suicide, in is deemed to be  criminal offence in pre-independent Singapore at that time (And till today). Flashbacks in the film reveal that Hussien's brother Hassan, was mislead into believing that his pregnant wife, Rahimah and Hussien were having an affair and expelled from the family home. The judge then goes on to say that he was on his side, but seeing that it may go against the book, the judge has a job to do and Hussien is sill committed of the offence.

This is seen as a canon of the judicial system of Singapore today, in which many of the laws and penal codes of the former British Empire are still retained (and may not even apply in today's contexts) even though the state has been independent from the British for decades. 

Art Installation: A Monument to the Non-Canonical
The translation of a Malay poem being played while on our way to Outram Park.
Our first stop, the former site of the Outram Prison at Outram Park. along the way, we were also handed out a hard copy of a translated poem in English, which was being played in the van in Malay. From the poem, we can decipher an opportunity being given to a prisoner that has just been released. After that, a song from Korban Fitnah, "Burung Dalam Sangkar" (Bird in a Cage) was being played before we timely arrived the site of the first art installation.
The art installation on site.
The art installation is by a Singaporean independent film figure, Kin Chui. The installation named, "A Monument to the Non-Canonical", comprises of a maze of white cloth netting proped up by poles. Visitors are given a chance to participate by writing anything on the white netting.

We arrived on site of the art installation at Outram Park. Our tour guide hands us a pair of ear plugs for us to wear and black marker pens. We left the van and walked the muddy grass field towards the art installation. It was a maze of white nylon netting with one entrance and exit.
One of the canvas' written messages. "Penjara Tidak Lagi"
Our written messages, Fiancee's "Lestarikan Budaya Kita" and mine reads, "Takkan Hilang Melayu di Dunia"
We wore our ear plugs, which was meant to draw off the noisy environment and entered the maze's entrance. As we were making out way within the maze, we can see the many writings on the white canvas. With the feeling of being trapped, It sort of reminded us of the film in which Mustafa Osman's character was in the former Outram Prison. The writings on the canvas were intrepid as those from real prisons' cells, where in popular culture, you can see markings and other scribbles being written on the walls prison cells by inmates. With the muddy grounds and silence deafening our ears really adds to the misery and sadness.

The art installation was also an engaging one, as we were given a chance to write on the canvas, "Takkan Hilang Melayu di Dunia" (Never shall Malays Vanish from the Earth) and "Lestarikan Budaya Kita" (Preserve our Culture) by myself and fiancee respectively. This is a cry for our diminishing and disappointing state of the Malay culture in Singapore.

Location B: Queen Elizabeth Walk,  Esplanade Park

On our way to Queen Elizabeth Walk.
Queen Elizabeth Walk on a postcard.
Opened on May 30th 1953 by Lady Yuen-Peng McNeice, the wife of the first president of Singapore City Council Sir Percy McNeice. The name was in commemoration to the crowning of Queen Elizabeth II that same time. It became a favorite hangout for many at that time. It was also famously known for the Satay Club hawker stall overlooking the bay. It has been described as a romantic spot for many courting couples in the 50s.
Fiancee at Queen Elizabeth Walk, overlooking the Singapore River.
Today, all that remains of Queen Elizabeth Walk is the stretch of promenade by Marina Bay within the Esplanade Park. Only the stone fencing along the waterways is all that remains of the "original" promenade. Despite being obscured by the Esplanade Bridge, it is still a popular hangout among tourist and locals alike.

Film Synopsis: Chinta Kaseh Sayang (1965)

Chinta Kaseh Sayang title card.
The film opens with the protagonist, Normah, starred by Latifah Omar, beckoning her workaholic painter husband, to eat. Her husband then receives a letter from the Kelantan Committee of Arts, wanting the presence of the painter there. Seeing this as an opportunity to make money, the husband leaves for Kelantan soon after. Meanwhile, Normah caught the attention of Jamal, a married car salesman who stalks her. He continues to pursue her despite neglecting his work and family. Normah gives in to Jamal and their adulterous affair follows. Eventually, Jamal's wife found out about their relationship and leaves Singapore with his family soon after, forsaking Normah. Feeling lonely once more, she soon starts another extramarital affair with a younger man, Rahman.

The movie's theme is centered around courtship, adultery and grief.

Released during the time in which Singapore was on the brink of gaining independence, the movie was also seen as a catalyst and compared to the bitter separation between Singapore and Malaysia later that same year.

Art Installation: Myself and Melody

The artist, Mark Thia present on site.
We dropped off Connaught Drive and made our way to a near by bus stop. the artist of the artwork, Mark Thia, was present. We were given headphones and a receiver for us to listen to. After putting on the headphones, we walked down Esplanade Park and made our way towards Queen Elizabeth Walk.

Some info on the location and artwork on site.
Me and Fiancee at Queen Elizabeth Walk.
While I couldn't really remember much of what I was listening to, I knew it was a voice of a man, speaking softly in a very secretive tone. Parts of it describe a relationship inspired by the film, Chinta Kasih Sayang. The dialogue being played is reinvented in English in relation to the protagonist, Normah's predicament in the film itself. It tells a story of a person having an affair and its complications. I was able to hear some of the dialogue and it tells somewhat a sad, complicated and mysterious point of view of the protagonist.

Location C: Merdeka Bridge (Kampong Bugis)

Street Sign of Kampong Bugis
The tour van made its way into Kampong Bugis and into Kallang Riverside Park where the next art installation is located.
The Merdeka Bridge
Once a symbol of independence of Singapore (And to some extension, Malaysia), the Merdeka Bridge was was officially opened on August 17, 1956 by then Chief Minister, the late Lim Yew Hock. During that time, Singapore was granted internal self governance by the British and the bridge quickly became a symbol of Malayan independence. It played huge roles in some classic Malay films such as "Mogok" (1957) and "Che Mamat Parang Tumpol" (1960) in which characters were usually seen on it.

When it was built, it was a vital link from the former eastern rural areas of Siglap, Geylang and Jalan Eunos and into the city center. In one of the scenes within the film, Che Mamat Mamat Parang Tumpul (1960) exemplify that by showing the protagonist, Mamat, played by Wahid Satay, riding his scooter from the busy city center and crossing the Merdeka Bridge before entering into the rural Opera Estate (located in Siglap) and encountering a police road block.

Film Synopsis: Che Mamat Parang Tumpol (1960)

Che Mamat Parang Tumpol Title Card
The movie starts with Che Mamat (Mat) fishing on a boat (And failing) before falling into the waters. Meanwhile, the newspaper, Berita Singapura, Editorial Panel, seeks news about the Black Hand Gang, who's extorts and people leaves black handprints as a warning for shop owners to buy their beer.. Mat's girlfriend, Fatimah, believes that he can sing and a good storyteller. She suggests him to enter in the story writing competition. With the "help" of his cousin Puteh from Johor, Mat eventually wins the competition and is invited to the press' office in the city center. By Mat's mistake at the printing room, he leaves a black handprint on the editor's daughter and office, which was perceived to be threats from the gang. Mamat is unceremoniously rewarded with his job as a journalist and sent out to track down the gang on his scooter. The police and army get involved as Mat unknowingly leave handprints everywhere, a wild goose chase ensues.

Art Installation: Jamban 1956
Jamban 1956 by Hafiz Osman
A newspaper article back in the day when the Merdeka Bridge was opened
The art installation, named "Jamban 1956" is literally a 1950s era kampong makeshift toilet. the art installation is a reminder of what Kallang Riverside Park and the surroundings rural areas the eastern of Singapore used to be in which used to be, which was formerly the site of Kampong Bugis and other Malay villages in the 1960s respectively. The makeshift toilet which is colored in shades of black, grey and white is to mimic the visual appearance of black and white films of that era.
Some info on the art installation, film location and the film itself.
Fiancee and Jamban 1965.
As stated in the information board nearby the installation, the artwork explores the idea of displacement while at the same time draws a link that negotiates the tangible nature of space and time. For us, its a stark reminder of what is used to occupy the area at Kallang Riverside Park, the former Kampong Bugis which has since been reclaimed by the government for a public park. This in turn has spark a thought of reminiscence of nostalgia, a struggle of progression and redevelopment while at the same time, maintaining the legacy and heritage of the area and the reminder of the symbol of the Merdeka Bridge itself.

Drive By: Former Cathay-Keris Studios, Jalan Keris

Street sign of Jalan Keris, Keris Estate.
After the Merdeka Bridge, we left for East Coast in which we were given the opportunity to drive by the former Cathay-Keris Studios at Jalan Keris in Keris Estate. While not as famous and synonymous to Jalan Ampas is to the Malay Film Productions of the Shaw Brothers, it is a little known fact that Jalan Keris is synonymous to Cathay-Keris Studios of the Cathay-Keris Productions.
Jalan Keris in 2016
Today, the old building has since been demolished, and Jalan Keris is filled with a row of landed houses and no longer bares any traces to the former studios located there. This tour has somewhat reminded me  as not only did the Shaw Brothers' Jalan Ampas had a role to play in the glory days of Malay cinema, but its rivalry with the Cathay-Keris Studios at Jalan Keris has ironically preserved the history, culture and heritage of the sadly ill neglected state of Malay cultures and traditions today.

Location D: Former Kampong Siglap (Jalan Sempadan)

Street sign of Jalan Sempadan
We made our way into Siglap. The van drove along East Coast Road and into Jalan Sempandan. We were told about the history of the location and the name "Siglap" and "Jalan Sempadan".

The area of Siglap is founded by Tok Lasam. Legend has it that he landed in the area and darkness has fallen, leading him and his followers to name the area "Si-Gelap" meaning "the darkness that conceals" from Malay.
Keramat Tok Lasam and his wife
As for Jalan Sempadan, the name is translated to "Boundary Road" in English. The road marks the boundary between Kampong Siglap and the cemetery. Children are forbidden to go out beyond the road and villagers used the road as a boundary hence the namesake. While all of the graves have been exhumed, Tok Lasam and his wife's grave (Today known as Keramat Tok Lasam) can still be found under a large tree near Jalan Sempadan.
The empty field near Jalan Sempadan where the cemetery used to be.
The rural setting of Kampong Siglap at that time provided an excellent rural backdrop for the film, Sumpah Pontianak. The village, along with the rest of the coastal villages in the East Coast were reclaimed by the government for urban redevelopment. By the end of 1986, the villagers were resettled and private landed housing and condominiums were built in the area. Literally bulldozing the lifestyles and taking away the homes of the villagers and reselling them to the rich. Kinda hypocritical of the government if you ask me.

Film Synopsis: Sumpah Pontianak (1958)

Sumpah Pontianak title card
Traditionally in Malay folklore, Pontianaks are vampire ghosts of women who died during childbirth. Both Cathay-Keris and Shaw Brothers capitalized on the fear and made several films on the basis of the folklore.

The film begins in medias res with the penghulu kampung (Village Head) assuring his villagers that the Pontianak will no longer be a threat to the village. Meanwhile, Comel visits her father's grave and the ghost of her father said that the curse of the Pontianak has been bestowed upon her.

Flashback, Comel's father, Wak Dolah, found a baby girl abandoned. He decided to raise the little girl as his own, and named her Comel. However, she grew up to be hunchbacked and twisted. The villagers ill treated her because of her ugliness. When her father died, he wanted Comel to burn all his books of traditional medicine. As Comel was burning the books, she came across a beauty spell. The spell would make her beautiful, as long as she never tasted blood. Rather than destroy this spell, Comel saved it for herself, and was transformed beautiful woman. Comel soon wed with penghulu kampung's son, Othman and she bore a daughter, Maria. One day, Othman was bitten by a snake. Rushing to his aid, Comel sucked the poison from his wound, and tasted his blood in doing so. Comel transformed into a pontianak and haunts the village.

Art Installation: Don't Slip

Don't Slip by Stephanie Jane Burt
Many Malay films of the 50s and 60s feature traditional kampong setting. The art installation is meant to recreate an exterior small kampong inspired hut as in with the use of materials from wood, tiled roofing, nets and ropes. The bits and pieces of the installations has a certain meaning and representation behind it. For example, the tiled roof represents shelter, but the partial placement of it means that it doesn't really provide adequate protection from the rain, making the dwellers vulnerable. The flimsy wooden structure represents the safety of the occupants, which could easily pose a threat. The interior comfort of a domestic structure can turn threatening and the tensions played out when the safety of one's environment is easily unraveled by the flimsy exterior that shields it from imposing threats and the entanglement of relationships.
Info on the location, film and artwork
To me, the installation somewhat depicts a family household. Though looking nice on the outside, the relationships, challenges and problems faced by the typical household still exists. The brightly colored structure is interpreted to be the innocents of children in which they are usually caught entangled in the problems and suppression of adults and the surroundings, preventing them from reaching their fullest pontential. Another interpretation is the destruction and displacement of villagers of kampungs in Singapore, in which almost all but one (Kampong Lorong Buangkok) had been erased from the landscape. Despite the first world comforts of today, one still yearns and looks back for the simple life back in the day.

Location E: East Coast Pilot Land Reclamation Project

We left Jalan Sempadan and headed down East Coast Road once more and stopped at a jungle near Kew Drive. Our tour guide told us that this jungle was the site of the East Coast Pilot Land Reclamation Project. It started sometime in 1963 as a test bed for for a full scale reclamation scheme that forever shaped the coastline of East Coast in 1966 till today.
The site in 2016, filled with vegetation.
Though it is currently a jungle and only two developments, Bedok Camp and Temasek Secondary School, grace the northern and southern ends of the land, the site was left pretty much empty. Currently, a small portion of the land is also undergoing construction for the Bedok South MRT Station of the Thomson-East Coast Line.

But in the 1960s, it was a different landscape all together, being new land, no vegetation grew at that time and a large sandy patch of ground took its place. Director Mat Sentol used the opportunity as a filming location for the movie, Mat-Tiga Suku

Film Synopsis: Mat-Tiga Suku (1965)

Mat Tiga Suku title card
Starring veteran actor and director, Mat Sentol, the film explores the life of a poor man, Mat who in the first scene fails to board a public bus ran amok and takes off with bus stop sign, leading to a wild goose chase with the bus and passengers. Later, he has some bad luck with a water pump, his kettle and bed. He then hears a mocking voice whom he believes to be a ghost (Penunggu Rumah). He asks a series of wishes and from there is is put through numerous situations only to find out that it was all a dream. In the final scene, Mat goes on a car ride with his admirer, a total opposite of his "ideal" date.

Art Installation: Bus Stop

"Bus Stop" by Mike HJ Chang
The "Bus Stop" installation is located in the middle of the forest. Coated in a layer of sand, it is a reference to the film, Mat-Tiga Suku, where Mat takes a bus stop sign and runs on the sand with it, running the passengers and bus driver amok and also another scene, where mat is stranded in a desert and starts to hallucinate. The layer of sand also references the site's sandy grounds when it was first reclaimed. The sandy surface also represents the landscape of Singapore, which is constantly changing, demolished and rebuilt like sandcastles on the beach.
Some info on the art, film and location
Fiancee and "Bus Stop"
In a way, the installation also begs a question to the viewer, is the mirage the bus stop or the forest?

Reflections and Thoughts

Fiancee, our tour guide and myself.
The tour ended when we left East Coast Road for the National Library. We thank the tour guided and took a photo with him.

We have certainly learnt a lot from this film tour. In fact, the resources for this blogpost mostly comes from what I have learnt. As for fiancee, being a trainee Malay teacher, she plans to apply what she had learnt to plan for her lessons.

We have came to know the various filming locations on how they have evolved into the current times. As for the art installations, with guidance from fiancee, I have learnt how to interpret the meaning and emotion behind the art, and it's also safe to say that I've appreciate art even more. We have also overlooked the fact that "the Golden Age of Malay Cinema" not only centers around P. Ramlee and the Shaw Brothers but also their rivals at East Coast Road, Cathay-Keris Productions.

Last and not least, my personal thoughts on this. An initiative by the National Library Board, I was surprised that there was no involvement from the Malay Heritage Center or any Malay cultural organization given that the old films themselves is a historic reflection of the Malay arts, culture and heritage. Personally, as a Malay myself, I was disappointed that not much awareness was given to the Malay community in regards to this film location tour other than a featured column in the Malay newspapers.

Ending on a positive note, me and fiancee have certainly enjoyed and learnt a lot from this experience.

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