`Lion City' reveals some `birthmarks' of current local cinema

A tide is approaching. April will see an onslaught of new local voices in cinema being heard. Hence, it seems uncannily concidental and appropriate that the start of this month is marked by the screening of a very special old local film, Lion City. It speaks with a voice that both old and new. Old because it is a 1960 film. But new because it has a special voice and psyche little known to many of us. Until we watched it today. Lion City, a lesson in geography

Before joining the rather academic crowd in the National Museum's theatre, I had the impression that I would be watching a film not too distant from the likes of Mambo Girl, My Sister Hedy and other black and white staples of the 60s. I imagined formulaic touches like the night club brawls, the caberet singer, the tailor, the pipe smoking patriach, the bitchy mother etc. To my gratification, it was not completely enslaved to the fashion of Chinese cinema at that time.
A typical 60s Chinese movie scene, the Cinderellasque out-of-place feeling
Though narratively and dramatically awkward at times, it spoke mostly with a unique and assured voice.

Being the first Singapore-made Chinese film, Lion City is about the story of a young woman from a poor family who works in a clothes factory in Singapore. There she meets the young master of the factory and falls in love in a background of societal and political change. Along the way, she experiences events that remind her of the gulf between herself and the rich boy and the improbability of the relationship. There are also some small side-stories that run parallel to the main thread, serving to provide a richer take on the idea of love amidst changing values in a society.
It was easy to mistake the points of conflicts as cliches at first. The issue of how a poor-girl loving rich-man-son would only end in pain is perhaps all-too-familiar. Then, as you put the story in the context of Singapore in 1960, when it is on the onset of promising change with its being part of the Malayan federation, you start to sit up and appreciate the significance of this film. Just to illustrate a few threads I picked out: Malaysian girl marries Singapore boy, mum is skeptical at the poor-rich marriage but accepts it eventually, husband-wife debate on voting during election.

I could go on and on about the time-specific landmarks and stamps that made this film a `Uniquely Singaporean' curiosity. Like the sarong the Chinese father wore, the infusion of English terms like Taxi into an already `less-than-perfect' Mandarin. (The program says it is Malaysn-Mandarin). And who could forget the singing of a freshly composed`Majulah Singapura' by the little girl.

They would be sitting in The Jewel Box today.
1. Taxi were economic machines 2. Causeway talk 3. HDB corridor romance 4. Ethnic representation
How the view was for residents of Old Airport Road
However, what caught my attention were some birthmarks of what we would associate with the Chinese-dominant, current cinemascape in Singapore. This came as a surprise because of my expectation of it to be a wannabe Chinese/HK-style movie. The quintessential HDB corridor scenes, the heartlander sensibilities of the poor girl's family, pockets of crude Ah Beng behaviour, the rather close shot of the Chinese altar, the school uniform (immediate impact!), references to government and authority.

On a lighter note, there were plenty of very laughable touches and peculiarities that have vanished from local cinema together with Lion City, the film. Like the melodramatic reactions of the female lead, her skipping down the kampung road, her Shakespearan moments when she broke into poetry, the plastic covers on the rich family's sofa!, the oversized globe the teacher was brandishing. Last but not least, the `speak-of-the-devil' homecoming of the Master Xu (rich boy) . Think of all the little sniggers heard throughout the film from the younger members of the audience, this was truly unanimous!

Household Tips : Let the plastic wrapping remain.

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