Review: Old Romances



Rekindling an old flame can be something fraught with trouble. There is always insecurity at play, the nagging questions that refuse to be easily shaken away. What if one no longer feels as strongly connected to that person? What if both parties have changed? What if one attempts to reignite that spark only to find the once-upon-a-time recipient of his affection changed beyond recognition, or worse still, gone?  But for many, the risk is worth it. Nostalgia, that alluring emotional force to pine for the past, is what transforms distant, oft-forgotten corners of life into the warmest, fuzziest periods of happiness - a kind of happiness that many Singaporeans of a certain age can't help but yearn for, given Singapore's relentless march towards modernity.

This potent emotion is also what Old Romances, the sequel to 2010's Old Places, traffics in. Directed by Royston Tan, Eva Tang and Victric Thng (the same trio behind Old Places), the film is an unabashed exercise in nostalgia, an unfettered love letter to local places charged with import - of memories and history and heritage - but are on the brink of disappearance. But the disappearance of these spaces wouldn't be all that bad if it didn't also entail a rapid evaporation from the public's consciousness. Since Old Places was made and aired, some 40% of the places chronicled have been demolished. These places went out, not with a bang, but with a whimper, unknown to most of the nation, and with that so do the memories of many a Singaporean. In 10 years' time, people will seek to trace back childhood haunts, only to find impersonal, nondescript concrete slabs in their place.

The threat of these public spaces' demolition lends Old Romances an added sense of importance - the filmmakers aren't just documenting places; they're documenting intricate memories and emotions. It's no wonder that there's a tenor of fragility to the execution of the film, which is rather straightforward: the directors primarily use plenty of close-ups, slow tracking shots, static shots, slow pans, slow fades... you get the idea. The camera lingers over every minute detail because under the weight of memory, even the smallest object can seem like the largest.

Yes, such a leisurely, one-note style could have potentially made for rather monotonous viewing, considering there's only one emotion to the film, but the directors were wise to keep the film short and not dwell on any particular place for too long. Old Romances is also animated by a robust sense of life -we witness opera troupes donning their make-up, cake makers conjuring their doughy magic, a Peranakan bead embroider delicately weaving away, among others. It's not just spaces that are fading into the distant cultural horizon, Old Romances posits, but people who are quickly being rendered obsolete by Singapore's militant desire to "develop". (Maybe capitalism does kill dreams after all.)

The simplicity of execution and singularity of purpose serve Old Romances well in reaching its key audience, namely those in their mid-30s and onwards. Mournful of disappearing history and memories, the directors have created in the film a space to safely wallow in sentiment - it gives viewers time to reminisce, and then grieve - and tries not to puncture that free zone by injecting any counterpoints. There's no mention of modern architecture and urban infrastructure (besides a shot of the now defunct KTM in operation - a visual metaphor for Singapore's machine-like, inexorable drive for progress).

This approach might be necessary by virtue of the film's concept, but it also leads to the film's central weakness: without the counterpoint of the urban - both embrace of and disdain for it - there's also a startling lack of urgency and "reality" to the film. Only with mention of the urban can we feel the urgency of the situation. Without dramatizing such anxieties in a satisfying way, I suspect younger viewers taught to embrace the modern - namely those born in the 90's and onwards - might have difficulty empathizing with the stories shared in the film. Nostalgia may be a universal emotion, but nostalgia for specific spaces - cultural relics not everyone is familiar with or able to appreciate- certainly isn't.

These are personal quibbles, however, and the directorial trio has certainly put in a stunning amount of research into the film, resulting in 70 minutes of heartfelt reminiscing. The film largely preaches to the choir because of its structural straitjacket, but to the converted, that sermon is beautiful, powerful and moving.

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