Concerned about the 'Future' of 'Nostalgia' @ #NOSTALGIA

 The 3 presenters (from left: Tan Bee Thiam, Ben Slater and Professor Chua Beng Huat) at #NOSTALGIA compare notes at the event.

There is something I would call the ‘nostalgia bone’ in some people. Especially among filmmakers, we seem to always be delighted at the sight of something like an old television set from the 60s. And we will find some way to put it in shot, somewhere. Many of us will think of the films of Royston Tan on the mention of nostalgia, given the number of beaded curtains and kopitiam-style dining sets we have seen in his film. But in fact, there are a lot more out there ‘guilty’ of nostalgia.
The Asian Film Archive has started what seems to be the first official discussion on our obsession with nostalgia in film. This kicked off at Fiilmgarde at Bugis Plus on 9 May at an event called #NOSTALGIA. See event details here. 3 personalities, not all from the film industry, came forward to share what they thought about the treatment of nostalgia in film and our love for it. They included Head of Department of Sociology Professor Chua Beng Huat, writer Ben Slater, who has written many essays on films from this region as well as filmmaker and producer Tan Bee Thiam. A fourth speaker Zhang Wenjie could not make it for the event. This discussion on nostalgia is the first in their new REFRAME series of discussions that they hope to engage the public in.
A great deal of time was spent trying to define nostalgia. Ben slater, alluded the term to an epiosde in history in which British soldiers who could not go home from a war had aching feelings for home. Hence, the element of pain in the meaning of nostalgia. Then there was also an attribution to a medical condition, something of a depressive feeling linked to a yearning for the past. Ben was perhaps a good anchor in this discussion as he was able to offer both nuggets of foreign history on nostalgia as a well as a concisely-worded assessment of the current state of obsession with nostalgia in film here in Singapore. Here is what he presented at the event.
I like the account from Ben of how coffeeshop uncles and owners of ‘old places’ became wary everytime they saw Royston (Tan) and his crew because it seemed after these places were put in film, they were soon closed down.

Royston Tan’s ‘Old Trilogy’ – ‘Old Places’, ‘Old Romances’, ‘Old Friends’ is certainly not the only bastion of nostalgia. Several other examples were raised during the discussion. As the organisers have hoped (for extensions of this discussion after the event), I spoke to David Lee, Vice-Chairman of Singapore Film Society to pick his brains on the films that dally with nostalgia and if he thinks the current dose of nostalgia is good for our blood circulation.

Jeremy Sing: I have a question to start: when the event first surfaced, which films did you think, in the organisers' minds, are 'guilty' of nostalgia?

David Lee Fu Nang: First ones to come to mind...’大世界’ (‘Great Great World’) by Kelvin Tong….’Old Places’, ‘Old Romances’.
 Still from 'It's a Great Great World'
Still from 'Old Places'

Jeremy: Yes, the 'Old' trilogy certainly comes to mind.

David: And of course, ‘Hock Hiap Leong’......mmm.. and also Kelvin Sng’s ‘千言万语’. I think it's been a trend/ fad in the local short film scene for sometime.

Jeremy: I am guilty of sometimes looking for old, historic places to shoot as well!

David: And many of our filmmakers are also influenced by Wong Kar Wai's ‘In the Mood for Love’ and perhaps to a lesser extent, Tsai Ming Liang. These filmmakers certainly have had an impact on the post 2000 filmmakers.

Jeremy: Ben slater mentioned this is like a second hand yearning for a past that was gone generations before they were born. What do you think this reflects about our society?

David: Hmm..this is my personal take…I reckon for filmmaking, it is still limited to the short filmmaking scene we’ve had for most of the post 2000 decade. And the range of films may not be all that accurately representative of attitudes across society. (Pause) Actually Jack Neo had done nostalgia with ‘Homerun’, though it was once-off.

Jeremy: That’s true. So it’s not just a Gen-Y thing.

David: Among the Gen-Ys, Boo Junfeng has offered a more contemplative, & even personal take on nostalgia with films like ‘Keluar Baris’, though I don’t think this film dwells on nostagia.

Jeremy: Yes, agree. The National Stadium in the film served a purpose more than evoking nostalgic feelings.

David: But my point is that the early films of many filmmakers came from a personal place, rather than a desire to create nostalgia.

Jeremy: That’s a good point. If you think about it, Ilo Ilo, which looks unnecessarily nostalgic, since the story could be told in today’s time, was also a personal piece, based on Anthony’s childhood relationship with Terry, his domestic helper.  (pause) Ben also mentioned during the event the origins of the word nostalgia carries an amount of pain, like how the British soldiers who could not go home felt. Generally, a depressive condition, an unhappiness about the present situation. What’s your view of that in Singapore’s context?

David: You know there has been a lot of these ground-up initiatives to preserve old places, like the railway green corridor walks, the Bukti Brown walks etc. I know many friends.. both from my generation..as well as people younger & older who take part in these events, banding together in solidarity. So while nostalgia historically started off as a really sad word (a combination of the Greek words Nostos (homecoming) and Algos (pain), it has evolved to convey quite a range of feelings since. I see the Brownies as really wanting to save Bukit Brown...while the Railway folks were made up of people who just couldn't let go...and I think there are also mixtures of several environmentalists & nature walkers in those last 2 campaigns. (pause) People were there for many various reasons.. and I'm sure many are there just to join in the fun...I personally don’t see a lot of pain.

Jeremy: That’s true. It has become fun to learn about our past and I am not sure if the process of taking part in these activities carry that kind of pain inherent in the definiteion of nostalgia.

David: My point is that it seems nostalgia is interpreted generally by many Singaporeans a more positive light......people always talk about the good old kampung days….I think even filmmakers are guilty of peptrating such emotions...

Speaking of kampungs, Professor Chua Beng Huat, sociologst and Head of Sociology at NUS, offered a first-hand account of life in a kampung, having grown up in one. His account offered a counterpoint to what had been imagined by the young generation of Singaporeans and Singapore filmmakers, of life in the old days. ‘The HDB is not a vertical kampung,’he said, alluding to the fact the dynamics of relationships and life in a kampung was difficult to replicate elsewhere, the HDB flat included, despite the government’s use of the term ‘vertical kampung’. Here’s what Professor Chua has to share at the event.

David: You know, nostalgia is also a political tool. If you think about it, our love for the past has led our government to make full use of it for the SG50 campaign.

Jeremy: True! A lot of the SG50 initiatives are centred around celebrating the past and maybe in a more subtle way, telling us not to ‘rock the boat’. (pause) If you think about it, there are actually 2 strains of nostalgia running in parallel.

David: Which 2 strains?

Jeremy: The govt-driven nostalgia and the ground-up one as seen in all the Bukit Brown, save old places activities.

David: Among films, how will you classify films like ‘Old Places’ Or ‘Great Great World’ between the 2 strains of nostalgia?

Jeremy: I think ‘Great Great World’ seems to be more in sync with the government-driven type of nostalgia – reminiscing the good old days with no call to action. Happy with the past, happy with the present. Case closed. (pause) ‘Old Places’ on the other hand, has a certain call to action, to sort of rally support to preserve these places.

David: You have a point, but at the same time, I also feel the ‘Old’ series has slowly become more like ‘Great Great World’, and has also commodified the past to a certain extent. And today, not all the places are up for demolition. (Pause) Actually, there is one film I would like to mention, it is Eng Yee Peng's ‘Diminishing Memories’.

Jeremy: Ah I liked that one.

David: I think her work is even closer to the original definition of nostalgia. The fact that she couldn't let go & accept the fact that her childhood kampung is no more. I wish to see more films like ‘Diminishing Memories’.

Jeremy: Yes, it is deeply moving and it comes with a strong personal angle. (Pause) One of the quesrtions raised at the talk was : Can nostalgia hamper the development of a Singapore film identity? What do you think?

David: Again it depends on which definition of nostalgia are u referring to...if we see more of ‘Great Great World’ types...(and Jack Neo is already making one set in Kampung days called ‘Long Long Time Ago’), we will be seeing more commercially successful nostalgia... the commodifocation of it, singing in chorus with the SG50 campaign. (pause) I wish of course to also see more in depth work, like ‘To Singapore With Love’, ‘Diminishing Memories’ etc…offering different perspectives and different takes on history.

Jeremy: Commerical success is good, but it also cannibalises other points of view.

David: Exactly!

Jeremy Sing: Like if Jack Neo scores another box office hit with ‘Long Long Time Ago’, I can see many people copying whatever nostalgic style that film will come up with.

David: So who is allowing that to happen is a good question: we as an audience, MDA as the classifier? I dare say...the numbers & commercial success speak louder than individual voices.

Jeremy: Among the points brought up by the speakers, what resonated with you the most? Can you remember?

David: I’d probably say Bee Thiam’s. He brought out interetsing examples of how nostalgia gets approprated by the media... For instance, the Linhe WanBao article picked up the LKY mention in the film ’03-Flats’ and made it part of the article’s headline.
Watch Bee Thiam’s full presentation at the event here.

Jeremy: I think my biggest learning point from the discussion is the relationship betwen nostalgia and history.

David: Yes.

Jeremy: That sometimes nostalgia can colour history and exclude others. It can also prevent you from taking a critical look at certain things in the past.

David: Nostalgia does give the sense that it's more personal poiint-of-view. History is more formal, even academic.

Jeremy: It is also more objective. Nostalgia is selective.

David: Yup...since the discussion does have an academic slant, being fronted by Prof Chua.

Jeremy: Like what Prof chua said, many people trying to revive Temasek, but between Temasek and Raffles , there is nothing!

David: I think there's not much harm in feel good, romanticised nostalgia, which sometimes also aids in selling more movie tickets… and food (to quote the discussion) or other commodities. But I wish there could be more spaces and suppprt for artistic, personal or alternative forms of nostalgia, espeiclally in documentary filmmaking. I think we see alot of good documentary films on critical issues and being very ambitious scope-wise, being made elsewhere. I would like to see more of such trailblazers... here in Singapore!

Jeremy: Certainly agree! Thanks for you time David!

#NOSTALGIA, the event ended with a panel discussion with the panel which brought up many thought provoking questions and comments. 

From left: Tan Bee Thiam, Professor Chua Beng Huat, Executive Director of Asian Film Archive and discussion moderator Karen Chan and Ben Slater
Watch the full panel discussion here.

The debate on nostalgia does not end here. The Asian Film Archive hopes to extend it beyond the event and that people would think critically about the treatment and use of nostalgia. You can join the REFRAME Facebook group to engage in discussions or keep up with more points of view on this matter. 
Spilling the discussion over to the corridors, certainly the event organisers were hoping for.

Photos by SINdie
Videos courtesy of Asian Film Archive

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