Review: Tiong Bahru (Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy)


As a 20 minute film in itself, Civic Life: Tiong Bahru probably would not mean anything more for non-denizens of the area than a visual recording of its current occupations. One sees the ubiquitous hawker centre, the showcase of local food, the wet market and its products – these images that have long pervaded the mise-en-scene of most local films, and shown tirelessly on our silver screens. The film even has the characters trudging around with perpetual pensive and troubled expressions, reminiscent of those sorrow-tinged art house films parodies with the protagonists necessarily bearing the tragedy of their insignificant existences. To be harsh, it is easy to dismiss Civic Life: Tiong Bahru at first viewing as some foreign-made film attempting to posit some inchoate idea of a Singapore identity, employing clichéd motifs revolving around our supposed national pastime of eating, and use of type characters like the repressed average Joe trying to rise above his given (hawker) station in life, finding purpose in his alternative dreams to reality. Situating Civic Life: Tiong Bahru in the larger oeuvre of Christine Molloy’s and Joe Lawlor films under their desperate optimists company, however, and within the Civic Life series of film vignettes the London-based filmmakers have made, it becomes clear that the film goes beyond a mere documentation of everyday life in the estate. As the tenth project in the series aimed at reflecting how denizens relate to their communal space, this film made from garnering perspectives of Tiong Bahru residents, does succeed in what it intends to do.

The film is structured as a triptych: three separate stories intermingle in the specific location of the Tiong Bahru estate. A young hawker (played by Leo Mak) desires to progress beyond his inherited coffee shop, to switch from the selling of drinks to Mexican tapas in the Tiong Bahru hawker centre. A grandmother (Lim Ah Way) is unable to tear away from the estate to live with her son’s family. Finally, a juvenile delinquent (Veronica Rio Patrick) searches for a sense of belonging as she navigates awkwardly her relationship with her new foster mother.

If anything, the film that is Molloy and Lawlor’s first Civic Life project outside of the UK, questions our sense of psychogeography - how we negotiate with the space around us in personal and communal ways. The Tiong Bahru food centre forms the main backdrop of the film. At one point, the three characters amble through the crowded food centre, the slow tracking shot of their separate journeys through this communal space shadowing the personal psychic maps people draw for their surrounding environments. The film ruminates on this process and how impossible it is to divorce our notion of a communal space in Singapore from the ubiquitous hawker centre or some form of local food sneaked into the shots, recyclable as these tiring tropes may seem to be.

The idea of a sense of belonging is however approached with ambiguity. Do we gain a sense of belonging by what the place offers us, or is it people in these shared spaces that matter? Unlike the grandmother’s strong attachment to the estate, the juvenile delinquent Veronica steps carefully around the area with the trepidation of a nomad trying to settle down after a life of shuffling around foster families. The relationship between Veronica and her foster mother is somewhat stilted, though also possibly aided by the awkward acting of the latter. Veronica pulls the role off with the natural unease required. For Veronica, the estate seems offers her a sense of belonging mainly through the people surrounding her: her new foster mother, and the friends she hangs out with along the public corridors and walkways of the estate. The specificity of Veronica and her friends communicating in Malay seems however an overdone attempt aligned to contemporary local film allegiance to showcase yet another supposedly distinctive Singaporean feature – the showcase of multiculturality, the diversity of languages and dialects beyond the official language of English. This comes across as being quite stilted, and mean nary a thing unlike another film in the Civic Life series, Moore Street, where the group of friends marching down a street in Dublin to a voiceover mixed with English and Swahili forms a collective identity that displays their distinctive cultural identities and that as migrants.

The character of the grandmother brings through the unavoidable issues of Tiong Bahru’s rich heritage and nostalgia of the community for its history. This is succinctly captured in the depiction of the geriatric’s final decision to inform her son’s family of her inability to move out of the estate where she has lived in for most of her life. What greater difficulty is there than challenging the richness of a sepia-tinted photograph depicting a personal past which Madam Lim whips out during a family dinner at the Tiong Bahru hawker centre? While the actors in this film were generally volunteers and cast from a pool of Tiong Bahru residents themselves, the stiff self-conscious acting was still painful to watch, and this family dinner scene paid testament to that, unfortunately. The dialogue seemed laboriously read off a script and the communal act of eating itself was made strange by the self-conscious movements by the actors.

The third story of Leo’s desire to set up a Mexican tapas stall in place of his drinks stall might seem a random and dubious venture for a place with entrenched fame for its food offerings of debatably best chwee kueh in Singapore and what not (further reinforced by the post-screening reception which showcased famous Tiong Bahru hawker centre offerings). Yet, the idea floated by Leo and his supportive onscreen wife to his bewildered father who owns the stall, may actually reflect the changing realities on the ground with regard to Tiong Bahru and contemporary additions to the historically-rich area. These include Wine Wise and Caffe Pralet at Eng Hoon Street, the patisserie Centre PS at Guan Chuan Street, among other offerings of contemporary Western dining options. Leo’s story situates not only the stereotypical everyday man’s struggle to rise above his inherited status or station in life, but possibly reflects the residents’ concerns over the future possible developments of the Tiong Bahru area.

The biggest problem of Civic Life: Tiong Bahru was something that could not be ignored – the excessive Mandarin voiceover that framed the entire narrative (why Mandarin?). The excess of narration weakened the moments of dramatic impact in the film. It might have helped with the weak acting by substituting impossible dramatic action with an aural account, but the attempt to do so weighed the film narrative down, taking away the dramatic impact of the stories.

Furthermore, the axiomatic tropes do work their traditional symbolic magic but in the attempt to channel these tropes into some form of dramatic tension in the film is where it starts to fray. Dramatic tension in the film is not so much situated with the community’s relationship to their space, but within the characters and their lives. The three central characters are depicted as being at the crossroads of their life, but these crossroads seem to do absolutely nothing in portraying anything significant about Tiong Bahru. Rather, they only seem a cheap attempt to drum up some dramatic tension and to get the bare narrative and characters to progress in an otherwise staid but visually beautiful narrative shot in 35mm CinemaScope (by an all-Singaporean crew no less). The narrative is at its strongest due not to what it posits about Tiong Bahru, but what it reflects. It mirrors what the Tiong Bahru residents view – the communality of food, the sense of belonging to a place rich with history, heritage, and well, a great amount of food.

None of the characters’ struggles are actually resolved, except the grandmother who manages to assert her desire to continue staying in Tiong Bahru. Veronica seems happy, or as her social worker has decided, but her reticence displays a fear of the future and the public façade of ambivalence given her nomadic status. Leo gets to do what he wants with the drinks stall after a consultation with his father, but none of these point to any significance about Tiong Bahru. It is questionable that the personal struggles are to portray the idea of transition and change, or at least if true, are weakly portrayed. Tiong Bahru’s status as a gazetted conservation area makes it doubtful that the heritage of Tiong Bahru will be forgotten or disregarded anytime soon but given the seemingly random decisions made from the top to conserve some areas and to uproot others despite obviously rich heritage, that threat for Tiong Bahru does loom at the fringes. Nevertheless, the attempt to cast issues of Tiong Bahru’s future in the film, is given a final airing in the tiring theme of rebirth at the end, unfortunately manifested in a contrived fashion in a form of a baby surrounded by curious children in a garden, the next generation of Tiong Bahru residents.

Vicki is in her final year of university as a Literature, and Theatre Studies student. Upon graduation, she has plans to continue to freelance and work on her projects such as drawing political cartoons, writing, travelling, and acting. Plans for further studies in the field of film studies and drama are being nebulously concocted.

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