Review: '03-Flats'

Somewhere towards the end of the film, one of the 3 subjects, Artist Tang Ling Nah sits alone in front of the TV set watching Prime Minister deliver the National Day Rally, filled with the usual dogma of needing to stay competitive in a changing world. The all-so-familiar National Day staple song ‘We are Singapore’ plays and Ling Nah finds herself inevitably joining in the chorus. It is not entirely clear what’s going on in her head and she seems to be sniffing a bit at the chorus of the song.

Ling Nah is a visual artist who has bought a HDB flat for herself because she needs personal space for her work as an artist, away from her parents. What’s interesting is that she is not quite the run-of-the-mill ‘married with kids’ profile that HDB flats seem to favour but displays a passion for Singapore measurable to the ones you see in the annual National Day Parades. To put it bluntly, her position as an artist makes this quite an oxy-moron.
This is what the film is really pitched. At first contact, the film seems like a clich├ęd study of HDB living with the familiar 3-stories structure. But watching it in more detail reveals it to be a more enlightened and targeted observation of some of the biggest ironies in what Singapore has branded as one of the world’s most successful public housing projects.

03-Flats faithfully and unobtrusively follows three single women who live alone in their HDB flat and captures snapshots of their everyday activities, sometimes mundane, sometimes glorious and sometimes with pockets of surprises. The 3 women, while not enough to offer a cross section of society or provide a CMI (Chinese, Malay, Indian) broad look at HDB living, presents quite a diverse set of characters with unique circumstances. These circumstances in fact make the film more ironic. Ling Nah, as mentioned is an artist and has transformed her flat into a art studio as well, somehow conjuring thoughts of art-studio-homes in cities like New York or Paris. Mums looking at her flat and the clutter will be nagging till the cows come home, even though Ling Nah is really quite a meticulous cleaner when it comes to doing her regular housework. Amy Tashiana, from the entertainment business, has brought Hollywood to the neighbourhood. From boudoir-looking drapes to patterned crockery to sequined cushions to delightful bouquets of flowers, one immediately forgets the original cell-like structure of these public housing units. The third character Mdm Sim Boon Ngoh lives a Spartan life alone in her flat with her furnishing down to the basic essentials, but we are given a back story of how her flat, when her mother was around used to be the venue of numerous family gatherings and Chinese New Year reunion dinners.

Interjected throughout the film are snippets of absolutist propagandist  national TV broadcasts from the 60s of the public housing construction progress and achievements, as well as quotes from the various ministers rationalising the existence of these public housing projects and why they have taken this form. With spot-on comic timing, these snippets are immediately cut to the drab, uninspiring scenes of the current day HDB corridors and void decks with rectangles, cells and boxes galore. In fact, hese are just flashes of visual irony that set the tone for the main drift. The choice of the 3 women’s stories offer main meat in the director’s ironic gaze at HDB living. Together, they stand in defiance to the intentions of the government’s policy, not in an angry way, but with a huge grin.

This rather ‘peaceful’ subversion of the conventional HDB living unit is characteristic of the overriding directorial style of Lei Yuan Bin. One defining feature of the film is the lack of any direct talking head accounts from the characters. The film is built from footages of an ‘observing’ camera, probably hidden in the background, quietly documenting these characters in near-natural states. It might be precisely the total reliance on candid, un-staged activity shots that have forced the director to think harder about how to paint a more vivid picture of the characters’ lives without them telling it to the camera. These included capturing Amy at her work rehearsals and Ling Nah during her family time at her parents’ home. This treatment is meditative but its pacing suffers sometimes when some scenes seem repetitive or pointless.
For the loose grip the director exerts on the narrative, the film sometimes becomes a random stroll in the park and you forget what the film is trying to point at or if it is actually pointing at anything. For instance, Amy’s Hari Raya party and the lead-up to it has such an addictive ‘reality-TV’ draw to it, once can be forgiven for forgetting what the film was posturing at. The film subconsciously lures the voyeur out in all of us, beckoning to us to wonder what Mdm Sim is cooking for dinner, what Ling Nah is painting next and if the cat is going scratch Amy in her sleep. Before you can say ‘housework porn’, the film thankfully makes an effort to link these back to broader issues at play, with the National Day Rally scene (mentioned at the start of this review) being a pivoting point in the film. The pro-longed take and Ling Nah’s seemingly raw reactions to the Rally speech and song offer some closure on our understanding of her relationship to the space and this place she calls home. We are not sure where they stand in the race for economic advancement and in fact, they sometimes seem ‘orphaned’ by progress that is gushing through everyone’s lives, but the film makes one strong point, that Ling Nah, like Mdm Sim and Amy, all genuinely have their hearts anchored in these cell-like structures that they call home.

Review by Jeremy Sing 

This film was screened at the recent Singapore Chinese Film Festival and premiered at the Busan International Film Festival in 2014. Read more about the making of this film in our interview with director Lei Yuan Bin here.
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