High Riser: An Interview with Min-Wei Ting

One of the most ambitious Singapore films to have been screened this year at the 27th Singapore International Film Festival, artist Min-Wei Ting’s I’m Coming Up is an uninterrupted visual journey through Singapore’s most representative structure: the HDB Flat.

A ubiquitous feature of the Singaporean landscape, more than 80 per cent of our population dwells in these state-developed blocks. Yet beyond its function and history, an actual physical entity remains that is surrounded and obscured by socio-economic and political narratives.

Whilst there have been various films about life in these buildings—Eric Khoo’s 12 Storeys and Lei Yuan Bin’s 03-Flats come to mind—these inevitably focus on personal stories and state accounts, where the high-rise serves as a backdrop and is never given space to articulate itself.

I’m Coming Up explores the public high-rise as an entity in its own right and looks to capture its unknown self, a space of being that is difficult to grasp. Director Ting is interested in the high-rise as a body unto itself—to be seen, heard, and felt.

The film traverses an endless corridor, the arterial and vernacular feature of public housing architecture in Singapore, to contemplate its lines, colors, and surfaces. The duration of the film corresponds exactly to the actual time required to ascend a 21-storey public housing complex on foot, a protracted gesture that delivers an experience of psychological and physical space in real-time.

Taking some time out to chat with us, Min-Wei Ting elaborates on how he approached the uniqueness of this project, and some stories behind the scenes.

What is your main discipline as an artist? While this project is obviously your exploration of the filmic medium, what kind of projects do you most frequently work on?

​The focus of my practice is the moving image. I tend to avoid saying that I'm a 'filmmaker' because that then places my work within the realm of cinema and exposes it to certain expectations. Besides I didn't study film, I studied with people who worked with film but also painters, sculptors, installation and performance artists. That being said, my work does tend to end up in the theatre but only within specific contexts like festivals and exhibitions. I don't currently work in any other medium but that doesn't mean I won't on another occasion. On the other hand, I think there's plenty to explore with film that has nothing to do with conventional notions of what cinema is. An example is Toh Hun Ping's works in this year's SGIFF under the program, ‘Covets of an Outsider: Showcase of Works by Toh Hun Ping (2004-2009)’.

What subject matters interest you the most?

​That's hard to say. I'm interested in politics, history, culture—pretty broad topics—and within those there are specific subjects I'm drawn to. But not every interest lends itself to ​becoming a project.

Could you explain a bit more about focusing on the high-rise as a body itself, to be observed separately from the human and social aspects of it. Apart from it being a good architectural study, what do you see in these repetitive corridors, stairs, and walls?

I've always been interested in architecture so the design of this particular complex in Jurong drew me in the moment I stepped into it. ​There isn't another public housing block like it in Singapore. I'm almost certain of it. Very quickly, I knew what I wanted to do - to traverse the entire building from bottom to top - a response that was very particular to its design. I couldn't have done this anywhere else. So I wasn't interested in telling the history of the building nor the stories of its inhabitants in the film, I wanted simply to consider its form and what it represents, which leads us to the other part of your question.

The repetition of building features - the corridors, stairs, walls - almost everything in the building, presents a space that's very uniform, orderly and monotonous. The relentless journey through this immense block of flats drives home that feeling. I see the public high-rise as a metaphor for life in Singapore - it's rather homogeneous and conformist with little room for deviation. I know that sounds like an oversimplification but just think about the limits that are placed on how people think and behave here.    

One might say, "How else would you build an apartment block? Of course everything will be the same." And that's true but what I'm speaking about is not just sameness but the vastness of this sameness. I don't think it's farfetched to transpose this reading of public housing onto Singapore as a whole if you consider that the overwhelming majority of this country's population, more than 80%, resides in blocks not too dissimilar to the one in the film.

Speaking of the other Singaporean films that have featured the HDB flat, which ones did you have in mind when you mentioned them? In particular, have you watched 03-Flats? It too is a study of the flat, albeit from a different angle.

​I watched 03-Flats earlier this year at The Projector. Then of course there’s 12 Storeys, but that was almost 20 years ago so I hardly have any memory of that. I also thought of some photographic projects. I can't remember the photographer but I think he or she photographed residents standing right outside their homes. And now there's a Japanese couple here who have been photographing the interior of flats—furniture, decorations, personal possessions—without the occupants.

The thread that winds through these works is the human dimension - if it's not the residents themselves that are featured, it's the traces and touches they leave. This has the effect of personalizing these otherwise utilitarian and sterile buildings. Now we see parents, children, belongings, habits and routines, and one starts to invest emotions and feelings into these spaces. 

With I’m Coming Up, I wanted to reflect on what these spaces mean without the human element. Admittedly, I don't do that completely in the film because you see people's belongings here and there in the corridors but for the most part, the film is devoid of people.

How did your cameraman achieve this feat of walking up the HDB flat with a steady cam, and shooting everything in one take?

​The truth is that we didn't do it in one take. When we began planning the shoot, I wanted to do it in one take and the Steadicam operator was quite confident he could do it as well. But after a few site visits, I think he realized it was going to be near impossible for him to do that. It would have required enormous amounts of concentration and stamina. So we discussed it and settled on doing several floors at a time then merging all the shots in post. Even then, the shoot was still very demanding on him because we were aiming to end at sunrise so the breaks were short - the entire ascent was timed. It was basically stop, wipe off the sweat, have some water, go.

text - jeremy sing / photography - alfonse chiu

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