An Interview with Sean Ng on 'A Golden Mile'

Sean Ng's short film 'A Golden Mile' (available on Viddsee, scroll down to watch it!) will likely strike a chord with many Singaporeans. The film is best viewed knowing the context within which it has been made, such that it becomes an addendum to the preservation-vs-progress argument which often arises in Singapore. 

Golden Mile Complex (GMC) is best known for its ‘seedy reputation, gaudy discos, and Thai restaurants’. In 2018, a debate about conserving Singapore’s post-independence buildings was sparked in the news and on the internet when it was announced that GMC, built in the 1960s, would be put up for en bloc (sale) where it might be demolished to make way for new buildings. Since then, there have been two unsuccessful en bloc attempts, and chances are that GMC will stay for now, especially since the Urban Redevelopment Authority has issued planning advice to developers that the main 16-storey building and facade is subject to conservation, which has dampened the chances of the building being sold. While GMC stands tall for now, other buildings with iconic facades and architecture such as Pearl Bank Apartments have since been demolished. 

Shot in one day and on location at GMC, ‘A Golden Mile’ explores both personal and collective grief. Roy (Benjamin Goh) lost his mother recently and he collects a bulky box of his old belongings from his previous apartment in GMC before meeting up with his friends for an awkward reunion after not seeing them for months. The box stays by his side throughout dinner and as he accompanies his friends to a Thai club in the upper levels of GMC. Roy keeps asking his friends, “What should I do with the box?” and debating whether to keep it. There is a sense that he needs to decide how to move forward from his loss. At the club, he meets a Thai hostess named Dow (Sunthari Chotipun), one of the Thai immigrants for whom GMC is home. At the club, tensions between Roy and his brash friend David (Lucas Lim) also rise to the surface. 

Other than portraying the uneasy push-pull between progress and loss, as well as the difficulty of finding a path forward, the film—to some extent—acts as a visual documentation of GMC as it has been shot on location. As the credits roll, there are shots of GMC’s corridors, fa├žade, and fixtures. Visual documentation of Singapore's buildings is not new. Photographer Darren Soh has been capturing Singapore’s built landscape for more than a decade. For example, he repeatedly returns to the block of flats he lived in from age 0 to 5 to take photographs of it. His reason? “I keep going because I’m afraid, one day, they’ll just announce that it’s going to go.” He has also documented other buildings which are now gone, such as Rochor Centre and Pearl Bank Apartments, and keeps an eye out for en bloc announcements.

Amidst the outpouring of sentimentality for GMC and other Brutalist-style buildings on the figurative guillotine, GMC resident Ritz Ang was not sure if it should be preserved due to maintenance issues. He also pointed out the u-turn in attitudes towards GMC, saying, “The moment people find out that it’s going to be gone, all of a sudden it’s a heritage thing. But 10 years ago, nobody gave a shit about this place. People would tell you, ‘oh, be wary of this place’,” he said, referring to the building’s reputation as a sleazy haunt.  

Was the former public indifference towards GMC a sign of hypocrisy, or one of not appreciating what we have until it’s gone? SINdie further discussed 'A Golden Mile' with director Sean Ng below.

SINdie: Why did you and your co-writer, Kristen Ong, choose Golden Mile Complex as the setting? 
Sean Ng: As the brief we were tackling was under the theme of 'real estate', we chose Golden Mile as it is one of the few places in Singapore that we still do find authentic today, which is hard to come by these days. In contrast to the ‘cookie-cutter’ malls Singapore has to offer; the food, the people, the architecture - Golden Mile Complex holds a very special place in my view towards Singapore, for what it represents and gives. And with the idea of enbloc looming, we thought it's the right time to use Golden Mile as a setting. 

How did you approach the topic of grief—both collective and individual? 
Through this film what we were trying was to focus on the fact that memories shape us. It is a subtle thing, but we tried to parallel the human loss and grief with the similar concerns towards the tearing down of an important building. We didn't want to force the narrative and themes too much, but just provide a little place for some reflection. 

The box which Roy carries throughout the evening and David’s reaction to it suggests that some things must be given up or left behind in order to move forward. What are your thoughts on the relationship between progress and loss? 
The box and the idea of memories to me really defines who we are for most parts. I believe it's human nature to always want better, hence the constant desire for progress and growth. But I think sometimes if we kill ourselves too much for the sake of progress, we need to slow down a little. With loss being inevitable too on many fronts, I guess we have to learn to strike balances that also weigh humanistic and sentimental values. 

David is the most conventionally successful character, being a lawyer, and he is also the most antagonistic and unsympathetic. What were your thoughts when writing him and the group dynamics? 
We skewed him in a way to somehow be the very familiar voice of reason, the voice of Singapore. His opinions towards Roy’s box are very much how we see Golden Mile Complex. We made him the advocate of progress and logic - a character who overlooks sentimental values. We always hear this voice and it has become the norm, and wanted the audience to get a chance to hear ourselves. 

You composed the film’s original music with Nigel Tan. What were some considerations when composing for this film? 
This was our first collaboration, and we felt it was a good project to start with as it we both felt that we simply wanted to fill in the gaps and not make it too emotionally manipulative. The direction was to be there to guide the audience through the reality and not make things too forthcoming. 

Tell us about some of the challenges faced when making this film. 
We shot this in one day and it was quite a rush! Alongside that, we were shooting at real operating business outlets, so we had a very strict schedule to adhere to. We also shot it on a Friday, and had a lot of crowds to avoid. It was challenging but fun.

Catch 'A Golden Mile' on Viddsee below:

Written by Jacqueline Lee
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