Short Film Review: $alary Day (2020)

$300 to family back home, $110 budgeted for food, $20 for a mobile top up and $12 on groceries leaves $8 cash on hand. Such is the stringent budgeting required by our protagonist, whose meagre monthly salary necessitates a game of calculated choices. The decision between a hearty bowl of mee soto and a decent haircut, for instance, is seen to be but part of a slew of everyday choices.

Self-proclaimed as the first film produced out of a collaboration between migrant workers and Singaporeans, $alary Day brings to light the financial dilemmas migrant workers living in Singapore face. For many, salary day might mean an opportunity to splurge, yet for these hard labour workers, salaries are a respite, giving them permission to fulfil long-delayed practical needs and hallmarking a tough season narrowly tided through. Written and directed by R. Madhavan, a migrant worker hailing from Tamil Nadu, India, the direct authorship infuses the piece with a more authentic and genuine quality than if it had been from someone outside of the community. It is indeed heartening to see migrant workers being empowered to be their own spokespersons and storytellers.

Following the everyday happenings of Madhu, who goes about with various financial transactions on his payday, the film takes on an observational slant, easily veering into a documentary-like composition. If not from one or two suppressed smiles from the supporting actors and some explicit edits, one might still be questioning fact from fiction. As it is, not much is actually fiction.

It is telling that in a piece directly birthed from a migrant worker himself, it would be the financial difficulties that are foregrounded, above and beyond the myriad of issues that have come to populate the social media landscape in recent months. Watching this brings to mind a particularly insightful article written by TWC2 on the structural disempowerment faced by migrant workers. In Alex Au’s words, “the dorms are not the problem.” They are only symptoms of underlying, systemic issues such as inefficient policies and self-centered mindsets.

Admittedly, the film itself is bogged down by a host of production issues, from visual shortfalls to sound hiccups. Some of the questionable camera shots include a headache inducing whirlwind to depict the living condition of the dorms as well as several blown out, out of focus shots. The explicit close-ups on empty wallets or remnant coins can seem uncomfortably forced as well, a common pitfall when it comes to showcasing instances of plight. However, as a laudable opportunity for migrant workers to script and tell their own stories, it is hoped that this piece would be a springboard for other robust and compelling stories to come. This time of lockdown has exposed the neglect and exploitation of foreign workers, sparking an avalanche of public interest and outcry. When the lockdown lifts, may we not forget.

Here is the film.

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