Singapore Dreaming (2006) 美滿人生

Country: Singapore
Language: English, Mandarin, Hokkien
Runtime: 105 minutes
Director: Colin Goh, Wu Yen Yen
Starring: Richard Low, Alice Lim, Serene Chen, Yeo Yann Yann, Lim Yu-Beng, Dick Su
Theme: Culture

Ratings: IMDB: 6.7/10

Film Festivals:
2006 San Sebastián International Film Festival
2007 Asian-American International Film Festival
2007 Tokyo International Film Festival

2006 SSIFF: Moutblanc New Screenwriter Award
2007 AAIFF: Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature
2007 TIFF: Best Asian/Middle-Eastern Film Award

Singapore Dreaming realistically captures the livelihood of a typical working class family, right down to the propagation of materialistic desires of the archetypical 5’C’s (cash, condominium, credit card, country club, career). This production, funded by renowned plastic surgeon Dr Woffles Wu, also features a joint collaboration between husband-wife pair Colin Goh and Wu Yen Yen, novice filmmakers with the former being the honcho between spoof website Talking Cock.

Like what most Singaporean movies like to do, probably to pander the film to an international audience who may not be familiar with what Singapore is like, Singapore Dreaming opens with a series of random cutaway ‘filler’ shots that capture the everyday essence of Singapore life, which are subsequently peppered through the film as “chapter dividers” that provide a breather in the flow of the film. For instance, the MRT station, the cashier counting bills, the hawker center, the wet market, the Singapore Pools outlet, a straight-up frontal shot of the Merlion etc. This is also evident in other films like the recent Boo Junfeng film Sandcastles (2010) and Eric Khoo films like 12 Storeys (1997) and Be With Me (2005). Images like the three-or-four-room HDB flat with its stoic corridors, wet market and hawker center will strike a resonance with local heartland culture, but also set the proletariat tone of the film among foreign audiences. Tied together with the title Singapore Dreaming, “dreaming” being an euphemism for Dream and the title a blatant reference to The American Dream, we sense that it remains an ongoing process for Singapore, in stark contrast to the finished product that are the ideals of the American Dream.

Realism is the standard directorial stylistic technique used in this film, as the movie aims to capture everyday Singaporeans going about their everyday work. The (then-)obsession over photography on camera phones is evident in 04:04 (CD1) as Irene takes a shot of her aunt preparing food on the camera phone, and in a subsequent scene as she takes a shot of a baby on the bus. Several still shots focus on Mei and CK, a couple whose drive on the expressway (06:35; CD1) contains testy dialogue that is a sign of frosty relations that is exemplified thorugh the means the characters are placed within the shot. The wife is akin to a passenger and the husband a chauffeur as the wife opts not to sit next to the husband in the front seat. This could be inferred as a distinct disparate nature of the “class” and “social” belonging both characters find themselves in. Mei can be inferred to look down on CK – and we learn that this is true later on in the movie, that she doesn’t think much of his job peddling insurance. Through separate cutaway scenes at 10:00 (CD1) that feature the lead protagonists at their respective workplaces, we can tell that they are all employed rather than self-employed, and their cubicled jobs indicate the menial everyday nature of their work. This is reinforced in 12:34 (CD1), when CK is seen flipping through his old yearbook and as he tries to peddle insurance to old classmates under the pretext of catching up. The camera cuts to a medium shot that captures the drab fluorescent lighting, sharp angles, and motivational posters on the wall that seemingly mock the characters in their everyday menial work.

Seng returns home, supposedly with an American degree, and is immediately viewed upon – with bias – as the pride and future of the family. But the directors drop subtle hints amid the context that all might not be as rosy as it seems. First, at 18:56 (CD1) the camera frames the shot such that Seng’s back is shown such that his face is not shown most of the time – an insinuation that he might have something to hide. There is palpable tension around the steamboat table as the characters mouth curt remarks at one another. Further, Seng doesn’t seem very happy when his father talks about his expectations – a sign of negativity surrounding his supposed degree. The close-up at 33:54 (CD1) has a fish tank by the corner of the frame, with the camera then panning to capture the fiancée as she cosies up to Seng, whose mother is hugging him from his left. Yet he doesn’t look contented despite having the love of the two most important women in his life. This is subsequently confirmed in the climactic burst-up when Seng confessed to not having graduated at all, and not acquiring a degree, thus signifiying that not only his parents have wasted tons of money on him, his fiancée Irene had also done so. Such is his materialistic demands and wants that he has squandered away the money and trust provided by his loved ones.

The voyeuristic paparazzi-esque framing at 37:49 (CD1) shows that the father character is not as self-righteous as he seems, but has something to hide. Through the use of a wide shot, the camera frames the father, along with his mistress and illegitimate child occupying a table amid many other customers at the roadside durian store. Rather than move closer into the scene to capture the state of being of the family through a direct focus on their expressions, the camera keeps its safety distance. This discreet shot implies something fishy is going on, and this is ascertained later when they appear at his funeral. The father’s death was a dramatic moment of stark contrast – his eagerness at winning $2 million in Toto a few days before and being elected for a country club membership interview short-lived as he dies of heart failure moments before the interview. The camera cuts away to a close-up of the swerving tennis racquet and ball within the tennis court, paired with the sound effects of the smack (05:34; CD2) as the world spins around him – and frames him (05:58; CD2) with a close-up that captures the vacant look in his eyes that indicate him losing sight of his ideals in life.

In portrayal of reality Goh and Wu opt for still shots through most of the movie, and hence the shaky camera shots that were used in the climax appear jarring in contrast. This was evident from 26:04 (CD2) onwards, when the camera shifts from a confrontation between Mei and Seng as he accuses her of forcing money out of their mother, who is apparently in shock and oblivious to the world.

Yet in spite of the wide critical acclaim and endorsement by President S R Nathan himself, the independent film still failed to break even, acquiring only $420,000 worth of box office gross that remains far short of the $800,000 production costs. Is this really a sign of the maturity of local audiences who would only support mainstream fare by Jack Neo?