Hollywood and South Korea continue to reign success in the film world, but we need to take a step back to applaud the movies that’ve been birthed in our own country — Singaporean films that tell the stories of our own countrymen, their struggles and their achievements.
Films like Ilo Ilo, for instance, explore the changing dynamics between working-class parents and their children with a full-time foreign caregiver thrown in the mix, while Apprentice touches upon the controversial capital punishment laws in Singapore through the eyes of a soon-to-be prison executioner.
We’ve highlighted some of our favourite must-see titles here. Read on for the full list.
The most iconic Singaporean films to watch:
(Hero and featured image: Shirkers)
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Ilo Ilo, directed by Anthony Chen, recounts the relationship between a family and their helper, Teresa. Here, the nine-year-old son of the family, Jiale, is left in the hands of Teresa for most of the day, which leads to an almost mother-and-son-like bond between them. The movie chronicles the perennial dilemma of the middle-class working parent and their relationship with their children through everyday life, and is a must-watch on our list.
On the surface, Apprentice appears to simply be about a hangman and his apprentice, but the film is really so much more than that. It takes a closer look at the country’s complicated relationship with the death penalty, and brings about the question of morality and mortality. It’s no doubt an uncomfortable experience being granted such intimate access to the death row, but it also does a good job of highlighting compassion and humanity in both the prisoners and prison employees.
The story of Before We Forget depicts the lives of two Singaporean families and their battle with dementia. This observational-style film follows 50-year-old Joyce Fernandez and her care for her mother Celine, who has been suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease for seven years. The concurrent timeline also follows Dr Irene Giam – an atheist who claims to be unafraid of death – and her struggle to grapple with her own emotions after being diagnosed with vascular dementia. The film is honest, raw, and intimate, and highlights the complex feelings of terminal illnesses and dying in a society where these topics are usually taboo to talk about.
Directed by K. Rajagopal, A Yellow Bird chronicles the life of Siva, who, after being released from prison for contraband smuggling, is unable to find forgiveness from his mother. On a quest for redemption, he attempts to reunite with his ex-wife and daughter in a society that offers zero respite, and finds a short glimmer of hope with a Chinese prostitute who connects with him through their shared desperation.
This isn’t one of the best horror films we’ve watched, but it is still makes for a pretty terrifying watch if you’re into the genre, especially because of how close to reality the traditional customs and behaviours depicted were portrayed. The main protagonist, Rosa, arrives to the Teo household as their new helper on the first day of the Chinese Seventh Month, also known as the start of the Hungry Ghost Festival. Unfamiliar to superstitions, she unknowingly breaks some of them, resulting in a series of otherworldly encounters.
Director Sandi Tan crafts a documentary that celebrates friendship and youth through the lens of an unrealised film project, and Shirkers has become one of the most popular local indie films in the younger generation of today. Here, the audience follows Sandi as she revisits a time when she, with a group of friends, shot a feature-length film in their youth. The film then vanishes in the hands of the film’s director Georges Cardona. The narrative rests on the reclamation of their stories and regaining that era of their lives, and is a breath of fresh air to watch.
The Long Long Time Ago series depicts different eras of Singapore’s history, following the highs and lows of a family and their neighbours. From the days of kampong-living and land reclamation for development, to moving into HDBs and general elections, the movies offer a glimpse into the lives of working-class Singaporeans during each significant period of time, whilst still providing plenty of comedic-relief at various points.