The Persistence of Memory

Review of Tan Pin Pin’s documentary In Time to Come (April 2017)

by Jee Leong Koh

 

The new documentary by Singaporean filmmaker Tan Pin Pin does not spell out its full title immediately. Instead, the title at first reads “In … to Come” with my ellipsis standing in for her blank space. “To Come” plays on the old cinema title “Coming Attractions” that used to preface movie trailers, or in Malay, “Akan Datang,” meaning “Coming Soon.” Thus, not only does Tan's initial title raise audience expectations but also it announces the film’s interest in the future. When the word “Time” appears in the blank space a few seconds later, it completes the title, but is also “contained” by the other parts of the title. The preservation of memory, in the form of commemorative and ritualistic practices, is very much Tan’s concern in this, her fourteenth film. Five years in the making, In Time to Come is her most ambitious and self-reflexive work to date.

In Time to Come begins with the exhumation of a time capsule and ends with the installation of a new one. The first capsule, an industrial-looking drum, was buried in Singapore’s Civic District, in front of the Asian Civilizations Museum at Empress Place on the occasion of Singapore’s 25th year of independence in 1990. The second capsule, created to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Singapore Institute of Management in 2014, looks very different. Like the Astor Place Cube in Manhattan, it stands impossibly on one of its corners, but unlike the bronze Astor Place Cube, it is made of stainless steel. It is also much smaller, reaching the height of the heart, and it cannot be rotated. Did its makers reflect on the impossibility of preserving the fourth dimension of time in a 3D shape? Tan’s camera raises this conundrum as it stares at the shiny capsule that is not shaped like a capsule, but is named along its sides as “Time Cube.” Not buried but installed in the corporate-looking lobby of the Singapore Institute of Management, it demands public attention but repels public interaction.

Film still from In Time to Come (2017)

Film still from In Time to Come (2017)

The different contents of the two time capsules suggest the dramatic change in Singapore’s history in less than 25 years. In the first capsule: a copy of the telephone book, an old mobile phone charger, a bottle of water from the Singapore River, three lacquered branches of the first tree planted by Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. The self-important objects speak optimistically of early nation-building projects: the public housing program that has given most people new addresses; rapid industrialization by capitalizing on technological innovations; the massive campaigns to clean up Singapore’s rivers and to make over the city-state into a garden. The contents of the second capsule, chosen perhaps by the business students, are far more idiosyncratic. A shuttlecock (a badminton “birdie”), a papier-mâché lion’s head, a life vest covered with signatures: they speak of nostalgia for the students’ own experience at school. The students wished to commemorate themselves. And mirrored by the change in the location of the two capsules from the Civic District to a business management school, Singapore is shown to have moved from a shared heroic past into a self-absorbed technocratic present.

Framed, or one could say “contained,” by shots of these two time capsules, In Time to Come shows a series of different scenes from Singapore, mostly shot from a low angle and in long takes, all captured by a camera lens fixed in place. In its fixity, the lens becomes analogous to a time capsule. The unmoving camera contains its scenes just as the capsule contains its objects. The vital difference is that, unlike the objects, the scenes captured by the lens possess movement and sound; they are, in short, cinematic. In one evening scene, lit by flashing neon signs, we see the backs of pedestrians waiting for the traffic lights to change at a busy intersection. Interestingly, the waiting is not entirely static but filled with small personal gestures and movements. When the lights change, the pedestrians cross the road as their counterparts from the other side walk towards the camera, now showing us their faces, tired, brooding, or simply expressionless, one or two casting a curious glance at the camera. The film’s observation of them is almost anthropological. For a short moment they are a tribe bound together by certain ritual. This is filmmaking in the tradition of "cinéma vérité.”

Shot at a slant, another scene shows Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) riders in a car of the train, the car behind appearing and disappearing from the camera lens as the train negotiates the twists and turns of the tunnel. We are thus made constantly aware of the framing of the shot. The riders are foregrounded, but the real action takes place in the background, to the left, as the train does its mesmerizing snake dance. It is surely no accident that the train halts at Caldecott Station, the stop nearest to Mediacorp, Singapore’s main TV broadcasting company, whose viewer fare consists of more conventional storytelling. In contrast to the shooting of the MRT, the null space below a flyover is shot frontally, and with perfect symmetry. Cars speeding by on the right of the frame give a strong sense of the frenetic traffic on the flyover overhead. Under the imposing concrete structure, however, a man wheels his bike slowly from the right of the screen to the left, and is succeeded by a woman walking her dog from the other way. Lit by sodium vapor streetlamps, this scene is moodily beautiful. Whether shot aslant or frontally, all scenes in the film convince us that small movements are perceived more easily, and appreciated more keenly, when the camera is still. The analogy to living is clear. When we halt in our hurry, we see more of life.

Abjuring a linear narrative, the film is held together through thematic and formal repetition. In one instance, a group of construction workers hosing down dirty lorries return near the end of the film as a single plant nursery caretaker watering potted plants with a hose. Again and again the film shows people working: the hammering open of the first capsule, the manufacture of the new capsule, the wrapping of objects in tissue paper for the capsule. Innocent in its first appearance, smoke filling up the grounds of a public housing estate is revealed to come from mosquito fogging. More menacing in its next appearance, even dystopian, smoke fills a different housing estate, rising to the sky. The film does not show that this smog comes from the burning of forests in nearby Indonesia, but it allows an audience aware of this fact ask who the mosquitoes are that the smog is killing.

Film still from In Time to Come (2017)

Film still from In Time to Come (2017)

The repetition in the film is also intended to evoke a sense of ritual. When Kinokuniya Bookstore opens every morning for business, its uniformed employees stand expectantly before the roller shutter to smile and greet the customers coming in. Much later, we see the exact moment from the viewpoint of the customers, who duck under the rising shutter and greet the employees in return, or ignore them. Tying the daily routine to the seasonal cycle, the store plays Vivaldi’s Spring, an incongruous choice for the tropics. Sound is used throughout the film to enhance the ritualistic atmosphere. Time and again we hear public announcements made in different settings. What matters to the filmmaker is not the semantic content of those announcements, but their emotional tenor: calm, or hectoring, or patronizing. Announcements are themselves structured as repetition, or loop; their ubiquity structures life in Singapore. In one particularly witty shot, a shopping mall has hung up giant cutouts of bells for the Christmas season. What we hear, however, is a fire alarm going off and a woman’s voice telling nonchalant shoppers over the PA system to head for the nearest exits. The scene, like many others in the film, becomes as surreal as Salvador Dali's painting The Persistence of Memory.

Sound is so integral a part of the film that when it turns silent, that silence speaks volumes. This happens when children and their parents play with fake snow, soap suds actually, outside a shopping mall. Tan’s camera work here is very anthropological; it does not romanticize what is potentially a postcard scene. The “snow” looks icky and the scene is like "a strangely family-friendly foam party," as one viewer remarked. The happiness of the people is, however, real, as Tan’s sympathetic lens shows. The sound turned off, the audience is asked to imagine the squeals of childish delight while the world is muffled by a scarf of white. Still, the silence speaks of a certain detachment on the part of the observer. A film of this nature usually finds its shape and stance through the long process of editing. Working with film editors Martyn See and Amelia Su and sound designer Lim Ting Li, Tan infused the film with an otherworldly tone, a familiar yet alien look. In her director's statement, she recalls, "In the edit, the past, present and future seemed to collapse together, giving the film a sci-fi bent. When this possibility opened up, we pushed the angle in the sound design."

Film still from In Time to Come (2017)

Film still from In Time to Come (2017)

Repetition, ritual, and sound are less innocent elsewhere in the documentary. They suggest discipline and control. In separate long takes, schoolchildren are shown seated in rows on the ground while waiting for the morning routine of flag raising and national anthem singing. What throws the control of young bodies into sharp relief is the demand that they read books, magazines, newspapers, whatever, while seated uncomfortably. Teachers walk up and down the rows to make sure they are reading. The four students standing with books in front of everyone could be prefects setting an example, but look more like recalcitrant rebels being punished. If Tan’s camera is critical of such regimentation, it is also self-critical of its own participation in the control of what the audience sees. It does not pretend to hover above the scene like an omniscient god, or poke behind it like an investigative reporter, or see around it like an academic historian. Instead, the lens contains the scene in a fixed stare, and compels the audience to see through its unblinking eye, much as we may wish to look above, behind, around, or away from the scene.

Although the film is organized as a montage, there is a fragmented narrative that runs through it. A 40-year-old banyan tree in the backyard of the independent arts venue The Substation is cut down in order to clear the space for a road tunnel. Lifted up by a crane, a worker is first seen sawing off the tree branches. In a later scene, the tree trunk is sliced into chunks. Near the end of the film, one section of the trunk is looked after in a plant nursery, where it begins to sprout tiny leaves. According to Tan, this still-alive section of the tree trunk will be returned to the original site as a way of commemorating the original tree. The film interpolates scenes from this process of destruction into its structure. In doing so, it is quietly critical of the government for destroying invaluable collective memory for the sake of shortening peak-hour commute. A section of a tree trunk is no substitute for a living, growing tree. The scale of loss is impressed on us by the shot of the vast emptiness of the Marina Coastal Expressway as the celebration of its opening takes place off-screen.

Film still from In Time to Come (2014)

Film still from In Time to Come (2014)

When the film was screened at Lincoln Center's Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center, in Manhattan, New York, in April 2017 as part of the Center’s Art of the Real documentary series, the house was full, three-fifths of whom looked Singaporean. During the Q&A after the screening, the questions from the non-Singaporeans were formal and political: was there a climax in the progression of the film? Did the director intend a critique of Singapore’s notorious political controls? Audience members who know that Tan’s previous film To Singapore With Love (2013) was restricted from public screening in Singapore because it told the stories of political exiles might have expected an even more explicit political critique in the later film. Tan explained that she made that controversial film in the middle of making In Time to Come. For her, both films share the motive to commemorate, as Lee Kuan Yew’s ill health was very much in the news. The death of Singapore’s first Prime Minister in 2015 signaled the end of an era. The woman who asked about the climax was asked by the director what she thought the climax was. She said that for her the climax was the scene showing the polar bear swimming back and forth in a tank. She did not elaborate on her answer but she could be responding to the accumulative sense of confinement conveyed by the film. Tan neither confirmed nor rejected the answer, but clearly welcomed the personal response.

In some ways it was easy to respond to the formal structure of the film for its apparent objectivity and universality, or to the perceived political content for its conformity to one’s prior ideas about Singapore. Both were quick ways of making sense of a film that refuses to telegraph its intentions. After the screening, a few Singaporeans wondered aloud what non-Singaporeans would make of the film, so local and particular were its visual references. I would suggest that the film has two separate audiences in mind. The Singaporean audience sees familiar sights de-familiarized by the formal structure of the film, what Tan calls in her director's statement, "a sci-fi bent." The second audience, a non-Singaporean one, is confronted by the memory-making of a particular place, which is not easily graspable. Instead of an ersatz universality or an imperialistic criticism, an American audience could try for analogy. Prompted by the film, a New Yorker may think about the various ways in which New York commemorates past and present for the future, and how odd those ways may appear to an outsider.

Following the example of the woman who could not forget the polar bear, I will end by saying that for me the outstanding scene is actually one that is shown even before the first time capsule comes into view. In other words, it escapes the container defined by the two time capsules. In that scene, surrounded by lush virgin forest, a large group of young men and women paddle their canoes in Singapore’s MacRitchie Reservoir. Strong and tanned, the canoeists are concentrating on matching the rhythm of their strokes; the canoes are going every which way, but deftly avoiding collision with one another. In a later iteration, the canoeists will compete in clearly marked lanes, but here, unconstrained by the time capsules, they are free to start, spurt, and swerve as they wish, in canoes for one, two, and even three people. The scene begins a stream of water images in the film, but here are its headwaters. In the polyamorous and polysemous canoes is found, most palpably, the erotics of filmmaking.

Credits: Director Tan Pin Pin / Associate Producer Yong Shu Ling / Script Consultant Jasmine Kin Kia Ng / Editors Martyn See and Amelia Su / Cinematographers Brian McDairmant and Michael Zaw / Sound Designer Lim Ting Li

All photos are used by permission. My thanks to Tan Pin Pin for reading the essay and correcting my factual errors. I am indebted to Y. S. Pek and Helaine Smith for their insightful comments on the substance and the style of the essay.

 

Jee Leong Koh is the author of Steep Tea (Carcanet), named a Best Book of the Year by UK's Financial Times. He has published three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. His book of personal and critical essays Bite Harder: Open Letters and Close Readings is forthcoming from Ethos Books in 2018. Originally from Singapore, Jee lives in New York City, where he heads Singapore Unbound, a non-profit that develops cultural exchange between Singapore and the USA.