I watched 7 Letters last week and thoroughly enjoyed it. A compilation of 7 short movies, each directed by a Singaporean filmmaker, the films revolve around the theme of what “Home” means to each director.
I was also extremely heartened that it was so well received by Singaporeans that it was first extended from Gala Screenings at the Capitol Theatre, to screenings over National Day Weekend at the National Museum of Singapore, to one week at numerous Golden Village cinemas islandwide, and now further extended to an extra week at GV (ending 2 Sep).
On the weekday night that I attended, the theatre was fully packed. I was so happy that I managed to get good seats, when I booked online 5 days before that. As one of my friends said, every Singaporean should watch it. I and heartily agree.
The short films are set from 1950s-1980s, and I think those in their 50s and above will probably find them most poignant. I found it a heart-warming walk through history. Younger Singaporeans will probably find some of the scenes unrecognisable, but if at all, this is probably ‘national education’ in the best form.
Some thoughts on each film (contains spoilers).
Sinema by Eric Khoo
This film probably has the least mass appeal, but I thought it comprised extremely clever cinematography. The classic Pontianak story (with a very, very beautiful lady indeed) is screened open air to villagers, and then as if via time travel, is seen screened to old folks in a wheelchairs at a nursing home.
The scene of an elderly man in a wheelchair, sifting through his meagre belongings, next to his spartan bed, is heart-wrenching. But without words, the movie unfolds to scenes of great warmth, as old friends gather, and resume the passion of their youth – film-making. Everyone has taken up a new ‘day job’ to make ends meet, but their hobby is what binds them together, spending late nights doing what they love. What a tribute to the multi-racial make-up of Singaporean film-makers throughout the decades.
I loved the song, and caught myself humming it days later!
That Girl by Jack Neo
Classic Jack Neo, in the sense of having cute kid actors carry the show, with Zhang Yimou-esque pitiful circumstances. It shows the poverty of our past, which was really just our parents’ generation, and not that long ago.
I found this film the easiest to enjoy, and its unresolved yet somewhat resolved ending was well done. [In that the boy finds the money, and turns up, and she sees him turn up, yet he (rightfully) does not outrun the lumbering truck as it brings her away forever.]
It did make me wish that girl had more backbone and less unconditional love, and fed that good-for-nothing boy to the dogs instead. I suppose good films provoke the most reactions from the audience, and the twists within (she did lose the purse) and the resulting ambiguity (he could have refused to return it) makes her painful deliberations all the more poignant.
I did wonder whether the quote at the end about appreciating those who silently sacrifice the most for our happiness was something borne out of the director’s own recent rocky life experience. Probably, huh.
The Flame by K. Rajagopal
This film was wrought with tension, and portrayed the dynamics of this traditional Indian family well. The patriarchal structure, the struggle of a weak man between allegiance to wife or father, and the tug between East and West seen right down to the choice of breakfast by two men.
The black and white film, the pregnant pauses, the sudden crash of a large plate. The question of migration that even faces many today. What is home? Does living in most other countries make you a second-class citizen there?
A more recent debate is characterised by the stayer-quitter dichotomy. The reasons for leaving might have changed, but the deliberations are still there. This film also ends in some ambiguity – as the camera pans to and rests at length upon the father, one wonders what is going through his mind. Regret for his outburst? Wishing his wife were still alive and here to smooth things over? Pain that his son cannot see that all he wants is the best for them all?
Bunga Sayang by Royston Tan
This is a crowd favourite for many reasons. Set in the era of my childhood, there were so many scenes, and vintage household items that brought back fond memories.
The early HDB kampong culture of approaching one’s neighbours readily when in need is portrayed effectively here, as age and language pose no barrier to two lonely souls connecting so heart-warmingly.
The scene when the little boy’s tap actually produces water, and his gaze upon the tap, suggests some disappointment that he would not have the chance to visit the elderly nenek upstairs. As a latchkey kid he eats alone, but not before a sign that the grandma is also thinking of him, appears.
It was clever to use a locally composed multi-lingual song (Bunga Sayang by Dick Lee) to tie the story together. And when those quirky psychedelic spinning flowers appeared, I knew this had to be Royston Tan’s contribution.
Pineapple Town by Tan Pin Pin
This was the first of three stories that showed how closely Singapore and Malaysia are bound together. The search of a Singaporean adoptive mother to meet the Malaysian birth mother of her child ends in ambiguity for her.
However, the audience is let in (again through clever cinematography) on who the birth mother is, even as lies are somewhat concurrently being told to the adoptive mother. What happens when one mother would like to meet, but the other would prefer to observe the former at distance?
Why does the birth mother not want to meet the adoptive mother? My guess is that she might feel inadvertently judged. Who would want to give up her flesh and blood, if they had happier circumstances?
The journey into Pekan Nanas is a familiar one to any Singaporean who has made road trips into Malaysia. The final scene, shot from a moving vehicle, centering on the family taking a photo with the village icon, was also extremely well-conceived. Was that a moment, seen through the eyes of the birth mother, as her eye was randomly caught by just another random family taking a photo?
Perhaps there is another subtle layer of meaning in the film, about the relationship between our two countries beyond the overt story – is it a birth/adoptive one? Guess we have been more acclimatised to the abang/adek relationship, or the one of the disobedient child being kicked out of the house.
Parting by Boo Junfeng
I found this the saddest of them all. Yes, I was more or less a mess of tears throughout all the films, but this one hit me the hardest.
An old man finally decides, after almost 40 years, to seek out his ex-girlfriend. But everything has changed. The KTM train no longer stops at Tanjong Pagar, his short-term memory is not what it was, the phone numbers are not what it was, her home has been demolished… EVERYTHING as he knows it, is gone.
He cannot and does not find her because she is simply too far away. What possessed him to make the journey after almost 4 decades? Perhaps this has been in the recesses of his mind all these years, and now that life is almost over, it was a now-or-never decision? Overall, the constant voice-over of the letter-writer effectively shows how it must have been those words, that have finally propelled him to seek her again. It seemed like he never replied that letter, and this was his attempt at a much-delayed response.
The protagonist never says much, and hardly emotes, but his sense of loss is palpable. The film within this film at the railway station might seem contrived, but I thought it worked effectively in resolving the story. He sees them as he was then, and in the final scenes, the female lead nods in acknowledgement to him. Does he bid the letter-writer farewell that way, does he finally meet her in the person of this girl who is her echo?
Grandma Positioning System by Kelvin Tong
Again a film that shows how inextricably linked Singapore and Malaysia are. Grandpa and Grandma wish to be buried in Malaysia, so the family travels up every year to sweep the graves. Everyone wants to rush home to do something, and only Grandma and little boy have time for the dead. The latter, mostly because he wants to avoid swim class.
This film, together with Bunga Sayang and Sinema, probably have the most moments of levity in an otherwise sombre and serious series of films. Incidentally, these three films also had the best songs, soundtrack-wise.
Poignancy hits at full force when little boy runs back to spend more time in front of the ancestral grave, showing how filial piety has skipped a generation in being first exemplified. The recounting of the ‘road home’ emphasises the relentless change that is constantly occuring, and presents a form of oral tradition that is particularly heart-wrenching.
Which was my favourite film?
I would say I had no favourite film, cos I loved them all. Each one spoke to me, albeit differently. And I felt so, so proud that the anthology was wholly Singaporean. A film had not resonated so unequivocally with me in a long time.
It was made with so much heart. And that heart, translated into concrete action too.
In the words of lead film-maker Royston Tan:
“7 Letters is a heartfelt gift to Singapore by its creative arts community. We only got to where we are today because of the generous support and encouragement of the people around us. All seven of us know of many people among us that need our support to overcome their adversities too.
“They need help, and we hope that Singaporeans can be inspired by these dedicated organisations, and join us to extend a helping hand [to] those in need around us.
The freewill donations from the gala screenings were wholly channelled to 7 charities, chosen by the directors, namely the Alzheimer’s Disease Association, Children-At-Risk Empowerment Association, Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore, PERTAPIS Senior Citizens Fellowship Home, Singapore Buddhist Lodge Welfare Foundation, Student Care Service and Transient Workers Count Too.
Some might not wholly enjoy 7 Letters, viewing it as too slow-paced, or too arty in execution. Some say that the films are written as tear-jerkers, to play on the emotions of the audience, and have little otherwise to recommend them.
It may be so for those who prefer other genres of movies, but all in all, I would still highly recommend catching this in the theatres. Bring a box of tissue paper. Tragically or not, I only had wet wipes on hand. -_-