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The Torch: ‘Mixation’ – The true Singapore flavour

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The surface does matter. When I was in Singapore, it struck me how the place is certainly specific but not exotic to the foreign eye, someone from Europe, Germany to be precise. Obviously, the use of the Latin alphabet makes things very easy to access for a Westerner like me; readable in a basic sense.

But there is more to it to accessibility and its defining preconditions and ensuing implications. The visual blend that The Torchspeaks this is Singapore and this is where you are“; this mixture which clearly aspires to count for more than just the sum total of its key components, is connected in quite an interesting set of ways to the flow of all that is contemporary, the forces at play in globalisation. To me, in any such thing as a Singaporean life-style there is more than a quick, first glance will tell you – and in that it is visual, the art of filmmaking remains the prime topic of discussion here.
Images have never been just decorative, but essential in building the world we see around us: engraved in the human mind, collective memory, and onto the first artifacts that constituted the core of our ancient centres of worship, a cult inaugurating a culture and culminating in forms of civilization, they transformed our environs and turned them into the places, shaped settings that we live in. We all know of that universal visual record, the imagery archive which is equally elusive as it is deeply human. This is not the place to elaborate on its definition, but I think we can all agree on that it contains, amongst other more specific entries, a certain common pool which is indeed globally shared by anyone, anywhere on this planet and living in the same time stratum. Because time is a decisive aspect in this as well, for images like any other living thing, have their own qualifying history.

Pico Iyer, with respect to the phenomenon of China-drunkenness particularly in the US, spoke of “the rootedness, which Asia has in abundance” as forming a major attractor for the West. Which doesn’t seem to hold true for Singapore, however. And come to think of Europe, well, a Euro-centrist world-view is still rampant over here, and that has to change, definitely. Where he is arguably right, though, is in pointing out just how essential to any valid concept of self, national or individual, any such sense of history is.

Authenticity originates from within, but it is from the outside that it is best recognized as such. It isn’t all inherited and neither can it be simply, fleetingly acquired, but authenticity, the real thing, needs to be constantly lived into and given air to breath, it is organic. Right now there is little prospect of Singapore ever becoming more Chinese than mainland China, just as it won’t do to put on the doubtful make-up of a false Western look, the kind of caricature version thereof Shanghai has become. I’d say enjoy these last few months of relative obscurity to certain portions of the Western public, before that F1 circus will most likely and above all else promote if anything other than itself, a flattened version of your country.

So let’s talk about metrobranding now, which works so temptingly well in film. Give a face to your city and market it to the outside world, well, that’s the long and short of it, the standard line and chant of any one tourism board. But honestly, it’s more a koan than a mantra, and this is where things start to get a bit more complicated, I’m afraid. To simply model a living city into something that might make it look more commonly, more easily attractive, but which it is not, such an undertaking is doomed to fail and bespeaks ignorance as much as the helplessness which brought it on. Collectively we embrace the honed deceit in all that which is markedly a brand, and this keeps us in this suspended state we find ourselves in, wavering between cultural (over)refinement and an onslaught of shallow entertainment pollution. But in my opinion this is not entirely fated, or the end of the story. The arts, and film among them, can still uphold a veto, apply cracks and bring fissures to a sweetness glazed surface, and in so doing prevent that place you call a home from becoming its own postcard self completely. There is no global convention of a metropolis in the 21st century as of now. But it is evolving, it is happening, and Singapore is one of those places that will define the eventual outcome of what we will understand the term to mean in the future.

Life in the city nowadays affords us to sample and remix, to edit our own life from what is on offer. And this is a whole new concept of aesthetics, a concept of applied originality, much different from what we formerly used to think of when talking about creatorship. By the time such an approach didn’t stop at simply lumping things together in haphazard fashion, the combined processes of adaptation, emendation and transformation could include the mixing of techniques as well, incorporating one medium culture into another. I’ll leave it here and up to you how far you want to take this.

When setting out to give a representation of our times in film, their dynamics and potential, the whole picture, media competency and high level professionalism are indispensable. But these should not compromise your creative freedom. As Singaporeans today you are no more entitled to making such playful use of internationally available codices of visual communication than anybody else. But maybe you’re less bound to answering to certain national identity stereotypes, less obliged to referencing in some air-tight history frame set by all those who preceded you in making movies in your country? And living in Germany provides me with some peculiar insight and experience in this kind of limitations.

Syncretism by itself is nothing more than a description of a specific method but doesn’t tell you anything about the validity and degree of true cultural mutuality, nor the state of coexistence of characteristics which belong to separate traditions. Therefore the first task to master is getting to know the original substance and core value of those concepts that undergird the surface of the blend that’s visible to the naked eye. Since fusion is the obvious approach to so many things in Singaporean society today, by choice as much as by necessity, the question is how to make this a meaningful one instead of a superficial billboard strategy. “Positive alienation” is my term for this – but the experience has to be your own, “uniquely”.

So when it comes to create from composite ingredients, the visionary clearly have their mind set on re-invention, re-design and the infectious urge to put it all in the mix! I say this also now on my behalf, forgive my vanity in this: the ‘90s MTV-generation has finally taken over – and needs to fully come into its own! Virtually everything is out there and accessible, pre-mediated and post-modern, and just because image value is ubiquitous in our times doesn’t mean it’s all effectively the same. Quality still has to prove itself, this much is true. Only now you have the freedom to allow yourself to be eclectic and use as your material that inexhaustible treasure trove of the globally picturesque.

If implemented, this would be a message of empowerment coming out of Singapore, irritating, inspiring and truly contemporary. So make your choices!

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