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SIFF Review: Diminishing Memories II

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Remember how Chinatown has been kneaded through years of `reinvention’ to its present state of a mildly bustling gathering point for various people. It sure lacks the spontaneity of yesteryears but it is very slowly taking on a new identity. If they keep working at it, it could grow to become gloriously busy… in another 50 years.

dm1.jpgSo given time, the agri-tainment business in Lim Chu Kang may not be such a bad thing. To be fair, the worst has already happened – kampong families have been uprooted. So, if left to rot, it could suffer a much worse fate.

It seems maybe Yee Peng came to terms with the government’s agri-tainment plan in this way. But prior to arriving at this resolution, she took us on a big detour of disillusionment and even delusion for a good one hour or less. Not the best way for the audience to assess the situation objectively, but an intriguing way of engaging us nonetheless.

The government made known to the public its plan to redevelop Lim Chu Kang into an agri-tainment hub. To Yee Peng, she is not too enthusiastic of the rather familiar high-handed approach. So she decided to find out how this beloved part of Singapore will change under the plan. Her initial hopes of getting information from the horses’ mouth were dashed when the development companies rejected her request for an interview. So like her previous documentary Diminishing Memories I (DMI), she took the matter from ground up again, interviewing selected individuals at close proximity.

First up was a quail egg farmer. He was a very strong-headed and passionate character (it’s a mystery why Yee Peng did not interview him for the DMI) He is very senior but yet is still shrewd and well in touch with the market. I fondly remember his comment about how chicken droppings in Malaysia can fetch money to feed more meals than the same amount of chicken droppings in Singapore! Interestingly, inch by inch, his voice of righteousness (as opposed to political correctness) becomes louder as the questions deepen in content.

Ivy Singh Lim, the owner of Bollywood veggies was next. For all her commanding presence and individualism, she was cleverly placed early in the line up of interviewees to give the topic muscle. Some muscle indeed. Often dressed in her signature tank-top and occasionally the Crocodile-Dundee hat, she is already a familiar fixture on the media. But it gets more interesting when the serious questions were posed to her. And as if in hidden protest, she questions, in a composed, almost monotonous voice, the fortitude of the government’s plan on redeveloping Lim Chu Kang and also self-sufficiency in food production. For the muscle that she lends to the proposition of the documentary, it is rather unsettling that Yee Peng undermines Ivy’s spirit by questioning the nuts and bolts that do not fit into a certain idealism that only existed in Yee Peng’s mind.

dm2.jpgIn fact, it was at this point, that one could either start taking the propositions with a pinch of salt or continue to follow the arguments and await a twist to be revealed later on. There were 3 redevelopment projects open for bidding to the public and Yee Peng managed to interview one of the successful bidders. This was another `Eng’ family (Yee Peng is also an `Eng’), who had been running farming activities for ages. Having met through the Kranji Countryside Association, she visited his modern farm and soon-to-be spa. From an outsider’s point of view, the farm looked very much a green sanctuary that had the potential to educate younger Singaporeans about a slowly disappearing type of life. But again, through the filmmaker’s coloured perspective, the plants grew thorns and the owners grew horns.

Indeed, there is no right answer to everything, from the questions we ask and the people we choose, we can already control the answers and hear what we want to hear. Kuan Hua is an old neighbour of Yee Peng’s who was not interviewed in DMI. He still runs a farm but in a more tech-savvy operation, specialising in cai xin. He is a mild-mannered, soft-spoken boy-next-door who appears like Yee Peng’s last hope for kampung-purity. Shot over heart-stirring visuals of the moving scenery whizzing past Yee Peng and Kuan Hua perched on the lorry and the trailing comet of fumes from the jetplane, there was something lyrical about Kuan Hua’s screen time. But even Yee Peng had to surrender to his survival intentions – that he farms purely for commercial reasons and actually lives in a HDB flat away from Lim Chu Kang.

So one wonders if this second trip back to Lim Chu Kang was a misguided investigation. While Yee Peng continues to be adamant about finding people who could give her the answers she wanted, reality keeps slapping her back on her face, telling her this sequel, is reading more like Diminishing Returns*. Like DMI, she continues to be the film subject rather than a bystanding observer despite the more professional and impers! onal sounding narration. This time, she is more grown up, assertive and adept with her storytelling tools.  So if the facts undermined her stand, one wonders where she is driving us to.

Army boys who book into Sungei Gedong Camp will know that somewhere in Lim Chu Kang lie a few acres of cemetery land. In a shot of Chinese tombstones packed like HDB flats, Yee Peng poured what she felt was the answer to her journey of diminishing returns.  The Chinese believed that if there was no proper funeral held for a death, the spirit will continue to roam the earth and haunt the living. Going back to Lim Chu Kang was Yee Peng’s effort to hold that funeral and douse the flames of her adamant spirit. So in fact, the documentary was not so interesting from a factual nor argumentative perpective but rather more from an personal and esoteric one. Interestingly, DMI and DMII can be compared in the following way: DMI milks personal subjects with little personal intervention while DMII milks more impersonal subjects with a visibly greater amount of intervention. Somehow, this exposed the filmmaker in more vulnerable way, like a tour guide who loses her way and says sorry.

* Diminishing returns is an economic theory that states that when you start to have more of one thing, your satisfaction from it starts to decrease.

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