Through Engaging Characters and Superb Camera Work, ‘Singapore Dreaming’ Strikes at the Hollow Pursuit of Wealth and Status
An indebted family man wins the lottery – a mixed blessing that soon reveals the cracks in family relations and the very fabric of society.
Directors: Colin Goh, Woo Yen Yen
Cast: Richard Low, Alice Lim Cheng Peng, Serene Chen, Yeo Yann Yann, Lim Yu Beng, Dick Su
Language: Mandarin, Hokkien, English, Cantonese
Runtime: 92 minutes
The premise of Singaporeans’ pursuit of a better future – particularly one defined by wealth – is one of the most defining characteristics of local media. If there is just enough room around for one more film about Singaporean aspirations, there is no better choice than Singapore Dreaming.
Directed by Colin Goh and Woo Yen Yen, the 2006 film succeeds in its superb execution of a familiar narrative. Instead of exceedingly fresh perspectives, it stands out with how easily it brings to screen most Singaporeans’ hopes, fears, and dreams, all packaged in a powerful balance between intricate character work and pure accessibility.
The film’s Mandarin title translates to ”beautiful and complete life” yet Singapore Dreaming is anything but. It centers around the Loh family, a working-class family looking to achieve the Five Cs. It seems like they have punched a ticket to their dreams when ‘Pa’ (Richard Low) wins the lottery, but the sudden surge of wealth starts to fracture the family.
What is immediately striking about Singapore Dreaming is with its visual work. With her background in documentaries, the film’s Director of Photography, Martina Radwan, patiently scans Singapore’s cityscape through a series of montages, while contrasting this wide view with the intimate framing of its characters. Instead of the balmy sunlight familiar with Singaporeans, the film’s Singapore is awash with soft tones and hues. It’s a cold yet homely view of the country that I feel somehow matches the ever-distressed outlook Singaporeans have.
Enhanced by the camera’s excellent use of space and distance, its visual flair sets the stage for gripping character arcs. Even at a little over 90 minutes, Singapore Dreaming packs an uncanny depth in its insights. The Singapore Dream looms throughout the film with the topics of career, status, and money dominating almost every conversation. Each character looks to represent the different perspectives and approaches to this hanging spectre.
It all seemingly stems with ‘Pa’ and his obsession over the elusive Five Cs. He pins his hopes on his son Seng (Asher Su) and, together with financial help from Seng’s fiancée Irene (Serene Chen), sent him overseas to study. This leaves his daughter Mei (Yeo Yann Yann) and his wife ‘Ma’ (Alice Lim) by the wayside, ignoring their aspirations to pursue his own.
What makes the narrative so dynamic and fascinating is with how these characters – even the supporting cast – are never passive towards their situations and how they are always motivated for a better life. However, it is this same drive that causes them to make reprehensible decisions leading to explosive confrontations and drama. These helplessly reveal their insecurities and flaws, yet it is through them where they ultimately grow by the film’s end.
The film itself never adopts an idle stance as well. While its characters cover a wide angle, they all arrive at the same conclusion about the Five Cs, made more potent by the visible emptiness that accompanies their visual references. The film occasionally takes its sight away from this laser focus, with its critique of women’s oppression in a wealth-obsessed society bubbling from an understated undertone to taking center stage. This, however, did feel heavy-handed to me. With the exception of Mei, women in the film are devoid of the ambiguities and blemishes present in other characters.
Still, these narrative constructions would only be half as effective without the terrific performances of the cast from top to bottom. As the fast-talking and brash patriarch, veteran actor Richard Low brings to the big screen a role he has perfected on numerous local Mandarin television series. He lends much-needed levity with his quips – which soon turns into a heartbreaking void by the film’s halfway mark.
Another standout performance is with Yeo Yann Yann as the neglected daughter Mei. Given the most narrative and emotional weight, she hits her portrayal out of the park. Decades worth of repressed frustration bubbles just below the surface, before erupting in a spectacular – but not necessarily cathartic – blowout.
Singapore Dreaming represents the best of both worlds in local cinema: with the pop sensibilities of Jack Neo’s work and the intricate constructions of Eric Khoo’s award-winning works. The film boldly depicts Singapore’s social realities through its immensely engaging characters while avoiding the melodrama that so-often plagues the premise. Singapore Dreaming is a spectacular family drama that pierces the main nerve of the Singapore Dream.
Together with a slew of local films and series, the film is now available for streaming on Netflix. Check out its trailer below:
Where to watch:
– Presenting the 2020 Film School Graduate Productions: Nanyang Technological University’s School of Art, Design and Media
– Grasping at Singaporean Malaise, ‘12 Storeys’ Is an Outstanding Family Drama Still Relevant 20 Years On
– Charting and Celebrating Singapore’s Film History With Picks From Netflix’s Collection of Local Classics