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Film Review: Tan Pin Pin’s ‘Invisible City’ Uncovers Stories That Would Have Been Lost to the Sands of Time5 min read

12 November 2021 4 min read


Film Review: Tan Pin Pin’s ‘Invisible City’ Uncovers Stories That Would Have Been Lost to the Sands of Time5 min read

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Chronicling the ways people attempt to leave a mark before they and their histories disappear, ‘Invisible City’ director Tan Pin Pin interviews people — photographers, journalists and archaeologists — who are propelled by curiosity to find a City for themselves. The documentary conveys how deeply personal their search is and how fragile their histories are, hanging on only through their memories and artefacts. Interwoven with the interviews is never-seen-before footage and photos of Singapore culled from the interviewees’ personal archives.

Director: Tan Pin Pin

Year: 2007 / Released on Vimeo in 2015

Country: Singapore 

Language: English, Mandarin, Japanese

Runtime: 60 mins


Written by: Lim Shao Yu

Nearly one and a half decades after its initial release, Tan Pin Pin’s poignant portrayal of personal stories and memories has not dulled in the slightest, and is arguably even more relevant in our current digital age that overloads us with content. 

Invisible City is an intriguing documentary that chronicles the ways in which individuals attempt to leave their mark upon the annals of history before their own memories and records disappear. Tan interviews an eclectic cast — archaeologists, anthropologists, photographers, and journalists — who are all driven to preserve a version of Singapore that aligns with their experiences, and these interviews are interspersed with material gathered from the interviewees’ personal archives. 

Unlike what audiences have come to expect from a conventional documentary, Tan’s film is ostensibly a documentary about documentation, as there is an overt meta-quality in the form of Tan’s deft directorial presence throughout the film. The audience is privy to her asking questions, giving instructions, and proposing edits, which highlights the act of recording and makes us aware of the process and sheer effort of documentation.

She even includes lapses of speech during the interviews where participants were struggling to recall certain details, gesturing towards the labour of memory and the ease of forgetting. Tan’s film may lack the polished editing and glossy finish of documentaries featured on the History or Discovery Channel, but it’s this rawness that makes the stories on screen seem all the more real and relatable. 

As Tan charts these individual attempts at immortalising memory, she reveals how inherently fragile these lesser-known histories are through the pains taken by the interviewees to resist the atrophy of their own narratives.

In the film’s opening sequence, a local archaeologist points out: “If one does not have a physical record of something, did it ever really occur?” This crystallises the impetus propelling the interviewees, as they all strive to create their own legacy in an ever-shifting cityscape. But this quest to be remembered is far from easy as the film’s subjects struggle to hold onto their artefacts and memories amidst strict censorship laws, declining public interest, ailing health, and the cruel hands of time. 

Time is of prime concern as the film implicates the past, present, and future; memories, documents, and footage of the past are spliced with images of contemporary Singapore, giving the past a sense of immediacy and presence, while the lingering questions of how long stories can endure echoed by several interviewees make us cognisant of the future and of the passage of time. 

In an age where audiences constantly crave new content, Tan offers a timely reminder that both old and new are two sides of the narrative coin, as a diversity of perspectives from past and present constitute a “whole” identity. 

Despite its relatively short 60-minute runtime, Tan’s film certainly does not feel like a quick watch. The film takes us through several plot strands with minimal cuts and editing, documenting events without fear or fervour as Tan adopts a neutral and even-handed approach to her subjects.

Accounts from known anthropologists and ethnographers like Ivan Polunin and Marjorie Topley are juxtaposed against stories from local researchers and an ex-Chinese High student, creating a complex net of perspectives that viewers have to untangle. One has to constantly read into and negotiate these various viewpoints, deal with the different subtexts presented, and concurrently process what is happening on screen with information shown previously, which amounts to a rather cerebral viewing experience.

The periodic cuts from one narrative thread to the next creates a constant pace that keeps viewers immersed in thought. Perhaps Tan wants us to take on the role of a researcher or historian as well, as viewers are continually sifting through the deluge of content being shared. 

Speaking of content sharing, it is also worthwhile to note how Tan’s film has been distributed online via Vimeo since 2015, which further complicates the viewing experience as one is tempted to Google the individuals and incidents mentioned. With so much data at our fingertips, how will we view the accuracy of stories we cannot verify through our searches? How vivid or robust can our impressions of these histories on screen be if they lack a physical (or digital) footprint? 

Beneath the gleaming skyscrapers and shiny veneers, there lie many versions of our City that are fading into obscurity, narratives that risk being paved over as Singapore constantly redevelops and rebrands itself. Remembering the past is especially difficult when we are constantly bombarded by the new, but Tan’s film makes visible the need to hold on to our stories, not just as aspects of our identity, but as a legacy for future generations. We mustn’t let the City of our memories be lost to the sands of time. 

Watch Invisible City on Vimeo.

Anytime his eyes are out of a book or a screen, Shao Yu can be found giving art tours in museums, or busy not Instagramming at the latest blockbuster art exhibition (yes Yayoi Kusama included). Just pay attention to the art instead of trying to record it!
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