story Theodore Lai

Nostalgia in the Singaporean short film

Nostalgic sepia filters fail to work with modernity. (Pareen Chaudhari)


The short film is the moving image in its most elegant manifestation. It shies away from the eyes of mainstream media and speaks to the most private of our emotions. Like poetry, it talks in riddles and rhyme. The genius behind the short film is its ability to deliver a message, experience or emotion in a matter of minutes with the scarcest resources. This is why the best short films are those that impart the longest impressions. They compress the infinite mess of life into the briefest of moments.

Such enigmatic works of expression are familiar to the National University of Singapore (NUS) art scene. Just last month, a series of short films made their public debut in the University Town Ngee Ann Kongsi Auditorium. The films were selections from the 6th Singapore Short Film Awards, and featured work by film graduates, professors and freelance filmmakers. Entitled Degrees of Affinity, the screening emphasized the theme of Relationships.

From a broken romance to the celebration of family, the selections wrestled with difficult feelings and reenacted fond memories of Singapore’s past. Much like essays on emotion, they revealed the nostalgia present in the personality of each work. Be it the grainy flashbacks of childhood memories, or the resurrection of culturally rich physical spaces, Singaporean short films tend to reminisce about the past. But is this becoming a formulaic trope?

“It just seems like we keep harking back to the past, trying to grasp at the winds of inevitable change,” Janel Ang ’17, a member of the YNC Filmmakers, said in an interview conducted online. Bittersweet emotion is compulsory for short films to work. But wistfulness is slowly transforming into tired melodrama, evident in the sepia filters and archaic backdrops that dominate short film cinematography. “While this is highly appealing on the aesthetic side of things, I really hope more filmmakers will push the limits of reminiscing beyond the humble tau sa piah (bean paste biscuits, a delicacy defining of Singapore’s heritage),” Ang added.

Surely good films can be created without the need to constantly examine our past. So, why is this a trend? Consider the physical spaces available to filmmakers working under the burden of creating poignancy. “[Nostalgia] is a reaction by artists to the constant renewal and redevelopment of Singapore’s urban environment that may leave one disoriented and perplexed,” said Timothy Chua ’17, a budding filmmaker, in an online interview. Perhaps nostalgia isn’t a quick-fix solution to filmmaker’s block, but a necessary spark for emotion in a country advancing faster than we can follow. “The rapidity of the Singapore lifestyle makes it hard for us to arrive and settle at an encapsulated idea of culture,” Ang said. The filmmaker is thus trapped by the modernity of his own workspace, to the effect that he turns to nostalgia to produce films that can once again tug at heartstrings.

But is the Singaporean short film cursed to live in the past? “Our country moves forward too quickly and film is a very potent medium for capturing memories,” Jevon Chandra ’17, a member of YNC Filmmakers, said in an interview online. Like an old photo album, it seems that the short film has become a sanctuary for reminiscing amid the buzz of urban life. Such a purpose requires the short film to represent our past, but it is certainly capable of much more.

“Filmmakers should present work in refreshing and bold ways, rather than sticking to certain genres which are already well-received,” Chua argued. If Singaporean film refuses to face forward, we force the art form further into its rut of nostalgia. All film does then is chase old demons, capturing our dissatisfaction with contemporary culture and feeding our obsession with a world we can never return to. Perhaps it’s about time Singaporean short films started living in the present. Ang psaid, “It’d be interesting if someone made a film in a shopping mall instead.”

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