Catch P. Ramlee’s Sesudah Suboh at National Gallery Singapore

1968 drama Gema Dari Menara (left) cautions about falling into vices, while 1967 work Sesudah Suboh (bottom left) tells the story of a bookshop owner in an unhappy marriage who falls in love with a Chinese woman.
1968 drama Gema Dari Menara (above) cautions about falling into vices, while 1967 work Sesudah Suboh tells the story of a bookshop owner in an unhappy marriage who falls in love with a Chinese woman. PHOTOS: NATIONAL GALLERY SINGAPORE
1968 drama Gema Dari Menara (left) cautions about falling into vices, while 1967 work Sesudah Suboh (bottom left) tells the story of a bookshop owner in an unhappy marriage who falls in love with a Chinese woman.
1968 drama Gema Dari Menara cautions about falling into vices, while 1967 work Sesudah Suboh (above) tells the story of a bookshop owner in an unhappy marriage who falls in love with a Chinese woman.

National Gallery Singapore takes on social issues with regional pairings of old and new films

National Gallery Singapore has launched its first series of film screenings, with a focus on works from this region that take on social issues.

To set the Painting With Light series apart from other film events, its organisers have arranged for each topic to be addressed twice - once through an older film, and then through a more recent one from the same country, to be screened the following day.

The series' curator, Mr Philip Cheah, 55, says the film pairings came about because "a lot of film subjects echo through time".

In November, on the playlist is Thai feature The Angel, about a girl tricked into prostitution in Bangkok. Made in 1974, it deals with the same ideas as Sao Karaoke, a 2012 documentary about Sa, a woman who works as a social escort to support her rural family.

"Time changes, but there is a certain repetition of history," says Mr Cheah.

  • VIEW IT / PAINTING WITH LIGHT

  • WHERE: National Gallery Singapore, 1 St Andrew's Road, Auditorium

    WHEN: Till December

    ADMISSION: $10 at the Gallery or from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

    INFO: www.nationalgallery.sg

But the series is not just about sameness - two films from Brunei highlight how ideas about social and gender roles shift.

The 1968 drama Gema Dari Menara (Echoes From The Minaret) was commissioned by Brunei's Religious Affairs Department and is a cautionary tale - a child in a family stays moral while other siblings fall to vices such as premarital sex, gambling and alcohol.

This is followed by 2012 sports drama Yasmine, about a teenage girl who pursues her dream of becoming a champion in the martial art of silat, defying those who tell her to follow a more traditional path for girls.

Finding films proved to be more of a challenge than anticipated.

"Once we started selecting them, we realised we couldn't get copies," says Mr Cheah.

His team was hunting for Sesudah Suboh (After Dawn), a 1967 work by P. Ramlee. The film's owner, Shaw Organisation, told them the reels were marked as lost.

"We were shocked. It's a recent film, it's a short time to lose something made by a legend," says Mr Cheah.

Some detective work followed. A pirated VCD turned up, made from a television broadcast, proving that reels existed somewhere. This evidence moved Shaw to make a thorough search of its archives in Kuala Lumpur, which turned up a copy, much to the curator's relief.

Mr Cheah thinks that the film, made after P. Ramlee opted to uproot from Shaw's Malay Film Productions at No. 8 Jalan Ampas to work in Malaysia after Singapore's independence, has both artistic and historical value.

The drama tells the story of Ariffin (P. Ramlee), a bookshop owner in an unhappy marriage who falls in love with a Chinese woman. In a time when each ethnic group had its own films, this work features strong supporting roles for Chinese and Indian characters.

"He made an effort to reflect a multi-racial Malaysia. This was only two years after Singapore's independence and he gave a lot of screentime to other races and they were all speaking different languages."

P. Ramlee pioneered Malaysian identity cinema, debunking the common notion that Malaysian multi-racial cinema did not exist until film-makers such as Yasmin Ahmad started producing work, says Mr Cheah.

Sesudah Suboh is paired with The Big Durian by Amir Muhammad.

The Big Durian is a faux documentary or mockumentary made in 2003, 16 years after a Malay soldier with a rifle went on a rampage in a Chinese area of Kuala Lumpur, leading to rising communal tension. The film-maker interviewed actual witnesses and blended their segments with actors reading lines.

Mr Cheah says: "It's about cultural identity, but it's a modern view of it, of conflict. But like P. Ramlee's film, The Big Durian uses humour, even though the subject matter is very tense.

"It's very funny and you have to watch it to believe it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 28, 2016, with the headline 'Watch history repeat itself'. Print Edition | Subscribe