Harnessing reel power

Cinema still from Ilo Ilo starring Angeli Bayani (left) and Koh Jia Ler. PHOTO: FISHEYE PICTURES

If you have consumed as much pop culture as I have, landing in New York can be like coming home.

In my head, I have seen it a thousand times, in the lyrics of a Paul Simon song, in the television show Taxi or in Woody Allen comedies.

The real New York is, of course, nothing like the city in Midnight Cowboy (1969) or The French Connection (1971). But even if the New York of song and film never existed, or has long vanished, the images keep their power. Can that same mental colonisation work for Singapore? That is what officials will find out in a cultural diplomacy project by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They have compiled a list of movies set and made in Singapore, by Singaporean film-makers, which missions abroad can ask for if they want to hold screenings.

It might be easy to dismiss this as another tourism project, a marketing ploy by another name.

But a look at the list of 10 feature-length and 10 short films shows a genuine attempt to showcase Singapore as it is. Or more accurately, as it appears to be in the minds of artists who have nothing to gain from presenting a pretty picture.

The selection, curated by the National Museum of Singapore's Cinematheque films department, includes Eric Khoo's 12 Storeys (1997), a work about frustrated lives and broken dreams.

Jack Neo's I Not Stupid (2002) follows three boys stifled in a system that measures a child's worth by the marks they bring home. Anthony Chen's Ilo Ilo (2013) shows a family and their domestic helper muddling their way through a financial crisis.

In these films, the heartland strangles as much as it supports. Of course, our missions overseas could choose to screen only works showing a more idealised Singapore. But I hope they will pick the ones that show the city for the flawed, struggling, hungry, cruel place that it can be. In cinema, the characters we love the most are the most rounded, rarely the most virtuous. It is the same for cities.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2015, with the headline Harnessing reel power. Subscribe