Time machines are not as far-fetched as you might think.
After all, what is an old movie but a capsule that transports viewers back to a another time and age when things looked and felt very different?
During Singapore cinema's golden age from the 1950s to 1970s, more than 300 films were made, chiefly by Shaw Brothers and Cathay-Keris Studio. They were mostly in Malay, but there were also titles in Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Mandarin and Tamil and they were in a wide range of genres from contemporary drama and historical epics to comedies and romances.
A trickle of these films can be seen from time to time, thanks to the efforts of institutions such as the Info-communications Media Development Authority, the National Library Board (NLB) and the Asian Film Archive.
Last August, five old movies - Hokkien period opera film Taming Of The Princess (1958), Mandarin drama The Lion City (1960), Malay period action drama Chuchu Datok Merah (1963), early P. Ramlee drama Patah Hati (1952) and Tamil romantic comedy Ninaithale Inikkum (1979) - were shown as part of a Spotlight On Singapore Cinema series.
This year, for the third edition of Fade In/Fade Out, NLB and the Asian Film Archive have unearthed more gems from Singapore's rich cinematic past, for screenings at Bukit Merah Public Library and Woodlands Regional Library over four Sundays starting from this Sunday.
This is an annual programme to showcase Singapore's history through movies and also connect film enthusiasts and experts through a series of post-event talks.
It was started as an outreach event to make culture and history more accessible and to showcase works which might not otherwise be easily seen.
The line-up of films comprise Mandarin comedy Mr Funnybone (1976), Teochew opera Twin Charms (1963), Malay historical epic Sultan Mahmood Mangkat Di-Julang (The Passing Of Sultan Mahmood) (1961) and Cantonese romance The Merdeka Bridge (1959).
There will be post-screening talks to shed more light on the movies. Mr Su Zhangkai, who was a part-time project researcher for Hong Kong Film Archive, will speak about the late comic actor Wang Sha, who starred in Mr Funnybone.
Mr Chew Tee Pao from the Asian Film Archive will delve into the film restoration process for Sultan Mahmood; and Mr Toh Hun Ping, project leader of the online database Singapore Film Locations Archive, will talk about the filming locations in The Merdeka Bridge.
Malay music veteran and Cultural Medallion recipient Yusnor Ef, 79, brought his granddaughter, 16, to a screening of Sultan Mahmood by Asian Film Archive last year.
He says: "It is good to bring back these old films for the younger generation to learn about life in those times, from how people lived in kampungs to the clothes they wore. This is also one way to expose the young to culture and art."
Mr Su, 33, says that the diverse selection by NLB is meant to cater to a wide range of audiences.
For Mr Funnybone, he points out that it was a big deal for a local actor to be invited to Hong Kong to take the lead role at a time when cinema there was flourishing.
He adds: "To screen this again in Singapore is an affirmation of the hard work put in by the older generation in the film industry here.
"It also lets the younger ones know that our actors were already venturing overseas back then, paving the way for subsequent artists.
"It's a film Singaporeans should be proud of."
Mr Funnybone (1976)
PG, 91 minutes, colour, Mandarin with English subtitles
Director: Kuei Chih Hung
Cast: Wang Sha, Li Ching, Ngai Tung Kwa, Liu Lu Hua
Story: Mr Funnybone might not ring a bell, but Lao Fu Zi or Old Master Q certainly would. He is the titular character of the immensely popular Hong Kong comic of the same name and in the film, he (Wang) gets up to all kinds of shenanigans with his bumbling sidekick Big Potato (Ngai).
Screening details: Sunday, 2.30pm at Woodlands Regional Library, B1 Auditorium
Post-screening talk (in Mandarin): Mr Su Zhangkai, 33, who was a part-time project researcher for Hong Kong Film Archive, on memories of the late Wang, who died at the age of 73 in 1998.
Significance: Mr Su points out that the Hong Kong people regarded Lao Fu Zi as one of their own and getting a Singaporean to play the role was something of a gamble for movie studio Shaw Brothers.
WATCH IT / FADE IN/FADE OUT
WHERE: Bukit Merah Public Library and Woodlands Regional Library
WHEN: Sunday, Nov 6, 13 and 20, 2.30pm
ADMISSION: Free, no registration required. Limited seats are available on a first-come-first-served basis
But Wang completely won over audiences with his true-to-character look and comical performance.
Old Master Q is the translation of Lao Fu Zi used for the China market because of the familiarity with a character named Ah Q in the Lu Xun novel, The True Story Of Ah Q. But the English titles for Shaw's films were given with an eye on the American and European markets, hence Mr Funnybone. What to look out for: Wang was 51 when he took up the role yet he was so committed to the part that he shaved his head and removed his two front teeth in order to fix on fake chompers.
His professionalism meant that he was the one running after the bus, getting strung up by wires and even getting flung about for the exaggerated action scenes.
The Merdeka Bridge (1959)
PG, 103 minutes, black and white, Cantonese with English subtitles
Story: Songstress Yim-mui (Lam) and poor artist Man-wei (Cheung) are in love. But after she sends him abroad for his studies, her brother (Mak) tries to force her into prostitution.
Screening details: Nov 20, 2.30pm, Bukit Merah Public Library, Level 3 Radin Mas Hall
Post-screening talk (in Mandarin): Mr Toh Hun Ping, 38, project leader of the online database Singapore Film Locations Archive, on the filming locations in the movie.
Significance: Mr Toh says Shaw Brothers Hong Kong was making a lot of youth films.
The Merdeka Bridge's popularity was in part due to Lam, then a rising teenage star.
It was followed by Bride From Another Town and When Durians Bloom. These were the three Cantonese films made by Shaw in 1959 in Singapore by a largely Hong Kong technical crew and cast.
What to look out for: Travel back to 1950s Singapore as the film shows the early Queenstown SIT (Singapore Improvement Trust) flats, including the 14-storey Forfar House; Peirce Reservoir; Robinson Road; Keppel Harbour; Paya Lebar airport; and parts of Orchard Road. And of course, Merdeka Bridge.
A little known fact: To this day, the part of Nicoll Highway which spans Kallang River is still called Merdeka Bridge.
The songs in the films set Cantonese lyrics to familiar melodies from songs such as Bengawan Solo and Rasa Sayang.
Sultan Mahmood Mangkat Di-julang (The Passing Of Sultan Mahmood) (1961)
PG, 124 minutes, black and white, Malay with English subtitles
Director: K.M. Basker
Cast: Noordin Ahmad, Maria Menado, M. Amin, Siput Sarawak
Story: The film is based on Tuhfat al-Nafis (1885), a work of Malay literature which chronicles events in the 17th to 19th centuries. Sultan Mahmood (M. Amin) promotes the protagonist (Noordin) to Admiral for defeating pirates. This leads to resentment from a member of the royal court, particularly as the Admiral also marries a woman (Maria) he rescued.
Screening details: Nov 13, 2.30pm, Woodlands Regional Library, B1 Auditorium Post-screening talk (in English): Mr Chew Tee Pao, 32, from the Asian Film Archive, on the film restoration process for Sultan Mahmood.
Significance: This is part of the Asian Film Archives Collection Cathay-Keris Malay Classics, which has been inscribed into Unesco's (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Asia-Pacific Register of the Memory of the World, a listing of endangered and rare documentary heritage of a country.
While Basker was from India, there were Malay directors who rose through the ranks from the cast and crew and later helmed projects, including Noordin and M. Amin.
What to look out for: Mr Chew notes that the film techniques and aesthetic were progressive, from the use of fast cuts to the lighting.
The film restoration was done based on a 16mm and a 35mm print. The 16mm print was complete but is less sharp compared to the 35mm print, of which one-third was lost.
Twin Charms (1963)
PG, 96 minutes, colour, Teochew with Chinese and English subtitles
Director: Chow Sze Luk
Cast: Zhuang Xuejuan, Fang Qiaoyu, Ding Chuqiao, Lin Jingyi
Story: Gao Qingyun (Zhuang) is victorious in a martial arts contest to win Hou Yueying's (Fang) hand in marriage; his twin brother Qinglong falls for an outlaw's daughter (Ding). A chain of events sets off misunderstandings among the four.
Screening details: Nov 6, 2.30pm, Bukit Merah Public Library, Level 3 Radin Mas Hall Significance: Mr Su Zhangkai is currently the honorary secretary of Nam Hwa Opera Limited and has published The Pictorial History Of Teochew Opera In Singapore (2016). He says 98 per cent of Teochew films were opera titles and they were essentially performed by two troupes - Xintiancai and Dongshan.
Because of copyright issues, many of Dongshan's films, including Twin Charms, have never appeared on video. What to look out for: This was Dongshan Company's debut film with Shaw Brothers and the budget was a princely HK$1 million.
It was advertised as the first Teochew picture in widescreen colour.
The high production value meant sumptuous sets and a star-studded cast, including opera star Zhuang, who was known for playing male roles.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 28, 2016, with the headline 'Rare old films on show'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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