Singapore Cinema as National Cinema; by Edna Lim

Published: 16 October 2018

Edna Lim is a Senior Lecturer in the department of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore (NUS). She teaches both graduate and undergraduate modules in English Literature and Theatre Studies. Celluloid Singapore: Connecting the Golden Age and the Revival is her book detailing the history of Singapore cinema vis-à-vis the national imagery, published earlier this year (March 2018). The ground-breaking study is guided by two central questions: how can the films of each period be considered ‘Singapore’ films, and how is this cinema specifically national?

According to Robert Stam, national cinema is premised on the notion that films are ‘national and project national imaginaries; they are products of national industries, produced in national languages, portraying national situations and recycling national inter-texts (literatures, folklores, etc).’1 In theory, this definition seems rather obvious. However, in practice, applying such a definition is not so straightforward because central to the conception of national cinema is the idea of the nation that, as Homi Bhabha theorizes, is haunted by ‘a particular ambivalence’:

It is an ambivalence that emerges from a growing awareness that, despite the certainty with which historians speak of the ‘origins’ of nation as a sign of the ‘modernity’ of society, the cultural temporality of the nation inscribes a much more transitional social reality.2

This ambivalence pertains directly to the problem of defining what we mean by ‘nation,’ especially after what Chris Berry describes as ‘the deconstruction of the seeming naturalness of the idea of the nation,’3 and Benedict Anderson’s theorising of the nation as ‘an imagined political community.’4 For Anderson, nations are constituted through actions that circulate or produce an image or idea of community, emphasizes the constructedness and performativity of nationhood and the experience of belonging. Such a conception creates what Bhabha calls ‘the impossible unity of the nation.’5 As Ann Anagnost notes, not only is the nation ‘an “impossible unity” that must be narrated into being in both time and space,’ but ‘the very impossibility of the nation as a unified subject means that this narrating activity is never final.’6 Therefore, the nation is not only constituted by narratives or ‘narrated into being,’7 but a process of being constituted.8

As such, to extrapolate from Judith Butler’s theorizing of gender, nation ‘ought not to be construed as a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather [it] is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts.’These acts are performative gestures that perform rather than actually reflect a stable identity. Therefore, identity, whether gender or national, is ‘real only to the extent that it is performed.’10 If this is so, then the question of what a nation is needs to be reframed to how it is constituted or performed into being, and by whom or what. This also opens the possibility that there may be more than one process at work, resulting in multiple performances, each producing a version or idea of the nation.11

Given the now taken for granted view that nations are unstable, dynamic and constituted, it would be naïve to conceive of national cinema as merely reflecting and expressing ‘a pre-existing national identity, consciousness, or culture.’12 Furthermore, if, as Paul Willemen states, “the issue of national cinema is…primarily a question of address,”13 then the question of what national cinema is also needs to be reframed to how a cinema may be perceived as national. In short, the discursive mode of national cinema needs to be reconfigured from an expressive model reflecting the fixed and stable characteristics of a nation to an interrogation of the relationship between cinema and nation.

Such interrogation has been the focus of my work on Singapore cinema which has a fractured history of three distinct periods: 1) the golden age of the 50s and 60s, which is marked by the prolific outpouring of primarily Malay-language films by two major studios and ended after Singapore’s independence from Malaysia. 3) the post-studio 70s which produced a small spate of independent English-language or Mandarin films that are not only more urban and contemporary, but also heavily influenced by popular spy and action films and television series. The 70s was followed by a decade of silence in the 1980s that coincided with intense state-driven efforts at nation building and urban development. 3) the revival of film production from 1990s to the present. This is a post-national cinema with a differently constituted industry that made very different films from those of earlier periods in terms of narrative, thematic concerns and film style.

Each period therefore has unique characteristics and can be considered different cinemas. Indeed, they are often discussed as distinct eras, with little or no connection between them, creating a discursive fracturing in the understanding of Singapore cinema.14 However, there is a ‘consciousness of doubleness’15 between (the idea of) the nation and the performance of it in the films that create unique but also coherent ways in which each period and the cinema as a whole can be viewed as national. The films from each period depict a different Singapore and require different modes of seeing them as Singapore films. Together, they constitute a national cinema through different performances of different Singapores.

Golden age films could be considered Singapore films in two ways. First, when viewed within the context of its time, this is a cinema of hybrid films that is essentially, culturally heterogeneous and consistent with the transnational nature of the industry, and Singapore.16 Second, when viewed from the vantage of contemporary Singapore, the films depict a Singapore that is different from the one materially present. What we see is (an)other Singapore performed through distinctly different conventions, narrative concerns and languages. The post-studio period of the 70s marks the transition from the pre-national cinema of the golden age to the post-national one today. Like the country within which it operates, this is a cinema that is internationally-oriented. Both cinema and nation are in transition, and the films perform a Singapore that is either absent or foreign. The films of the revival engage the national through a relational force of counter-performative strategies that contradict and complicate state-driven representations of the nation. These films not only produce different Singapores, they collectively perform yet (an)other Singapore.17

The multiple Singapores produced by the films across the three periods attest to the notion of nation as progress. As Singapore transitions from its attachment to larger political entities to a more self-determined sense of itself as a nation, so too has its cinema evolved from a transnational beginning to a greater national consciousness or imperative. In this sense, like nation and identity, Singapore cinema is not singular but a composite of multiple Singapores in multiple films through multiple periods. When viewed through the lens of national cinema, what they perform is the nation. As such, while nations may be said to produce its cinemas, then perhaps cinemas can also be said to produce nations.18

1 Robert Stam, Film Theory: An Introduction (Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 2000), 289.
2 Homi Bhabha, “Introduction: Narrating the Nation,” Nation and Narration, ed., Homi Bhabha (London: Routledge, 1990), 1.
3 Chris Berry, “From National Cinema to Cinema and the National: Chinese-Language Cinema and Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s ‘Taiwan Trilogy’,” Theorising National Cinema, eds., Valentina Vitali and Paul Willemen (London: British Film Institute, 2006), 153.
4 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 2000, 6.
5 Homi Bhabha, 1.
6 Ann Anagnost, National Past-Times: Narrative, Representation and Power in Modern China (Durham: Duke University Press), 1997, 2.
7 Ibid.
8 Edna Lim, “Counterperformance: The Heartland and Other Spaces in Eating Air and 15,” Asian Cinema and the Use of Space: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, eds., Lilian Chee and Edna Lim, (New York: Routledge, 2015), 188. Edna Lim, Celluloid Singapore: Cinema, Performance and the National (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018), 10.
9 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1999), 179.
10 Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal 40, no. 4 (December 1988), 278.
11 Edna Lim, Celluloid Singapore, 10.
12 Andrew Higson, Waving the Flag: Constructing a National Cinema in Britain (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 5.
13 Paul Willemen, “The National Revisited,” Theorising National Cinema, eds. Valentina Vitali and Paul
Willemen (London: British Film Institute, 2006), 36.
14 Edna Lim, Celluloid Singapore, 7.
15 Marvin Carlson, Performance: A Critical Introduction (New York: Routledge, 1996), 5.
16 Edna Lim, Celluloid Singapore, 16.
17 Edna Lim, Celluloid Singapore, 17.
18 Edna Lim, Celluloid Singapore, 184.