Singapore’s ‘7 Letters’, Or The Most Malaysian Movie Not Actually About Malaysia
ACROSS seven short films, Singaporean citizens from various eras come to terms with home, origin, and a changing landscape.
7 Letters premiered with a limited seven-day run in Singapore last August, receiving outstanding reception from its people. It officially opened the refurbished Capitol Theatre in its home country, and tickets to all screenings were reportedly sold out within hours, resulting in an extended run.
The film was first commissioned to commemorate fifty years of Singapore’s independence, and featured seven of the nation’s most-acclaimed directors.
7 Letters was also Singapore’s submission to the 88th Academy Awards, which saw Malaysia represented by Liew Seng Tat‘s acclaimed Lelaki Harapan Dunia.
The anthology opens with Eric Khoo‘s Cinema, a tribute to Singapore’s position in Southeast Asian cinema back during the 50s.
It’s a short ridden with detail — the film’s female protagonist sings a gorgeous, asli-style lullaby about lost love, but it’s soon clear that she’s hinting about her identity as a pontianak. None of its characters speak a word in present day Singapore; ringing phones say enough on behalf of these elderly folk.
One half horror-film-within-a-film, one half an octogenarian’s journey back to the studio, Cinema serves a moving reminder of Singapore’s glorious filmmaking past.
But dab away the tears, for Jack Neo‘s swear-ridden period piece on young love comes on next. Those familiar with the director’s style can expect a laugh-out-loud riot.
Commencing seconds after Cinema, a contrast in mood and theme liven up the senses — bright colours, loud characters and child actors bring fun to the big screen. Arguably the most commercial and entertaining of the lot, That Girl provides first hints of the level of variety viewers can expect in 7 Letters.
Next is K. Rajagopal‘s black-and-white The Flame: a stark, tense view of a family upon Britain’s departure from the country. Set in an airy colonial residence, an Indian husband fearfully resists his father’s rage for the right to remain in Singapore.
Viewers are brought to a specific point in Malaysia/Singapore’s history, when its people must make a choice of participating in the development of a new country or seek greener pastures elsewhere. The protagonist’s wife, Leela, doesn’t want to migrate to Britain because she doesn’t want her child to be a second-class citizen.
The Flame strikes a chord — were Leela’s worries unwarranted? Have her people really prospered on the island since that fateful day?
Continuing this cycle of ups and downs is Royston Tan‘s Bunga Sayang, which depicts a young Chinese boy who seeks running water from his upstairs neighbour, a lonely Malay grandmother. He doesn’t speak her language, but they both share a passion for music. There’s psychedelia in the mix; its climax depicts both characters singing the titular song against a backdrop of blue skies and a rainbow.
Royston’s contribution marks the middle point of 7 Letters, establishing a steady momentum which carries through to the very end. By this point it also becomes apparent that music plays an important role for all these directors.
The segment’s title track, a rerecording of the theme song from Singaporean musical Kampong Amber, exists in two stunning versions. This time, it’s sung by Singapore’s “first lady of song”, Rahimah Rahim, who helped pen new lyrics with celebrated playwright Alfian Sa’at.
Following this are two ruminative shorts — Pineapple City takes viewers through a woman’s journey to Pekan Nanas in search of her adopted daughter’s birth mother, while Parting follows a Malay man with dementia as he tracks down an ex-lover in modern day Singapore. Both films are vastly different; Parting is the more successful of the two, boasting unexpected turns which subtly toe the line between real and imaginary.
Pineapple City has its own triumphs (actress Lydia Look and Malaysian thespian Anne James brought a quiet, steely edge to the piece) but is troubled by clichés in direction.
7 Letters closes with Grandma Positioning System, perhaps the biggest, brightest tearjerker of the seven. A family road trip to the graveyard (part of Chinese customs) is held up by the grandmother, who describes at length all the changes to Singapore’s physical landscape to her dead husband.
In Kelvin Tong‘s piece, Grandma fears that the departed cannot find their way home during visits to the human world. But viewers can take comfort in the fact that her efforts have not gone to waste, as her children and grandchildren eventually guide her back across the causeway, her husband in tow.
The amusing, heartfelt short speaks volumes — fifty years since taking form, Singapore has undergone a massive transformation, no longer recognisable from photos of the past. It continues to evolve rapidly today.
From its title sequence — complete with swelling strings promising a cinematic experience like no other — to its very end, 7 Letters is an especially poignant piece of Singaporean cinema which bears strong relevance to Malaysian viewers.
Depictions of the nation’s multiculturalism are unforced and strikingly resonant. Interactions between people of different ethnic backgrounds are portrayed with ease, highlighting their cultural differences and letting their bonds as citizens surface without any prodding.
Whether the awkward comfort between a Malay grandmother and a Chinese boy in Bunga Sayang, or the lost romance between a Chinese woman and a Malay man in Parting, 7 Letters paints a picture of Malaysia far better than any Malaysian film or governmental agency has till date. But this movie isn’t about Malaysia… is it?
The strong cultural link between Malaysia and Singapore gleams especially strong across these seven films. The second half of 7 Letters for example feature characters who cross the border to settle unfinished business on the other side, whether in Johor or Singapore.
7 Letters is almost frustrating to this writer in particular: why do these people on screen with their respective stories seem so much like our own?
Both nations already share the same languages, not to mention a heterogeneous population composed of the same ethnic groups — aren’t we all just one race of people separated by zealous politics?
Instead of generating more “Malay movies” or “Chinese movies”, Malaysia needs films like 7 Letters which simultaneously showcase diversity and unity thanks to a strong grasp on storytelling and a keen understanding of a nation’s complexities.
It’s the sort of honest filmmaking intelligent moviegoers crave — we’ve had enough segregation in or out of the cinemas.
A wide Malaysian release may not be on the horizon but its something filmmakers and local distributors should seriously consider. If a film’s success is measured through how it makes its audiences feel, then 7 Letters has come out truly victorious.
All seven of these filmmakers (especially Royston Tan, who was down with the flu at the Malaysian premiere) should be proud of the quality and impact of their collaboration, verified by the strong response the film obtained last Thursday at Golden Screen Cinemas, Pavilion.
7 Letters screened as part of the Singapore Film Festival (14 – 17 January) held as part of Titian Budaya.