While Singapore may not have the biggest or most prolific film industry, make no mistake, quantity is not indicative of quality. From insightful indie darlings that have graced prestigious festivals around the world, to evergreen classics that have stood the test of time – Singaporean visual storytellers have crafted a rich tapestry of movies over the decades.
We’ve extracted several favourite local offerings via Popwire. Whether they’re personal character studies, broadly humorous sketches, or eye-opening looks into our sanitized society, each of these films offer a glimpse into the diversity of the Singaporean identity.
Ilo Ilo (2013)
In the UK: Watch 👀 on Mubi.com.
Besides heralding the arrival of one of Singapore’s finest auteurs in Anthony Chen, Ilo Iloalso garnered international attention by being the first Singaporean film to win the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Based on Chen’s own childhood, this poignant film follows the relationship between a Singaporean family (specifically their 10-year-old son Jiale) and their Filipino maid Teresa. A moving portrait of heartland life in the 1990s, Ilo Ilo personalizes the struggle of the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the treatment of foreign domestic helpers.
In the UK: Watch 👀 on Netflix
Written and directed by Sandi Tan, Shirkers’ stranger than fiction documentary is a love letter to the lost history of Singapore’s young renegade filmmakers and the country’s bygone charm, as well as an exorcism of the ghost of a narcissistic, cinephile grifter who sabotaged Tan’s film. The creative DIY highs of her avant-garde passion project’s production, is contrasted with the heartbreaking frustration and strained friendships of it’s unfinished aftermath. Funny and poignant, this inventive investigation is both a celebration of outsider art and a cautionary tale.
Based on the Malay folktales of a vampiric ghost born from a woman who dies in childbirth, Pontianak was one of the biggest box office hits in pre-Independence Singapore. In fact, its success went on to spawn an entire genre of pontianak films, as rival studios in Singapore and Malaysia attempted to capitalize on its success. Helmed by Indian director B.N. Rao, this classic horror tale isn’t just a frightening gem, it’s a supernatural allegory that offers real insight into the socio-cultural fears and anxieties ingrained in the local psyche.
12 Storeys (1997)
The first Singaporean film to be screened at Cannes was Eric Khoo’s blackly comic second feature, 12 Storeys. Comprising intercut yet unrelated stories, this film chronicles a day in the lives of ordinary residents living within a HDB flat. From a middle-aged soup vendor dealing with his young “China Bride”, to a depressed and suicidal woman, to an elder brother who reigns over his rebellious siblings with an iron fist – the stories of 12 Storeys remain as observant snapshots of the inhabitants of Singapore’s urban jungle.
Pendekar Bujang Lapok (1959)
The second entry into P. Ramlee’s beloved Bujang Lapok film series is widely considered to be the best, but honestly, all five are worth your time. Pendekar Bujang Lapok (translated as The Three Bachelor Warriors) stars the trio returning trio of P. Ramlee, S. Shamsuddin and Aziz Sattar as raggedy bachelors who try to learn the Malay martial art of silat in order to take down a gang of hoodlums. This Best Comedy winner at the 6th Asian Film Festival features timeless and witty humour alongside an abundance of wonderful classic Malay songs, making this an evergreen feature that’s still revered generations later.
7 Letters (2015)
This omnibus commemorates the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence by collecting seven indelible short stories crafted by many of the filmmakers already featured on this list such as Boo Junfeng, Eric Khoo, K. Rajagopal, Kelvin Tong, Royston Tan, Jack Neo and Tan Pin Pin. 7 Letters is a beautiful, cinematic anthology that each reveals facets of Singapore’s multilingual, multi-ethnic fabric. At turns funny, nostalgic, contemplative and affecting, these short films are a love letter to Singapore’s evolving identity, folklore and sense of family.
The Last Artisan (2018)
This documentary by Singapore-based filmmaker Craig McTurk chronicles the life and legacy of Mr. Teo Veoh Seng, the dedicated head artisan of Haw Par Villa. For 70 years, Mr. Teo has been responsible for creating and maintaining the park’s macabre statues and nightmarish dioramas depicting tortured sinners. The Last Artisan offers an insightful look at the unsung master craftsman as he trains new apprentices to take over once he retires.
Other honorable mentions: A Yellow Bird, Ibu Mertuaku, Sandcastle, Pop Aye, Singapore Dreaming, Be With Me, Wet Season, 881, The Blue Mansion, The Teenage Textbook Movie, Perth, Bugis Street, 15, Army Daze, Eating Air