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Sindie: Production Talk – ‘The Impossibility of Knowing’ by Tan Pin Pin

This was published by Sindie on 11 Oct 2010, just after the world premiere of The Impossibility of Knowing at the DMZ festival. Sindie covered many of the indie film events and premieres in Singapore around that time, especially of smaller films, like shorts, missed by the mainstream media. Social media was just growing in importance then. Tracking their write-ups, you get a sense of the film scene in Singapore then. I hope Singapore Film Commission archives the whole site. The J in the interview refers to the one and only Jeremy Sing who covered many of the events. I have reproduced the article here, the original link is no longer active.

‘The Impossibility of Knowing’ is Tan Pin Pin latest documentary. It came into being because Pin Pin was wondering if the video camera can capture the aura of a space that has experienced trauma.

‘I made a list of places I knew about where accidents had happened and we filmed them. But my camera did not “capture” anything. It could be due to the limitations of physics, but the canal remained a canal, the house, a house. Maybe the aura we sought doesn’t exist or we just did not have the requisite gift to see the aura. Maybe you can see better than us.’

This documentary was commissioned by the DMZ Korean International Film Festival. It world premieres at the 2nd DMZ Korean International Film Festival in Sep 10 and it is 12 min long.

Jeremy (J): I read you were intrigued by the New World Hotel site and it sparked off your inspiration for this… Could you share more on it?

Pin Pin (PP): I love reading the newspapers for the human interest news. Every time I spot something interesting, I clip it out and file it away. I have a thick wad of clippings collected over 10 years, tear sheets of lovers fights, zoo animals escaping, suicides, civil service boo boos and what not. Its a random collection of Singaporeana that an archivist will not be able to make sense of, but may be amused by.

When I was commissioned by DMZ Docs to make a film, I decided that it was time for me to revisit that folder. As a start, I picked out the stories that still resonated with me. My previous films Singapore GaGa and Invisible City were born when I tried to join disparate fragments together into something coherent. So likewise, in “The Impossibility of Knowing”, the fragmented news clippings became the source material to be made sense of.

J: How did you go about searching and choosing the places to feature?

PP: I have an abiding interest in places, especially Singapore places and one of the questions and curiosities about them is whether a space can harbour a sense of what happened in it, and whether the camera can capture this aura? My studio is next door to the former site of Hotel New World (now ressurected as Fortuna Hotel”), there is no aura of the collapse where 33 people died in 1986, as far as I can tell, but I wondered if other places which have experienced trauma would have some remnant of that trauma.

The only way to find out was for me to visit these locales to “feel” the place for oneself, and of course to bring a camera along to capture that “sense”. I was also moved by a photograhpy book “On this Site”, by USA photographer Joel Sternfeld (1996). He is one of the new generation of landscape photographers for whom landscape is as much about what is there, as to represent what is not (and cannot?) be represented. So that was also a starting point.

J: Did you meet anyone interesting or along the way? Or interesting anecdotes to share as you began searching? 

PP: In the end, we ditched “quirky” clippings and went for “tragic” incidents to keep a consistent feel between disparate locations. Very early on, perhaps we were influenced by Sternfeld, the DP David Shiyang Liu (in picture above) and I decided that if these locales are to be the focus, the scenes would not have any humans in it nor any movement to emphasise the sense of space and a sense of contemplation.

J: Given that these were places were accidents once happened, were there any spooky experiences at all?

PP: No, we were respectful of what had gone on before in them.

J: Which place had the creepiest aura? If not, which left the greatest impression on you?

PP: More sadness than creepy actually. We visited the new Nicoll Highway station along the Circle Line. When the tunnel collapsed in 2004, a contractor was buried alive while saving his crew because it was too dangerous to take him out without causing further collapse. We visited that locale and saw that the family continues to go to that spot to pay their respects during Ching Ming. In the middle of the field, you see some white paper and joss sticks and a little paper sign with his name. So in this instance, there was a mark of that tragey, even if it was a transcient one. A few days later, back at the site, we noticed the rain had washed everything away. If no body else remembers, the family will.

J: Is there any place you wanted to feature but did not get to do so because of permit issues or inaccessibility?

PP: No.

J: Like you mentioned, ‘a canal is a canal’, so how do you make it different? Can you share a bit on your approach in shooting the scenes

PP: The visual approach is still, it lets the viewers eyes wonder through the frame to decide for themselves. The audience at the premier told me that they felt they had ‘alot of space’ to wonder in their minds. Which is what I was hoping for 

J: How long did you take to make this film?

PP: 3 months on and off, but the news clipping collection was done over many years.

J: What were the biggest challenges you faced in making this film?PP: The biggest challenge was to decide whether to have a voice over, and after that to decide the tone of the VO to take and to decide whom it should be read by. After auditioning quite a few people, we chose Lim Kay Tong (in picture below). Others had read it like they were reading the news, whereas Kay Tong read it as if he was telling you about the place. VO was kept detached, minimal for the visuals to stand out. I liked that it played off his Crimewatch host role. This documentary is the most anti-Crimewatch, crime documentary I think he has done, withholding information rather than giving information.

J: Little India is such a hotbed of activity and culture, it is not surprise you would get your inspiration from your vicinity… can you share what other aspects of your neighbourhood has caught your attention that you would like to make a film about?

PP: Sometimes, when we are stuck during editing, we just go downstairs to have a fresh coconut drink, talk things through and go back to work. It is a pulsating neighbourhood that takes one out of oneself which is a good thing, production can be too intense and insular to the detriment of the product.

J: Could you give us a brief insight into the next project?PP: Working on the Singapore Biennale Commission now, its a series of photographes!! It requires me to travel around Malaysia and Indonesia. I am really looking forward to this.

The Isis interviews Tan Pin Pin, award-winning Singaporean filmmaker

The Isis was a magazine I used to read as an undergrad so I was happy to be interviewed by Wong Shaoyi, an editor at the magazine in May 2023

Here is the link to the interview but I have reproduced it below as well.

by isised

Interviewing a consummate documentary maker is a dangerous game. Only ten minutes into our interview do I realise Tan Pin Pin has been fielding all the questions, and that I’ve been giving her a dull, derivative account of my university life (Shakespeare, procrastination, The Isis Magazine). Hoisted on my own petard, but our talk of Oxford provides a convenient segue into discussing Tan’s time at our favourite institution. I ask the one-time Keble student (Jurisprudence, 1991) whether her filmmaking was influenced by Oxford. The answer is a firm yes, but not in the way you might expect. “I used to haunt the public library at Halifax.” My image of a tastefully chaotic indie film set (Aldates’ Churchyard anyone?) rapidly dissolves. Tan clarifies that she started out in photography, not film. Home to an excellent collection of photography books, the Halifax library introduced Tan to the likes of Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Robert Frank. “I just sat there and soaked my brain in their images, thinking: this is what I want to do.” Robert Frank’s oeuvre was especially influential. Riveted by Frank’s “crazy survey” of 1950s America, Tan’s first artistic foray took place across the pond in the summer of her first year. Armed with little more than a backpack and film camera, she spent a month in training across the country, capturing what she saw. The result? Nothing very good, she notes with wry humour; mostly pictures of her own shadow, slanting dramatically across the street. 

Regardless of its end product, the trip was a formative experience in Tan’s development as an artist. Law degree acquired, Tan returned to Singapore and began her double life as a lawyer and photographer-cum-filmmaker. Though still an avid photographer – she organised an exhibition of her portrait photography shortly after arriving home – Tan soon branched into the film. “There was one point where I thought, I just wish these photographs could move.” And thanks to a lucky technological advancement in the field, move they did. The release of the Sony VX1000, a digital camcorder, lowered the barrier to entry. A lightweight camera body and synchronous sound meant films could be made with smaller crews and a slimmer budget. Suddenly, filmmaking didn’t seem so out of reach, and work on her very first documentary, Moving House (1995) was soon underway. Her recounting of those early days makes me ashamed I ever complained about the Oxford workload. 

Working at a law firm and studying for the bar by day, Tan would spend her nights editing footage alongside a motley crew of film students and friends. Editing would end around 1 am, supper would be had, and then it was off to bed before lawyering the next day – Tan confesses ruefully to falling asleep at the firm. It is a testament to Tan’s humility that she continued to find the time – amidst the never-ending onslaught of labour – to continue her film “education”. When she wasn’t making films she was watching them, keeping an assiduously systematic logbook of these films to boot. She cites one film in particular as a key influence. Chronicles of a Summer (1961) navigates the thorny issue of the Algerian War by asking a simple question on the streets of Paris: “Are you happy?”. This subtlety and frankness was, for Tan, direct cinema par excellence. It is precisely this alertness to the everyday, mediating intimidatingly large issues through the little life, that continues to animate Tan’s work. Singapore GaGa (2005) – an eclectic record of Singapore’s soundscape from the margins – comes to mind. I resist the urge to gush about it. Something tells me that the self-deprecating director will not appreciate my fangirling. 

Instead, I ask about her decision to focus on documentaries rather than fiction films. What is it about the genre that so compels her? Other Singapore film directors like Jack Neo and Royston Tan have chosen the former. Tan pauses and turns the question over. “The photography mode of working has never left me. That sense of freedom when you can just grab a camera and shoot. […] Whereas working on a fiction shoot means you need at least 20 people hovering around, adjusting the makeup, the costumes […].” Documentary allows for a certain level of flexibility. Tan evocatively describes this for me by way of metaphor: “I think of the camera as a pencil that you’re just sketching, you’re never really sure what you’re doing until it’s completed and maybe even then it’s not [certain].” I find myself curious about her construction of narrative – does the overarching story emerge by degrees? Affirmative. The documentary form’s contingency extends to Tan’s attitude to her interviewees. She approaches each interaction with them as conversation, and there is no clear divide between pre and post-production. It’s not uncommon for Tan to reach the middle of an edit and decide that she had better go back and ask the interviewee more questions. Like a skilled baker and their dough, or potter and their clay, Tan grounds herself in her medium. “(If) the material seems to veer in a certain direction, then this is the direction I need to take.”

Tan is her own harshest critic, so naturally, I ask if she’s grown to love all her films equally. “Yes, but it’s more like every film has its own drama […] I don’t like it.” By drama, she doesn’t mean the literary term, but rather, the controversy surrounding audience reactions, in particular To Singapore With Love (2013). Featuring interviews with Singaporean political dissidents living in exile, the film was banned by Singapore authorities on the grounds of undermining national security. Tan’s chief point of frustration is how its status as a banned film precludes its screening to local students, a missing link in national education about the country’s history. “The film needs to be talked about… seen and discussed.” Our conversation turns to the wider Singaporean filmmaking community. Has she ever encountered a story and realised it wasn’t hers to tell? She laughs at this one. “I get a lot of elevator pitches. People come in and tell me stories that they want me to film… but I don’t think I should do it. I almost want to make a film about all the films that people want me to make.” She wishes more people would turn their pitches into films of their own. She speaks admiringly of Eva Tang and the emerging community of young Singaporean filmmakers deeply interested in exploring lesser-known narratives of Singapore’s history.

Our interview is drawing to its natural conclusion. Ever aware of the indie film crowd of Oxford, I ask if she has any final thoughts about screening her films to an international audience in Oxford. “The themes are probably more abstract and less culturally specific to Singapore… they’d be able to access it anyway.” Tan’s latest film, walk walk (2023) is, unfortunately, only screened at a public bus terminal in Singapore. The rest are available online though, and it would be a shame to give them a miss. 

More information about Tan’s work is available on her website,

Interview by Shao-Yi Wong.

Photography by Ulysse del Drago.

About the Flaherty Seminar: The Art of Asking Questions

Written in 2018, this was first published here, where participants of the Flaherty Seminar, the long running week-long documentary seminar series in the USA, write about their experience. I was a Graduate Fellow there in 1999 and was invited back as a featured director in 2011.

“Before leaving Singapore in the 1990’s for graduate school in the US, my film diet was mainstream, linear, and fictional.

Although we had the excellent Singapore International Film Festival, many kinds of film could not be seen due to our nascent film culture. Though the country was economically prosperous, the arts were looked upon as a hobby. For example, our local universities did not have fine art, music, or film degree programs. I had a burgeoning interest in film and longed to see films I had read about in magazines like Sight and Sound that circulated at the British Council Library. Going to “the west” seemed to offer me the best chance to see these titles and learn the craft of filmmaking.

While in the MFA program at Northwestern University, my course mate Laura Kissel told me about Flaherty Seminar. She had heard about it from her former professor at Ithaca College, Patricia Zimmermann. With the help of grants from International Film Seminars [the nonprofit that produced the annual Flaherty Seminar] and Northwestern, I was able to attend.

I arrived at the 1999 Flaherty Seminar bright eyed and eager to watch films. The seminar’s policy to not announce what was to be screened was perfect for me—I was the perfect blank slate.

I attended two seminars back to back: the 1999 edition programmed by Richard Herskowitz and Orlando Bagwell with the title “Outtakes are History” and the 2000 edition programmed by Kathy Geritz, called “Essays, Experiments and Excavations.”

Those two short weeks at the Flaherty showed a young Singaporean filmmaker what was possible. My worldview widened and the ground softened.

Twenty years later, I vividly remember the programming, the directors, and my awe of their post-screening Q&As. I remember the mental and physical exhaustion that endured for weeks after the Seminars ended. I suppose these feelings and memories reflect what the Seminar’s public relations mean by “the Flaherty Experience.”

Many films at Flaherty influenced my work. In Singapore, I’d wanted to make fiction films. I returned from the USA a director taking on an essay approach, a style I continue to work in.

The 1999 Duke University edition screened Martin Arnold, Bruce Conner, Arthur Lipsett, and Scott Stark. All worked with found footage. I remember the shock of seeing Martin Arnold’s Alone: Life Wastes Andy Hardy [1998] for the first time. Unsettled, I thought if such high order work can be mined from found footage, most film shoots are redundant—a scary idea for someone just starting out.

Documentary giant Ricky Leacock, who shot for Robert Flaherty, DA Pennebaker, and Robert Drew, was among the 1999 guests. He stood up and protested the experimental works. Big divides tore through even the margins of film culture at the Flaherty. Leacock may have found more comfort in the epic, humanistic works of Armenian Artavazd Peleshian: Seasons [1975] and We [1969]; and Johan van der Keuken: Amsterdam Global Village [1996].

At the 2000 seminar, I was introduced to Harun Farocki’s oeuvre with Images of the World and the Inscription of War [1989] and Workers Leaving the Factory [1995]. His films are precise, intelligent, and painfully ironic. During the seminar, a few of us transformed into Farocki groupies. We hung out together at his presentations. We still keep in touch.

We saw films by Santiago Alvarez, Peggy Ahwesh, Chris Sullivan, and Jean Painlevé. It is a testament to the thoughtful framing of the Flaherty Seminar experience that I still remember these very different films. From the agitprop of Alvarez, the liminal works of Ahwesh, and the jittery hand-drawn animation of Sullivan, the films flowed from each maker’s personalities and curiosities. One could feel the sustained focus of each director.

At that edition, I decided to skip the discussion with Paper Tiger Television, a public access TV organization that challenges corporate control over the broadcast medium. Back then, I didn’t understand the organization’s politics. I wondered why their projects were not more polished, and why they’d been included in the seminar.

In retrospect, I realize their works were grassroots efforts produced with volunteers who wanted to reclaim the media for themselves. Their productions reflected a democratic perspective: it wasn’t about the films as objects as much as it was about access to the mass media. I should have given Paper Tiger a chance even if I didn’t understand the context.

In 2011, programmer Dan Streible invited me to present my films at the Flaherty. I’d met him at the 2000 Flaherty, and I was happy to make contact again. I showed Moving House [2001], Singapore GaGa [2005], Invisible City [2007], as well as The Impossibility of Knowing [2010]. These films question and probe the idea of Singapore as a contested terrain.

In a lovely coincidence, Laura Kissel was also a guest, presenting her work from the Cotton Road series. This series followed the journey of a commodity—cotton—from South Carolina to China, exposing the global labor behind our cotton clothing.

At this Flaherty, my circumstances were different. I was no longer a graduate student. I’d moved back to Singapore. I now worked in the trenches of independent film. And I could now appreciate the robust DIY ethos of Lillian Schwartz, Helen Hill, Jodie Mack, and Melinda Stone.

My goal was to be as generous a guest as previous guests had been to me.

Across the three Seminars I attended, the eloquence of some filmmakers struck me deeply. They avoided being defensive or pretentious. They were knowledgeable. I came to understand their attempts to connect with their own visions and also with the communities they sought to find through their work. I learned so much from them, and wanted to find out more. They’ve made me a more thoughtful and conscientious filmmaker.

At my three Flaherty Seminars, I learned the art of asking questions.

Generosity binds all my Flaherty experiences together. The audience listens and watches with open hearts and minds. The guest filmmakers and programmers share ideas and stories. Generosity impels the best questions from the audience.”

For Objectifs’ 15th Anniversary Publication

I was invited to write a short piece about an image I made and how it reflects my practice for a book Objectifs Centre for Photography & Film was putting together to commemorate her 15th anniversary in 2018. I wrote about the image where Ho Juan Thai looks to Singapore from Johor Baru, a still from To Singapore, with Love.

“When I was a teen, we kayaked around Singapore in a 3-day 2-night expedition as a participant of Outward Bound School. Two to a kayak, it was my first time seeing Singapore as an island, with some parts, like the ports, busier than other parts. I remember being shocked at how boring our shoreline looked. From the outside, it was not the uber metropolis it saw itself at all.

Later, I knew that Singapore, as a mercantile hub, had a gravitational pull for small (non-Singaporean) towns surrounding her. A friend who went to Foon Yew High School in Stulang Laut, Johor Bahru, said the three chimneys of Senoko Power Station loomed large in her schoolscape since her school was just across the Straits of Johor. I tried to imagine what it was like to go to school in Malaysia and see Singapore just across. In 2010, inspired the canoe expedition, I decided to make a series of photos of Singapore, as seen from the surrounding towns in Malaysia and Indonesia. I wanted to reconcile what the inhabitants of these towns felt about Singapore, with what they saw which was a mostly uninhabited shoreline.

Later, I stumbled upon first-person accounts of political exiles in the book “Escape from the Lion’s Paw”. In the interviews, the exiles talked about going to Johor Bahru to “see” Singapore. When I met Ho Juan Thai, one of the interviewees, he took me to the sandy beach in front of Foon Yew High School to show me where to get the best view. My film “To Singapore, with Love”, grew out of some interviews featured in the book. The film was eventually banned in Singapore for undermining “national security”.

Making films is an excuse to understand how others see by putting ourselves in their shoes, to see what they see. Whether it is from the perspective of a school girl circumnavigating her country, a Malaysian Chinese student or a political exile who fled Singapore more than 40 years ago, the same view, engenders different currents. As an artist, I try to bring these currents to the fore, to show that we are more than what we make ourselves out to be, to fight complacency.

It is a privilege to be able to do this.”

Silent film accompaniment: Contemporary Mediums Resurrecting Ancient Shadows

Written in 2004. I attended the 2004 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, a film festival celebrating the silent films and us Fellows had to each produce an essay about our experience. I wrote about silent film accompaniment. With deep appreciation to David Robinson who shepherded this piece into being. This piece was published in 2005 as a collection of essays by the Fellows in that programme

“Contemporary Mediums Resurrecting Ancient Shadows”

“I was chatting an archivist I met from the Hong Kong Film Archive at the Giornate and I asked him who accompanied the Silents they periodically screen in that part of the world. He said, “In Hong Kong, we only have one silent film pianist, and he plays the same tunes for every film. It’s a bit boring but he’s our only one. That statement said as much about the isolation of silent film accompanists, as about the need for good of silent film accompanists who can shape our viewing experience and they indirectly help preserve and save these films. Perhaps that lone ranger musician would be glad to know of an annual gathering of kindred spirits at the Giornate every year.

The Giornate in 2004 brought about half of the known silent film musicians together. They had a “same time next year” pleasure at seeing each other, I found them together at the café beside the Zancanaro imbibing good spirits both before and after each performance. On the afternoon I was there with them, I eavesdropped upon a discussion between two musicians who were talking about a performance where they would be playing together. One was plumbing the other who had seen the film before for information about the film. The exchange went something like this

“Is it a happy or sad film?”
“It’s a love story.”
“Does it have a happy ending?”
“I have the lovers’ theme written out, take a look.”
“Nice melody.”

The most salient points established (happy film about love, with love tune established), they left to play a duet. At least these musicians have some information about the film. Often, the musician plays cold, knowing less than the audience. He has to come up with a love theme on the spot and must modulate and expand the themes for the duration of the film. He must summon up his musical vocabulary to tap into the audiences’ collective musical memory. Like a simultaneous interpreter, this requires sensitivity to the curves of the storyline, a sizeable musical repertoire and a good sense of when to apply it for maximum benefit of the film. He is processing four strains of information in real time.

They had come from as far as Germany, Chicago, even New Zealand, with backgrounds equally diverse. One started out as an actor, another is a film historian, and another a filmmaker. If there was only one strand that drew them together, I sensed a deep appreciation of the Silents and their roles as contemporary mediums that resurrect forgotten masterpieces. As Gunter Buchwald said of his role, “ We influence you how to see”. Using a spiritual metaphor is appropriate. More than once did I see the pianist in the pit making a sign of the cross before laying his hands on the key board, just before flicker started, as if to say, “Please help me use all my gifts to help them appreciate this masterpiece”. They take their roles seriously.

What I had always found surprising in my research on silent film music practices was that Silents always had accompaniment. They were never silent. I was also shocked that it was industry practice for directors or distributors to leave the choice of accompaniment to the player(s) in the cinema. I was surprised that the director/producer could surrender control of such a vital component of the viewing experience. There were cases of directors, like Vertov, who specially composed scores to accompany films, but this was an exception.

Some screenings afforded rehearsals for the accompanists, others had to play on sight, interpreting the screen goings-on cold. Musicians evolved different ways of coping with having to produce so much music so often. There were songbooks with tunes that they could call upon so if you needed a tune for “stormy night”, or a “Persian bazaar” (Albert Kettlebay?), you could seek it out in the index. Under tight deadlines, they evolved a bag of tricks and used clichés freely to enhance the film going experience. Needless to say, few recordings of these performances remain.

For a contemporary musician interested in accompanying the Silents, with such a checkered and not particularly well-documented lineage, it is liberating yet frustrating. Liberating because it means that more often than not, he had free rein of what and how he wanted to perform. Yet frustrating because there is not so much as a primer to teach one how to play for the Silents. Reverting to the songbooks that were used is hardly inspiring. Besides, what was practiced in the past need not necessarily still apply since using original scores or instruments would be interesting insofar as it shed light on what the early audiences were exposed to. It still left a blank slate as to how the musician should play if the same film is to be enjoyed by contemporary audiences.

The musicians in the 2004 edition of the Giornate took up the challenge presented by the lack of clear direction from history. We saw a wide range of musical practices beyond the traditional piano set up. There was a specially commissioned score for the Cat and the Canary (Paul Leni, 1927) featuring the Theremin. The performance of Home Sweet Home featured an ensemble with two voices. There were also attempts at playing on a prepared piano (where nails and sticks are inserted on the strings inside the piano). I also heard a pianist sing alongside what was on the screen during a screening of Vertov. Some of these attempts were more successful than others.

Of the films I attended, the one most memorable was “A Cottage on Dartmoor” (1929, Anthony Asquith) accompanied by Stephen Horne, There was a collective buzz that night borne of us having experienced a triumphal moment together. It was a beautiful film elevated by skillful and emotive accompaniment. What marked the performance was interestingly enough, silence. Cottage is a tale of a jealous man stalking his ex-lover, who is now happily married and living at a cottage in Dartmoor. I remember in particular two moments when silence was used to great effect, one, when the two protagonists were on a date at the cinema to watch a talkie. What we saw were expectant audiences waiting for the film and to start. When the film started we saw close ups of the delighted faces who heard voices for the first time. Horne stopped playing. This sleight of hand immediately highlighted the fact that we were two different audiences watching the same film 70 years apart. Our shock at hearing silence was matched the audience’s shock at hearing sound for the first time. I felt suspended in time. Horne called attention to his role in the viewing experience by this paradoxical move. And it was enlightening. The other moment was a simple domestic scene, the jealous lover, a barber, shaves a client who happens to be the woman’s husband. The moment is fraught, will he slit his nemesis’ throat? He very deliberately sharpens the razor. As he takes the razor up to his neck, there was suddenly silence. When I later asked Horne about how that inspired decision not to play came to be, he said that it was that was suggested to him by a colleague. He had a few rehearsals before he got the rhythm right. When he did play it that way, he found it very effective.

The experience with The Cottage on Dartmoor made me appreciate the live performance aspect of the screenings. How is my appreciation of film heightened by the fact that the music is played before me? Would my experience be different if the music was pre-recorded and played alongside the film? In the case of Cottage, my experience of the film was heightened because, there was a person who was watching the film and reacting to it in the same way as I. His presence helped me along, corroborated with my experience of the film. This is important, especially with material that is far removed from my what I am normally familiar with. I found his guidance helpful and vital.

In the footsteps of the masters, four young musicians were chosen to attend music accompaniment master class at the Giornate. The four are multi-talented, hailing from Vienna, Germany, Italy and USA. Two of them play more than one instrument. All had a gift of improvisation and had played for Silents before in their home countries. The School of Music and Image was held every morning from 11-12.30 for the duration of the Giornate. It is conducted by Neil Brand with input from other musicians making guest appearances. I attended the classes as an observer because I was curious if musical accompaniment could really be taught. I found myself learning a lot about filmmaking and film watching. Brand showed fragments of films and he had the students play to it, cold as they would in an actual performance. The examples are carefully chosen to illustrate tricky situations that a silent film pianist may encounter. He taught them how to roll with the punches and gave practical tips on how to deal with difficult scenarios. The main point he made was, they had to be alert and react to a scene quickly. Is he the villain (He wears white shoes!)? Does the sequence look like it will be a long one? Familiarity with the codes and filmic idioms come with experience he said. The important thing was, once that split second impression is registered, the musician could not dither, but had to commit to it and to play out that impression.

One of the topics covered was how to play a long drawn out scene without running out of musical ideas, especially a scene whose length cannot be determined before hand. Brand showed a film where a storm is in full force and in this tornado, a girl us about to be raped and a train about to crash (events that take place in a storm at night). The scene went on at length without reaching a climax. He suggested that the musicians modulate to a lower key, rather than play in the same key all the time. This gives the audience a sense of change and at the same time it gives the pianist room to maneuver higher if the climax comes along later.

In another earlier scene where the villain is first appears (we know because he is too suave, too well dressed for this little town, and the white), Brand suggested that rather than announce his appearance in a marked way, to take the soft approach. All the scene needed was a slight turn of the cog to suggest that something was out of joint. Meting out information a little at a time allows the musician to save his musical reserves for the climax. It also heightens the excitement for the audience, because less is more. Restraint was key.

In another session, Brand showed Keaton’s the Three Ages (Buster Keaton, 1923), a comedy which saw Keaton vying for a girl against Wallace Beery a much stronger man. The same story line is repeated in three different epochs, Keaton is a club bearing cave man, a roman soldier and a dandy in the contemporary swinging 20’s. Brand suggested that a musician would quickly run out of tricks to sustain a feature if he took the comic route wholly. He suggested that the musician play the tussle for the girl as a drama. Playing a comedy straight made it funnier. He added that Keaton takes sad music better than Chaplin because Keaton had the face to carry it and sad music could be used ironically in Keaton’s case. The students discussed the notion of Mickey Mousing (where every gag, whimper or door slam is mirrored in the music, as in cartoons) and they arrived at the conclusion that it is not necessary that they reflect every bang in their music if it detracts from the direction of their playing.

Brand touched on the awkward situations where the musician is unsure where the action is heading. To illustrate this point, he showed Fred Zinneman’s silent masterpiece, People on Sunday (1930). The film is about four young people and their relationships to each other, which shifts quietly over the course of a picnic outing. There are moments in the film where nothing seems to happen (four chatting amicably on a hillside). Brand suggests that in this situation, it would be all right for the musician not to know and to play it “unresolved” because it reflected the confusion on the screen. The point was that the musician had to commit to a tone (even if it was an “unresolved” one) and see it through, or the audience would be confused even further.

Brand touched on the uncomfortable situation where the film was a dud. He says that while he “plays each film as a masterpiece”, giving his best until it is proven otherwise, if it is a dud, he helps out where he can and when he can no longer help, treads water until the end of the film.

One aspect of musicianship that was not covered in much detail was the choice of music for a film. Donald Susan showed a clip of a western and threw it open to the students, asking them what kind of music they would pick for that scene. One played a Bonanza theme, another, fiddle-like music, and yet another suggested Aaron Copland. Is one choice better than the other? By the end of the master class, I realised that one could take up any of those suggestions as a starting point, it depended on his personal preference. The craft lay in whether the musician could develop and extrapolate on the theme he had chosen, colouring it with his interpretation of the scene to serve the dramatic needs of the film. This takes practice, great skill and sensitivity.

Tama Karena from New Zealand said that when he plays to a film, he relates his whole self to the film. The sounds that emanate from him are his unmediated response to the film, and he cannot divorce his personality from his playing. Brand adds that his playing is a purely emotive response to the film, part of his effort to “play it like a masterpiece”. Philip Carli, after a rigorous performance of Three Songs of Lenin (Dziga Vertov, 1935), proclaimed that while he did not share Vertov’s politics, he played it so that the audience would rush out to become Socialists as Vertov would have wanted. All three acknowledge their roles as mediums for the films, conjuring the messages to light for an audience far removed from their making.”

Gestures of Resistance: An Interview with Tan Pin Pin.

This interviewed by Joanne Leow appeared in Issue 88 of Senses of Cinema, published in October 2018. The interview itself was conducted in November the year before during a retrospective of my films at RIDM, Montreal.

Tan was born in 1969 in Singapore and was trained in law in the United Kingdom and in documentary filmmaking in the United States. Her experimental documentaries and award-winning short films have consistently evinced an awareness of the Singapore’s cramped and disciplined spatialities. Her first made for television documentary Moving House (2001), for instance, chronicles the exhumation of graves in Singapore driven by urban development and features a final haunting image of a columbarium filmed in a manner that makes it an undeniable visual echo of Singapore’s public housing flats. Her most recent film In Time To Come (2017) is a time capsule of the rituals, demolitions, and patterns in everyday Singaporean life. The film asks what is worth preserving in contemporary life.

In between these two works, Tan has made over a dozen other documentaries and short films, the most famous and popular being Singapore GaGa which played to packed halls and theatres all over the island. The film is an aural record of the disappearing sounds of the island: busker songs that wind their way around our hearts, the cacophony of footsteps in an underpass, the specific hollow echoes of void decks and an eclectic range of songs that reflect the city’s polyglot, cosmopolitan, postcolonial nature. Her follow-up Invisible City (2007) is in her words, “a documentary about documenteurs,” “an ode” to all those who made Singapore the subject of their work. In this later film, she seeks to understand the impulse that drives these chroniclers, while bringing their lost histories to light. Her most controversial film, To Singapore, With Love (2013), was filmed entirely outside the country, documenting the emotionally constrained lives of political exiles from the country. The film was banned for public screenings in Singapore despite appeals by Tan and fellow filmmakers. She also filmed a short dramatic film, Pineapple Town, as part of the commissioned omnibus of Singapore films 7 Letters (2015) for the nation’s 50th anniversary.

By revealing the constructed and conditional aspects of Singapore’s history and spaces, Tan’s work allows us to depart not just from Singapore as mapped space but Singapore’s official history as mapped time. Tan’s directorial vision weaves alternative chronotopes of Singapore that are open-ended, frayed at the edges and still in the process of becoming. These revelations are often tied to the slow, contemplative pace of her films, her refusal to move quickly over the everyday, and the unpredictable or seemingly random aspects of her filmic space. Jini Kim Watson notes how Tan is profoundly conscious of the “highly formulaic elements… the militarized, productivist and multiculturalist logic… of the most disciplined and value-added workforces in the world.” [1]

Tan’s films’ polyphonies and digressions are particularly powerful for their eschewal of any grand narrative to describe a city-state whose government is singularly obsessed with its teleological progress. She does this with the full awareness that memory can never be complete, thorough, or exhaustive. Indeed, therein lies its power. This unmooring of memory from an official nationalism is echoed in the free associative rhythms of Tan’s films. The film’s desire for the past refuses a totalizing agenda, is not for profit, and does not pin Singapore or its inhabitants down. This indeterminacy makes memory open to the possibilities of other histories that challenge the singularity of the official history. These histories leave the film’s viewers open to a whole range of complex and nuanced meanings.

This interview was conducted in Montreal, Canada in November 2017 on the occasion of the Montreal International Documentary Festival’s retrospective of Tan’s entire oeuvre over four nights. This was the first time that all her films were shown in sequence, something that would not be possible in Singapore since the state has refused to issue a classification rating for To Singapore, with Love which effectively means it cannot have public screenings. In our conversation, Tan reflects on the body of her work, the politics of documentary filmmaking in Singapore, and her hopes for the country.

Joanne Leow: I think it’s really interesting that it’s only possible to see all your films together outside Singapore, here in Montreal, since To Singapore, with Love is banned there.

Tan Pin Pin: It’s interesting to see all these films consecutively actually. I just feel as if I’ve just started. I feel like I’ve just started and oh my goodness, it’s the wrong time to have a retrospective now.

JL: What are some of the through threads that you see in your work, though, now that you have the opportunity to review it in this retrospective?

TPP: I feel as if I am trying to conjure up ghosts. I see it Invisible City, To Singapore, with Love, and The Impossibility of Knowing. It’s as if I am trying to speak for, bring forth, bring notice to people events or places that can’t speak for themselves, which makes me a temple medium. And a medium should not just conjure up what is, a medium should conjure up what could be. And what we have lost, so it’s multidimensional. If it was entirely representational in a way that sometimes fiction is, I would be shortchanging the stories that I am trying to tell.

JL: it’s interesting to me because you are kind of venturing into the realm of speculative ideas. What do you do to make that apparent in a nonfictional documentary? How do you think you’re depicting things that could have been? What techniques do you usually go for to try and do that?

TPP: The wonderful thing about the cinematic medium is that it allows you to fill in the gaps yourself as a viewer. So much of great film is about the act of engaging the viewer in such a way so that the viewer is participating in the storytelling as well. I myself try to do it in different ways. For example in The Impossibility of Knowing, it was a direct attempt to push the limits of an image to see if a scene of trauma was filmed in provocative and film noir-ish ways, whether the traumas that had taken place in those places could be communicated to the viewer with just the address placed over the image. It didn’t quite work, so we added a voice over where Crimewatch [2] presenter, Lim Kay Tong reads the news reports of the accidents that happened in those locales. What you have is a still of the scene, and address appears and voice over comes on speaking of the tragedy that took place there.

In In Time to Come, we intercut scenes of daily rituals together, scenes like fire drills, morning assemblies, grand openings, to give an idea of timelessness in the sense that it is not clear when these films were shot. At a certain point, the film lifts into what could be perceived as a future Singapore, before it drifts back again to what appears to be the past. The time frame shifts through sound design and through editing.

In To Singapore, with Love, a film about Singapore political exiles, we made a very deliberate decision not to show any scenes of Singapore. The only scene we have of Singapore is of a very transitory space, the Singapore Changi airport. So from these views of exiles who have not been back to Singapore, some for more than 40 years, you had to conjure up an image of Singapore from their viewpoints, their descriptions of what they did, what they had done, why they had to leave, and their lives now, the viewer has to imagine the country today. My job as a director is to reduce information, while keeping the enquiry and curiosity of the viewer alive.

JL: What is really evocative for me is that poem Chan Sun Wing reads in To Singapore, with Love, where he names the places, he names the streets in Singapore. And obviously, those street names for him, embedded as they are in the past, they are so significant, each name means so much…

TPP: Yes, he names the places, very specifically. So does Ang Swee Chai when she says, “I want to be back at 100A Serangoon Road”, it is her Serangoon Road home of 40 years ago. Tan Wah Piow too gives a very specific address of his home in Joo Chiat. I could make another version of The Impossibility of Knowing, this time filming homes of Singapore political exiles, where they once lived, and where they are not able to return to. It would be an interesting portrait of their experience and of the country.

JL: Your work is concerned with an idea of time in a country where time is not only amnesiac but also very regulated. Not only in our everyday lives where we have the ordinary work day or migrant workers working around the clock, but also in the sense that in Singapore time is already mapped out and planned out for decades to come. For instance in the Master Plan, what do we want to achieve in 5, 10 or 30 years.

TPP: I think for In Time To Come that was exactly what I was trying to grapple with. One of the things that I filmed in In Time To Come was the morning assemblies. And when I first came across that morning assembly, one of the things I noticed was how unchanged it had been in the past 30 years since I was in school. You would never imagine that such a ritual would have been maintained for so long. But then it’s all related back to the fact that Singapore has been governed by the same political party for so many years. So the hierarchical format of the school assembly is of course just a direct analogy of how Singapore has been governed. And my idea was to show the sameness, the repetition and maybe to suggest the idea that we haven’t actually moved in spite of all of these changes. The same theme is covered in 9th August, a short film I made which mined 42 years of National Day Parade footage to show that camera angles for that bombastic annual event had not changed in all these years too.

JL: Saying that we haven’t changed is something quite radical, when we always think about progress. We’re moving forward!

TPP: Yes! We’re moving forward, we have terminal 4 now at Changi Airport, we have a new expressway. But what I am proposing through In Time to Come, is that we haven’t actually moved, nothing has changed. And so how do you translate that idea of nothing changing but everything changing at the same time? So you’re forward looking, you’re future looking, but you haven’t actually moved.

JL: I remember an earlier interview when you said that you didn’t want to make political films and if that has changed over the years, then what has changed in your thinking about being political? And can you think of a moment or a series of moments when it came to you that your filmmaking had changed or your purpose had changed?

TPP: I think the question of whether it is political or not is not the right question. Documentaries have always been read to be “more political” just by virtue of it being a documentary, than say fiction film. So whether I wanted it or not, just making a documentary, highlighting issues and showing Singapore as is, is already considered a political act in a country where not long ago, people were noticed for having views. In Singapore, being an artist can be a political gesture. Many of my films were made to find out how I feel about certain issues, and the audience follows me as I pursue a line of enquiry. I don’t start a project knowing the point I want to make. For To Singapore, with Love, making the film led me to question the shaky foundations of the ruling party, realising this and continuing with it was an important moment for me.

JL: Do you think that in course of 1996 to 2017 that your concerns and goals have changed? What are a couple of watershed moments that you felt compelled to film something or compelled to edit a particular way?

TPP: In 1995, while I was shooting Moving House (1996), I wanted to give up before the shoot because though I am not superstitious, I was freaked out at having to go to the Chinese cemetery in the middle of the night to cover the exhumation of a grave. Even with a crew, I was scared. I remember telling myself then, there was no one I could push this task to, it was either me, or this scene would not be filmed. But I wanted the exhumation of my great-grandparents grave documented for posterity, so I bit my lip and shot it. I remember feeling very resentful that I had to be the one to do it. Comical, when you think about it now.

When we are shooting, there is always the idea that what we are shooting may or may not end up in the screen because you can always drop the scene in the edit suite, so when I was shooting To Singapore, with Love, going around the world, interviewing Singaporean political exiles, I didn’t think much of what I was doing until I got into the edit room. There was a moment though, during a shoot at Changi Airport where I was to film Ho Juan Thai’s kids and wife arriving in Singapore, I had just flew in from Hat Yai and went straight the next terminal without a break. I was emotionally tired from the Thai trip and when I started shooting a grandmother [3] meeting her grandson for the first time, I just burst into tears.

So I thought, this has never happened before. Why was I crying? I was angry at the situation of Juan Thai being left in Johor Bahru while his mother met his sons in Changi. The application of the Internal Security Act had wreaked havoc in many families since Independence. Singaporeans needed to know about this. I continued to shoot, even though I felt shaky physically and emotionally.

JL: You’ve always said that you make films to satisfy your curiosity. But to make To Singapore, with Love was in some ways to satisfy everyone’s desire for a fuller accounting of that point in our history.

TPP: In the dark of the night, alone in the edit room, I was going through rushes and stumbled upon footage of Chan San Wing stoically reading the poem of him missing Singapore. By the end of the poem, I was sobbing, from the futility of his lot. They have been censored out of Singapore completely. I was also very aghast that the system could inspire so much fear in me. Fear of what? The proverbial midnight raids, incarceration, confiscation of cameras and computers that Singapore activists past and present had experienced. I asked myself if I wanted to cross the Rubicon and for whom this film was for.

JL: You decided to cross the Rubicon and many of us are very grateful.

TPP: I decided to cross the Rubicon because I felt I had no right to call myself a film director if with all the training that I’ve had, the scholarships that I was endowed with, if at this point, I was going to turn tail and not do what needed to be done. I could not hide the footage away and pretend it never happened.

Originally, I had wanted to take a more impressionistic and experimental film. In the end, I chose a more accessible form, consisting of talking head interviews with text and newspaper clippings filling in information whenever there were informational gaps that had to be addressed. This film was for my retired teacher aunty living in Siglap. Also, I felt that since the interviewees have been censored, I wanted to give them a platform to speak for themselves.

JL: What I find really interesting is not just the fact that it’s a film about political exiles, or being away, and that whole idea of displacement and history, that’s all very important and crucial to the narrative, but it was that you added that “with love.” What kind of love is expressed in the film? Sometimes it’s patriotic fervor, like with Ho Juan Thai, but there’s also love in Francis’s song, love in Chan San Wing’s poem. So how did your understanding of what the word “love” is in the national context change or come to mean something else after you completed it?

TPP: I have to say it was a tactical decision to name it that. Because I thought if you couch a potentially incendiary film with very soft words, it might kind of… you know, censors might not…

JL: Was that a little naïve on your part?

TPP: Yes, what was I thinking? Maybe I should have had a little plushie that came with the film as well, to temper the edge. For To Singapore, with Love, since the state archives from that period have not been released, I could not verify a lot of information from that period beyond first person accounts. However, the exiles still have strong feelings for Singapore, and they can talk about what they feel about Singapore, the circumstances of their escape without being accused of being inaccurate. So the film had a strong emotional undercurrent.

To answer your earlier question, this film tried to define “love” in a national context. The word is overused by propaganda committees to the extent that it has become meaningless to most people. But I wanted it addressed without sarcasm or irony. What does it mean to love your country? Who do these activists they speak for?

JL: You have spoken about how hard it was to see To Singapore, with Love banned, in Singapore, and to go through that process of not even being able to distribute it from the country. How do you think that will affect and has affected your filmmaking going forward? Or when you are looking for potential funding?

TPP: I don’t think I’ll be asked to direct the National Day Parade! My subsequent films were all commissioned before the ban so it’s hard for me to say where I might stand moving forward with regard to state support. But I have been making independent documentaries for over 20 years in Singapore. I have survived this long, using creative and lifestyle strategies developed in those years. I will continue to make work and keep an independent stance moving forward.

JL: What kinds of films do you think you would make without this uncertainty, without this unspoken context of what lines you can or cannot cross?

TPP: No, I’m not bound by any boundaries anymore, because as I said the watershed moment would be the making of To Singapore, with Love, because once you do something like that, all the emotional heavy lifting, in terms of the conversations you have with yourself about why you do what you do would already have been done. I would like to live outside Singapore for a period. A change of scenery would be good, to see if being in a less censorious regime can inspire other kinds of film.

JL: What kind of hope or vision do you have for Singaporean artistic community and Singaporean audiences in general? The ones who tried to see the film but couldn’t see the film, who may have secretly seen the film. But also the ones abroad, what hope do you have? What would you like to see?

TPP: Ideally this film would be taught in schools. It should be part of reading lists in social studies or Singaporean history. I want this film to inspire questions like what it means to be a citizen of a country or what is Singapore. Is there a role for civil disobedience or the Internal Security Act? A country is always in the state of becoming and allowing students to understand that their voices and actions can shape the country is important.

JL: To also have the younger generation have a chance to understand how the country was put together, the legacies of that communist period, the colonial powers…

TPP: Decisions that had to be made for better or worse. I would like them to consider the need for reconciliation, and how reconciliation can help the country moving forward.

JL: A kind of mature and public conversation about amnesty, about the return of exiles?

TPP: Yes, amnesty, what does it mean for the country and why it is important? The tone of the film was pitched at that frequency because I hoped it could start conversations. It could have been a lot more emotional. But I decidedly did not take that tone because I felt it would have closed the possibility of having this kind of conversation that gave both parties a chance to air their views. Alas, this olive branch was not taken up, they banned the film.

JL: You’ve always said in this and other films that you use the camera to get to know your subject better. What have you learned about Singapore and Singaporeans in the past two decades that might not have been so apparent to you, that was surprising to you? Or in some ways, represented something exceptional and unique in the way we go about living our lives in the kind of context that we are in?

TPP: For most people in the West, they don’t understand how Singaporeans can tahan [4] being Singaporeans. But didn’t you say anything when that happened? How can you just sit there? So why have my countrymen been seen to be so particularly docile in all these matters that seem so important to others? Is it because they don’t know about it? We have lost our voice and tragically, we don’t know it. We may not even know what it feels like to have one.

JL: I do think there is a certain level of ignorance. That basic “we don’t know”. I mean I didn’t know so many of the stories until you brought them to light.

TPP: Maybe the scarier version is that even though we know, we don’t care? Hence, I am always looking for moments of defiance, when people act up and rebel because they do. A lot of my films try to show that moment of defiance, that gleam in the eye. You see this in Singapore GaGa. Even in Invisible City you see these young archaeologists doing the backbreaking work of remembering.

JL: One of the things that I’ve learnt from your films is what defiance looks like in our context. It’s very different from defiance that we are accustomed to like loud protests or dramatic gestures but it’s in the everyday.

TPP: Right. There are little gestures of everyday resistance in every one of my films. In the final ceremony in Moving House, the affected family got a Taoist medium to apologise to their exhumed parents who were evicted from their gravesite to a columbarium, by saying they were required by the government to do it.

JL: Seen together then, what do you hope to leave behind with your body of work?

TPP: I would like to broaden the idea of what cinema can be in Singapore. That’s why I was intent that In Time To Come had to have a theatrical release in Singapore. And a lot of work goes into making a theatrical release despite the cost. We need to push the envelope of what Singaporeans get to see in a Cineplex, and people whom you don’t expect to go will get something out of the experience.

I want to broaden the idea of Singapore. Singapore is a work in progress and we all have a part to play in deciding what form it takes.

The author acknowledges that this interview was made possible by funding from the University of Saskatchewan.

[1] Jini Kim Watson, “Aspirational City.” Interventions 18, no. 4 (July 3, 2016): p.547
[2] Crimewatch is a long running television series in Singapore that reenacts crime investigations.
[3] Referring to Ho Juan Thai’s mother.
[4] The Malay word for “endure.”

Photo Credit: Ulysse del Drago


IN_TIME_TO_COME_4_Caption_After_opening_ceremony_of_expressway_before_traffic_enters MCE Still016

Official Website:

Set in Singapore, IN TIME TO COME follows the ritualistic exhuming of an old state time capsule, and the compilation of another. As enigmatic remnants of life from 25 years ago emerge – a bottle of water from the Singapore River, a copy of Yellow Pages, a phone charger – today’s selection of items are carefully primed for future generations to decode. Interwoven are carefully composed shots of moments we rarely think to preserve: the in-between minutes of daily life spent waiting for things to happen, shot in locales as diverse as the lush jungle to a residential district infused with haze.

This picture of Singapore is both lovely and startlingly strange, already slipping beyond the present its inhabitants struggle to hold in their hands. Like the time capsules in the film, this film itself is a vessel that transports us through past, present and future, a prism through which we glimpse alternate realities. The latest movie gifted by observer Tan Pin Pin takes its thematic DNA from her previous bold, intelligent work, but leads its audience into uncharted cinematic territory.

62 min, 1:1.78, English

Premiere Info

Visions du Réel, Switzerland, In Competition (World Premiere)
Hot Docs, Canada, In Competition
Tudo Verdade, São Paulo, Brazil, In Competition
Art of the Real, New York City, USA


Luciano Barisone, Visions du Réel

“IN TIME TO COME is distant, cold and sometimes surreal observation of Singapore society. The film is in itself a time capsule.”

Dennis Lim, Film Society of Lincoln Center

IN TIME TO COME cements Pin Pin’s position as Singapore’s most adventurous and thoughtful documentarian, a filmmaker who handles complex themes with sensitivity and intelligence.

IDFA Doclab Academy

I just attended Doclab Academy, the interactive-storytelling talent development Academy that is a sidebar of IDFA, the Cannes of documentaries. I can’t recommend this Academy highly enough though the film festival itself, separate from DocLab, is great too.

The full programme and an idea of participants are within below. Closing date is Sept each year. Please apply.

This programme is covered by IMDA under their media labs fund (which they call “Film Mentorship Initiative”). For those interested in just documentaries, there is the IDFA Academy which you can apply for.


“Each Dawn a Censor Dies” – Jeu De Paume

The following article was originally published on Jeu De Paume.

“Each Dawn a Censor Dies by Nicole Brenez.

Tan Pin Pin. No vacation from politics.

Filmmaker, photographer and artist Tan Pin Pin is among the great contemporary voices of the art scene in Singapore, the city state to which most of her output has been devoted. Her work initially impresses through its formal diversity, unfailingly offering the radicalisation of a filmic resource: a record of the exhumation and removal of a tomb (belonging to the director’s grandparents) in the name of rapid urbanisation. Moving House (version one, 1997) rubs shoulders with the immolation of a Barbie doll in Microwave (2000); a 38-minute sequence shot crossing the island taken from the Pan Island Expressway, 80km / h (2003), is followed by a pointillist portrait of the city through its banned songs and dialects in Singapore Gaga (2005); a strictly visual kinetic collage of footage from television archives showing four decades of national celebration, 9th August (2006), gives way to a strictly textual semantic interrogation of the word “remember” in Thesaurus (2012). If every one of these films boasts its own unique formal apparatus, they are all energised by the same critical task of describing, safeguarding and promoting a multi-ethnic Singapore, one that remains both multi-cultural and fraternal in the face of the government’s coercive standardisation policies. Moving House (version two, 2001), Gravedigger?s Luck (2003), Invisible City (2007), The Impossibility of Knowing (2010) and Yangtze Scribbler (2012) all confront death, from the results of criminal lives to the sometimes tiny vestiges human existence leaves behind, as well as providing support for those in danger of simply vanishing without trace. Such a sense of responsibility to collective history, which carries living individuals and dead bodies along with it like wisps caught in a whirlwind, actively seeks out every possible visual and aural means of first countering the Singapore authorities’ artificially imposed view of progress as a forced march away from independence, then repairing the damage caused to collective memory, culture and emotion.

From her first short film, Lurve Me Now (1999), an erotic fantasy involving two Barbie dolls, anticipating Albertina Carri’s Barbie también puede estar triste (Barbie Can Also Be Sad, 2001), shot in Argentina two years later, Tan Pin Pin has endured censorship. Her first documentary to achieve international success, Singapore Gaga, encountered censorship problems simply because the use of an ambiguous word in Malay, “animals”, at first caused it to be labelled a “threat to national security”. But with To Singapore, With Love (2013), which gave voice to Singapore’s political exiles, the entire film was banned, an act of prohibition which has not only been maintained to this day, but also extended to all distribution media.


Nicole Brenez
Translated by Brad Stevens

Nicole Brenez: Can you tell us about your family background, education, artistic environment? Did your education in Law at Oxford, UK, helped you to confront situations of censorship?

Tan Pin Pin: I grew up in 70s and 80s Singapore, at a time where economic imperatives trumped all other imperatives. The whole nation was marshaled into wealth creation and improving our GDP. My growing up years were surrounded by songs such as “Good better best, never let it rest!” Though our material quality of life improved quickly, civil rights were suspended. For example I found out recently while researching To Singapore, with Love, that over 800 people were arrested under the Internal Security Act in the 1970?s alone, a huge percentage for a small population of 2.3 million. In the days before the Internet, the arrests went under the radar, people simply disappeared or were later exiled. There is so much in the 1970s that remains unaccounted for in the Singapore story.

My parents were the first few in their families to go to university. They were architects so we had a very interesting childhood spending weekends visiting construction sites. I went to state schools where art had a very small part in the curriculum. In my teens, I discovered the BBC World Service on the FM dial. By the time, I finished secondary school, I knew I wanted to get out of Singapore to go to England where it seemed more free and more humane.

I won a scholarship to study law at Oxford University, law for no particular reason other than I was more likely to secure a Singapore scholarship with that course. At Oxford, I discovered photography and art books in the city library. Within the first semester, I knew I was in the wrong course, I should have gone to art school instead. But I decided to finish the course to keep my scholarship. Meanwhile, I spent all my free time taking photos and developing prints in the dark room. If I had not left Singapore, I am not sure I would be making films today. In those striven times, art-making was too frivolous an undertaking and I would have had no support.

I was a lawyer for six days before I left the profession. In fact, I made my first film, Moving House (1996) as a trainee lawyer. Through the law course, I understood how power comes to be and is devolved. I also learnt the difference between being legally right and morally right. In Singapore, the two are sometimes very far apart.

NB: What was your first encounter with Singaporean censorship? Can you explain the alleged reasons? Did you made any cut in the film?

TPP: My first encounter with Singapore censorship and self-censorship was meeting the first opposition Member of Parliament, the legendary J.B. Jeyaretnam [Leader of the Workers’ Party, center-left, from 1971 to 2001] on the street in the 1990s. Through a series of defamation suits by the PAP [People?s Action Party, center-right, ruling the country continuously since 1959] leaders, he became bankrupt so he couldn’t run for office. I saw him on the street, ringing a bell, selling copies of his Party’s publication. I wanted to buy a copy but I was too scared to be seen doing that, as if I would be guilty by association, of what, I wasn’t sure.

To this day, the sight of this solitary man seeking out a space to speak, and my woeful avoidance of him still haunts me. Later, two Singapore film lecturers made a short documentary about him, Vision of Persistence [2002, by Kai Sing, Mirabelle Ang and Christina Mok]. The film was mysteriously pulled out from the Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF) last minute. I heard the filmmakers were threatened and the film has disappeared.

My first personal encounter of censorship was for a student short I made, Lurve Me Now (1999). It was slated to show at SIFF. It featured a Barbie doll being felt up by a hand amidst heavy breathing. The film was banned by the censors for, of all things, its sound track. Censorship through a direct film ban, through redacting Chinese dialects in the mass media in the late 1970?s or through the sudden withdrawal of the Vision of Persistence, was all it took to render the something non-existent. I did not make any recuts for the censors, it did not occur to me to bend to their will.

NB: When you decided to shoot To Singapore, With Love (2013), were you already aware that your documentary will endure banning?

TPP: I did not start out to make this documentary. Like many of my other films, To Singapore, with Love took shape organically. I was making a video about Singapore’s coastline from afar. In the process of researching the idea of being outside, I stumbled upon Escape from the Lion’s Paw [Escape from the Lion?s Paw: Reflections of Singapore’s Political Exiles, Soh Lung Teo, Yit Leng Low, Singapore, Function 8, 2012], a book of first-person accounts by Singapore political exiles, people who remain outside the country, but not by choice. I decided to interview one of them, Dr. Ang Swee Chai, based in London, who by chance was in nearby Malaysia at that time. I was so moved by her account of exile that I decided to change focus and To Singapore, with Love was born. Later, I interviewed eight more exiles in London, Malaysia and Thailand. Some have not been back for more than 50 years. They talk about why they left, but they mostly talk about their lives today and their relationship with Singapore. They were of different political persuasions and different generations of activists. Some were communists, some were student activists, others were from the Christian Left.

I made this film because I myself wanted to better understand Singapore. I wanted to understand how we became who we are by addressing what was banished and unspoken for. I was also hoping that the film would open up a national conversation to allow us to understand ourselves as a nation better too.

I realised that this film could be banned when I was editing. Two films featuring former long-term political detainees talking about their detention without trial by another Singaporean director, Martyn See, were banned too [Said Zahari: 17 years, 2007, about Said Zahari ; Lim Hock Siew, 2010]. I knew that any suggestion that the Internal Security Act was used to detain and silence political opponents (rather than just communists) would be problematic to the state’s cleaned up version of the Singapore story.

Though fearful, I finished the film, partly inspired by the idealism of the people I had interviewed. I only exhaled when I sent the film out of the country. It premiered at Busan International Film Festival. In the end, the film was indeed banned because it was a “threat to national security”.

NB: Did all the exiles you wish to interview agreed to be filmed? Were they under surveillance?

TPP: The people I contacted all agreed to be filmed. I had sent them my older films so that they could get a sense of my work. I am not sure if they are under surveillance. They have been away from Singapore for more that 35 to 50 years.

NB: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong declared: “The political exiles featured in the documentary should not be allowed the chance to air their own ‘self-serving’ accounts of the fight against communism.” Is it usual in Singapore that a PM makes public comments about a film?

TPP: The bedrock of the Singapore narrative is built upon her fight against the communists more than 50 years ago. Using all the laws and armory at our disposal, we won that war and look how far we have come today. Hence it behooved Prime Minister, when queried, to justify the ban using the same Cold War rhetoric that the modern Singapore state was built upon.

The film’s main subtext, that in certain cases, the state overused its powers to silence political opponents was not addressed. Instead, the PM and all the government responses harped on the crimes committed by communists (which those interviewees who were communists did not deny) totally ignoring the substance of the film, which shows what a self-serving act of censorship the ban was.

The PM also said that my film was “one-sided”. I do not believe that balance or neutrality are useful ways to think about history, especially Singapore history. I am interested in providing alternatives. In fact these alternatives “balance” out the dominant accounts propagated by textbooks and state propaganda.

The whole event clarified for me that we do not own our history. Films are banned or disappear, archives even those relating to events that happened more than 50 years ago are out of bounds, all to protect the official version of our history.

NB: A collective of 350 Singaporean organized a travel in Malaysia to attend a screening of To Singapore, With Love. Can you tell us about such an event? Is your film still prohibited in Singapore, even through the internet?

TPP: If one wants to learn about the reach of power in Singapore, they could study the immediate aftermath of this ban.

The film was originally slated to world premiere with my other films Invisible City (2007) and Singapore GaGa (2005) in a triple-bill organised by National University of Singapore (NUS). When the ban was announced, the university remained silent even though they were the organisers of the presentation. In less dysfunctional democracies, the organisers would be the first to speak for the film.

Instead, on the same day, 40 leading artists, filmmakers and civil society activists, most of whom had not seen the film, spoke for the film with a short statement asking the censors to reconsider the ban and to allow different expressions of our past.

A week later, several twenty something civil society activists, using social media, found anonymous donors and chartered coaches to go to neighbouring Johor Bahru, Malaysia, to watch the film where it was slated to screen at the Freedom Film Festival (FFF). So one afternoon, more than 350 Singaporeans crossed the border, curious to see what the fuss was about. FFF is a small travelling human rights festival. To cope with the unexpected swell in numbers, they opened more screening rooms throughout the hotel. We had to use bed sheets to erect screens and borrow extra projectors. I never would have imagined a Singapore film premiere (in Malaysia!) such as this, but at the same time I felt glad that Singaporeans marched with their feet to go where Singapore laws cannot reach to find out for themselves.

Today, the film can screen privately in Singapore, but public and ticketed screenings are forbidden, DVDs cannot be sold here too. The film can screen overseas, so apart from the festival circuit, Singaporeans overseas have also organized public screenings in Australia, Hong Kong, UK, USA and Canada. Singaporean students in USA and London have also organised campus tours of the film.

It can be seen online on the Vimeo VOD site, but if you access it from Singapore, you will see a “Not available in your region” message. The censors prohibited me to let those with Singapore IP addresses have access.

NB: How do you feel about the future of Singapore, which, in a way, is the time set in your new work, Pineapple Town (2015)?

TPP: Pineapple Town is a short film that was commissioned to celebrate 50 years of Singapore’s Independence. In the film, a mother tries to find out more about her adopted baby’s past. The final part of the film is set in the future where the adoptive mother brings her young daughter to visit the little Malaysian town where she was born to acknowledge her past, even the troubled bits. The film is hopeful, it shows it is ok to face up to the past, not bury it.

NB: Would you have an advice to formulate for filmmakers in repressive or even dictatorial situations from all over the world?

TPP : I proffer this advice that was given by Dr. Poh Soo Kai at his book launch. He is a former political detainee who was featured in To Singapore, with Love. His book is called Life in a Time of Deception [Function 8 Ltd and Pusat Sejarah Rakyat, 2016].

He quotes from Paul A. Baran [Professor of Economics at Stanford University], who said in 1931, in the looming spectre of Hitler: “And if the tribulations of the political humdrum and the disappointments of our last decade have caused many of you to desire some political tranquility, to desire a vacation from politics, you must repress this attack of weakness with all your might. This desertion from the political battleground is the greatest crime against humanity that one can commit, because the others, the reactionary backwards striving forces never quit, never allow themselves a vacation from politics. And if you, infuriated and embittered, now renounce the political struggle; if you sulkily stand off to the side with a dismissive wave of your hand; then you leave the politics to the others; then you subject yourself to their domination.”

Official website
Full account of the ban

Paris-Singapore, March 2016.
Deep thanks to Silke Schmikle.

“7 Letters is Singapore’s entry to the Oscars” – Mocha Chai Laboratories

This interview was originally published in an email newsletter by Mocha Chai Laboratories on Dec 18, 2015.

Mocha Chai Labs Newsletter Header

We speak to Tan Pin Pin, the sole female director among the seven. A documentary filmmaker, she tells us this is her first piece of fiction work since her film school days.

PINEAPPLE TOWN allegorises political separation as familial separation as Singaporean adoptive parents search Malaysia for the biological mother – the “real” mother – of their daughter.

What is the inspiration behind your film in 7 Letters?
I wanted to make a film about a family’s healing and reconciliation with the past. I think as we move forward, we should try to understand how we came to be. I also wanted to reflect on our relationship with Malaysia.

As film directors, what do you consider as most important in a film? Eg. Story, Script, Production Value, Casting
Concept is important, a holistic idea that is coherent, that is followed through. I don’t think a film needs to be realistic or have great production values, but it must be coherent. Having said that, since I was going for realism in this film, I learnt the importance of casting, I never had to do it before! I am glad the actors came on board. We paid special attention to the smaller roles too.

How would you rank, in order of importance what makes a good film in your opinion?
1) Story/scripting or concept
2) Casting (where applicable)
3) Editing
4) Cinematography/Location/Set design/makeup/costume (all related)
5) Realistic scheduling

What can we look forward from Tan Pin Pin for the upcoming year?
New documentary coming out in 2016.

Anything you would like to add?
I’m very happy (on the Oscar selection) and hope for the best! Thanks very much for the effort, Isnor (our colorist) put into the film.

Pineapple Town (2015)

Watch Trailer here

Starring Lydia Look and produced by The Creative Room, Pineapple Town is a short fiction film that is part of the 7 Letters film omnibus. It features seven short films from seven Singapore filmmakers making a short film each to celebrate the 50th year of Singapore’s independence. The omnibus premiered at the refurbished Capitol Theatre on 24 July 2015 and it opened theatrically shortly after. It has garnered unanimous rave reviews. Pineapple Town is written and directed by Tan Pin Pin. It is her first dramatic film in 15 years.

Pin Pin’s segment Pineapple Town is about an adoptive mother who makes a road trip to a small Malaysian town to meet her daughter’s birth mother. It is about how she and her family cope with the unexpected outcome of that visit. As it is the only film that is set in the future, it is perhaps the most aspirational film of the omnibus.

15 min, 16:9, DCP, English and Chinese Subtitles


Ampulets: “Song to a lost Malaya and a different future”
The Straits Times “All directors turn in top grades for SG50 film project 7 Letters”

Interview with Pin Pin

by Wong Kim Hoh, excerpted from the DVD special edition book.

It is her first foray into fiction, so Tan Pin Pin was naturally apprehensive when making Pineapple Town.

“I was worried I may not be as fluent in the medium,” says the filmmaker, who has made more than 10 documentaries and is acknowledged as a pioneer of the genre in Singapore.

She need not have worried.

Pineapple Town is an assured piece of work, a thoughtful film which explores, like several other films in the omnibus, the idea of home, belonging and identity.

After adopting a baby girl from Malaysia, Li Ning (Lydia Look) decides to ask her adoption agent for a meeting with the baby’s birth mother. Li Ning reckons the baby will want to find out what her roots are when she grows up. She sets off for Malaysia with the adoption agent Sumathi. After taking a call, Sumathi stops the car at a restaurant along the highway and drops a shocker.

In an interview, Tan describes Pineapple Town as a road movie. Typically in a road movie, characters set out on a journey and, in the process, go through experiences which alter their perspective on life. “It’s all about the search for roots. I have always been interested in personal journeys and the historical beginnings of each individual,” she says. This obsession with roots is certainly reflected in several of her works. Moving House, which won her the Student Academy Award in 2002 while she was doing her Masters of Fine Arts at Northwestern University, chronicles a family’s experience as they exhume their ancestors’ graves and move their remains to a columbarium.

Her latest documentary To Singapore, with Love looks at the lives of political exiles and examines their memories and perspectives of Singapore. Although they have settled into new lives in different countries, many still think of themselves as Singaporeans and harbour hopes of coming home one day.

Tan dug into her own experience when writing Pineapple Town.

Her mother was born and bred in Kuala Lumpur. As a child, Tan spent a lot of time in that city with her grandmother and other relatives.

“I’m a die-hard Singaporean but my emotional boundaries are a lot more amorphous. I feel very rooted here, but in many ways, I also consider Malaysia home,” Tan says.

In tackling the story of Li Ning and the baby she adopts from across the Causeway, Tan also puts the ties between Malaysia and Singapore under the spotlight.

With Singapore’s independence from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965, they have become two different countries. Yet, they are inextricably linked through politics, ethnicity, culture, history and a host of other factors. They need and depend on each other in ways too numerous to list.

Tan’s camera captures this unique relationship in Pineapple Town. The Causeway is a central image; it is like the umbilical cord between the two countries. Each day, at least 250,000 people cross it on foot, by motorcycle or in cars, buses, lorries and trucks. Other striking images in the film include the huge water pipes that run alongside the Causeway. There are also shots of lorries filled with construction materials such as reinforced concrete to show that ties are still being built every day.

Emotional ties, Tan seems to suggest, transcend the physical boundaries between Singapore and Malaysia. Asked by Sumathi what she would like to eat at the restaurant in Malaysia, Li Ning replies: “Nasi lemak and teh.”
Tan says she has mostly focused on making documentaries because it seems more urgent. But she really enjoyed the process of working with actors in Pineapple Town.

“The casting process was really time consuming but I got a dream cast,” she says.

Look, a Singaporean actress based in Hollywood, delivers a layered performance as the adoptive mother seeking to understand the whats, whys and hows leading to the birth mother giving her baby away.

Pineapple Town ends in the future, and on a positive note.

The filmmaker says: “It’s my vision of what Singapore can do with her past. Let’s acknowledge our history and be comfortable with it. This will be a precious gift for future generations.”


Ning – Lydia Look
Sumathi – Anne James
Kang – Nickson Cheng
Michelle (Baby) – Rexy Tong
Michelle (6 Years Old) – Rianne Lee
Ah Gek – Yoo Ah Min
Kim Leng – Karen Lim
Birth Mum – Rachel Tay
Immigration Officer – Muhammad Zulhilmi Bin Ithnin
Grandfather (In Photo) – Ho Tin Ann
Grandmother (In Photo) – Lily Ong


Written and Directed By
Tan Pin Pin

Ric Aw
Pok Yue Weng
The Creative Room

Director of Photography
Brian Mcdairmant

Production Manager – Foo Xiuqi
1st Assistant Director – Tiffany Ng
Production Coordinator – Too Wai Shiuh, Sampson Teo
Production Assistant – Kelvin Yee, Terrence You Hui, Chan Jiamin
Art Director – Isaac Lee
Art Assistant – Syed Muhammad Alaydrus
Wardrobe Stylist – Meredith Lee
Wardrobe Assistant – Lee Xin Ying
Make Up Artist / Hair Stylist – Karen Lai
Casting Manager – Lim Jia Yun
Location Manager – Tan Yue Xing
1st Camera Assistant – Sam Quen Dean
2nd Camera Assistant – Feng Kexin
Data Wrangler – Khoo Su-Mae
Key Grip – Malik Basar
Grip – Marcus Chee
Gaffer – William Eng
Sound Recordist – Charlotte Wong
Movie Stills – Charmaine Poh
Production Driver – Yap Sui Boon, Chan Pit Wei, Abdul Rahman Bin Othman, Abdul Manan Bin Paei

Post Production

Offline Editor – Delcie Poh
Graphics – Elena Ho
DCP Mastering Services – Mocha Chai Laboratories
Colourist – Isnor Dzulkarnian Jaafar
Sound Editorial – Justin Seah
Music – “Dayung Sampan” Traditional Indonesian Folksong, hummed by Lydia Look

Special Thanks

Immigration & Checkpoints Authority of Singapore
Lee Qin Yi
Ang Bee Eik Doreen
Serene Wong
Hafary Pte Ltd
The Projector, Sharon Tan
Chan Kim Hong
Rathabai Paillai
Miss Lan
Yong Shu Ling
Karen Khoo
Yuni Hadi
Damon Chua
Ian Wee
Alan Yap
Chung Yin Ping
Candice Lim
Friends and Family of Tan Pin Pin

To Singapore, with Love (2013)

Official Website:


Singapore Director Tan Pin Pin travels to Malaysia, UK and Thailand to interview long term Singapore political exiles, some of whom have not been back to Singapore for more than 50 years. They talk about why they left and what Singapore still means to them today. They all fled Singapore in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s to escape the prospect of detention without trial. Some were activists or student leaders whilst others were card carrying communists. Through their interviews, you get a glimpse of a Singapore that could have been.

To Singapore, with Love, this award-winning film which screened to full houses the world over, has been banned from public screenings in Singapore for “undermining national security”.

Because of the ban, this film is available for pay-per-view streaming in all territories except for Singapore.

70 mins, 16:9, DCP, English, Mandarin, Malay and Hainanese, with English and Chinese subtitles


  • Winner, Best Director, Muhr AsiaAfria Documentary Awards. Dubai International Film Festival
  • Winner, Best Asean Documentary, Special Mention, Salaya International Documentary Festival
  • Winner, Asian Cinema Fund, Busan International Film Festival
  • Winner, Best Asean Documentary, Special Mention, Freedom Film Festival

Selected Screenings

  • 64th Berlinale, Forum
  • Art of the Real, Film Society of Lincoln Center, USA
  • Taiwan International Documentary Festival
  • World Premiere, In Competition, Busan International Film Festival 2013
  • Para-Site, Hong Kong


Ho Juan Thai 何元泰
Ang Swee Chai & the late Francis Khoo 洪瑞釵与邱甲祥
Sylvia Khoo
Christina Khoo
Ang Swee Kim
Wong Soon Fong 黄信芳
The late Liu Bo 刘波
Tan Wah Piow 陈华彪 & family
Mr & Mrs Tan Hee Kim 陈喜金与 叶婉珍
Chan Sun Wing 陈新嵘
Kua Kia Soong
Mr & Mrs He Jin 贺巾与 苏世华
Chong Ton Sin
The late Dr Lim Hock Siew
Poh Soo Kai 傅树介
Rose Tan Jing Quee 陈仁贵夫人
Said Zahari 赛·扎哈利
Tan Kok Fang
Music: Francis Khoo


Directed, Produced and Photographed by Tan Pin Pin ???
“15th of February” and “Anak Pulau Singapura” composed and performed by the late Francis Khoo.
Sound Editor: Justin Seah
Sound Re-recording Mixer: Leslie Low
Sound Post Producer: Vivian Wang
Colourist: David Shiyang Liu
Production Support: Josephine Seetoh
Additional Photography: Eric Youwei Lim
Graphics: Daryl Ho
Translator: Tan Dan Feng
Editor: Delcie Poh
Transcriber: Anonymous
DCP Production: Chai Yee Wei



To Singapore with Love Poster 450x632

Invisible City (2007)

Watch the full film online on VOD here.

Invisible City chronicles the ways people attempt to leave a mark before they and their histories disappear. From an avid amateur film director trying to preserve his decaying trove of Singapore footage to an intrepid Japanese journalist hunting down Singaporean war veterans, Tan Pin Pin draws out doubts, hopes and the ordinary moments of these protagonists who attempt immortality. Through their footage and photos rarely seen until now, we begin to perceive faint silhouettes of a City that could have been.

Invisible City had a four week sold our run at The Arts House in July 2007. It now tours Singapore and film festivals abroad

60 minutes. In Mandarin, Japanese and English, with Chinese and English Subtitles.


“A witty, intellectually challenging essay on history and memory as tools of civil resistance.”
– Citation, Cinéma du Réel

“This film brings new inspiration to the telling of Asian histories.”
– Taiwan International Documentary Festival

“The film invites debate about how the past can be remembered and history written, objectively, without fear or favour.”
– Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore


Asian Vision Award, Taiwan International Documentary Festival
Prix de la SCAM, Cinema du Reel
Asian Cinema Fund, Busan International Film Festival


Berlin International Film Festival
Busan International Film Festival
Flaherty Film Seminar
Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival
and more.

With Appearances by

Lim Chen Sian
Wee Sheau Theng
Yeo Kang Shua
Chua Ai Hua
Ivan Polunin
Siew Yen Polunin
Han Tan Juan
Chan Cheow Thia
Teng Siao See
Guo Ren Huey
Ho Meng Kit
Izumi Ogura
Ng Chun Kit
Majorie Topley
Majorie Doggett
Koh Tai Ann
Ong Chang Woei


Editor Inez Ang
Script Consultants Tan Siok Siok, Jasmine Ng Kin Kia
Associate Producer Lim Tiat
Photography Ryan Seet, Tan Pin Pin
Additional Photography James Teo
Additional Editing Martyn See
Production Support Lian Tsui Yee
Research Tan Wen Ling
Editing Assistant Cheryl Koh
Transcription Zhang Kang Min, Candace Zhou
Japanese voice over Fuwa Tomoko
Sound Designer Nigel Woodford
Colourist Pang Wei Fong Blackmagic Design
Grading Co-ordinator Hazel Ngiam
Graphics Elena Ho
Chinese Subtitles Lim Woan Hui, Eva Tang
Publicity Suryahti Abdul Latiff, Teng Qian Xi
Legal Advisor Alban Tay Mahtani & de Silva
Brand Strategy & Marketing Mindwasabi


Invisible City Poster 450x367

Singapore GaGa (2005)

Watch Singapore GaGa online on Netflix (SE Asia) or on worldwide VOD here.

Singapore GaGa (新加坡疯) is a paean to the quirkiness of the Singaporean aural landscape. It reveals Singapore?s past and present with a delight and humour that makes it a necessary film for all Singaporeans. We hear buskers, street vendors, avant garde musicians and madrasah school cheerleaders sing hymns to themselves and to their communities. From these vocabularies (including Arabic, Latin, Hainanese), a sense of what it might mean to be a modern Singaporean emerges. This is the first Singapore documentary to have a cinema release. It had a sold out 7 week theatrical run at The Arts House. With English and Chinese subtitles. The DVD released second half 2006 and it is still on sale at Objectifs.

Singapore GaGa world premiered at Singapore International Film Festival, Fringe, Goethe Institute, 2005

55 min, 4:3, 2013, with English and Chinese subtitles


“A subtly subversive yet thoroughly celebratory film… One of the best films about Singapore”

“Singapore GaGa presents a brilliant alternative gaga view of the go-go Lion City”

“If you see only one Singapore film, let this be it”

“55 richly textured minutes of sounds”
– 8 DAYS

“Ingenious, warm and ironic documentary about the rough edges of the most manicured city in the world. A documentary with character and real protagonists. With a sensitive ear and a sharp eye, she records what often is not heard or seen. The absurd in everyday life. Despite its light tone, the film has a lot to tell us about modern life, especially in Singapore. a country who wants to make rules for the unruleable.”

Bangkok Film Festival Pick

“In this revealing journey we hear people sing hymns to themselves and to their communities and a sense of what it might mean to be a modern Singaporean emerges without once resorting to the jingoism or rhetoric so often associated with such projects”

“Singapore GaGa portrays bittersweet image of Singaporeans? complex relationship with their homeland”

“With subtlety, humour and pathos”

With appearances by

Melvyn Cedello – the late night performer by Novena MRT
Victor Khoo and Charlee – the Mickey Mouse of Singapore
Yew Hong Chow – the harmonica virtuoso
Margaret Leng Tan – showing ‘The Art of the Toy Piano’
Gn Kok Lin (Mr. Ying) – the tap dancing, juggling and harmonica-playing performer.
Juanita Melson – The voice of the announcements on the MRT, Civil Defence Alerts (“This is an emergency”), and the Fujitech elevator (“Going Up!”)
Chinese Dialect News Readers:
— Chen Yoke Chin
— Loke Tai Tay
— Nyeo Siok Kee
— Tan Tew Hoon
— Koh Pheck Lian


Produced and Directed by Tan Pin Pin
Production Manager Josephine Seetoh
Cinematographers Ryan Seet, Reu Low, Tan Pin Pin
Sound Recordists Brian Lim, Rafi Dean, Michael Lee
With Assistance from Jasmine Ng, Suryahti Abdul Latiff, Tan Siok Siok, Lian Tsui Yee, Sun Koh, Linette Heng, Tong Jo-Tsze, Yin Phua, Lee Wong, Woo Mun Sen, Nigel Woodford
Off-Line Editors Martyn See, Low Hwee Ling
On-Line Editor Chia Noi Kheng
Sound Designer Nigel Woodford
Sound Engineer Andy Lam, Yellow Box Studios
Colorist Nigel Fernandez
Post Production Producer Gavin Chelvan
Transcribers Daniel Tham, Low Chun Foon, Hazel Ngiam, Priya Balraju, Renee Chua Hui Ling, Wang Zineng
Website ohplay interactive
Subtitles Tan Dan Feng, Interlexis
With Support from Infinite Frameworks, Singapore Film Commission, Asia Reseach Institute, National University of Singapore, Lee Foundation, Maxell Professional Media, CameraQuip

Singapore GaGa was conceived with support of the Asia Artist in Residence Programme, University of Technology, Sydney, Australia



Singapore GaGa Poster 450x636

Snow City (2011)

In hot tropical Singapore, a traveler stumbles upon polar bears, a road tunnel grand opening and office workers in cubicles. Deadpan in tone, surprising in content, the film captures a mood of a place where time stands still.

16 min, 4:3, English


“From this surprising stroll around Singapore, there wells up a discreet yet absurd humour”
– Cinéma du Réel

“With Tan’s unadorned visual style, Snow City gently earns your attention instead of demanding it. at heart, a film about the importance of seeing and perspective”
– Sindie


Directed by Tan Pin Pin
Editors: Sun Koh, Inez Ang
A commission by Singapore Biennale


80km/h (2003)

How long does it take to drive across Singapore at a constant speed of 80kmh?

I traverse the country in one long take. I start the camera rolling at an eastern point (the steeple of Changi Airport) and stop recording at a western point (Tuas Checkpoint). With no cuts, I document every inch of the country, from one exit point to the exit point at the other end of the island.

I keep the speed consistent at 80km/h so that this document has cartographical value. If the same route along the Pan Island Expressway is recorded every year, Singapore’s topographical changes can be mapped with previous recordings. I plan to film this road trip regularly.

This cross country document is a mere 38 minutes. Its duration is its message.

Recently, in the Aedes Gallery, Berlin, in an exhibition about WOHA Architects, the 2004 and 2005 versions were played side by side. We noticed that in one year, there were already many changes.


  • Singapore History Museum
  • p-10
  • Australian Film and Television School
  • University of Technology Sydney
  • Singapore Art Show
  • Berlin House of World Cultures
  • Institute of Contemporary Art, London


Conceived and shot by Tan Pin Pin
Titles by Mindwasabi
With help from, Isaiah Lim, Thio Lay Hoon, Suryahti Abdul Latiff, Lo Mun Hou, Jacqueline Loh, Irina Aristarkhova, Singapore Film Commission

Straits Times Review

by Emily Chua, Dec 5, 2004

Singapore’s fleeting past
Works by young Singaporean artists reflect a deep sense of loss

A SMALL island-nation whose government has been monopolised by the same political party since its inception, Singapore is a place whose history has largely been written in the single voice of the dominant authority.

It is therefore refreshing to find a group of young local artists who each appear to have, through their different artistic practices, all arrived at the question of their past.

A recent exhibition at an independent art space in Little India called p-10, And we took ourselves out of our hands (In Search of the Miraculous), featured several works that looked at Singapore’s past and raised questions about the nature of history itself.

For film-maker Tan Pin Pin, “Singapore jumped from Third World to First World in the years I grew up, the post-independence years of the 70s and 80s. Its development is nowhere more pronounced than in the speed in which buildings are demolished and built over. Growing up, I felt I was standing on soft ground.”

The product of this sentiment, Tan’s 80km/h, is a single-take video shot from the passenger’s seat of a car as it dissects the country at 80kmh along the Pan Island Expressway (PIE). A cartographic ritual henceforth to be repeated once every three years, Tan’s project promises to document the same cross-section of the country over a period of time.

In some ways, it is a piece that is already 30 years too late. A banal series of well-manicured trees, factories, schools, and block after block of government flats, 80km/h captures a Singapore that is unlikely to experience many more dramatic changes.

Yet it is perhaps in this lament that the piece works best. The artist’s desire to “obsessively document” originated in a developing Singapore that no longer exists.

Precisely because of this, the monotonous survey of the developed cityscape as it stands today serves only as an inadequate monument to all that is now irretrievably lost without a trace. Beyond Tan’s drive-by panorama, history exists as nothing but the individual’s imagination.

One way of dealing with the pain of this separation is suggested in Lee Sze-Chin’s Last Transmission. A video of the artist crying while watching Wit, an HBO original starring Emma Thompson, the piece stems from Lee’s desire to mourn the closing of Singapore’s first and only arts radio station, Passion 99.5 FM.

Caught without a video camera during the last moments of the station’s final broadcast, Lee missed capturing the actual event but decided afterwards to commemorate his sadness anyway, by using Wit as the substitute stimulant to move himself to tears.

A bizarre leap of logic, Last Transmission is compelling precisely in its pathetic determination to undertake the necessarily doomed enterprise of resurrecting a moment passed, in order to mark its passing.

Possessing a document of the past without the actual experience, on the other hand, is just as uncomfortable a situation as Guo Liang’s Greetings From An Old World describes.

Printed on a pamphlet that viewers can take home, the piece comprises a photograph of the 1930s’ Singapore amusement park, Happy World, and the artist’s reflections on the artefact.

“One imagines a place filled with street performers breathing fire and contortionists balancing china on their bent limbs; adrenaline- pumping joyrides and fantastical carousels,” the artist writes.

“Storytellers and fortune tellers line up side by side along narrow pathways and backside alleys, offering a concoction of old legends and mystic truths.”

This pointless exercise in fantasising about the past seems to be the artist’s almost involuntary, knee-jerk response to the image of a Singapore that came and went before him.

Yet after waxing lyrical for a couple of more paragraphs, even he cannot but realise the hollowness of his own initial response.

“I had reached the limit of the image and there was no way else to go. On hindsight, the image had never promised to take me anywhere other than the confines of its two-dimensional surface.”

Forsaking the stories that education and tradition have programmed us to repeat, the historical document, it seems, functions only as a reminder of the fundamental disconnect between the viewer and the past, an always misleading trace of a world whose truth must remain undiscovered, irrevocably sealed in the past.

Between one artist’s failed response to a historical document and two artists’ failed attempts to write them emerges a sense of documentation itself as the always frustrated desire to hold on to times that are constantly falling away.

Mere traces, documents leave the historian not with singular and objective truths about the past, but with subjective and incommunicable, imaginary reconstructions.

Radically undermining the view of history as a reproducible set of facts, the artists in this show experienced the past as that which is fundamentally and absolutely the no-longer-present.

What is realised between these three artworks is the quiet sadness surrounding every moment that passes the point of the present.

Emily Chua is a young Singaporean artist. Her collaborative works with Rutherford Chang were exhibited during SENI 2004 and at R(A): Rated Artistic at PKW gallery.


80kmh MAP 2.jpg

The Impossibility of Knowing (2010)

Official website:

Review by Sindie’s Jeremy Sing

The documentary visits and films locations where crimes or accidents have taken place, long after the events have happened to find out if these places can transcend time to engender their own significance. With the barest of details gleaned from contemporaneous news clippings, Pin Pin reconstructs the incidents via a dry voice over. The film is narrated by Lim Kay Tong who is the presenter for local crime re-construction series Crime Watch. The locales are marked with an address and you can visit these places.

11 mins 31 secs, 16:9, English


Completed and first screened at DMZ Docs 11 Sep 2010
In Competition, Visions du Reel
In Competition, Oberhausen
Singapore Biennale 2011


As Tan describes, this is an experiment in the ability of film to capture aura, albeit a failed one: visually, the images remain fundamentally architectural and documentary, with no explicit reference to tragedy or haunting. A fascinating game emerges in the relationship between narrative voiceover, which consists of a deadpan recounting of the incidents in a tone of dry reportage, and the video, which is similarly devoid of any prurient interest, as the viewer cannot help but search for clues in the moving space of the film. Emotion shapes geography, and the filmmaker in turn recreates this topography of affect through the application of the cinematic process.


Narrator Lim Kay Tong
Producer & Director Tan Pin Pin
Associate Producer Josephine Seetoh
Cinematographer David Shiyang Liu
Editor Grace Xiao
Sound Design & Audio Jerry Teo, SoundRooom
Transcription Asra Aman

Moving House (2001)

The Chew family is one of 55,000 Singapore families forced to relocate the remains of their relatives to a columbarium as the gravesite is needed for urban redevelopment. The picnic mood of the family outing to move the remains belies the sadness and confusion everyone feels.

In February 2001, Discovery Networks Asia made an open call for ideas for documentaries about Asia. They wanted to commission work from emerging Asian documentary filmmakers who would be given a rare opportunity to conceive and produce work for the channel. The open call attracted over 400 pitches. Moving House was one of six documentary ideas chosen to be funded. Moving House was screened in December 2001 throughout Asia. It became the first documentary commissioned by Discovery Channel to be entirely conceptualized, initiated and directed by a Singaporean.

Moving House (2001) is Pin Pin’s Northwestern University’s thesis film which won a Student Academy Award for Best Documentary. It was based on her first film also called Moving House, shot in 1995. The earlier version is found below. While both films’ narrative arcs are similar, the tone and treatment are very different.

22 min, 4:3, Chinese with English Subtitles


  • Student Academy Award, Best Documentary
  • Discovery Channel’s Asia First Time Filmmaker Award
  • Chicago International Film Festival, Certificate of Merit
  • Nextframe, Documentary Prize. USA-Asean Best Documentary Award.
  • Finalist, International Documentary Association/David L. Wolper Student Achievement Award
  • Finalist, Golden Reel Award, Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film & Video Award


  • Kodak Emerging Filmmakers? Showcase, Cannes 2003
  • Australian International Documentary Conference
  • Discovery Channel Asian & Australian Broadcast
  • Bangkok Short Film and Video Festival
  • International Film and Video Awards, Hong Kong
  • Philadelphia International Film Festival
  • NextFrame Traveling Film and Video Festival
  • Image Union, Chicago Public Television Broadcast
  • Commonwealth Film Festival, UK
  • Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film &Video Festival
  • Chicago Asian American Showcase
  • Malaysian Video Awards
  • Women Inspire, Singapore
  • Asian Film Symposium, Singapore
  • Loyola Marymount University Television
  • Malaysian Video Awards


Director/Writer Tan Pin Pin
Production Manager Suryahti Abdul Latiff
Line Producer Ho Choon Hiong
Camera Jackie Ong, Ho Choon Hiong, Lucas Jodogne
Production Assistant Lee Chuen Ling
Sound Recordist Michael Lee, Cheong Yew Mun
Camera Assistant Lillian Wang
Off-line Editor Gek Li San, Daryl Burney
On-line Editor Hendry Keck
Music Composer Philip Tan
Audio Mixing Muhd bin Jafar
Narrator Remesh Panicker
Graphics Marc Campbell

Production Management

For Live Art Television, Singapore
Robert Andrews
Amelia Hanibelsz

For Discovery Channel International
Executive Producer
Chris Haws

For Discovery Networks Asia
Series Supervising Producer
Bruce Moir

Executive Producer
Vikram Channa

Executive in Charge of Production
James Gibbons

MH - Featured Image for homepage
Moving House (1997)

Gravedigger’s Luck (2003)

Gravedigger’s Luck is the sequel to the award-winning Moving House. It documents the trials and tribulations of Ah Kow, the gravedigger whom Pin Pin met while shooting Moving House. The film takes a humorous look at the work of a gravedigger in Singapore. It follows him as he tries out multiple luck-enhancing methods to improve his luck which he believes has worn thin because of his job as a grave exhumer. Gravedigger’s Luck was the runner up for Best Documentary at the Asian TV Awards, and the runner up for Best Infotainment Programme.

It is part of a 6-part Discovery series, Afterlife, where Pin Pin was the series co-consultant.


Written & Directed by Tan Pin Pin
Series Producer David Moggie
Series Editors Tan Pin Pin, Jasmine Ng
Assistant Producer Ho Choon Hiong
Production Assistants Augustine Low, Joe Kia, Maverick Guo
Camera Haruld Goh, Low Ling Hooi, Nelson Pereira
Additional Camera Jack Tan, Russell Zendher, Ivan Yeo, Goh Meng Hing
Camera Assistants Lim Tian Chye, Ben Ong
Sound LT Chan, James Choong, Yazer Aziz
Post Production VHQ Post (S) Pte. Ltd.
Editor Tammy Quah
Media Assistant Stanley Low
Colourist Corey Spykerman
Opening Titles & Graphics Lulu Li, Elena Ruey Ho
Post-Production Coordinator Sandy Cheah
Original Music & Sound Design Nigel Woodford
Sound Mix Shtung Pte. Ltd.
Narrator David Moggie

Thanks To
Chan Ah Kaw
Chua Ah Tee
Ang Yew Seng Funeral Parlour
Lee Teoh Heng Undertaker
Heng Kok Handicraft
Ho Yoke Cheong
Sin Hoe Ping Puppet Show
Hu Ji Hua Musical Troupe
Eddie Lo
Lian Shan Shuang Lin Temple
Huang Jialing
AP Minimart Toa Payoh
Singapore Pools
Colin Lauw
Block 219 Toa Payoh Lorong 8 Zhong Yuan Hui
Geylang Bahru Zhong Yuan Hui
Han Kwang Wei
Tan Siok Siok
Soh Seok Hoon
Lo Mun Hou
Michael Lee


Unit Production Manager Sharon Demello
Executive Producers Chris Batson, Jocelyn Little
For Discovery Networks Asia
Production Manager Lil Cranfield
Executive Producer Vikram Channa
Executive in Charge of Production James Gibbons