12 Storeys

12 StoreysThe film I will be talking about in this essay will be 12 Storeys (Eric Khoo, 1997). I will be discussing this film in relation to why it might be considered to be “the truest Singaporean film of all time” with direct referencing to the film itself. I will be analysing how the film strives to portray an authentic vision of Singapore and everyday Singaporean life with the use of slang images such as its use of language and space. I will also be looking at the lives of the four families, of which the film centers on, in detail. With the use of these analyses and references from other sources, I will be support the claim that 12 Storeys is “the truest Singaporean film of all time”.

The first aspect of the film that I will be looking at is where the film begins: the opening credits. The opening credits are a vital part of this film. The images shown give us an idea of the mood, people and places the film will be exploring and in this case, the opening credits do a magnificent job of setting this mood up. In the opening credits we see Khoo’s image of Singapore life. We see dark spaces and HDB flats at night. We see illuminated windows with people in them living out their lives, doing what they always do at night. We see dark stairwells and a lonely car on an empty but brightly lit road. This immediately gives us a feeling of alienation and loneliness which I will be talking about later on in this paper. We see families watching television together, a boy doing his schoolwork, a boy on his computer, a couple kissing and an old Indian man. We are being shown more and more different Singaporean lives. We see fingers playing a game of mahjong, a very popular Chinese game commonly played amongst Chinese-Singaporeans, and a Singapore Airlines stewardess, also known as the ‘Singapore Girl’, entering her HDB flat. We are seeing Singaporeans living out their lives.

This opening sequence gives us a clear image of what Eric Khoo wants us to get out of this film. He wants to show Singapore and Singaporeans in the most authentic way possible. He wants to show them as they are, simply untouched. With the use of certain shots such as the lonely car, identically lit HDB windows, dark stairwells and spaces, and isolated individuals, we can see that he also wants to address the idea of alienation and the feeling of isolation among Singaporeans (Tan, Lee & Aw, 2003). The opening sequence also shows us the space that will be used to address these ideas: An HDB estate.

12 Storeys centers around the lives of four families who all live in the same HDB estate. The HDB is the quintessential Singaporean space (Khoo, p.90). This is the first of the major slang images the film uses to represent an authentic Singapore. When I use the term ‘slang images’ I am referring to images within the film that project Singaporean-ness, a unique local identity and a vernacular for Singaporean life (Khoo, p.87). “Approximately 85% of Singaporeans live in State-subsidized housing; there is a clear class divide between an elite minority and the rest of Singapore’s population despite the official rhetoric of the nation’s economic successes…It is a particular aesthetic choice made to represent the ‘local’ in Singapore.” (Khoo, p.88). HDB’s, which stands for Housing Development Board, are a great representation of modern Singaporean society. “The housing projects were originally founded in 1960 on democratic socialist principles for ‘creat[ing] social justice,’ and provid[ing] a ‘safety net’ [for]…families who did not have enough to meet their minimum needs.” (Tan, Lee & Aw, 2003). Shots of HDB’s are constantly used in Singaporean films and television shows to represent an authentic local setting.

However, the use of the HDB estate is different in 12 Storeys as compared to other uses in Singaporean television shows and films. These shows and films highlight the HDB’s with quick panning or static shots whereas 12 Storeys shows them in a much darker and grittier light. 12 Storeys shows us inside these HDB’s and the lives of the people who live there. We see shots of the HDB’s at night as well as the large number of identically lit windows in the opening sequence. It is with the use of these slang images of the HDB estate and the lives within them that 12 Storeys portrays an authentic version of HDB life within Singapore.

Khoo deals heavily with the idea of urban alienation and isolation in 12 Storeys. This is something all HDB-dwellers can relate to as even as neighbors, there is a sense of lack of communication and social interaction. Khoo gets behind the closed doors of the everyday HDB-families with the use of a dead man who commits suicide early in the film. He acts as, “a detached silent observer of the happenings behind closed doors, of the deep secrets within.” (Tan, Lee & Aw, 2003). With the use of this observer we are able to get an insight into the lives of the HDB-dwellers. We witness some severe communication troubles between people in these households. One such example is when we see San San (Lucilla Teoh) share a lift with the anonymous man, as he enters the lift, she turns away as if to show that she is avoiding any form of contact with this man. Another example is how Ah Gu (Jack Neo) stops spending time with his friends at the coffee shop after his marriage. This also allows us to take a look at the friends at the coffee shop. At no point in time do they talk about anything personal or anything about their lives. This once again gives us a sense of isolation among these HDB-dwellers.

This idea of lack of communication and alienation is continually present throughout the film and represents that side of Singapore society that has issues of communication and isolation. “All these scenarios provide an index, both literal and analogical, to dysfunctional relations in modern Singaporean society.” (Tan, Lee & Aw, 2003).

Another slang image used in 12 Storeys is the use of a number of different languages within the film, which represents the diversity of languages spoke within the country. The majority of Singapore’s population is made up of Chinese-Singaporeans but there are a great variety of languages and dialects used within the country and some have been disowned by the government. We hear languages such as Standard English and Mandarin within the film as well as dialects such as Hokkein, Cantonese and Teochew. We also hear a great use of Singlish. Singlish is the, “vernacular form of ungrammatical English mixed with Malay and Chinese dialect spoken by most Singaporeans but not acceptable in official public discourse.” (Chua & Yeo, 2003). The best example of use of Singlish in 12 Storeys would be the scene in which Meng (Boon Pin Koh) meets Trixie’s (May Yee Lum) boyfriend, Eddy. Eddy uses the ideal version of the Singlish slang and is a perfect representation of the average Singaporean who uses the language.

Lets take a look at another piece of the film that represents Singaporean-ness and shows authenticity: the use of the Kopitiam. Kopitiams are coffee shops and are a huge part of everyday life in Singapore. They are a place to eat, drink and socialise. A lot of Singaporeans spend much of their time here, mostly with friends as seen in 12 Storeys. The use of the Kopitiam is very similar to the use of the HDB; it is present in most Singaporean television shows and films. It us used as an authenticating device to represent Singapore. In 12 Storeys, the use of the Kopitiam revolves around a group of men sitting down, drinking, gossiping, and discussing current affairs. This is seen as an ideal representation of Kopitiam life in Singapore. The Kopitiam is even used heavily in Eric Khoo’s previous film, Mee Pok Man, as an authentic local setting. The Kopitiam plays a large role in the modern Singaporean society and is once again displayed in 12 Storeys.

The second part of the quote in the question I am covering here reads, “Its so truthful it hurts.” Why might the truthfulness of this film hurt? The reasons for this are that 12 Storeys shows a different side of Singapore; a side that is rarely projected in other forms such as television and other films. The Singapore that the rest of the world sees is that of a modern Asian nation, desirable tourist location, and an ethno-linguistic diverse and business nation (Khoo, p. 82). 12 Storeys strives to show the other side of that; the authentic side to Singapore. The only way to do this however is to be hard on the average Singaporean life and to show it for what is really is. 12 Storeys does this by showing the dark side of everyday Singapore life.

Tan See Kam, Michael Lee Hong Hwee, and Annette Aw (Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 2003) write this about 12 Storeys, “[It is] not the sort of artistic tract that government bodies such as the Economic Development Board and Singapore Tourist Board would rush to get hold of to promote Singapore as ‘a centre of excellence’ and ‘an attractive [investment] place.’ Amidst Singapore’s renowned ‘greenness and cleanliness,’ Khoo shows drabness and dreariness.” This is absolutely true and evident within the film. We see characters that embody traits such as lust, hatred, and ignorance along with the theme of suicide, which runs throughout the film. We have Trixie, who spends most of her nights out with her boyfriend, Eddy, a pimp and admits to losing her virginity at the age of 13. We have her brother Meng, who at first appears to be the idea Singaporean, always looking out for his family but is then exposed as to being sexually frustrated and there is even evidence to show that this is directed at his sister. We have San San, a woman who lives alone with the knowledge of her dead mothers hatred for her. We have Ah Gu and Lily (Yi Fong Chuang), a married couple whose marriage is deteriorating due to Lily’s hatred for Ah Gu and Singapore in general. And finally we have the dead man whose parents can’t even comfort each other as they talk about their dead son. 12 Storeys uses these characters to prove a point that there is always a flip side to the coin. A dark side of the moon. And this truth is sometimes painful.

12 Storeys is a film about everyday, average, and normal Singapore life. It portrays Singapore in the most authentic way it can with the use of a number of slang images. It bases its events around an HDB estate, which can be seen as the quintessential Singaporean setting. It makes use of the large variety of dialects spoken in Singapore by showing all four families using different languages such as Singlish and other Chinese dialects such as Cantonese. Eric Khoo uses his film to deal with the idea of isolation, alienation and loneliness in everyday Singapore life. We see a lack of social interactions between all four families and social problems occurring within the households. We see the use of Kopitiams to represent an authentic local setting as well as a group of friends who spend much of their time there. And finally we see how 12 Storeys sheds light on the dark side of Singapore life by projecting Singapore in great contrast to the Singapore, which is projected out to the rest of the world. All of these aspects of 12 Storeys make it an extremely authentic representation of Singapore, its people, and the lives they live. These aspects make 12 Stories, “the truest Singaporean film of all time.”

12 Storeys 9.1 of 10 on the basis of 1078 Review.