While Singapore may not have the biggest or most prolific film industry, make no mistake, quantity is not indicative of quality. From insightful indie darlings that have graced prestigious festivals around the world, to mainstream crowd-pleasing comedies, to evergreen classics that have stood the test of time – Singaporean visual storytellers have crafted a rich tapestry of movies over the decades. And we here at Popwire have rounded up just some of favourite local offerings in commemoration of the nation’s 55th birthday! Whether they’re personal character studies, broadly humorous sketches, or eye-opening looks into our sanitized society’s hidden darkness, each of these films offer a glimpse into the diversity of the Singaporean identity.
(Most of these films can now be streamed on Netflix.)
Honorable mentions: A Yellow Bird, Ibu Mertuaku, Sandcastle, Pop Aye, Singapore Dreaming, Be With Me, Wet Season, 881, The Blue Mansion, The Teenage Textbook Movie, Perth, Bugis Street
Royston Tan’s striking and stylized exploration of Singapore’s youth gangs may have been bridled with controversy during its initial release, but 15 has grown to become one of the country’s most respected films. Based on the director’s award-winning short film of the same name – this loosely plotted, grittily authentic and viscerally kinetic look into the troubled lives of teenage gangsters (played by real-life gang members) is unforgettable.
Ilo Ilo (2013)
Besides heralding the arrival of one of Singapore’s finest auteurs in Anthony Chen, Ilo Ilo also garnered international attention by being the first Singaporean film to win the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Based on Chen’s own childhood, this poignant film follows the relationship between a Singaporean family (specifically their 10-year-old son Jiale) and their Filipino maid Teresa. A moving portrait of heartland life in the 1990s, Ilo Ilo personalizes the struggle of the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the treatment of foreign domestic helpers.
Based on the Malay folktales of a vampiric ghost born from a woman who dies in childbirth, Pontianak was one of the biggest box office hits in pre-Independence Singapore. In fact, its success went on to spawn an entire genre of pontianak films, as rival studios in Singapore and Malaysia attempted to capitalize on its success. Helmed by Indian director B.N. Rao, this classic horror tale isn’t just a frightening gem, it’s a supernatural allegory that offers real insight into the socio-cultural fears and anxieties ingrained in the local psyche.
Written and directed by Sandi Tan, Shirkers’ stranger than fiction documentary is a love letter to the lost history of Singapore’s young renegade filmmakers and the country’s bygone charm, as well as an exorcism of the ghost of a narcissistic, cinephile grifter who sabotaged Tan’s film. The creative DIY highs of her avant-garde passion project’s production, is contrasted with the heartbreaking frustration and strained friendships of it’s unfinished aftermath. Funny and poignant, this inventive investigation is both a celebration of outsider art and a cautionary tale.
12 Storeys (1997)
The first Singaporean film to be screened at Cannes was Eric Khoo’s blackly comic second feature, 12 Storeys. Comprising intercut yet unrelated stories, this film chronicles a day in the lives of ordinary residents living within a HDB flat. From a middle-aged soup vendor dealing with his young “China Bride”, to a depressed and suicidal woman, to an elder brother who reigns over his rebellious siblings with an iron fist – the stories of 12 Storeys remain as observant snapshots of the inhabitants of Singapore’s urban jungle.
This somber and sobering film by Boo Junfeng is a tightly focused character drama dealing with the ethical and emotional weight of capital punishment in Singapore. Following a young Malay corrections officer Aiman (Fir Rahman) as he’s mentored by Changi Prison’s chief executioner Rahim (Wan Hanafi Su), Apprentice is an unflinching, thought-provoking and humanist examination of the death penalty from the side of the hangman, and the loved ones the executed leaves behind.
Eating Air (1999)
Billing itself as “a motorcycle kung-fu love story,” this feature debut by directors Kelvin Tong and Jasmine Kin Kia Ng runs wild with anarchic energy. Partly a love story between Boy, a teenage motorcyclist who fantasizes about becoming a martial arts master, and Girl, a shy student who works in a photocopy shop – this vibrant film bristles with punk spirit and the pangs of young romance. From dangerous rides to delinquent pranks, Eating Air was one of the gutsiest films to come out of the city-state in the 90s.
To Singapore, With Love (2013)
Despite being banned in Singapore, this controversial documentary went on to find acclaim at festivals around the world. Directed by Tan Pin Pin, To Singapore, With Love humanizes the stories and explores the beliefs of Singapore’s political exiles. The film offers an intimate portrait of the nine Singaporeans who were forced to flee the country during the 1960s and 70s due to the government’s persecution of citizens with communist ideals (many others were arrested without trial). By offering personal perspectives on this shameful era, this documentary spotlights that dissident voices are born not of hate, but of love.
Pendekar Bujang Lapok (1959)
The second entry into P. Ramlee’s beloved Bujang Lapok film series is widely considered to be the best, but honestly, all five are worth your time. Pendekar Bujang Lapok (translated as The Three Bachelor Warriors) stars the trio returning trio of P. Ramlee, S. Shamsuddin and Aziz Sattar as raggedy bachelors who try to learn the Malay martial art of silat in order to take down a gang of hoodlums. This Best Comedy winner at the 6th Asian Film Festival features timeless and witty humour alongside an abundance of wonderful classic Malay songs, making this an evergreen feature that’s still revered generations later.
7 Letters (2015)
This omnibus commemorates the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence by collecting seven indelible short stories crafted by many of the filmmakers already featured on this list such as Boo Junfeng, Eric Khoo, K. Rajagopal, Kelvin Tong, Royston Tan, Jack Neo and Tan Pin Pin. 7 Letters is a beautiful, cinematic anthology that each reveals facets of Singapore’s multilingual, multi-ethnic fabric. At turns funny, nostalgic, contemplative and affecting, these short films are a love letter to Singapore’s evolving identity, folklore and sense of family.
Army Daze (1996)
Few Singaporean comedies are as iconic as Ong Keng Sen’s hilarious National Service farce. Based on Michael Chiang’s 1987 play of the same name, the film portrays a group of 18-year-olds from different classes and cultural backgrounds as they try to survive their enlistment into the Singapore Armed Forces. Even watching this movie two decades later, it’s astonishing how much of Army Daze’s spectacle of broad humour and friendship remains relatable and potent, especially for Singaporen men.
Unlucky Plaza (2014)
Ken Kwek’s debut feature film is a satirical hostage thriller that uses a crime caper and incisive humour to peel back the layers of Singapore’s facade of melting pot harmony. Unlucky Plaza follows a Filipino man named Onassis Hernandez (Epy Quizon) struggling to make ends meet, who falls victim to a financial scam. Desperate, Onassis takes several Singaporeans hostage for ransom. This wildly entertaining film takes a cynical view of Singapore’s materialistic mindset, alongside the racism, xenophobia and social divisions that hide underneath.
Mee Pok Man (1995)
The debut feature of celebrated Singaporean auteur Eric Khoo, Mee Pok Man follows a lonely noodle seller who grows infatuated with a prostitute that frequents his stall. Instead, she falls in love with a sleazy British photographer who she believes can help realise her modeling dreams. The film – which involves necrophilia, alienation and disillusionment – was a groundbreaking landmark in Singaporean cinema, and remains influential till this day. From consumerism to food to sex, Khoo unpacked the unseen anxieties of Singaporeans in the most vibrant manner.
1987: Untracing The Conspiracy (2014)
Directed by Jason Soo, this bold and important documentary revolves around 1987’s Operation Spectrum, where 22 people accused of being involved in a “Marxist Conspiracy” to overthrow the government, were detained without trial under Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA). The detainees were tortured and coerced into implicating themselves and their friends on national television. Featuring interviews with ex-detainees and political exiles, 1987 tells firsthand stories of their unjust ordeal, and Singapore’s ugly history of curtailing civic activism.
The Last Artisan (2018)
This documentary by Singapore-based filmmaker Craig McTurk chronicles the life and legacy of Mr. Teo Veoh Seng, the dedicated head artisan of Haw Par Villa. For 70 years, Mr. Teo has been responsible for creating and maintaining the park’s macabre statues and nightmarish dioramas depicting tortured sinners. The Last Artisan offers an insightful look at the unsung master craftsman as he trains new apprentices to take over once he retires.