This is the one unifying thread that runs through the following selection of notable titles currently available via streaming platforms.
Whether they are festival favourites such as Eric Khoo and Anthony Chen, or relative newcomers such as Sandi Tan, Eva Tang or Kirsten Tan, their recent works have all found audiences well beyond Singapore shores, and garnered acclaim and awards.
The one title from this selection not to have a Singaporean director, a big-budget blockbuster series set in the Yuan Dynasty, features several familiar faces sharing the screen with Hollywood luminaries.
Out now, Projector Plus
Stars: Penpak Sirikul, Thaneth Warakulnukroh, Kantisuda Meebunmak
Some people, when they are having a midlife crisis, go out and buy a flashy sports car. The protagonist of this Thai-language film, which was directed by Singaporean Kirsten Tan in her feature debut, goes out and buys himself an elephant. The elephant in question, a trained street performer, turns out to be his childhood companion, Pop Aye. Together, man and beast set off from Bangkok towards their rural hometown, and the middle-aged man discovers some home truths about himself.
Pop Aye won a Special Jury Prize in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition section of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It was also the Singaporean entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards, but it was not nominated.
The Songs We Sang
Out now, Projector Plus and Netflix
Stars: Eric Moo, Liang Wern Fook, Billy Koh
An ode to xinyao, this film by Eva Tang is a loving portrait of a uniquely Singaporean musical movement that first arose in the 1970s and peaked in the 1980s. Essentially Mandarin folk songs set against the socio-political and cultural landscape of the era, xinyao songs now evoke a deep nostalgia for the sounds made popular by the pioneers of the genre, such as Liang, Moo and Koh. Through interviews, retro footage and recent concert performances, this documentary is now the definitive guide to the subject.
Out now, Projector Plus
Stars: Yeo Yann Yann, Christopher Lee, Koh Jia Ler
A put-upon Chinese teacher (Yeo) struggles to keep her marriage afloat as she undergoes futile fertility treatments and finds her husband (Lee) drifting away from her. With him frequently absent, she is left to tend to his frail father and show up at family functions. At school, she takes notice of a student (Koh) who has his own sense of estrangement from his parents. Director Anthony Chen reunites with his Ilo Ilo stars Koh and Yeo, who won the Best Actress prize at the Golden Horse Awards for her performance. Singapore’s entry to the Oscars in 2020.
Out now, HBO Go
Stars: Takumi Saitoh, Seiko Matsuda, Mark Lee
Shortly after his father’s death, a Japanese ramen chef (Takumi) finds among his personal effects a notebook left behind by his Singaporean mother, who had passed away long ago. Seeking to unravel the mystery of his parents’ unspoken love affair, and the missing details from his own life story, he heads to Singapore and finds his uncle, a bak kut teh seller (Lee). When he meets his grandmother for the first time, he learns more than just family recipes. This Eric Khoo film had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, and also picked up the Audience Choice Award at the 2019 Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival.
Out now, Netflix
Stars: Sandi Tan, Jasmine Ng, Sophia Siddique Harvey
A film documenting a film that never was. Former journalist Sandi Tan’s acclaimed documentary feature, a prize winner at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, reflects on the teenage Tan making an independent movie in the early 1990s. With help from her friends Ng and Harvey, Tan wrote and acted in the original Shirkers. However, the film was never released as the director vanished mysteriously with all the footage. Then one day, decades later, Tan gets an email about how she can recover the footage.
Aside from the Sundance Film Festival, Shirkers also won the Best Documentary Film Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and was nominated for Best Documentary at the Gotham Independent Film Awards.
Out now, Netflix
Stars: Lorenzo Richelmy, Benedict Wong, Chin Han
The famed explorer Marco Polo was a rarity of his day: a European traveller who observed the East through his own eyes as he journeyed across Asia’s Silk Road in the 13th century. As a young man, he also served in Kublai Khan’s court. Boasting Hollywood stars such as Joan Chen, Gabriel Byrne and Michelle Yeoh, this epic series examines drama and palace intrigue inspired by Polo’s life, and also features Singapore’s very own Chin Han, Tan Kheng Hua, Oon Shu An and Tosh Zhang.