SFS Film HOMECOMING, 20 Jan

(spoilers ahead)

The documentary film opens with an elderly man walking onto the Changi Jetty, boarding the boat to Ubin, then alighting and walking onto the jetty of Pulau Ubin. As the film captures all these scenes in a characteristic slo-mo sequence from different angles — a shot of his back, then his front, a focus on his feet, his hands — HOMECOMING (2016) then essentially opens with its very namesake: a homecoming. The old man begins to narrate his life story as he reaches Ubin. He reveals that he spent his childhood on the island, having attended the only school available on Ubin in those days — Bin Kiang School. Walking along the road that leads to the Wayang Stage, now filled with bicycle rental shops, he waves to others, a congenial smile adorning his face.

HOMECOMING is an amalgamation of different narrative threads, featuring stories from a dizzying assortment of characters: a man named “Crazy Dog” because “he anyhow bites people”, a boat operator named “Shark”, a lady identified simply as “Er Jie” who manages the convenience store which her ancestors set up, a pakcik who fled from Johor Bahru to Pulau Ubin with his family during World War II, a middle-aged man showing the sights of Ubin to his two children, so on and forth. Homecoming weaves in and out of all these various narratives, often leaving a character for the story of another, before returning to the same character a few minutes later. Transitions between characters are marked by distinct musical shifts. Crazy Dog is introduced to the background music of an uplifting, boisterous getai-esque music, a far cry from the soothing melody that preceded it. Indeed, Crazy Dog’s accompanying background music is as loud as his personality. Driving in his lorry, which is an Ubin “taxi”, he speaks brashly, but not unkindly. Speaking in Chinese, he proclaims to his interviewer, “I studied at Bin Kiang School till I graduated Primary 6. After that, it closed down. Why did it close down? Who caused Bin Kiang School to close down? The person at fault is the father of my children!” The audience laughs. Later in the film, another character reveals that the school was shut down due to insufficient student enrollment. Ubin resident Ahmad Bin Kassim tells the story of how his family escaped from Johor Bahru during World War II. “The Japanese stabbed my father with a bayonet. Thankfully, the wound wasn’t deep. We got into a sampan and escaped Johor Bahru. The sampan was small, but somehow everyone in my family fit into it. We rowed to Ubin. I have been here ever since.” Ahmad, or more affectionately called pakcik, recounts all these in Malay. “But no one believes me,” he says.

Despite having to juggle the stories of around 10 characters, the film does not collapse under the weight of all these stories. The frame story — the story of Ubin — remains intact. The film shows the story of Ubin as being the sum of all the experiences of these people who have, in one way or another, very intimate connections to Ubin, both physically and emotionally. Yet it does not neglect the fact that Ubin is also home to another set of residents — its animals. A man walks across a path and into the forest. 10 seconds later, a family of wild boars obediently follow after him. The camera captures these wild boars frolicking together in the wild, as he narrates his relationship with his “fat” (he says this affectionately) sister who recently gave birth to a child. Another elderly man narrates how he used to own poultry in his backyard, even having an ostrich and 2 peacocks in his collection. When the bird flu arrived, he relates, officials from the Agri-food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) arrived and claimed his fowls. His story earns a few chuckles from the audience.

Towards the end, the film captures various sentiments of emptiness. As Er Jie and her sister revisits the Kampong house that once housed her family, the house feels oddly like a museum exhibit, merely a token of old Singapore. The space is largely empty of furniture, save for a table here, a chair there and a few characteristically “Singaporean” objects. To this, Er Jie laments, “This place is now empty of the happiness and sadness that once were here. It is now an ‘empty’ house.” The middle-aged man who grew up on Ubin and has brought his children with him to visit the island tells them to bring their future children here. He states his hopes that Ubin will remain as it is into the far future.

The film thus ends on a poignant note. The elderly man who we first see in the beginning is shown gazing wistfully at a makeshift sign which features an old black-and-white photograph of Bin Kiang School. The camera pans out. It is revealed that the land which the sign now stands on has been overrun by trees and long grass. As he stares into the thick undergrowth of what was once his school, the old man cuts a lonely figure. The final scene features the same old man as he stands at the front of the Uncle Lim shop, looking across to the Wayang Stage. In the background, a man is heard singing a Hokkien song. The credits play. The elderly man sitting beside me in the audience sings along.

In the Q&A session following the screening, He Shu Ming (the director) describes his film-making process. Local director Royston Tan served as the executive producer in this project, but unfortunately he was not able to attend the session. According to Director He, it took him 2–3 months of interacting before his interviewees were comfortable with him and his crew. Indeed, the making of the film was not without its problems. While Er Jie kindly helped the film crew in connecting with the people on the island, she was in fact uncomfortable with ‘outsiders’ repeatedly visiting Pulau Ubin. Especially in light of their NHB connection (this film is a commissioned project), she had expressed her lingering fear of possible eviction by the authorities. In fact, Director He revealed that the residents were very careful with what they said so that they “would not get into trouble”.

Furthermore, there was also a sense of fatigue on the part of the interviewees, who sometimes felt like they were paraded in a zoo, especially because they have been featured in a large number of documentaries made about Ubin. When the team visited pakcik, they were informed that they were the 3rd group of people who had interviewed him in that week alone. Interestingly, when I visited Ubin yesterday, I actually saw pakcik speeding down the path on his scooter. While on the one hand, it felt like I was meeting a celebrity of sorts, on the other hand, I felt slightly uneasy about the experience. Would I want a random stranger to know my life story? Well, pakcik must have known his story would be told to thousands of people when he did his interviews, but as a viewer, I wonder if I have indirectly objectified him in any way.

Not only so, that the interviewees have been interviewed so often that they have become ‘seasoned’ makes me wonder: what exactly does all these short films about them do, if their content are largely similar? These films are pretty, but then what? Can a film on Ubin do more than supposedly educating the masses? The notion of heritage has certainly taken root in the Singaporean popular imagination, yet for films on Pulau Ubin — or even on heritage in general — to revolutionise the way people think and act seems like a feat that remains quite a distance away. Following this, a key subject of discussion was that of ‘nostalgia porn’. The host mentioned how, in recent years, students from polytechnics have been mimicking the slo-mo sequencing and narrative style of Royston Tan’s films. I find Director He’s ready agreement with the presence of ‘nostalgia porn’ deeply ironic, because I feel that HOMECOMING in itself has also failed to escape these very trappings.

In comparison with Clarice Lee’s Life on Ubin (2016), HOMECOMING is certainly much more well-polished in terms of its production value, camera angles and its impeccable music choices. Yet it lacks an organic touch which Life on Ubin possesses. Life on Ubin features various festivities such as Siglap Day and the Tua Pek Kong festival, as well as interviews with the descendants of Ubin’s current inhabitants. In HOMECOMING, the children of these interviewees are often mentioned only in passing. That they are never shown in the film (with the exception of the two teenagers) gives me the impression that these elderly folk lead rather solitary lives (which in fact might not be the case). Lee’s film then elucidates the social relationships between the locals and mainland visitors in greater clarity than He’s film. However, true to He’s background in narrative/fictional film (rather than documentaries), HOMECOMING brings across Ubin’s narrative of loss much more acutely. Yet the differences in style and narrative are contingent on both directors’ intentions. Lee’s project sought to show that Ubin possesses an ever-evolving and thriving community; whereas for He Shu Ming, he seeks to show what Ubin has lost. As a result, while Life on Ubin actively engages with the present uses of Pulau Ubin as a dynamic place of interaction between its inhabitants, its wildlife, as well as curious visitors and cycling enthusiasts alike, HOMECOMING thus reads like a narrative exposition of its cast of characters, all of whom are forever caught in the act of remembering.

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