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Monday, September 15, 2008

Invisible City (Singapore, 2007)



There are movies that speak to your guts (or to your mind) from the start. It's not the case with Invisible City: a documentary of one hour long that seems to not connect with you at all. It is after a while that you start slowly to get the point: the issue was not with the movie, rather with you! Expecting to see a certain kind of a story, you were caught totally unprepared for the actual subject.

I did not have the chance to visit Singapore and I guess I won't have it ever; I know something about the city, of course: an amazing mix of British and Asian civilization, a very clear position in the global business.

So I was expecting from the movie to get a better idea on Singapore, its look and feel. Well, the movie of Tan Pin Pin is about something else.

It's actually a remarkable film that has the courage and honesty to refuse any artifice to seduce the attendance and lets the subject to speak for itself.

It is a movie about the memory of the city: the way the memory of the past is disappearing for ever as the last survivors are fading.The tone is sad, with a twist of Mozartian elegant discretion and good balance: an elegy for those who love their city and would like to leave a mark in eternity while being aware that marks cannot be but ephemeral.

Singapore, like so many other places on today's world, is focused totally on the present. It's like the city was brought from another planet this morning, with the skyline, the businesses, the busy people. No traces, even of its most recent past. A city without history.

Is it possible for a city to exist without history? If existence means a spirit, then a city without history does not really exist, it is only a moment that signifies nothing.

History is made up of emotions, says one of the movie reviewers (Stefan in Twitch Film). So, in order to find the history, the invisible spirit, to find the significance, one should address those people who lived the history with emotions: people who got the significance of what they witnessed.

And here they are, in the movie: Ivan Polunin, author of a book about Plants and Flowers of Singapore, and passionate cinematographer, with a huge collection of film rolls about the city as it was in the fifties; now fighting to preserve his collection from unavoidable wear, fighting with official indifference; and Marjorie Doggett, with her photographic album, Characters of Light - each photo is a gem, the colonial buildings now replaced by the impersonal sky-scrappers.

Both of them, Ivan Polunin and Marjorie Doggett, are very old now, fighting with their own wear, with failing health and fading memories; both of them forgotten by a city that has no time for anything beyond its present.

What about the times of fight for independence, against British rule? One of the characters in the movie, a Chinese, was a rebel student in the fifties: by that time Chinese high schools in Singapore were resistance nests, harshly monitored by the colonial police; today's students at the same school have no interest at all in his stories.

And what about the years of Japanese occupation? The traces are still there, dangerous military debris in any given place; an old guy who fought against occupants is listened now only by a Japanese reporter (history has its own ways towards irony); the reporter would distort further the story for his journal.

So, is there an invisible city, bearing the history and the spirit? No, says the movie, only vanishing memories. But, as I said, the sadness is balanced in the movie: it is tragic, it is not pathetic; there is a certain noblesse in these fragile survivors.

And here comes the great quality of this movie: it deliberately refuses to seduce you, while it is seduced by his characters.

(Cinema asiatic)

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