MANUFACTURING CONSENT (WITH APOLOGIES TO NOAM CHOMSKY)
Published in the first issue of A4ria 1997 and in Life! 1997
Kwang Han: I think it’s Cherian George who said that 12 Storeys was very bleak. That it’s worth seeing because it fills in the gap where you have things like Under One Roof and the happy ending stuff on TCS 8. Eric Khoo fills in that vacuum because he talks about all the bleak things that happen in HDB estates. It’s the movie people should see because it jolts you to reality. Do you think that’s relevant?
Cheng Tju: That’s debatable. It’s bleak, yes and intentional so as wanted by Eric. But as to whether he pulled it off or you believe in it is a different matter. But the press seems to have a general consensus about it. That it is bleak, it’s real and it’ll shock you. Is that warrant? Is that kind of praise justified?
KH: It’s interesting because he makes these people lowlife in his movies. Does it have to be these people, the so-called lower income bracket, necessarily have all these funny things happening in their lives? What about the middle class or upper middle class? In a way, he is creating a conception, a myth about people living in HDB estates, people sitting in coffee shops or people working in coffee shops like the mee pok man. It’s not that I’ve a problem with the things he deals with in the movie but I feel it could’ve been better. As it is, it looks like a series of sketches put together and not penetrating very deep.
CT: It is very issue oriented like dealing with the China bride issue rather than personal tragedy. The closest we get is the story of San San of her mother.
KH: It’s like a collage linking tragic stories of people living in a HDB flat. Wai Cheong: You see people speaking in Tagalog, Hokkien and Teochew, but you don’t see any coherence at all.
KH: It’s packing in of issues?
WC: …which don’t make the picture fuller.
CT: But it’s packing in the crowd as well. 12 Storeys is meant to be more commerical and intentionally PG. No nudity and vulgarity like in Mee Pok Man which was R(A) and shown at selected cinemas. You can watch 12 Storeys at the Golden Village cinemas. That’s fine. But how come no one is assessing this movie critically? Rather what we have is manufactured consent (Noam Chomsky). There is some sort of "criticism" going on, but all are agreeing to the same thing. All the big names in Straits Times are praising it ?Richard Lim (Life! Editor), Koh Buck Song, who didn’t watch the movie but telling people to watch it in his Monday column. That’s the problem. These are commentary pieces that are possibly making the movie more than it is. If they’re film reviews, that’s their opinions. But when Richard Lim makes statements about "what a powerful work of art can do", that’s loaded. I suppose as a writer, you’re entitled to use the context of a popular film as an opening to go into the points you’re making, like this Asad Latif’s article on "The Many Spaces of Singapore" in Sunday Review. The question is is it hype? Because that article has got very little to do with 12 Storeys.
KH: It seems everyone has agreed to critique it in a certain way. Nobody has really looked at it in terms of what’s so real about the movie. Everyone is merely stating it. To me, a lot of the dialogue is unreal. The beginning shots are okay. But everything goes down the drain when Koh Boon Pin opens his mouth. The dialogue is not real. Probably the most real scene is the one where people are talking cock in the coffee shop in Hokkien. CT: The role of critics in Singapore. Is this what criticism amounts to here?
KH: The question is why is criticism like that? It may be reflecting something about our society and how we approach art here.
CT: It’s when columnists or editors like Richard Lim attributing the meaning of life to 12 Storeys that it gets problematic. At least you give some sort of evidence to back up your praise in film reviews. But to say I ‘like?it because it made me a better person, that’s ridiculous.
Kwang: It’s the same problem I have with Singapore theatre. It’s always issue based which gets too two-dimensional for me. Now if you want to talk about bleakness, look at the German director Fassbinder. He has stories that are built up around things happening not necessaily in a linear narrative fashion. You have characterisation, examining everything in depth whereas in 12 Storeys, it’s a collage of issues. Local theatre is more interested in presenting issues like feminism, abortion, gay rights, suicide, mental problems or political dissidence. They’re not interested in a deeper sense of reality that can be gotten from a so-called old fashion narrative, a plot, a story, whatever. It can be just one story. But we’re not interested in that. We’re more interested in coming up with issues. CT: And totally ignoring the basic needs of what it means to be human, what makes you happy?
WC: The case with local music also. If it’s something local, you hype it, whether it’s good or not. You have to support it, sort of like the nation building mentality. You build consensus first, tell everyone local is good. Just read the music articles and reviews in Life! What life?
KH: The argument behind that is that if you don’t give support to local talent, they won’t have a chance to come up and improve themselves. It parallels the theatre scene in the ?0s and ?0s. Then, theatre was dominated by the expatriates who didn’t care about local productions. In a way, we’re over compensating now because everything local is praised and given support. Do you think that’s a viable argument?
CT: But the thing is we’ve already moved on so much from the ?0s and ?0s, especially drama. Why don’t they look at criticism as constructivism as well? Just be honest and upfront. Be transparent. Say what you feel about the work, but at the end, say there’s a need to support it and maybe I will. Don’t give me shit about the meaning of life according to…whatever. If you want me to watch this for economic reason, maybe I’ll do it if I have the extra cash, what with all these talk of a recession coming.
KH: Another possibility is that these columnists really think 12 Storeys is a great work. They really like it. I’m not them. I can’t say.
WC: I don’t feel sad after watching the movie. I feel quite disgusted with some of the acting. It’s overacting and the characters are just shouting at each other. They’re not communicating. It’s moving from one issue to another, talking about the lifts and toilets and government campaigns. How serious can it be?
KH: In several scenes, I feel that there’s an absence of true dialogue. But the people just don’t see it or hear it. A lot of people have said positive things about the movie. They have good opinions of it, they feel it’s real. The question is do they really think it’s good or they’re following the general opinion of others. Maybe Eric has achieved something with 12 Storeys. He has tapped into the heartlands, what people want to see. Eric has expressed something for them. The movie is saying things for them which they aren’t comfortable expressing. But what the movie is saying is not much either. It’s superficial and like our political discourse, there’s no higher debate. Pretty much reflects our apathy and depoliticised state. We may think we have a voice there, we got our coffee shop talk but like all coffee shop talk, it amounts to nothing. It’s all complaining which is what the movie is all about. Singapore got this complaining culture. We’re all like that. We’re complaining now as it is.
CT: Well, The Road Less Travelled got panned but 12 Storeys got rave reviews with all the shouting and issues, so is that what Singapore audience want? Not stories but issues. Someone to complain for them. As long there is not too much harm done to the way things are around here. We want our space or voice, but we’re not willing to pay the price of real changes.
KH: They just want all these things to be aired out. Maybe they don’t dare to say these things themselves, except privately. WC: They get a kick out of watching someone complaining for them on the big screen. That’s why they like it. They think it’s good.
KH: This is where Eric succeeded. He pulled all these things we say in private and put them on screen. But there can be much more thought and coherence in them as they don’t really gel right now.
CT: To be fair, you need the technical skills first and Eric definitely got that. You got to give credit where credit’s due. Eric has put in the years and he is definitely better technically and more accomplished. I mean, we’re not here so much to judge whether it’s really that good a movie or it’s really a bad one. But to look at the consequences of such an industry, what’s behind the hype or is there something more insidious going on? Maybe not. Ultimately, it’s the environment we’re interested in. The kind of criticism we have here and the hypes surrounding the industry. Maybe we can agree that Eric tapped onto something here. People genuinely like it.
WC: One solution is to have more people making local films and then the good ones will stand out.
KH: The Road Less Travelled got much less hype and I think it’s a better movie. But a lot of people have given it a miss already simply because they’re not given the coverage. There seems to be some pre-conceived notions about it. The reviews are negative. Too clean or too TCS for some. How come this movie get so much less publicity?
CT: Not many friends in the right places? No PR machinery? Anti-social? I mean if you have such an illustrious history like Eric’s, after all these years of support from critics, film festivals, local and foreign, there is a myth around him already. It comes to this point that even if you don’t like Eric Khoo, you don’t say so because everyone thinks otherwise. There is no such history for the people behind Road Less Travelled. Manufacturing consent.
KH: It doesn’t help that Singapore has only one main English newspaper, The Straits Times and the press here is monopolised by SPH. You don’t have different opinions coming out from different quarters. It’s still possible to have different opinions from magazines but it doesn’t work that way here.
CT: I didn’t watch Road Less Travelled. How is it a better movie than 12 Storeys?
KH: It deals with so-called more real things. It has characterisations and a more real sense of dialogue. You can actually believe what’s going on, which is important. It’s hard for me to suspend my disbelief in 12 Storeys when you get people like Koh Boon Pin and Lum May Yee start talking like that. I don’t believe things like that can happen. It’s not just the pronunciation but the issues they’re talking about. You don’t argue in such a precise fashion about lifts or government. Dialogue and interaction are so much more fragmented in our daily conversation. In The Road Less Travelled, the dialogue in Mandarin is more real, although you can sense a bit of the Taiwanese influence there, the melodrama. An ordinary story but a stronger sense of narrative and storytelling with plot and character development versus the montages and issue oriented basis of 12 Storeys.
CT: I went to the 12 Storeys screening on a Saturday afternoon and it was packed, quite a wide range of audience. Of course, there was only one screening at most Golden Village cinemas and if you want to watch it, sure it’s packed. But people like it, so back to the point that Eric is really tapping into something, some sort of psychic of the people. 12 Storeys is about complaining, issues based and it gets all the hype and box office sales while a story of chasing your dreams like The Road Less Travelled, nobody is interested. People don’t dig it, they don’t identify with it, which is weird, man. Singapore 1997 for you. What’s going on? Really, are Singporeans so repressed that they’ll grab just about anything with dissent that comes along? So repressed that they’ll take anything that complains? We do complain a lot, I got to admit. Water prices going up and got to work until 62. Grumpy old men.
KH: If that’s what they want, we may as well pack up already. No point trying to critique anything intelligently.
CT: Well, Singapore is a very small place. You don’t want to offend people, like what we are doing right now Someone is always a friend of a friend. Just like in drama, who dares to stand up to Kuo Pao Kun or Ong Keng Sen?
KH: That’s a good point. People get affected by their stature, for example, Theatreworks?recent production of Pao Kun’s Lao Jiu was given a good review by Sasitharan. Scriptwise, Lao Jiu is one of the better plays, but I don’t know if it as good Sasi made it out to be. CT: Of course, it doesn’t mean that these guys can’t be objective.
KH: Yeah, but it just makes things more suspect. In order for the arts to grow, you need critics to write about them intelligently. But that sort of environment is not well developed in our country. All these newspapers are already dominated by a few people. There’s no independent critical source or viewpoint or publication for that matter.
CT: This fear of making enemies. Singapore is all about making friends first. Settle it out of court, you know, ASEAN consensus.
KH: Hey, people might end up saying the same things about us, incestuous and all, when we do our own production.
CT: It’s always like that. You just can’t take it too seriously. So don’t believe everything you read, including us. You can’t say we won’t do the same things we just talked about. In the meantime, let’s just generate some sort of discussion and debate.
KH: To provide an alternative viewpoint because when the press praises 12 Storeys like that, you’ll be pressurised to say the same subconsciously. And even if you’ve an alternative publication, how many people can reach it? You get your Straits Times at your doorstep every morning.
CT: In many ways, criticism is all about the spirit behind the things you say. We are not doing it out of malice or hoping to harm anybody.
KH: You do it in the spirit of improving the industry. We are discussing about Eric here and maybe he’ll make a better movie for that. No need to thank us, lah.
CT: I seriously think we’ll be guilty of the same things we just said here. Nobody’s perfect. No one lives forever. It’s like what Adorno said about the culture industry. There are so many factors to consider like economics, face, not offending people, especially in Singapore’s context.
KH: It got to do with psychology. We’re talking about the whole infrastructure of the arts in Singapore. I think many people say they like 12 Storeys because it’s a fashionable statement. It’s a hip movie with hip chicks like Lum May Yee in it. The broken narrative is a pretty hip device too. But The Road Less Travelled is not a hip movie at all. I am not saying that it’s that fantastic a movie, but maybe people are not even giving it a chance. Sort of psychology at work because you buy into the whole thing without thinking about it. People are buying the hype for the wrong reasons. People are buying it because it’s fashionable.
CT: That’s not to say that the movie is bad. It can be a good movie but that whole point is lost among the hype. The purity of any vision will be diluted by all these definitions and perceptions of what’s hip and cool. Singaporeans think they’re buying into some sort of alternative voice or space when they watch 12 Storeys. But is it real alternative?
KH: It’s like people reading and quoting Derrida because it’s a fashionable thing. So everyone is into post modern theatre because it’s a very fashionable thing. But what defines the fringe and what’s groundbreaking is not just having a broken narrative and being issue oriented. In the end, that’s very limiting. I’ve got no problems with this kind of broken narrative. It works for some movies, like Fellini’s or even David Lynch’s, but I don’t think it works for 12 Storeys.
CT: The basis for evaluation should be is it a good movie in the first place? And if The Road Less Travelled is a good movie, just say so rather than looking at it in terms of its hipness or street cred.
KH: In a way, we’re also succumbing to the whole problem of colonialism again. We’re always talking about post-colonialism, but these hip things are very American. Cultural imperialism.
CT: All I can say is it’s getting more weird the longer you’re in Singapore. I’ve seen people walking around wearing the 12 Storeys tee-shirts. Where are The Road Less Travelled tee-shirts? Again, the money thing. Who got the most money? 12 Storeys is bankrolled by Springroll, so right now alternative vision and culture is getting more money than mainstream culture.
KH: The latest NAC statistic book states that about 80% of the audience in any performance, whether it’s dance, drama, the audience would be English educated professionals. So you’re already targeting at that sort of audience when you make a movie like 12 Storeys. If you make a movie with that kind of elements in it, people who go and watch it will like it because it’s that sort of hip things they’re into. So Eric has done a very smart thing, I suppose. There is this theory in political science that the middle class in any society would agitate for more democracy as they get more affluent. Well, that doesn’t happen here in this region. For example, the middle class interests in Indonesia is very tied in with the government. You got a lot to lose if you rock the boat. So the only criticism they would like to have is safe criticism that in the end amounts to nothing.
CT: We don’t have any movies here made by the working class. They don’t have the facilities, finances or interest. They work the mojo, earn their livings and get a roof over their heads.
KH: They just watch TCS 8.
WC: Happily living from day to day.
CT: And who’s to say they’re not better off than us? We’re not any better than anyone. Again, it’s back to the problem of what kind of movies we have to contend with if everyone is making movies with that sort of middle class perspective, like Sandi Tan’s Moveable Feast. We simply will have more movies along those lines ?romanticised views of the lowlifes, mee pok man and prostitutes. They serve as some sort of criticism of society, that all is not well under one roof. But it’s calculated. You won’t get into trouble unlike arts in the ?0s.
KH: It’s like the whole paradigm has already been set. So it’s the same thing. You criticise but you don’t criticise directly. You go around it.
CT: After a while, it’s safe to operate in that mode.
KH: Just like what Kirpal Singh (Head of English Department at NIE) said about Kuo Pao Kun recently. He has shown a generation how to cross boundaries without giving offense. Well, what boundaries are you crossing then?
CT: Let’s go back now. Get some drinks before we head home.
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