How does one describe a film’s musical dimension when the film is completely devoid of music? Without a doubt, acclaimed Singaporean filmmaker Tan Pin Pin’s experimental documentary, In Time to Come, exudes a symphonic quality through its careful juxtaposition of uninflected images and sounds, creating a cinematic experience that is as pure as a film can be. Dozens of recreational dragon-boat racers paddle their boats in various directions; a store gate rises to greet a throng of eager book-shoppers; giant trees being chopped down by construction workers; a group of trucks entering and leaving a construction site — however mundane the movement appears to be, Tan has a way of making her images dance, orchestrating a symphony of documentary footage.
Despite forming a loose narrative structure around a time cube, an esoteric museum exhibit that reveals itself at a few distinct moments in the film, Tan doesn’t want to indulge in the thematic exploration of time, which would be too pretentious of an exercise. Still, the film is about time (as the title suggests), and the ways in which it eludes us, and Singapore. We notice, we watch, we observe the ways groups of people move, behave, act, in their most peaceful states: a class of middle-school students read silently, sitting in orderly isles on the school playground, as teachers supervise, making sure nobody is falling asleep; a group of pedestrians await the traffic light to turn green, some chatting amongst themselves, some engrossed in the video game they are playing on their phone; an emcee and her assistant await the beginning of a business networking event, observing people mingle in a banquet hall.
As if a composer who commands their crescendo and diminuendo to dramatic effect, Tan contrasts her more crowded frames with chillingly empty ones: a single traffic officer holding down the fort at the entrance of an empty tunnel; an ominous mist hangs over a quiet housing estate; a janitor cleaning a misty parking lot. The way the mist swims across the frame, the light meanders as the mist moves, the uncomfortable sound of a high-pitch hum — sometimes suggests that we have been transported into the opening of a horror movie, and soon we realize all of these images are still uninflected and documentary.
The film that comes to mind is Walter Ruttman’s masterpiece, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927). While Ruttman strings together a love letter of sorts to Berlin from various vantage points of the city, Tan presents diverse points-of-view of the simultaneous serenity and confinement that permeates Singaporean existence in a much more ambivalent attitude. Where Ruttman overwhelms with an orchestral score, Tan lets us be quiet and listen to the shots. Yes, listen, not just watch, to appreciate the full sound of the images: the ambience in a park where construction workers nap, the distant chatter of office workers catching a smoke break, the fire alarm going off in a shopping mall as shoppers languidly move towards the exit…In every frame, Tan seems to suggest that underneath the surface of tranquility lies a more unsettling truth.
Tan’s preoccupation with an ambivalent Singaporean existence was also displayed in her 2014 film, To Singapore, With Love, about 60 and older Singaporeans who went into political exile. Unsurprisingly, the film was banned in Singapore, which helped it, and Tan, make waves on the festival circuit, and further cement her filmmaking as a window into Singapore’s past, following her previous success with Singapore Gaga (2005), the first documentary to receive a theatrical run in Singapore and her best known film.
Despite the film’s prevailing ambivalence, there are glimmers of optimism blended into the very construction of the time cube, especially in the act of placing objects of the past into it. Fuji video cassettes, water samples, tree branches, old phones, yellow pages, ice tea packs, dirty dress shirts…As images of the time cube return throughout the film, new layers of meaning are added to it, until we finally witness the installation of the cube inside the museum, where it would be exposed to the public. It is a poignant note that symbolizes Singaporeans taking ownership of their history by putting their past behind, locked inside a time ‘capsule,’ just as new life takes hold. The musicality of the film, then, serves as the perfect vessel that carries this optimism through these moments by creating harmony between and within shots. Tan doesn’t suggest anything concrete about Singapore’s future in the end, nor does she tell us what the time cube means; perhaps the answers will come in time.
In Time to Come is showing as part of the Aperture: Asia & Pacific Film Festival which is touring across the UK during spring/summer 2018. See the festival website for more details and screening dates.