What Tongue?

by Lesley Chow

While a trip to the Singapore International Film Festival doesn’t necessarily involve exposure to a new language, it does require a re-orientation of English and its use in Southeast Asia. Singlish is the lingua franca of Singapore, a form of English which incorporates terms, syntax and grammar from Malay, Chinese dialects and Indian languages. Visitors to Singapore and Malaysia might note the easy switch between languages and tones, and the various ways in which English is styled: American-accented fluency, a near-total integration into dialect, or an upbeat and emphatic use, as if in quotes.

Does the language spoken in films reflect this casual diversity? Singaporean films generally suffer less language restrictions than those in Malaysia, where filmmakers requiring government support are pressured to use a denaturalised and perfect Malay, which renders dialogue formal and unreal. Nevertheless, there has been a struggle to incorporate everyday language into films, rather than state-approved English and Mandarin (in the ‘80s, Chinese dialects were banned from the media, with education and state campaigns enforcing a standardisation of language.) As the Singaporean academic Edna Lim has written, speaking Singlish and dialects marks a film character as both ordinary and “other”, since he or she is “doomed to being average…not part of Singapore’s rhetoric of success.” The first local film to use Singlish was produced as late as 1996 – however, the relative success of these pictures has meant that many films today use Singlish, Hokkien Chinese, or a combination of tongues.

An overlap of languages has been the key to the naturalistic tone of independent Singaporean and Malaysian films – for instance, the dramas of the Malaysian childhood film Flower in the Pocket, screened at last year’s SIFF, are based in linguistic confusion. The protagonists are two young Mandarin-speaking boys, whose uncertain orientation is linked to language. We watch them relate to their inward, Cantonese-speaking father, a Malay teacher who muddles and refuses to accept their names, and finally, a little Muslim tomboy who gives them glamorous new avatars. There is a constant, informal process of translation within the film – even during the appearance of a doctor whose comically inexpressive English remains broad and skit-like within the general calm. Flower in the Pocket is simultaneously a quiet and tonally delicate film, reminiscent of Tsai Ming-liang, and an accessibly heterogeneous piece. The use of language lets us know who a film is oriented “for” – rather than settling for an artificially purified dialogue, it makes connections with a local audience accustomed to a range of tongues.

It’s in this context of cultural ambiguity that I watched this year’s Kallang Roar, a fairly routine Singaporean football comedy, but one in which it’s possible to observe a combination of multi-lingual familiarity and a self-consciousness about inclusion. Cheng Ding An’s film, which looks at the attempts of the underdog Lions to win the Malaysian Cup in 1977, lets us know that football binds “all races” in the fight for “country before all”, and the team is conspicuously multi-racial, with the names of the various ethnic Japanese, Indian, and other characters printed onscreen (an online casting site called for actors to be “traditionally Chinese in character”, “Brazilian in nature”, etc.)

The protagonist, a tough football coach (Lim Kay Siu), speaks mostly in English, but switches to dialects when feeling nostalgic, such as recalling the names of various comfort foods. “English”, as in the nationality as well as the language, is represented by a blond, foppish and powdered-looking character named Trevor Hartley, an initial potential villain who comes good. This figure, who seems to embody almost a Regency idea of Englishness, speaks in a declarative tone of voice and resembles the starched Caucasian characters often seen in African-American films.

However, given that most of the action takes place backstage in organisational machinations, rather than on the field, I started to wonder whether this film was really about football, or even “all races.” Success culminates in a celebration of “centralised training” and self-sacrifice, where acquiescence to a universal system is seen as a gutsy manoeuvre rather than conformity.

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