Singapore has a lot to offer for both national and international filmmakers. The country has modern cityscapes as well as a strong sense of history with bustling marketplaces and glorious gardens.. So it will come as no surprise that there are so many wonderful movies set in Singapore.
Singapore is a contrasting city. In some of the city’s oldest districts, you can still see old 19th-century houses and shops. Some of its buildings were built during the British colonial era, such as the Raffles Hotel, which still stands proudly beside new skyscrapers that house hundreds of financial institutions and modern shopping malls.
Walking around Singapore is like walking around time. Despite the prosperity of the Chinese and Malaysian film industries, the Singapore film industry declined after independence in 1965, but recovered in the 1990s. Today, the city of Singapore has become a landmark in Asian cinema. Of course, the country has the true potential of the continent in many ways, including cinemas. Recently, a wave of young filmmakers, considered New Wave in Singapore, educated at local and international film schools, has begun to dominate the film scene. They capture the amazing sight that this mysterious land must offer.
Wondering where to watch? It depends on where you live in the world and which streaming services you have. We link to the streaming service we watch on in each case - be it Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, or elsewhere.
You can get one month free of Amazon Pride (or a 6-month trial for students) of Amazon Prime and also get immediate access to FREE Two Day shipping, Amazon Video, and Music. While you won't be charged for your free trial, you'll be upgraded to a paid membership plan automatically at the end of the trial period - though if you have already binged all these, you could just cancel before the trial ends.
Apple TV+ also has a one-week trial, and Hulu has a one-month trial (which can be bundled with Disney!). Another option might be using a VPN to access Netflix titles locked to other regions. Netflix is now available in more than 190 countries worldwide and each country has a different library and availability. US Netflix is (understandably) one of the best.
While we wish everything could just be in one place - for now, it seems these are the best streaming platforms to watch on.
I Not Stupid [小孩不笨] (2002)
I Not Stupid was made by Singaporean filmmaker Jack Neo. He wrote, directed, and starred in the film, which is a critique of Singapore’s education system. It had so much repercussion in the country and it brought so much attention to its unjust educational system that it ultimately prompted the government make some changes. Educated in Singapore and a father of four children, the director is able to articulate the frustrations of many Singaporean parents. Perhaps the most striking thing about the film is that it passed censorship in Singapore without any major changes, despite satirizing the local habit of blind obedience to authority. Neo, a popular TV comic, has poked fun at the government like this before, but here he makes it the main focus.
I Not Stupid features a comic ensemble playing three young students and their respective families. The films narrator is Terry Khoo (Huang Po-ju), whose dad (Richard Low) runs a dried-sweetmeat business and whose mom (Selena Tan) is a loudmouthed bully. Terry’s two school friends are Kok-pin (Shawn Lee), whose ad-agency father (Neo) finds himself working for Terry’s arrogant dad, and hard-working Boon-hock (Joshua Ang), whose family runs a food stall. While the script is hardest on the parents (who always have a self-centered and argumentative attitude), it does maintain an all-around funny tone through the film.
Ah Boys to Men [新兵正传] (2012)
While recently some critics have taken to dismissing Jack Neo’s films as attempts at satire that are too sentimental for their own good, no one can deny that he is a talented comedian and a very influential person in Singapore. All his works have penetrated deep into the public consciousness of the country. Whenever he has chosen to confront the hypocrisy and shortcomings of the Singapore system, it has had strong ripples all throughout its society.
Ah Boys to Men begins with the aftermath of a massive invasion of Singapore, with iconic Singaporean landmarks being destroyed. Yet quickly it’s revealed that the war was a fictional story which served as a setting for a role-playing game being played by Ken Chow (Joshua Tan), a spoiled high-society teenager reluctant to be conscripted into National Service. Ken is resentful of the NS. He was planning to study abroad with his girlfriend Amy (Qiu Qiu), but his future military service has botched his plans. After being reprimanded by Amy for his childishness, Ken vents his anger on a nearby trash can and is stopped by two nearby police officers. As he is taken away, Amy looks at him with embarrassment and shame.
Ah Boys to Men is one hundred percent a Jack Neo film, showing both his strengths and weaknesses. Like most of his other films, it holds a very Singaporean charm. Its humor is silly, but it always carries a critical punch. Although some jokes may feel a little bit foreign, since they are so reliant on the context of Singaporean culture that people who are unfamiliar with it may not be able to understand them. Because it is based on a local military context, those who have not been recruited (the mandatory recruitment that all men in Singapore must attend as part of the majority ceremony) have a chance of not completely getting what makes the joke so funny. Still, Neo’s films always manage to reach international audiences and stand as great comedy films all around.
Ilo Ilo [爸媽不在家] (2013)
Ilo Ilo, by Anthony Chen, is a moving story full of sweetness, humor and humanity, making it difficult to believe this his first feature film. People have compared Chen’s work with that of Taiwanese director Edward Yang, whose tender yet psychological stories stand out as something one doesn’t see in many other movies. Ilo Ilo has that and much more: it’s truly one of the best “opera prima” to ever be put to film.
The story is an autobiographical domestic drama that captures some of the most uncomfortable feelings in childhood. Ilo Ilo was based on the director’s childhood experiences under the care of a Filipino maid together with his two brothers. The title of the film is a Mandarin phrase meaning “our mum and dad are not at home”. Interestingly, the main character of the film, who’s supposed to be based on its director, has a very unsavory attitude: he’s a manipulative child with a slight hint of an obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’s remarkable that Chen chose to represent himself in such a negative yet honest light.
Nine-year-old Jiale (Koh Jia Ler) is the son of two parents working in Singapore in the late nineties. This was a time when the Singaporean economy collapsed and people feared for their jobs. Tian Wen Chen plays the father, Teck, a really awful salesman trying to flaunt his “indestructible” glass. Yann Yann Yeo is Jiale’s mum, Hwee Leng, a short-tempered and distracted woman. Jiale’s beloved grandpa, who took care of the children after school, has died, and now her parents have decided to hire a nanny and housekeeper. This new development, along with the fact that his mom is pregnant again, is turning Jiale’s life over its head.
Wet Season [热带雨] (2019)
Explaining the plot of Wet Season, by Anthony Chen (Singapore’s entry for this year’s Oscar) doesn’t really give the story the credit it deserves. Set during one of Asia’s strongest wet seasons, marked by torrential rains and many floodings, the film tells the story of a developing relationship between a teacher and her student. Finding herself dissatisfied with her husband, Ling (Yann Yann Yeo) ends up becoming close with one of her students, Wei Lun (Koh Jia Ler), in a relationship that threatens to cross the boundaries that this relationship’s shouldn’t cross. Like with his previous film, Chen manages to tell this story in a wonderfully smart way. This rainy setting serves as a backdrop for nuanced and compelling story.
In each other, lonely Ling and Wei Lun find what they lack: someone to take care of them. The confusing and disturbing nature of their relationship is addressed by the director, who shows both the good and the many bad times. The character of Ling has been thoroughly praised as it captures some of the most unique experiences of women in Singapore. She feels like she can’t connect with the men in her life. Her husband doesn’t care for her and can’t even accompany her in the process of artificially having a child. The one man with whom she does connect is in fact Wei Lun, a young boy with whom she can’t have a meaningful relationship with. All of this inner turmoil is perfectly conveyed by Jia Ler’s outstanding performance. Wet Season is the image of an oppressed and oppressed woman learning to overcome invisible boundaries, including the story of a generation. The end of life and the beginning of life, all the often-chaotic complexity that exists between them.
15, by Royston Tan, is a Singaporean film about a group of teenage gangsters in the Singaporean suburbs. The film stars three juvenile gangsters, all of them fifteen years old. What’s interesting about Tan’s work is that many times he has chosen not to cast actors, but rather to look for the real people that could live the stories he tells. In this case, Tan cast three teenage boys who were part of actual gangs. 15 offers possibly the most accurate depiction of this housing projects that can be found in the city. With this idea of telling a true to life story, Tan opted for not using a pre-written screenplay, but rather wrote the film as filming went along, taking into account the real-life experiences of these young gang members.
The director offers a touching portrayal of one of Singapore’s most marginalized group of people. These youngsters who have to resort to a life of crime are often forgotten, both in media and in real life. 15 manages to make you emphasize with them and actually understand their struggles. This is not a movie for those faint of heart: much violence and nudity is shown in this film. Yet it never feels gratuitous. The film is a great reminder that there are those in our societies who still, even in this day and age, suffer.
After 15, Royston Tan decided to portray another part of Singaporean society, one much less depressing but still key to understanding the city’s culture. 881 is Singaporean musical comedy and drama film based on the Getai scene. The story follows Little Papaya (Mindee Ong) and Big Papaya (Yeo Yann Yann), two Getai who, after meeting, quickly realize that they share the dream of becoming the biggest Getai stars in the country. The two of them become, naturally, really close friends. The Getai are live shows where a singer or group of singers dazzle the audience with their skills in singing, dancing and all-around presentation. To do so, these two Getai singers visit the famed “Fairy of the Geta” (Ling-Ling Liu) who grants their wish, with the condition that they pay a price, and soon the Papaya sisters are whisked into pseudo-stardom.
An important part of the plot is the conflict between the rival duo of Getais, the Papaya sisters and the Durian sisters. Tensions are on a high as the two groups try to push each other out of the Getai scene. This eventually culminates with a great “battle royale” song contest which will have disastrous consequences for the loser. 881 is truly a campy film. It prides itself on being deliberately over the top, intentionally being so bad that it’s good. While some people use the word derogatory, at its core it describes a film that causes laughter. The film playfully explores and exaggerates Getai, employing magical realism to create a truly unique watch.
Perth: The Geyland Massacre (2004)
Perth: The Geylang Massacre, by Djinn (the pseudonym of Ong Lay Jinn), is a Singaporean drama film that takes inspiration from Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. In the film, Lim Kay Tong plays Harry Lee, a part-time security guard and taxi driver in Singapore. He describes himself as an “ordinary man” whose life becomes difficult as he gets a job as an escort driver. The name of the film refers to an Australian city that he thinks of as paradise and dreams of retiring there.
The film takes the viewer through the mind of Lee, a 51-year-old security guard and taxi driver. Dreaming of moving to Perth, he unwittingly gets entangled in the underworld of Singapore’s human trafficking when he starts to ferry prostitutes to clients in order to earn enough money to carry to fund his dream of moving. When he takes an unhealthy interest in a Vietnamese prostitute who looks like someone from his past, it awakens a desperate and dangerous attempt at personal redemption from past transgressions, which also fuels the impotent rage that eventually determines his fate.
Singapore GaGa (2005)
Singapore GaGa was directed by one of Singapore’s most awarded directors: Tan Pin Pin. Her films deal with very culturally relevant themes, like the gaps in history and the need for collective memory of events. They are introspective films that also look through the outside with much emotion and clarity.
In the case of Singapore Gaga, the film offers a stunning snapshot of Singapore that, despite being brief, will surely stick with you. It covers lots of crucial aspects of the city’s culture from national events such as the August 9 parade to celebrities such as local Victor Khoo, a ventriloquist, and renowned pianist Margaret Leng Tan. It’s a film that fills you with so much sights, but in particular, the sounds which we get so comfortably familiar with, so much so that little attention is paid to them. The film opens and closes with a famous street performer from the city, Melvyn Cedello. Both at the beginning and the end of the film, Cedello performs Freddy Fender’s beautiful song “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights”. With his captivating singing, the person watching the film is welcomed to Singapore, as most visitors do, through Changi Airport.
Slated to go to the be a part of Singapore’s military service, 18-year-old En (Joshua Tan) goes to stay with his grandparents while the family home is being renovated. There, he learns from his grandfather that his late father was an activist student in the anti-colonial left movement that took place back in the fifties. After the death of his grandfather, and dealing with the Alzheimer’s that is taking away the last that remains of his grandmother, En finds himself more and more isolated from his parents. Even his mother (Elena Chia), who has a new man in her life, won’t talk about his father’s past. Helped by his girlfriend Ying (Bobbi Chen), Tan decides to conduct his own research.
Sandcastle, by Boo Junfeng, is a captivating film with a plot you’ll want to see unfold. Since Joshua Tan wasn’t an actor at the time of his casting, his performance doesn’t shine that much. But the other actors in the film completely make up for it. An interesting cameo is featured in this film: the director Tan Pin Pin appears as a doctor.
Sementara, by Joan Ubeda and Chu Chia Xiao Min, provides a thoughtful insight into the spirit of Singapore through intimate conversations with people across the island. As Singapore’s 50th anniversary of independence is celebrated, its people took to the streets to show their pride for their young nation. With this celebration as a backdrop, the filmmakers interviewed people from all walks of life, asking them questions about issues of race, religion, gender and identity.
While there are many important social movements featured in the film, Sementara is less interested in the representatives of these groups than in the people who belong to these groups. In reality, they can only speak for themselves, just as Sementara participants try to speak for others. The same can be said for each of us. Our attempt to speak for the group is really just an extension of ourselves. Sementara perfectly reflects the nuances of our beliefs. As an image of Singapore, the film does a great job at representing the cultural and ideological identity that marks the people of the city.
The Last Artisan (2018)
The Last Artisan is a documentary by Craig McDourke, an American director who lived in Singapore for 16 years. The film chronicles the life of octogenarian artisan Teo Veoh Seng, the head craftsman behind Haw Par Villa. This villa, a hand-crafted mythological theme park, is one of Singapore’s most interesting but forgotten tourist destinations.
The film shows Teo’s process of retirement and the passing on of his position to the next generation. While capturing how he imparts these skills to two young apprentices from China, the documentary also covers the dramatic history of Haw Par Villa and Teo’s interesting life is shown in contrast with the rapid development of Singapore.
The sights one can find in the park are incredibly intriguing: Arms, legs and heads. Weird yet beautiful mermaids. Crabs with human-like features. These Chinese folk-themed sculptures are etched into the heart of Singapore’s Haw Par Villa in all their quirky surreal glory. But nobody knows them like Teo Veoh Seng.
Decades ago, he started as an apprentice in a park that opened in the 1930s. When he reached the age of 83, Theo finally decided to retire. The Last Artisan masterfully intertwines personal and national history in the portrait of an unlikely hero from Singapore. It sheds light on the artisans whose silent dedication maintains the unique and fascinating parts of the city, ravaged by rapid urban development.
7 Letters (2015)
7 Letters is a collection of seven stories by some of Singapore’s most famous directors: Boo Junfeng, Eric Khoo, K. Rajagopal, Jack Neo, Tan Pin, Royston Tan and Kelvin Tong. Fundamentally a celebration of home, the shorts revolve around this theme with intriguing coherence and touching individuality, delivering one of those rare collections of stories that build on each other rather than compete.
You can’t get homesick if you’re not at home. 7 Letters explores national identity and the concept of home from the perspective of an outsider, meaning someone who lives in exile. Far from being flag-waving government mouthpieces, the director’s express aspects of their society through conflicting arguments, opinions, feelings and voices. The highly cinematic project received very good reviews and should have long festival periods.
Supported by the Singapore Film Commission and produced by Royston Tan, the picture almost all participants note the multilingual and multi-ethnic structure of their community. But most of these films also take a look at this changing city and the traditions that are disappearing, as well as its landmarks and community values. Treating the theme of borders and separation, the film is tinted by a feeling of nostalgia and love for the city of Singapore.
Further Things To Consider Before Any Adventure
Now you're all set and prepared to explore our big wide world, why not sort out everything else out all in one go? If necessary for your travel plans make sure you have brought proper travel insurance, protected your privacy by getting a secure VPN, compared all the top hotel booking sites to find just what you're after, reserved an unbeatable rental car price and - of course - booked the best flight deals!
Many budget travelers (including me) indulge in worldwide airport lounge access, so we can experience luxury while still slumming it in economy. Naturally, we would never leave home without a more general travel guide since we couldn’t possibly cover everything here!
Just add an adventurous attitude and plenty of smiles - they go a long way - and that about covers it all! Now go out, find your own path and don't forget to share your best inspiration stories with me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram...I'd love to hear from you!