Singapore Dreaming (simplified Chinese: 美满人生; traditional Chinese: 美滿人生; pinyin: Měimǎn Rénshēng (help·info)) is a 2006 film set in Singapore. The film follows the Loh family, a typical Singaporean working-class family, through their aspirations for a better life and the harsh reality that makes it difficult for them to fulfill these aspirations. The film is inspired by a 2000 essay, Paved with Good Intentions, that the writers of the film had written for the Singapore International Foundation. A concatenation of e-mails Singaporeans sent to writers Colin Goh and Woo Yen Yen on their life stories in relation to the Singaporean dream eventually led them to write, produce and direct Singapore Dreaming. The film stars Richard Low as Poh Huat, Alice Lim as Siew Luan, Serene Chen as Irene, Yeo Yann Yann as Mei, Lim Yu-Beng as CK and Dick Su as Seng.
The film was theatrically released on 7 September 2006, and at one time ranked fifth on the Singapore box office. It won the Montblanc New Screenwriters Award at the 54th San Sebastián International Film Festival, and was the first Singaporean film to receive an IFFPA-recognised international feature film award. Owing to its nature as a Singapore-produced film, Singapore Dreaming received much attention from local viewers, film critics and public figures alike. It has received great praise from some local critics and public figures, most notably from S.R. Nathan, the President of Singapore.
Poh Huat (Richard Low), the father of the Loh family, works as a lawyer’s clerk. He is married to Siew Luan (Alice Lim), a housewife who likes to brew liang teh (herbal tea) for the family. Poh Huat has a habit of buying lottery tickets in hope of winning and enjoying a better life. He also keeps newspaper cuttings of car models and condominiums and stores them in a box in his room.
The family has one son, Seng (Dick Su), and one daughter, Mei (Yeo Yann Yann). Despite Mei’s superior academic performance, the family has consistently shown favouritism for Seng. Even though he was ostensibly the academically poorer sibling, dropping out of school in Secondary 3, his parents still chose to fund his overseas polytechnic education instead of furthering his sister’s education. Seng is due to return after two years at Dubois Polytechnical University (at Idaho). To fund his overseas studies, he had to borrow extra money from his fiancée, Irene (Serene Chen), who stays with Seng’s parents.
Mei works as a secretary who maintains a friendly working relationship with her boss. She is due for delivery in two months‘ time, and for maternity leave in a month’s time. Her husband, Chin Keong (Lim Yu-Beng), quit his job in the Singapore Armed Forces a month before and is now selling insurance, though unsuccessfully. He is therefore belittled by Mei. Even though they cannot afford it, they frequently go to a condominium showroom to take a look, revealing their aspirations for a more luxurious lifestyle.
Seng returns from the United States. Tensions escalate in the family between Mei and Seng, due to the family’s apparent favouritism for Seng. Seng goes for several job interviews, but is unsuccessful. He becomes immensely disappointed, and lies to his family about the sanguinity of his job prospects.
Poh Huat strikes the Toto lottery, winning S$2 million, and the family is ecstatic. Seng decides that he wants to try starting a business. He gains his father’s approval, who gives him effectively unlimited funding through a credit card. Seng also buys a car, without Irene’s knowledge. Irene is infuriated when she learns Seng has been overspending without working first.
Initially thrilled by his sudden elevation to the higher social class, Poh Huat dies suddenly of a heart attack while he was at a country club for a membership interview. Siew Luan goes into shock. At the funeral, Seng quarrels with Mei over the funeral expenses. Mei vents her anger on Chin Keong, who shows his displeasure by throwing the carton of drinks on the floor and storming off. Mei is called back to work one afternoon, even though she is still managing the funeral. Chin Keong expresses his outrage at this unreasonable request, but Mei says out of frustration, „Singapore is like that, everywhere is like that, do we have a choice?“ and returns to work. At work, Mei’s boss, frustrated at the incapable temporary secretary, vents his anger at Mei and demands her to photocopy a stack of documents and brew coffee for him. Mei flips at the triviality of the task.
Back at the funeral, Mei realizes that S$500 has gone missing from the pek kim, and wrongly accuses her Filipino maid, Pinky, of stealing the money. Chin Keong reveals shortly after that the money is actually with him. Pinky, indignant at the wrong accusation, spits at Mei. Chin Keong goes to a nearby coffee shop for a drink. A beer girl from Mainland China approaches him at his table to talk to him, and Chin Keong ends up confiding his worries about life. The girl notes, „You Singaporeans are always complaining. Do you think your life is tough?“. During the funeral wake, Seng reveals to his family that he did not graduate. Initially unbeknownst to him, Irene is standing nearby at the door, and hears his confession. Irene is greatly disappointed with Seng, and resolves to leave him.
A few months later, Chin Keong, Seng and Mei, with her newly-born son, are called to a lawyer’s office. It is revealed that Poh Huat’s will has been found (made before either of them are born): he had left all his assets to his wife Siew Luan. However, the family has chalked up a debt of S$800,000 in sending Seng overseas. Siew Luan is absent from the meeting, so the lawyer announces that, of the remaining S$1, 200,000, Mei is getting S$300,000, while Seng is getting S$1,000. At the movie’s end, Siew Luan hands some money over to Poh Huat’s mistress and illegitimate son in a show of benevolence, and leaves Seng to stay in rural Malaysia. Irene decides to go abroad to pursue a degree in photography.
A team of local actors composed the cast for Singapore Dreaming. Some casting decisions were made when the producers were penning the script in New York while others were made in Singapore.
The characters of the film were based on the experiences of the people around the writers, that of the writers themselves, and on the e-mail responses that they received to their essay.
The development of Singapore Dreaming began in 2000 when New York-based couple Colin Goh and Woo Yen Yen wrote an essay for Singaporeans Exposed, a publication to commemorate the Singapore International Foundation’s ten-year anniversary. The 5200-word essay, Paved with Good Intentions, explained the difference between the Singapore Dream and the Singapore Plan, and discussed the source and fashion of many Singaporeans‘ aspirations. Paved with Good Intentions was later circulated round the Internet, where many Singaporeans read the essay.
Confessional responses the couple received thereafter reached the hundreds. In a podcast with mrbrown, Woo explained the typical reader response was „How is it that I now have a house, I now have a car, a job, why I am still unhappy?“ The couple „felt a responsibility to do something“, which inspired them to write the film, the original working title of which was The 5Cs.
The film was a number of firsts in the film industry; Singapore Dreaming was the first Singaporean film to be digitally encoded and projected. It was also the first collaboration between Singaporean and New York film-makers; the Director of photography Martina Radwan, editor Rachel Kittner and sound designer Paul Hsu were based in New York, along with the production staff, while composer Sydney Tan was based in Singapore.
Singapore Dreaming was an independent, low-budget production, costing only S$800 000 in total to produce — 80% of which was raised by Executive Producer Woffles Wu. The film was Woffles Wu’s first production, and the Colin Goh–Woo Yen Yen team’s second. The rigors of production forced Producer Woo Yen Yen to take a no-pay leave from her job as an assistant professor.
Filming began in August 2005, with the scenes in the house shot in an actual 3-room HDB flat in a bid for authenticity. This led to situations in which the cast and crew had to squeeze into the rooms in the small flat for hours on end. The team also had to endure heat and stuffy conditions, especially during the scene in which the family shared steamboat in the living room.
In an attempt at authenticity and realism, the producers allowed the characters speak in a mix of Hokkien, English and Mandarin, in the typical Singaporean manner. The film would later be subtitled in English and Mandarin during post-production so that the audience would be able to understand the characters‘ lexicon without knowing how the average Singaporean speaks.
Unlike in larger productions, the team of directors had to assume numerous roles during the independent production, some of which included the transportation of furniture and buying drinking water for the crew during the shoot. Colin Goh and Steven Chin, the assistant director, also had to take the unusual step of staging a fight to distract curious passers-by and prevent them from gathering round when they were shooting a certain scene. After the filming was complete, the movie was digitally encoded in New York and digitally projected at a number of select cinemas.
Before being commercially released, Singapore Dreaming was screened at two charity premieres. The first, on 12 April 2006 at Lido, was a pre-opener to the Singapore International Film Festival. Tickets were sold at $15 and all proceeds went to the Festival. The tickets were sold out by 6.00 pm on the day they were released. Among the guests were public figures including president Sellapan Ramanathan and wife, Foreign Minister George Yeo and Opposition Member of Parliament Chiam See Tong. Directors like Jack Neo and Eric Khoo also attended this premiere. A total of about 700 people attended the event.
The second charity premiere was on 30 August 2006, and the beneficiary was the Association of Women for Action and Research. The producers organized a Teachers‘ Day Giveaway, allowing students to nominate teachers for a free screening. In total, 100 pairs of tickets were given away this way. The audience filled up all five cinema halls at GV Grand at Great World City. Like the first premiere, the event was sold-out.
Sneak previews began on 1 September 2006 while the film was commercially released on 7 September 2006. The film opened on a total of eighteen screens islandwide, which encompasses all GV and Cathay screens and selected Shaw and Eng Wah screens.
The producers were initially concerned about the small independent film lasting in the cinemas with the influx of American blockbusters. Thus, the producers continually urged on the film’s blog for those interested to watch the film as early as possible, in case of a short theatrical run. However, the film’s theatrical run was to continue for eight weeks; it outlasted all other films that opened in the same week. After a hiatus of a few weeks, the film reopened transiently at GV VivoCity.
The directors, with their limited funds, put print advertisements in local newspapers to advertise the film. The last print advertisement appeared in local newspapers on 16 September 2006, the tenth day after the release of the film.
Due to the small advertising budget, however, a large part of the film’s advertising took place through the Internet. For instance, the film’s directors spoke directly to the viewers through their blog to advertise the film through word-of-mouth. In particular, they instructed viewers to tell at least ten friends about the film. The producers also appeared on the 6 September 2006 release of the mrbrown show and, in a 31-minute podcast, shared with the audience the production of the film.
As further publicity for the film, Colin Goh uploaded three trailers of the film onto YouTube to raise awareness and interest about the movie. By 15 August 2006, the trailers had 7000 views in total, and one of them had 4000 views. The producers also advertised the film through TalkingCock, a satirical website that they own, by posting articles and updates on the film’s development.
Singapore Dreaming competed for two awards in the Zalbaltegi section of the San Sebastián International Film Festival, the first being the Moutblanc New Screenwriter’s Award (the third ever awarded in the annual festival), and the second being the Altadis-New Directors Award. This film lost the latter award to Fair Play, but bagged the Moutblanc New Screenwriter’s Award. There were eighteen films in competition for the screenwriter’s award. The directors did not submit the films directly to San Sebastian at first. Instead, they sent preview screeners to solicit comments on the film from their friends in New York. The film was spread around resulting in it being nominated for the film festival.
The feature film is the first Singaporean film to be in competition for the two awards at the IFFPA-recognized San Sebastian International Film Festival. Moreover, while other Singaporean films (like those directed by Eric Khoo and Royston Tan) have won awards at other international film festivals before, those are either not recognized by IFFPA, or are categorized by them as „specialized“. The „specialized“ tag means that, as The Straits Times explains, „they focus on a particular aspect of film or film-making“. The film thus has the added honour of being the first Singaporean film to receive an award at an IFFPA-recognised international feature film festival.
On Sunday, 28 October 2007 Singapore Dreaming snagged the Best Asian/Middle-Eastern Film Award at the 20th Tokyo International Film Festival, beating competing films such as Exodus by Hong Kong director Pang Ho Cheung and starring Simon Yam; Breath by South Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk; Mad Detective by Hong Kong’s Johnny To; and A Few Days Later by Iranian superstar Niki Karimi. The Tokyo International Film Festival is one of the world’s most important film festivals, and Singapore Dreaming is the first Singapore feature to win this award.
As of 2 October 2006, three-and-a-half weeks after its local commercial release, Singapore Dreaming grossed S$420 000 from the local box office. The producers claim the film to be the highest grossing Singapore film produced in the past eight years not produced by MediaCorp or MediaCorp Raintree Pictures. The film was the fifth at the local box office for the week the film opened. In its second week, the film dropped to the sixth position, and in its third week, to the eighth position. From the fourth week onwards to the end of the film’s theatrical run, it ceased to appear in Singapore’s top ten charts.
The Singapore Dreaming soundtrack was released by BooBao Records in June 2006. It comprises various songs and tunes that were featured in the movie, most of which were composed by the music director for the film, Sydney Tan. Stephen Hough is also listed as one of the soundtrack’s composers. The soundtrack album, containing both emotive and entertaining pieces, shows a variation in the mood of the songs.
Of particular prominence in the soundtrack is the 1933 Taiwanese song „Bāng Chhun-hong“. As the producers were writing the script in New York, Woo Yen Yen called her mother to ask her about the most popular song of her time. Her mother’s first suggestion was „Bong Chun Hong“, a song which the producers came to like. The song was later adopted as the opening theme, and the character Siew Luan would hum it again as the film concludes, this time more wistfully as she would recount the days when she was young. Four major and three minor variations of „Bong Chun Hong“ were included in the soundtrack. As Moviexclusive describes Sydney Tan’s score, „the […] use of pianos and strings is complemented by the occasional wistful accompaniments of the traditional erhu, adding the essential ‚Asian touch‘ to the music.“
The film’s soundtrack also includes two songs by the local band Ronin, „Black Maria“ and „Memories“. It also includes „Mei Man Ren Sheng“, a song that shares its title with the film. The tune was rearranged by Sydney Tan and performed by Nicole Lai, with lyrics in Chinese by Ng King Kang. The film’s producer, Woffles Wu, did the backing vocals for the recording.