What would filmmaker Tan Pin Pin put in a time capsule? The answer is simple; all you have to do is watch her new film In Time To Come.The latest documentary from the director of Singapore GaGa (2005), Invisible City (2007) and the controversial To Singapore, With Love (2013), In Time To Come continues to chart Tan’s ongoing fascination with memory, documenting the undocumented and national identity, this time zooming in on the subject of Singaporean behaviours and ‘rituals’. An experimental documentary four years in the making and almost completely bereft of dialogue, In Time To Come is a collection of scenes depicting some of the most ordinary, familiar scenes to anyone who’s grown up here, from fumigation to morning assemblies in school.
At the heart of the documentary is the unearthing of the SG25 time capsule from beneath the front lawn of the Asian Civilizations Museum in 2015, just in time for SG50. In a post-show Q&A, Tan recalls being fascinated by time capsules since her primary school days, and when she heard about the SG25 time capsule, was determined to be there once it was due to be opened. As workers prise open the lid, a bystander breaks the silence with a quintessential Singaporean comment: ‘What’s the serial number? Must buy 4D!’ Tan’s documentary gives us a momentary glimpse into what relics from the past the capsule holds, including a now defunct Yellow Pages tome, and an ancient, oversized phone charger. Elsewhere, Singapore Institute of Management (SIM) is in the midst of preparing their own time capsule, while the past is being erased as Tan captures the painful process of relocating the historical banyan tree in front of the Substation. One is left to wonder why some memories are preserved over others, and who are given the authority to exercise these choices.
But perhaps the most resonant moment in the film of all is watching the students of Manjusri Secondary School rush down in waves to assemble in the field, and the voice of a staff member plays over the PA system, announcing an improvement in timing from the previous year. One is left to ponder over this Singaporean obsession with going faster and faster, continually making improvements and ‘saving time’ as Tan’s film does quite the opposite, taking its time to record the little inbetweens and moments of waiting experienced by each and every Singaporean. With all of the scenes shot in languorous real time speed, we feel the passage of time itself as we sit through the entirety of a train journey to Caldecott station from the previous one, see the fumigation clouds waft through the sky, and half-asleep students do their silent reading in the parade square as they flip through copies of The Straits Times and Toto-chan, a far cry from the fast-paced, information superhighway Singapore has come to be known as.
Through her film, Tan also teases out certain idiosyncrasies that come with the multiple opening and celebratory ceremonies she captured over the four year filming period. There’s a kind of humour present in the fanfare that plays after the MCE is officially opened with no one to hear it except for the lone security guard pacing up and down, while the camera lingers on shots of the scattered confetti where the actual celebrations are taking place, with the viewer left to imagine which of these suits will be left to do the cleanup once it’s over (none of them, of course).
Elsewhere, an SG50 Appreciation Dinner is aflutter with excitement as guests converse quietly with each other as an instrumental version of Chan Mali Chan plays overhead, waiting for guest of honour Lee Hsien Loong to arrive as the MC and ‘mike girl’ pace around the stage, an all too familiar feeling for those who’ve been in similar positions. Kinokuniya opens its doors playing a snippet of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, as staff stand at the ready, greeting kiasu Singaporeans entering the store with a smile, almost on repeat as many of their greetings end up completely ignored, no smile in return. There’s the sense of artificiality to the celebration, almost forced with how carefully organized and streamlined the affairs end up, and one questions where the facade ends and the sincerity begins.
In Time To Come is best enjoyed in the cinema. We say this because sound designer Lim Ting Li’s expertly designed soundtrack is completely naturalistic, capturing the sound of a chainsaw, the quietude of an empty mall and the call of the wild emanating from MacRitchie Reservoir, and only a cinematic, surround sound experience can truly replicate that realism. A completely immersive film, it’s easy to sit back and simply let the images of Singapore wash over you as you admire our strange country for all its quirks, all its habits and all the patterns you don’t notice on a daily basis that are happening right before our very eyes, carefully curated by a keenly observant Tan. In Time To Come also marks the first time one of Tan’s feature films will be receiving a release in a mainstream cineplex, while her previous films were available only in screenings at the Arts House upon their release.
In one of the most poignant and relatable scenes in the film, we see a man so engrossed in his phone outside Chinatown Point that he forgets to cross the road when the light turns green. Looking up, he ponders crossing, but instead decides to return to his screen. It’s moments like these in the film that let it speak for itself, no need for narration or hand holding. Tan Pin Pin has crafted a complex, intimate love letter to everything that makes Singapore what it is today, capturing a moment in time that will no doubt resonate with any Singaporean viewer and fill them with the understanding that in our busy lives, there’s a simple, powerful beauty even in the most understated of daily routines and everyday sights.
In Time To Come receives a limited release in Singapore on 28th September at Filmgarde at Bugis+. More information available on the official website here
Tan Pin Pin herself will be doing Q&As during opening weekend according to the following schedule:
Thu 28 Sep 19:30
Fri 29 Sep 15:30 19:30
Sat 30 Sep 15:30 19:30
Sun 1 Oct 15:00 19:20