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Berlinale 2008: "Invisible City" (Tan, Singapore)

Daniel Kasman
The same reason it is easy to pinpoint the interest in Tan Pin Pin's Invisible City is in fact the same reason the documentary fails: the video, for its unfortunately short running time, seems like a series of sketches for a more carefully crafted feature yet to come. Disparate but tantalizingly connected segments of the documentary are promising from every angle, and are well-worth listing. The documentary includes an English doctor who reminisces about color film footage he took around Malaysia in the 1950s, which he is now trying to preserve and provide context for, despite having just undergone brain surgery; a young archaeologist exploring the details of World War 2-era Japanese bunker entwined by the jungle; a man vocally campaigning to re-write the history of Chinese students' maligned past in Singapore; an elderly Englishwoman who in her youth took pictures of colonial buildings that have since been demolished; and an anti-Japanese music teacher who is being interviewed for an article on his keeping alive of an anti-Japanese song (also circa WW2) upon the eve of the Emperor's visit to the city.
Even by themselves these video tangents look at the historiography of Singapore, that is, the way the city keeps a history of itself, in unexpected, multi-directional ways. Tan's strong prerogative, and an admirable one at that, is in seeing the disturbing amount of Singapore history that will either soon be forgotten, is woefully unknown, or, even worse, never known in the first place. Cutting between these disparate stories all unified by each person's desire to preserve a part of the country's past, the film's near-kaleidoscopic view of submerged or partially erased histories which are barely remembered by the lone stalwarts and their aging records screams potential. Sadly, like many, many documentaries before it, Invisible City is more interested in its subject as a subject than the film form that expresses this subject. Tan flounders in her photography, her editing, her sound, and the general ideas of the form of the video, tragically leaving most of its potential and suggestions in a tantalizing but unfulfilled mid-lurch. In a way, the documentary's own incompleteness, its suggestion of ideas to be found and explored from starting point that the video creates, ironically places it in the same category of its many subjects: that of a strong, assertive personality avid for keeping history alive, but being unable to find the proper medium, voice, or audience to do just that.
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