Found some 'Kinda' escape in 'Saint Jack'

The National Museum Cinematheque woos its followers with something of a more fetishish nature this time. It features 'Once Upon a Time' old films that give you a peek into facets of Singapore that are lost. These movies from its' Once Upon a Time in the Orient' series feature mainly films that were shot on location in Singapore and most, Singapore itself is an essential character in the story.

'Saint Jack' the opening film, packs the most these festishish finds. Made in 1979, while navigating through the story, you find yourself playing 'spot the location' from its scratchy 35mm film footage. In 'Saint Jack', Chinatown is teeming with street stalls and 'Ah Ma's in samfoos and people are still living on stilts where the waterside bars of Clarke Quay are today. Perhaps Jack Flowers, the lead character, would have changed his trade to gambling if he could envision that one day the 3 IR towers would loom over the bumboat-strewn Clifford Pier. For the 80s kids like myself, the ubiquitous cane furniture tingled my sense of nostalgia.
But nostalgia does not quite nail down the aura of the film. Other than the Chinese songs that wafted through the grimy Chinatown streets and the fitted bell-bottoms with awkwardly-high waistlines, the film portrays a Singapore actually quite unfamililar to many. 'Saint Jack' follows a hustler named Jack Flowers who dallies with loads of women and even more men. He is the white male visitor's guide to finding sexual outlets in Singapore. He is Ang Moh (as they used the term to his annoyance) but has struck a common chord with the locals. The only people who are out to make his life difficult are the triad gangs. The usually efficient Singapore police seem not much of an obstruction. I mean, how could a shuttle bus for whore-activities not invite any raids? So indeed, the Singapore seen through Jack's adventures is a hot bed of vice, dubious trades and women whose jobs are primarily to please men.
According to Ben Slater in his introduction to the film, the producers rather naively sent a copy of the film to the Singapore censors in 1979 in hope of releasing it it the local cinemas. The film was banned. While the rationale for the decision is obvious, I am more interested in the truth behind what's been portrayed. Tan Pin Pin's 'Invisible City' unearths the flip side of common history for us. We hear history as it is told by the plebians rather than history books that bear the authorities' stamp of approval. 'Saint Jack', as many would say is a white man's gaze or even a Hollywood gaze of Singapore in the messy 70s. But perhaps, it could also be read like a third-party gaze. So has Singappore really been misrepresented? I am in no position to answer since I have not lived through the 70s. Many of the young film appreciators in the audience similarly are likely to only be able to marvel at a Singapore more unique than 'Unique' as STB defines it today.

I am inclined to believe these things happened because the film displayed a lot of 'earthy' knowledge of social behaviour and nuances. It did not really explain what an Ang Moh translated to. It had a pretty 'candid' scene in which the hookers were chilling out in the house and one of them crooned to a popular Mandarin tune. The striptease act was so 'makeshift' and was performed in a space that resembled your HDB bedroom. It does show that the director's knowledge of Singapore goes beyond the Singapore Sling and the Raffles Hotel. But if the film still looks alien, perhaps it's a not just a 'white man's gaze', it's a 'white man's gaze at a anomalous blotch on the social fabric'. A peek at a sub-culture.
When the movie ended, the key cast and crew members were asked to come down to the stage for a Q & A session. This point of the evening attracted a lot of eager gazes, some were unforgiving too. There was a sense of 'This is how I will look 30 years from now' as our eyes swept across varicose veins, balding heads and love handles. Among the cast, you could feel how the audacity of the project had united them. This film had to be shot under the name of 'Jack of Hearts' and a false synopsis was given to the authorities to allow the filming to be carried out smoothly. The only pity was a few of the more remarkable characters were not present, including Ben Ghazarra, the lead.
Spending time in the theatre watching 'Saint Jack' took me away from depressing HDB enclosures and formulaic shopping malls, overrespresented in local films. Discussing shooting difficulties of the 70s provided a respite from the typical current industry issues concerning we have discussed to tedium. But was it just an escape, a fetish-fulfilling cinematic experience? Certainly more than that. Watching it was a benchmark-shifting exercise. Long before Roystan Tan featured lean young boys in homoerotic encounters or Kan Lume featured carnal acts between women, there is Saint Jack. I now know someone's 'reached the moon' way before us in 1979.
Check out these Saint Jack links:

Kinda Hot Blog (by the author of 'Kinda Hot' (on the making of Saint Jack) Ben Slater)


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