Subtlety isn’t Singaporean cinema’s strong suit, as year after year of mainstream slop, indie darlings, and enfant terrible flops (having largely been banned back home) have uncontroversially demonstrated. Whether the result of selective state coddling and censure, or an outcome tethered to the clumsy collective tightrope act between humanism and political critique, much of the nation’s international presence has been curiously muted, with the occasional anomaly making headlines for usually ideological reasons. So when a filmmaker hailing from Singapore makes, even debuts, a film about Singapore set in Singapore, the critical instinct is to situate this fledgling work within an existing binary of unabashed pathos (typified by Anthony Chen, Eric Khoo, and — God forbid — Jack Neo) and overt social commentary (usually the jurisdiction of Ken Kwek and Royston Tan). It’s a cause for celebration, then, that Jow Zhi Wei’s first feature, Tomorrow Is a Long Time, challenges this stale binary with fresh eyes, crafting a thoughtful, and lyrical, if occasionally sentimental, portrait of generational change and continuity.
Tomorrow Is a Long Time hones in on a father-son duo as they navigate a desaturated and seemingly endless urban landscape: Chua (Leon Dai), the fifty-something single father, labors night and sometimes day as a pest controller, whereas Meng (Edward Tan), his teenage son, slinks to and from school. Stasis permeates their daily rituals, flattening their lived reality yet heightening the faraway anxieties of a looming future. Meng’s grandmother rests in a care home, an unexplained illness eating away at her; his father wears a stoic veneer in the house, eluding Meng’s hesitant questions about the past. “I hear stories from Grandma, but you never say anything,” the boy protests. If his troubles seemed so far away yesterday, they are back with repressed, inarticulate vengeance in the present. At school, Meng wordlessly gets inducted into a neighborhood gang, lounging around an empty swimming pool by day and targeting unsuspecting students at night with fists and kicks. Chua drags him away, admonishing him with pithy curses, but both of them know — and realize — their helpless postures amid an airtight and unrelenting working-class environs. The father struggles to take on overtime shifts, battling the toxic fumes of his job; the son awaits some reconciliation with who he is and will be.
There are possible subtexts to this reconciliation, and Jow admittedly imbues his narrative with a uniquely masculine ennui that recalls, at times, the homoerotic threads of Tsai Ming-liang. But these threads, if any, are subtle and ambivalent in their characterization; rather, they depict through painterly camera pans the socio-cultural imaginaries of contemporary Singapore as delimited by its economic (and perhaps geopolitical) prerogatives. Against convention, Tomorrow Is a Long Time charts out this tomorrow in broad, abstract strokes, relocating Meng to the jungles of Taiwan as he, now enlisted in the army, partakes in a military exercise with his newfound band of brothers. A personal tragedy breaks the film apart midway, bifurcating time into two complementary but contrasting dimensions: yesterday as time atomized, centered around regimes of work and school, and tomorrow as time fluid, rendered asynchronous with reality. Within this fluidity, Meng is permitted greater expression, his solitude accepted, his future suddenly unfettered from the otherwise banal possibilities of recidivism and wage labor. “Become a singer,” he says in response to Kishod (Lekheraj Sekhar), his section mate and fellow adolescent.
The future never quite arrives in Jow’s film, but what does sing, arguably, is the film itself, its lyricism conveyed both by Russell Adam Morton’s lush and mellow panoramas as well as an all-too-casual sense of magical realism, sparsely but strikingly infused. Shifting focus away from urban hums to the perils and shadows of a foreign jungle proves playfully reminiscent of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady, although — queer subtext aside — Jow indulges less in his supernatural conceit than he does in concocting something akin to a spiritual antidote. Lensed with pristine deliberation, Tomorrow Is a Long Time imagines the life and times of someone searching for his identity, still unmoored from the vast and alien streetscapes of deadening routine. It’s also a tender critique of loneliness and its institutional backers to the degree that Jow unfurls the unseen social pressures (immigrant labor, machismo, the nuclear family) alongside his humanist observations of Chua and Meng in their quiet, solitary moments. Perhaps they see in the film’s title a double entendre: tomorrow as that eternal struggle to survive, to make meaning, but tomorrow also as that which, amid today’s joyless hours, struggles to arrive.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 7.5.