One Small Voice: Daniel Yam

Published on 26 June 2017

Credit: Boi Kwong

Stories set in the past can inspire future generations, reckons film-maker Daniel Yam.


Many of my films have elements of nostalgia, when a character remembers his or her past, and the audience experiences a flashback to Singapore of perhaps the 1960s or ’70s. Nostalgia is a big thing for me. I’m not getting any younger, so instead of looking ahead, I look backward.

The universal question any good film, or anybody really, constantly asks is: who are we and how did we get here? Who we are today is made up of our past. The stories I tell often have a motif of parallelism, where you see someone in the present time doing the same thing as someone in the past. This looking back often provides the characters with a realisation that they need to carry on, into the future.

Increasingly, there is danger of nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, which I don’t necessarily think is meaningful. It shouldn’t be about watching archival footage interspersed with the other shots, or intricate sets and costumes; although those are beautiful and take a lot of effort to procure — one short film I worked on had to pull an old SBS [Singapore Bus Services] bus from out of commission.

What’s important is, the images you are trying to create should connect with the audience: they see a boy playing in a longkang [drain], or a bride as her mother says goodbye, and immediately understand the motivations because they have been in similar situations. I’ve never lived through the ’50s, but watching good films or listening to music from that era makes me feel something.

The tricky part is creating that experience of a fleeting moment. Most importantly, these glimpses into the past have to take the character on a journey to discover something he or she needs, in order to continue moving forward.

That’s one reason we toned down some of the portrayals of drug culture and prostitution in Wonder Boy, the period movie I have been co-directing with Dick Lee. Much of our original footage focused on the grittiness of ’70s Singapore, but we realised that too many portrayals of drugs and sex would get the movie an NC16 rating. We aim for this movie to inspire the future generation — young people should be able to watch it.

Wonder Boy shows a young Dick Lee struggling in the waning local music scene of ’70s Singapore. When he plays covers of foreign hits, people love it, but when he plays his locally written originals, people are completely disinterested. This is not so different from the situation facing Singapore musicians of today. Yet Dick never stopped dreaming about writing music for the nation to listen to, and look where that dream has got him now. It’s a story set in the past, but one that every youngster, or older folks like me, can take a cue from. Don’t ever give up and you will get what you want in the end.

DANIEL YAM is the director of various viral short films,
including The Gift, Promise, Promise II, and The Helper. He is also co-director of Dick Lee’s autobiographical movie Wonder Boy, which is set to premiere in August. Yam’s next film project is a modern fantasy adventure.

Tips for aspiring film-makers

“Nostalgia or action sequences may be popular, but at the heart of it, what makes a good film is an emotional connection with the audience — something in the characters that everybody can relate to because we are all human and want similar things.”

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