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40 best Singapore films of all-time

Better late than never, these local films from the 1950s to today are worth a watch at least once

Cam Khalid
Written by
Cam Khalid
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Step aside Hollywood, Singapore’s film scene deserves some recognition, too. Since the 1950s, the film industry in Singapore (or Malaya, then) was never shy of being in the limelight – in fact, it was known as Southeast Asia's Hollywood. Throughout the decades, it has birthed box office successes and essential indie flicks that have garnered awards after awards. But don’t let these films fall through the cracks! For the best of local films, we've put together a checklist filled with must-see titles and where to watch them, proving that the film scene here is thriving well with no signs of slowing down.

RECOMMENDED: Upcoming films in Singapore and the magic behind the golden age of Singapore cinema

Repossession (2020)
Photograph: Repossession

Repossession (2020)

Everyone loves a scary story, so turn your attention to Repossession. The award-winning psychological thriller sees the deadly vice of pride reimagined through the lenses of local directing duo Goh Ming Siu and Scott C. Hillyard. It follows Jim whose mid-life crisis is met with losing his high-flying job in status-conscious Singapore. He finds himself hiding the truth from his family, and awakening the demon from his dark past – all at the expense of his pride. 

Read our interview with Goh Ming Siu and Scott C. Hillyard here.

Available to watch at The Projector on February 7 and 20.

Tiong Bahru Social Club (2020)
Photograph: 13 Little Pictures

Tiong Bahru Social Club (2020)

The debut feature by Singaporean filmmaker Tan Bee Thiam is a satirical comedy that follows a man who leaves his mundane, desk-bound office job for a data-driven programme that aims to create the world’s happiest residents in the utopian neighbourhood. While it’s an amusing take on the standard of living in Singapore, it does leave you questioning the concept of happiness in the city. 

Read our interview with Tan Bee Thiam here.

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Sementara (2020)
Photograph: Sementara

Sementara (2020)

Titled after the Malay word for ‘temporary’, Sementara is a thoughtful documentary that invites all to look through the lens of various individuals who call Singapore home. It presents a compelling yet sensitive portrayal of Singapore through the different perspectives on issues such as religion, race, identity and mortality as told through personal stories and experiences. It also features a brief appearance by Time out Singapore Editor, Delfina Utomo.

Wet Season (2019)
Photograph: Giraffe Pictures

Wet Season (2019)

From the man who brought you the acclaimed drama Ilo Ilo, comes a story about complex relationships between a Mandarin teacher and her student, as well as those in their respective lives. Anthony Chen’s Wet Season follows a teacher who is unable to bear a child for her often-absent husband. Her student then provides her with the solace that reaffirms her womanhood. With six nominations in the 2019 Golden Horse Awards and a spot at the Toronto International Film Festival, Wet Season is definitely one to watch. Do expect plenty of rain scenes – it's set during the monsoon season, after all.

Read our interview with Anthony Chen here.

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Revenge of the Pontianak (2019)
Photograph: Tiger Tiger Pictures

Revenge of the Pontianak (2019)

Revenge of the Pontianak marks director Glen Goei’s return to the big screen since the release of his 2009 murder mystery The Blue Mansion. Co-directed with Malaysian actor and director Gavin Yap, it looks at Southeast Asia’s most famous horror icon but humanises her with a romantic storyline. The horror flick is performed in Malay – a nod to the golden age of filmmaking in Singapore before the 70s, the era where iconic Pontianak films were first produced by Cathay-Keris and Shaw – so best watched with subtitles on. 

Read our film review here and Glen Goei's Time Out Singapore takeover here.

Available to watch on Netflix.

Shirkers (2018)
Photograph: Netflix

Shirkers (2018)

This sui generis documentary film made waves worldwide when it was first released in 2018. Deemed as Singapore's first road movie by Singapore-born, LA-based filmmaker Sandi Tan, Shirkers follows a group of cinephiles – including a young Sandi – shooting an uncompleted movie in 1992. But what makes this Sundance Award-winning film even more intriguing is the fact that the footage was stolen before it could be completed. Fast forward to twenty years later, the unseen footage made its way back into Sandi's hands and the rest is, shall we say, history.

Available to watch on Netflix.

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A Land Imagined (2018)
Photograph: mm2 Entertainment

A Land Imagined (2018)

A juxtaposition to Hollywood blockbuster hit Crazy Rich Asians based on Singaporean author Kevin Kwan's novel of the same name, A Land Imagined shatters the illusion of superlative Singapore with darker tones and less-bougie aesthetics – think cranes, dorms and heavy-duty trucks. The award-winning neo-noir industrial thriller blends social issues with mystery and follows a local detective in search of a migrant worker who disappears in a land reclamation site. 

Read our interview with director Siew Hua Yeo here.

Available to watch on Netflix.

The Last Artisan (2018)
Photograph: The Projector

The Last Artisan (2018)

Nothing screams 'weird, wacky and wonderful' quite like Haw Par Villa. If you want to journey further into the themed park, you can do so with local documentary The Last Artisan. It follows master craftsman Teo Veoh Seng who first started out as an apprentice at the park decades ago, and now at 83, he has finally decided to hang up his paintbrushes. Combining interviews with animation, the documentary spotlights the artisan whose quiet dedication has preserved a uniquely charming slice of an ever-changing city. So what will then happen to the park once Teo Veoh Seng retires? There's only one way to find out: watching The Last Artisan.

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Republic of Food (2018)
Photograph: Boku Films

Republic of Food (2018)

What if we tell you that the mouth-watering nosh that we all know and love is entirely banned in this made-in-Singapore dystopian comedy? Republic of Food is a horror movie for food lovers by the city’s acclaimed director Kelvin Tong that ropes you into a not-so-distant future where humans across the globe are coerced into consuming bland synthetics that double as nutrition due to a deadly food-borne plague. And because not all heroes wear capes, a team of gastronomes embarks on a journey to revive food culture and save the day.

Available to watch on MeWatch.

Pop Aye (2017)
Photograph: Pop Aye

Pop Aye (2017)

The first feature to be helmed by Kirsten Tan, this indie flick features a bromance like no other. A chance encounter led a burnt-out architect to reunite with his long-lost elephant in the city of Bangkok. Unable to part ways, he decides to take the gentle giant on a homecoming trip back to his rural village which led him further to self-discovery. This cinematic spectacle will leave you profoundly moved.

Available to watch on MeWatch.

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Apprentice (2016)
Photograph: Olivia Kwok/Film Movement

Apprentice (2016)

No matter your stance on the controversial death penalty, Boo Junfeng’s Apprentice will teach you the fine art of execution. The bilingual Malay-English prison drama focuses on a young Malay correctional officer’s friendship with an aging chief executioner who – lo and behold – executed the young man’s dad for murder decades ago. But despite this, he continues to learn the ropes as an apprentice to the older man. And if he wants to be the next chief executioner, then he has to do all it takes to overcome his conscience and his haunted past.

Available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.

A Yellow Bird (2016)
Photograph: Donn Tan/Akanga Film Asia

A Yellow Bird (2016)

A debut film feature by local award-winning filmmaker K. Rajagopal, A Yellow Bird tells the story of a homeless ex-convict who is seeking to reunite with his family yet struggling to integrate back into society. As he carries on with life, he starts to form an unlikely bond with a Chinese sex worker while acting as her bodyguard. The grim drama was selected for the International Critics' Week at the Cannes Film Festival.

Available to watch on Netflix.

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7 Letters (2015)
Photograph: 7 Letters

7 Letters (2015)

What do you get when you put seven award-winning local filmmakers together? A documentary that bears emotive accounts of Singaporeans in commemoration of SG50. The visual masterpiece cleverly captures each filmmaker’s personal bond with the city, colouring in themes of lost love, identity, family, neighbours and traditional folklore.

Available to watch on Netflix.

Unlucky Plaza (2014)
Photograph: Unlucky Plaza

Unlucky Plaza (2014)

Ken Kwek's feature-length debut is a hostage thriller first premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. It's about a Filipino man struggling to make ends meet, only to fall victim to a financial scam. He then takes several Singaporeans hostage for ransom. All hell breaks loose when a race riot engulfs the city. Xenophobic Singaporeans storm Lucky Plaza – the popular Filipino hangout from which the film derives its name – and go all-out medieval on the mall.

Available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.

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Ilo Ilo (2013)
Photograph: Fisheye Pictures

Ilo Ilo (2013)

The first Singapore film to land an award at the Cannes Film Festival 2013, Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo is one film that leaves you fogged up with tears. This tearjerker documents the inseparable bond between a boy and his new Filipina maid. Besides showcasing the struggle of the 1997 Asian financial crisis faced by most families then, Chen also cleverly depicts the class and racial tensions held within the household.

Available to watch on Netflix.

To Singapore With Love (2013)
Photograph: To Singapore With Love

To Singapore With Love (2013)

Did you know that this documentary is banned in Singapore for its controversial elements? Now that we’ve got your attention, let us tell you more about it – it explores the backstories and beliefs of political exiles. Despite being denied a license to screen in Singapore, Tan Pin Pin’s film managed to bag several awards, including the Dubai International Film Festival and the Salaya International Documentary Festival. It even enjoyed four sold-out screenings at London’s SEA ArtsFest. Hoo-ha’s aside, To Singapore with Love is an absolute clever and affecting triumph.

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Ah Boys To Men series (2012-2017)
Photograph: MM2 Entertainment

Ah Boys To Men series (2012-2017)

The first of the series sees a privileged and impulsive Singaporean attempting to escape the grips of the mandatory National Service to study abroad with his girlfriend. The story then continues in the sequel where the focus shifts towards the main protagonist's NS experience and the friends he made in the army. It also touches on themes such as sacrifice, love, family, and patriotism. It's definitely a film that resonates well with Singaporeans who have served the nation. Hormat senjata!

Available to watch on Netflix.

23:59 (2011)
Photograph: Netflix

23:59 (2011)

Before the clock strikes midnight, grab some popcorn for an army ghost story. This Singaporean-Malaysian horror film shines its torchlight in the dark corners of a remote jungle where a national service training camp is set up. At a minute before midnight, an army recruit is found dead, and a sort of evil is unleashed. Those bedtime ghost stories start to come to life when the gruesome incident reveals a terrifying secret, and the remaining soldiers have no choice but to confront their deepest fears. 

Available to watch on Netflix.

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Sandcastle (2010)
Photograph: Sandcastle

Sandcastle (2010)

Get a glimpse of Singapore in the 1950s with Boo Junfeng’s debut feature film Sandcastle. The coming-of-age story tells that of a teen who is forced to come to terms with his new-found knowledge of his father’s past, with huge resistance from his other family members. It explores various life experiences including his first love, his grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease, and other sensitive issues that were particularly taboo to discuss back then. Sandcastle was also the first Singaporean film showcased at International Critics’ Week during the Cannes Film Festival in 2010.

Available to watch on MeWatch.

My Magic (2008)
Photograph: My Magic

My Magic (2008)

You’d want to grab a tissue box for this tearjerker. Starring real-life magician Bosco Francis, My Magic tells the story of a parent’s unconditional love. After the death of his wife, single dad Francis returns to his former craft as a magician to provide for his son. Pressured to earn more money, he starts performing dangerous acts, putting his life at risk. My Magic marks Eric Khoo’s first film in Tamil, and was the first Singapore film to be nominated for the Palme D'Or, the top award for film at the Cannes Film Festival. It was also selected as Singapore’s Oscar entry for the Best Foreign Language Film in 2009.

Available to watch on MeWatch.

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Kallang Roar the Movie (2008)
Photograph: Netflix

Kallang Roar the Movie (2008)

Not just another football flick à la Bend It Like Beckham and Goal!, Kallang Roar the Movie documents the legendary coach of the Singapore national football team: Choo Seng Quee. The dramatic take reimagines the events leading up to Singapore winning the Malaysia Cup in 1977, including the epic semi-final match against Selangor, and the final against Penang. Do the Kallang Wave when the credits roll.

Available to watch on Netflix.

881 (2007)
Photograph: Zhao Wei Films

881 (2007)

A quirky homage to Singapore's Getai scene, this musical comedy is about two friends who grew up with immense love for the sub-culture. After being blessed by the Getai Goddess, the pair emerge as the Papayas, the most popular Getai duo in the city. But the plot thickens when their main competitors, the Durian Sisters, start cooking diabolical plans to sabotage the Papayas' performances out of jealousy.

Available to watch on Netflix.

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Singapore Dreaming (2006)
Photograph: 5C Films

Singapore Dreaming (2006)

A nod to the essay Paved with Good Intentions, the award-winning Singapore Dreaming follows a family grappling between loss, ambition, change and the realities of life. Despite its heavy themes, the film is light-hearted and relatable, especially in a fast-paced city like Singapore. Plus, it earned S.R. Nathan’s commendation – and that says a lot. Just bear in mind, the dialogue shifts in between English, Mandarin and Singlish.

Available to watch on Netflix.

Singapore GaGa (2005)
Photograph: Singapore Gaga

Singapore GaGa (2005)

Partly named after Queen's single Radio GaGa, Singapore GaGa is also based on the concept of 'gaga' which is synonymous to being crazy over something in English, anger in Malay, and the yearning for a time past. It colours the city's past and present with delight and humour, and ropes audiences in with the sweet sounds of hymns sung by buskers, street vendors, school cheerleaders to themselves and their communities. It even reveals the hidden faces behind these aural gems. Since its premiere in 2005 at the Singapore International Film Festival, Tan Pin Pin’s essay film became the first-ever local documentary to have a theatrical release.

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Be With Me (2005)
Photograph: Be With Me

Be With Me (2005)

A film in three parts, Be With Me (directed by Eric Khoo) is inspired by the life and autobiography of Theresa Chan, a blind and deaf teacher. Hers is just one of the three stories in the film that touches on lost love, unfulfilled love and unspoken love. The result is a tender film that anyone and everyone can relate to and that love always finds a way. 

The Maid (2005)
Photograph: Mediacorp Raintree Pictures

The Maid (2005)

One for horror fans – The Maid shines its torchlight on a very dark past, the stuff of nightmares. A family welcomes a new maid to care for the mentally disabled son, but her arrival is ill-timed as it's the seventh month of the year. It's believed that forces of the underworld are capable of unleashing their evil vibes during this period. As the newcomer begins her new job, she starts to find herself haunted by the sinister visions that reveal the fate of the family's previous maid.

Available to watch on Netflix.

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Perth (2004)
Photograph: Perth

Perth (2004)

There's only one destination in this bumpy ride: the heart of Harry Lee, a part-time security guard and taxi driver. With the hopes of moving to Perth – an oasis in Harry's mind – he starts transporting sex workers to clients to earn extra cash for the move, only to get entangled in the underworld of Singapore's flesh trade. Things start to really go down under when he takes an unhealthy interest in one of the sex workers who looks like someone from his past. This awakens a dire need for personal redemption from past transgressions, fuelling a rage that could determine his fate.

15 (2003)
Photograph: 15

15 (2003)

Not your average Singapore coming-of-age dramedy, 15 is as gripping as it is gutsy. Helmed by Royston Tan, the film is a follow-up on the director’s award-winning short film of the same name. It tells the story of teenage gangsters in the heartlands. Tan even went as far as to cast real-life 15-year-old juveniles, documenting their troubled lives without much prior scripting, for accuracy and authenticity. For a local film, this is one bold grisly premise that features full-frontal male nudity.

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Homerun (2003)
Photograph: Mediacorp Raintree Pictures

Homerun (2003)

This local Mandarin-remake has nothing on the original award-winning Iranian film Children of Heaven, but it's still worth watching for its satirical take on the tension between Singapore and Malaysia in the 60s, in which the story is set. The drama details the challenges faced by a brother-sister duo when a pair of shoes go missing. Besides themes of friendship and kinship, it also touches on the political relations between Singapore and Malaysia, and the socio-economic relationships between the rich and poor in the old Singapore. Bet you didn't know this film is banned in Malaysia too.

Available to watch on Netflix.

I Not Stupid (2002)
Photograph: Mediacorp Raintree Pictures

I Not Stupid (2002)

Not much brainwork required – this satirical comedy follows the lives, struggles, and adventures of three Primary Six students who are placed in the EM3 stream. Although it’s riddled with slapstick humour, the film also highlights several aspects of modern Singapore culture such as streaming in the education system, defense to authority, socio-cultural stereotypes, and the impact these have on underprivileged kids and families.

Available to watch on Netflix.

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Forever Fever (1998)
Photograph: Tiger Tiger Pictures

Forever Fever (1998)

Need a more localised version of disco hit Saturday Night Fever? You actually don't, but this film written and directed by Glen Goei still works if you're looking for a feel-good flick with some banging tunes. Starring actor Adrian Pang as a Bruce Lee-idolising supermarket clerk, the film follows him as he tries to win a dancing contest and the affections of his crush. 

The Teenage Textbook Movie (1998)
Photograph: IMDA

The Teenage Textbook Movie (1998)

Based on the bestselling book of the same name (sans 'Movie') by Adrian Tan, this coming-of-age film adaptation spotlights the lives of four Junior College students as they navigate the perils of teen angst and first love. The light-hearted film is full of witty quips, and songs by local musicians in which the all-Singaporean soundtrack became the first for English-language Singapore films.

Available to watch on Netflix.

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12 Storeys (1997)
Photograph: Zhao Wei Films

12 Storeys (1997)

Just as the title suggests, this film is set in an HDB flat and narrates the lives of its inhabitants within a 24-hour period. Its plot branches out into three main storylines. China Bride depicts a middle-aged man dealing with his new young wife from China. San San portrays a loner who suffers from depression. Sister’s Keeper tells that of an overbearing brother who dominates over his sibling while their parents are away. Let’s just say, all three experience an unexpected twist of events right before the credits roll.

Available to watch on Netflix.

Army Daze (1996)
Photograph: Army Daze

Army Daze (1996)

Before the Ah Boys to Men, there was Army Daze. Unlike its modern successor, this film adaptation of Michael Chiang’s 1987 play features a diverse cast of characters from different classes and cultural backgrounds taking on the rite of passage young Singaporean men have to go through: National Service. The down-to-earth comedy was a box office success when it was released in 1996, and still holds up pretty well after over two decades.

Available to watch on Netflix.

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Mee Pok Man (1995)
Photograph: Zhao Wei Films

Mee Pok Man (1995)

Hard to say if Eric Khoo's splendid debut feature is an authentic tragedy of erotic obsession or the blackest of black comedies. Either way, it scores brownie points for presenting Singapore in a different light. Named after the flat noodles he makes and sells, the Mee Pok Man lives in the stern shadow of his late father and dotes from afar on the world-weary hooker Bunny. He gets his chance to 'save' this tarnished angel when he finds her bleeding after a hit-and-run accident and takes her home to nurse her. 

Available to watch on Netflix.

Hang Jebat (1961)
Photograph: Cathay-Keris Film Productions

Hang Jebat (1961)

Not to be confused with the 1956 historical drama directed by Phani Majumdar, Hussein Haniff's epic duel Hang Jebat is the more popular film adaptation of the Malay legend. Based on the fearless warrior and closest companion of the legendary Malaccan hero Hang Tuah, it has been regarded by many film historians as one of the most significant historical dramas in Singapore's film industry.

Available to watch on Films of Singapore Daily.

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Sumpah Orang Minyak (1958)
Photograph: Shaw Organisation

Sumpah Orang Minyak (1958)

Written, directed, and even played by triple-threat superstar P. Ramlee, Sumpah Orang Minyak shadows a disfigured hunchback who makes a deal with the devil in exchange for beauty. Trouble ensues when he kills a man and his new life is taken away from him. Begging for another shot, the devil demands he rapes 21 virgins.

Available to watch on Films of Singapore Daily.

Bujang Lapok series (1957-1961)
Photograph: Bujang Lapok

Bujang Lapok series (1957-1961)

The series of four films as a whole spotlights three Malay bachelors as played by P. Ramlee, Aziz Sattar and Samsuddin. The first film Bujang Lapok follows them returning to their kampung after working in the modern city of Singapore. The sequels, however, are not a direct follow-up but are as fun as its predecessor. The second entry Pendekar Bujang Lapok is considered the best and sees the comedic trio en route to become warriors. It won the Best Comedy award at the 1959 Asian Film Festival.

Available to watch on Films of Singapore Daily.

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Pontianak trilogy (1957-1958)
Photograph: Cathay-Keris Film Productions

Pontianak trilogy (1957-1958)

One such genre that still lures audiences in then as it still does today is horror. Shining its torchlight on the vengeful vampire, Cathay-Keris’ Pontianak cult classic, together with sequels Dendam Pontianak and Sumpah Pontianak, defined the horror genre in Singapore and Malaysia. The films also feature music composed by Zubir Said, the composer behind Singapore’s national anthem. Fun fact: some of the earliest surviving kampong scenes filmed in Siglap and Tanah Merah can be found in Sumpah Pontianak.

Available to watch on Films of Singapore Daily.

Invisible Stories (2020-)
Photograph: HBO Asia

Invisible Stories (2020-)

Not a movie per se, but his HBO Asia's original deserves to be binged. The six-part drama tells the stories of lesser-seen characters from a fictional housing estate in Singapore. These untold stories include the challenges a mother faces with her autistic son, a taxi driver who channels a spiritual medium by night, and a married husband with a secret that is only out of the bag at night.

Available to watch on HBO Go.

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Folklore (2018-)
Photograph: HBO Asia

Folklore (2018-)

Another anthology worth binging, this six-part horror takes you on a hellish ride across six Asian countries. Brave up for the superstitions and myths that haunt this side of the world – think pontianak, and its equivalents like the Javanese wewe gombel and Thai pob. “Many of the stories have been passed down hundreds of years but given an update – so there's something familiar but yet something new in each episode,” shares filmmaker Eric Khoo. The second season, featuring seven hour-long episodes, is set to roll out in early 2021.

Read our full interview with Eric Khoo here.

Available to watch on HBO Go.

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