New Resident (2020) is one of those films in which what happens around the film is almost as interesting as the film itself. As director Jun Chong reveals in the Facebook post accompanying New Resident‘s online premiere, New Resident has been influenced by – and has also influenced – the neighbourhood-level politics of Sin Ming Court:

When I finished making ‘New Resident’, I knew right from the start that I had to premiere it to the fellow residents of Sin Ming Court. This short, ultimately, was done on the estate and for the estate. With that in mind, I approached my Residents’ Committee and Community Centre with this request to screen my film at the estate. However, they got back with a surprising response. They stated that the film “[puts] the enforcement agencies in bad light“ and that they “need to maintain good and long term working relationships with these relevant authorities.” They even asked me to “adjust the portion to be more neutral”.

I was confused. I called the CC and explained my point of view – that the film was simply to show how these free-roaming chickens add a ‘kampung’ flavour in a typical residential estate and the significance that they play in the hearts of our residents (including myself). However, they were persistent on their stand. In their response, they stated that while the 2019 poll revealed that over 90% of the residents are in support of the chickens, the CC also has to be answerable to the 10% of the residents who voted otherwise. I approached my Minister for an explanation but there was no response for a month. Only until recently, I received a call saying that I can screen my film, but only at a new community centre in Bishan away from Sin Ming – where the heart of the story is at.

Jun Chong, Facebook

Yes, it’s hard to create art in Singapore because it’s difficult to stand by work that doesn’t toe a mainstream line. New Resident isn’t new in this regard – it joins a whole lineage of artists who have faced this same receptive friction. However, New Resident presents us with what I think is the perfect metaphor for living a countercultural life in Singapore.

To dissent is to be a wild chicken.

Wild chickens exist outside of a cleanly compartmentalised social order in which everything has a proper position. Neatly trimmed and manicured, our HDB gardens have no room for the unruly presence of untamed nature. Without a master, wild chickens are rogue agents that disrupt our society’s sense of structure; they remind us that things slip out of reach in an organic and ever-shifting world. Yet, because they peck away at these neat lines of containment, wild chickens must be resolved.

Perhaps even without intending to do so, New Resident and its dance around the powers that be aptly reenacts, in real life, the same scramble that its human and animal protagonists endure.

Throughout New Resident, Madam Tan (Goh Guat Kian) does her best to protect a flock of wild chickens from being captured and culled by the authorities. However, Tan is not safe herself. Despite being the one who intervenes to rescue the chickens, Tan seems to become more like a chicken herself as the film unfolds, as she too becomes one who must hide from the authorities.

Like an escaping animal, Tan almost never rests; she figures out her next move amidst constant motion. She spies on the catchers, chases the chickens out of their sight, and dashes to and from her apartment with stolen chickens in hand. During the scene in which Tan tries chasing the chickens away, we hear Tan practically cluck in desperation; the camera wobbles as it focuses on Tan’s footsteps and the wing-like sweeps of her arms. These bring to mind a tangled anxiety that seems as embodied by Tan as a chicken trying to escape its predator.

At several points, the film’s shots also twin Tan and her chickens. In these intimate shots, Tan contemplates these chickens and bonds with them, and her sympathy folds them into each other. Their visual symmetry becomes emotional symmetry as well. By inviting these rogue agents into her home, Tan becomes a rogue agent herself. She finds a kindred spirit in these wild disruptors of order.

As disarmingly funny as it might be to see someone befriending a flock of chickens, New Resident‘s twinning effect takes on an upsetting turn when Tan becomes a hunted chicken herself. Just like how we saw chickens being put into a cramped cage in the beginning of the film, we see Tan becoming contained. Peeking out from behind the walls of her home, craning her neck to listen without being detected, Tan is birdlike in her posture and her fear of being caught. She, like her chickens, must cope with the fear of having the boundaries of her home breached. In bitter irony, these walls don’t keep her in; they keep the predators out. But, like her chickens, she is practically caged. All she can do is hide and wait.

In a sense, Tan is the chicken, New Resident is Tan, and all of us watch on in between laughter and frustration as this frantic tango unfolds. As New Resident suggests, it’s strange when others step in to make decisions on behalf of the people who actually interact with these chickens daily. Will the pest controllers understand the little joys of picking up an egg and realising that these chickens are part of a community too?

While Tan and her chickens ended the film in a position of containment, New Resident didn’t. In fact, New Resident premiered to such a wide audience precisely because it was contained. Its positive reception by online Singapore is proof that there is strength in numbers and warmth in society, enough to keep this circle of life afloat. The way out of this chicken-and-culler dance is to find solace in solidarity.

New Resident is the chicken that broke free by finding its tribe.

New Resident (2020) is available online on Facebook and YouTube.

About the Writer: Ben is interested in how films and society relate to each other, and is a fan of Goh Guat Kian. Broadly speaking, Ben’s other interests include horror, comedy and the mind on screen.

Credits: Screenshots from New Resident.

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