At her VIFF appearance this week, Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly listed, among other reasons for wanting to send a trades mission to China, its almost impossible to imagine museum construction-rate: “one per day,” the Minister claimed. Without knowing the exact nature of these museums, their size, location, purpose, etc., it’s worth asking: whose history are they preserving, what art will they recognize, and what will it do for the community — if the community visits it at all? Tan Pin Pin is asking these questions in her new docu-portrait In Time to Come, which uses the occasion of time capsules (one constructed, one opened) to take stock of what, if anything, a person would want to send in a letter to the future.
Don’t expect any nostalgia or state-supported optimism. Tan uses a bare-knuckled approach: no interviews, no explanatory titles, just what one would see around the highways, street corners, and convention halls of the city. Tan, who rarely allows a camera movement, but keeps shots to a steady clip of a minute or less per shot, is using film as the best ideals of a newspaper might be imagined: to register the way normalcy changes or stands out, even if, to a person moving through their life, nothing might seem to be out of the ordinary.
Tan’s film opens with the “Time Cube (a project of the Singapore Institute of Management),” telescoping the rest of her documentary footage through time: we see it, perhaps, both from today and an imagined future. It’s a distant, dehumanized reality, where most of the dialogue is heard from public address speakers and bypassers are far more likely to be fantasizing into their phone screens than talking to anyone. The footage is selected and edited to converge on a particular point of view, of course, but it isn’t a stretch to imagine Tan’s film format used in Vancouver, and how it wouldn’t be hard to find many of the same scenes here — one shot, in a Christmas-decorated mall, resembles nothing more than the three-story International Village centre where the film will be screened.
Tan also compiles what one might expect to see: smog-covered towers, people sight-seeing at a mega-stadium, a polar bear encased in glass at an aquarium, but the thread across each shot is extreme and unpremeditated: people, probably bored and desiring something else, but standing still, waiting for their function to be activated. Tan captures this without exaggerating it, in a way that connects her, in a tangential way, with the punk-despair of Bresson’s The Devil Probably, and in a direct way, with Jia Zhangke’s empty highways in Unknown Pleasures. Perhaps even more than Jia, Tan has to grapple with the issue of her country being censored or alienated from its own artists and culture — and so she turns her film into an archive document, waiting for the eyes of the future.