Tan Pin Pin

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Tan Pin Pin
Image of Tan Pin Pin
Born Tan Pin Pin
Nationality Singaporean

Northwestern University

Oxford University
Occupation Filmmaker
Website tanpinpin.com

Tan Pin Pin (Chinese: 陈彬彬; pinyin: Chén Bīnbīn, born 1969) is a Singapore-based film director. She is best known for the documentary film Singapore GaGa (2005). It was the first Singaporean documentary to have a theatrical run. In 2014, her documentary To Singapore, With Love (2013) was denied for all ratings by the Media Development Authority, effectively banning it in Singapore.

Early life[edit]

The oldest of three girls, Tan was born to architects in a middle-class neighborhood. Educated at Raffles Girls' Secondary School and Victoria Junior College, Tan was a Loke Cheng Kim scholar. She received her first degree in law from Oxford University, graduating with an M.A. in England, United Kingdom. Subsequently, she received her MFA in film and television from Northwestern University . In her first year at Oxford, she came across photography books, including Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958) and August Sander’s Citizens of the Twentieth Century (1986), and started taking photographs. After graduation in 1991, she travelled to China with her camera.[1]

Kenneth Paul Tan of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy states that "Pin was at the start of a trend among a younger generation of filmmakers to use film to examine and maybe even interpret the past, motivated by a sense of loss coming from how quickly Singapore has evolved."[2]


Her films have screened at festivals including Berlin, Busan, Cinéma du Réel, Visions du Réel, Rotterdam and at the Flaherty Seminar. They have also screened on Discovery Channel. In Singapore, they have received sold-out screenings, toured schools and was acquired by Singapore Airlines for their in-flight entertainment services. Her video installations have been shown in the President's Young Talent Show, Singapore Art Show and the Aedes Gallery in Berlin. She has won or been nominated for more than 20 awards. According to Twitchfilm's Stefan, watching Invisible City "made you think, about existentialism, about memories, about immortality." Singapore GaGa, voted the Best Film in 2006 by The Straits Times, is described as "one of the best films about Singapore". Moving House, Pin Pin's thesis film for her Northwestern University MFA, won the Student Academy Award for Best Documentary.

Other awards include two Asian Television Awards, Cinéma du Réel's Prix de la SCAM and Taiwan International Documentary Festival's Asian Vision Award. Her films are distributed by Objectifs Films. She recently completed Yangtze Scribbler and thesaurus. 2015 will see the release of Tan's short film as part of an omnibus to commemorate Singapore's 50th year of independence.[3]

Film Community[edit]

Tan Pin Pin is a founding member of filmcommunitysg, a collective of independent filmmakers in Singapore.

She was on the team in 2011 that lobbied the Singapore Film Commission to include documentaries and films with artistic and cultural merit in the New Talent Feature Grant Scheme. Tan was on the Board of The Substation (2004–2011) and was also on the Board of the National Archives of Singapore (2007–2009).

Tan, with Yuni Hadi, co-founded the Fly by Night Video Challenge[4] which has seen several hundred short films made in the seven years it was run. She has been on film juries of Cinemanila International Film Festival, Jeonju International Film Festival and DMZ Docs amongst others.


IN TIME TO COME (2017)[edit]

Tan is releasing IN TIME TO COME in April 2017. Set in Singapore, IN TIME TO COME follows the ritualistic exhuming of an old state time capsule, and the compilation of another. As enigmatic remnants of life from 25 years ago emerge - a bottle of water from the Singapore River, a copy of Yellow Pages, a phone charger - today's selection of items are carefully primed for future generations to decode. Interwoven are carefully composed shots of moments we rarely think to preserve: the in-between minutes of daily life spent waiting for things to happen, shot in locales as diverse as the lush jungle to a residential district infused with haze.

The film world premieres at Visions du Réel in April 2017. Thereafter, it embarks on a whirlwind tour, travelling to Hot Docs, Canada, É Tudo Verdade, Brazil and The Art of the Real, Lincoln Centre, USA.

7 Letters (2015)[edit]

In 2015, Tan directed one out of seven short films in 7 Letters, "Pineapple Town", created to celebrate Singapore's Golden Jubilee. The Straits Times noted that "Tan's work," her first attempt at fiction, "has an allusive, multilayered depth that lingers in the mind after the credits roll".[5] Variety found Tan's segment "at once upfront and nuanced about the complexities of cultural identity".[6]

To Singapore, With Love (2013)[edit]

In 2013, Tan released To Singapore, With Love, which revolves around political exiles, some of whom have not been home for as long as 50 years. The documentary won Tan the best director award in the Muhr AsiaAfrica Documentary section at 10th Dubai International Film Festival and the Best Asean Documentary at the Salaya International Documentary Festival. It was made with the support of the Asian Cinema Fund and the Busan International Film Festival, where it had its world premiere in competition.[7] The film also screened at Malaysia's FreedomFilmFest, the Berlin International Film Festival's Forum programme, Film Society of Lincoln Center, Seoul International Documentary Festival, Brazil's It's All True, Jogja-Netpac Film Festival, International Film Festival of Kerala, Diaspora Film Festival, Incheon and London's SEA ArtsFest, where it enjoyed four sold-out screenings over two days.[8]

On 10 September 2014, the film was banned in Singapore, with the Media Development Authority claiming that it undermined national security as "the individuals in the film have given distorted and untruthful accounts of how they came to leave Singapore and remain outside Singapore," and that "a number of these self-professed 'exiles' were members of, or had provided support to, the proscribed Communist Party of Malaya (CPM)."[9]

In response, a group of 39 artists, including filmmakers Anthony Chen, Royston Tan and Kelvin Tong, released a joint statement expressing "deep disappointment" and urged the Media Development Authority to reverse the ban. Tan stated that she would consider re-submitting the film for a rating in the future.[10] In addition, academic Cherian George commented on the ban, writing that it is "not just disproportionate. It is also an insult to Singaporeans, who are in effect being told that they are not smart enough to engage critically with Tan’s film, no matter how biased it may be, and to weigh what her interviewees claim against what the official history states."[11] Even Chua Mui Hoong, the opinion editor of the conservative The Straits Times, did not support the ban, writing, "When there are diverging interpretations of events, like the arrests of leftist activists in the 1960s to 1980s, the best antidote is not a ban on some points of view, but more openness and access to information...Singapore and its history do not belong to the ruling party."[12] Chua had joined a group of about 350 Singaporeans who had travelled to Johor Baru, Malaysia, to watch To Singapore, With Love after the ban.

On 2 October 2014, Tan submitted To Singapore, With Love, unchanged, to the Media Development Authority's Film Appeals Committee to review the film's ban. In a statement, Tan wrote, "As we approach our 50th birthday, I feel that we as a people should be able to view and weigh for ourselves, through legitimate public screenings in Singapore, differing views about our past, even views that the government disagrees with. I hope that Film Appeals Committee will see the film and review the classification in this light."[13] On 12 November 2014, Tan's review was denied. In a statement, the chairman of the Film Appeals Committee (FAC) said, "While of commendable artistic standard, the FAC found the film to be a one-sided account with minimal attempts to provide a balanced mix of views beyond those provided by the interviewees featured in the film". Of the 12 FAC members present, nine voted to uphold the classification while the other three voted that the film be given a Restricted 21 (R21) rating instead.[14]

The film also ran into controversy in Kuantan, Malaysia, where its October screening by human rights non-governmental organisation Pusat Komas under its annual FreedomFilmFest was cancelled after Putrajaya was alleged to have pressured the owner of the Kuantan venue that would have hosted the viewing. However, deputy home minister Datuk Dr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar denied the allegations, claiming that To Singapore, With Love was not banned and is still under scrutiny.[15]

At the FreedomFilmFest screening in George Town, Penang, 15 officers from Malaysia's Ministry of Home Affairs turned up to stop the show, claiming that the film had not been vetted and approved by the film censor board. However, after half an hour of discussions with the organisers, the officers allowed the screening to proceed.[16]

Snow City (2011)[edit]

In 2011, Tan released Snow City. Snow City had its international premiere at the Singapore Biennale[17] and was invited to screen in competition at Cinéma du Réel.[18][19]

The Impossibility of Knowing (2010)[edit]

The Impossibility of Knowing documents Tan's attempt to capture the aura of spaces in Singapore that have experienced trauma. Tan was among four Asian directors who were commissioned by the DMZ International Documentary Film Festival[20] to make a short film on the theme of "peace, life, and communication". The Impossibility of Knowing premiered on 11 September 2010.

The film also screened at Visions du Réel[21] and the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival.[22]

In November 2015, the film was withdrawn from the Titian Budaya Festival in Kuala Lumpur after Malaysian censors raised issues with it.[23]

Invisible City (2007)[edit]

The 2007 documentary Invisible City, chronicles the ways people attempt to leave a mark before they and their histories disappear. Tan interviews people – photographers, journalists and archaeologists – who are propelled by curiosity to find a City for themselves. '

In a book chapter by Professor Kenneth Paul Tan, Tan Pin Pin's narrative approach is outlined and its impact analysed. "She interviews Ivan Polunin, an English doctor who moved to Singapore in 1948 and was a university lecturer and part-time documentarian for the BBC up to the 1970s, by which time he had produced hundred of hours of film footage capturing, among other things, the lives of fisherman working on kelongs and the Cantonese-speaking heartlands of old Singapore. Tan's interview with the elderly Polunin takes place shortly after he underwent brain surgery, a trauma that has caused him to lose, by his own admission, much 'brainpower'".[24]

The film enjoyed a five-week sold out run at The Arts House in Singapore and screened at Berlinale, Pusan.[25] Invisible City also won the Prix de la Scam at Cinéma du Réel, and the Asian Vision Award, Merit Award, at the Taiwan International Documentary Festival.

Singapore GaGa (2005)[edit]

Singapore GaGa, a survey of Singaporean life as expressed in sounds, is Tan's best-known film. The film is Singapore's first documentary to have a cinema release and it enjoyed a seven-week sold out run at The Arts House. Apart from being acquired for screening on board Singapore Airlines, it has also played in film festivals around the world.[26][27] Singapore GaGa was voted Best Film in 2006 by The Straits Times. In January 2016, the film was withdrawn from Malaysia's Titian Budaya Festival in Kuala Lumpur after authorities rejected an appeal to the chief censor to not withdraw a scene where ventriloquist Victor Khoo said "animals" in Malay, as the word has a double meaning. The censor’s report added that the “dialogue can create doubt and restlessness among citizens and may finally cause a security threat, disturbance of public peace and national defence”.[28]

Crossings: John Woo (2004)[edit]

In 2004, Tan directed Crossings: John Woo, part of the Crossing series commissioned by Discovery Channel, showing the history and life of one of Hollywood’s most celebrated directors John Woo. The film showcased rarely seen clips from Woo's earlier works. Crossings: John Woo premiered on Discovery.

80km/h (2003)[edit]

80km/h is a single continuous take of the 38-minute-long drive across the island of Singapore on the Pan Island Expressway, and the view along the way.

Kenneth Paul Tan states, "This is a 38-minute art film that documents the journey on the Pan Island Expressway (PIE) from the eastern end of Singapore to its Western end, all filmed in one take from a car moving at a constant speed. By reproducing the project ever year, Tan hopes that by 2013 she will be able to 'stack' the ten layers of recordings for 'a real time layered survey of our landscape". [29]

Gravedigger's Luck (part of Afterlife Series) (2003)[edit]

Tan released Gravedigger's Luck, part of Discovery Network's Afterlife series. It documents a man who tries multiple luck-enhancing methods to counter the curse of bad luck he believes he has because of his job as a grave exhumer. Gravedigger's Luck was the runner up for Best Documentary at the Asian Television Awards, and the runner up for Best Infotainment Programme. She was the series consultant for the Afterlife series.

Building Dreams (2002)[edit]

The 8-part series on the history of Singapore architecture Building Dreams featured two episodes Tan directed – Dawn of a New Era and Spaces of Memory. The pieces showed a rare look inside the dome of the Old Supreme Court Building, Singapore, as well as a house designed by renowned Singaporean architect Ho Kwong Yew. Building Dreams was produced for Arts Central by Xtreme Productions.

Moving House (2001)[edit]

Kenneth Paul Tan states that "Raphaël Millet describes Northwestern University-trained Tan Pin Pin as a 'pioneer' of the documentary genre in Singapore and country, her 22-minute Moving House among the 'first breakthroughs'in a genre that is important for recording the history of 'a young nation still in the making'...... In Singapore Gaga (2005) for instance, Tan captures and then privileges the marvelous diversity, idiosyncrasies and musicality of ordinary voices in Singapore, voices that have mostly been overpowered by the ubiquitous and bland pronouncements of officialdom"[30]

Professor Tan goes on to point out that "Tan's film points to two stages of violence which are visually resonant. At the first stage, in the 1950s-70s, large numbers of Singaporeans living in village communities were dispersed and resettled-sometimes against their will-into modern public housing estates. In the earlier decades, these mass produced high-rise apartment blocks-though clean,safe and convenient- were criticized for alienating the individual, atomizing community and lacking aesthetic character...... The visual and conceptual resemblance between apartment blocks and columbaria is uncanny, and the film does not miss the opportunity to foreground the irony."[31]

Still from Moving House

Moving House gives an insight into what it is like for one of the 55,000 families in Singapore forced to relocate the remains of their relatives from a cemetery to a columbarium. The film was one of six documentary ideas commissioned by Discovery Networks Asia and is the first documentary it funded that was entirely conceptualised, initiated and directed by a Singaporean[32]

Moving House won the Student Academy Award for Best Documentary,[33] Best Documentary at the USA-Asean Film Festival,[34] an award for Discovery Channel's Asia First Time Filmmaker Award, a Certificate of Merit at the Chicago International Film Festival, and the Documentary Prize at Nextframe.

Rogers Park (2001)[edit]

The 2001 short Rogers Park is a snapshot of the lives of three people – a man, a woman, and a boy. They live under one roof and yet in emotionally separate spaces in Chicago's Rogers Park.

Rogers Park was a Student Academy Awards Regional Finalist, won the Golden Reel Award and the Chicago Filmmaker Award. It also screened at the Clermont Film Festival in France.[35]

microwave (2000)[edit]

Tan's microwave takes a humorous jab at the world's obsession with everybody's favourite plastic doll. The film was done in a single shot and has screened in multiple festivals around the world.[36][37][38]

Moving House (1997)[edit]

Moving House (1997) was about the exhumation of Tan's great-grandparents' grave in 1995. The site was off Sixth Avenue in Singapore. This was the first of three documentaries about grave exhumations.


In June 2010, Tan led a group of Singapore filmmakers to protest the Asian Film Archive's head Tan Bee Thiam's supposed conflict of interest. Their letter led to Tan's resignation as executive director.[39]


  • IN TIME TO COME (2017)
  • Pineapple Town (2015)
  • To Singapore, With Love (2013)
  • Yangtze Scribbler (2012)
  • remember (2012)
  • Snow City (2011)
  • The Impossibility of Knowing (2010)'
  • Invisible City (2007)
  • 9 August (2008)
  • Singapore GaGa (2005)
  • Crossings: John Woo (2004)
  • 80km/h (2003)
  • Afterlife (2003)
  • Building Dreams (2002)
  • Moving House (2001)
  • Rogers Park (2001)
  • microwave (2000)
  • Moving House (1997)


  1. ^ Chen, May Yee (1 October 2014). "Banned Film Reunites Singapore With Its Exiles". The New York Times. Retrieved 1 October 2014. 
  2. ^ Chen, May Yee (1 October 2014). "Banned Film Reunites Singapore With Its Exiles". The New York Times. Retrieved 1 October 2014. 
  3. ^ Chan, Boon (20 August 2014). "One film for Singapore's 50th year from seven top local directors, including Eric Khoo and Jack Neo". Singapore Press Holdings. The Straits Times. Retrieved 3 September 2014. 
  4. ^ [1], Tan co-founded the Fly by Night Video Challenge.
  5. ^ Lui, John (22 July 2015). "All directors turn in top grades for SG50 film project 7 Letters". Singapore Press Holdings. The Straits Times. Retrieved 4 January 2016. 
  6. ^ Lee, Maggie. "Film Review: '7 Letters'". Variety. Retrieved 4 January 2016. 
  7. ^ Loh, Genevieve Sarah (14 December 2013). "Singaporean film-maker Tan Pin Pin wins in Dubai". MediaCorp. TODAY. Retrieved 10 September 2014. 
  8. ^ Tan, Dawn Wei (29 October 2014). "Film on exiles, To Singapore, With Love, has four screenings at arts festival in London". Singapore Press Holdings. The Straits Times. Retrieved 30 October 2014. 
  9. ^ Mokhtar, Faris (10 September 2014). "The Media Development Authority (MDA) says the film is not allowed for all ratings as contents undermine national security.". Channel NewsAsia. Retrieved 10 September 2014. 
  10. ^ Nurul, Azliah Aripin (10 September 2014). "Singapore arts community urges MDA to reconsider ban on Tan Pin Pin film". Yahoo. Yahoo News Singapore. Retrieved 11 September 2014. 
  11. ^ George, Cherian. "Singaporean documentary banned". Media Asia. Retrieved 12 September 2014. 
  12. ^ Chua, Mui Hoong (29 September 2014). "To Johor Baru, for a movie". Singapore Press Holdings. The Straits Times. Retrieved 29 September 2014. 
  13. ^ Tan, Pin Pin. "APPEAL SUBMITTED". Facebook: To Singapore With Love. Retrieved 2 October 2014. 
  14. ^ Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh (12 November 2014). "Appeal to reclassify rating of To Singapore, With Love rejected". Singapore Press Holdings. The Straits Times. Retrieved 12 November 2014. 
  15. ^ "Home Ministry denies forcing NGO to stop screening of banned Singapore film". Yahoo!. The Malay Mail Online. 9 October 2014. Retrieved 10 October 2014. 
  16. ^ "'To Singapore with Love' almost no show at film fest". Happiness Malaysia Sdn Bhd. Rakyat Times. 26 October 2014. Retrieved 27 October 2014. 
  17. ^ [2], Singapore Biennale Artists Bio. Retrieved 13 June 2012.
  18. ^ [3], "8 Asian docs invited to Paris by Cinema du Réel 2012". Retrieved 13 June 2012.
  19. ^ [4], Cinema du Reel Programme. Retrieved 13 June 2012.
  20. ^ [5], "DMZ Docs Project 2009" by the DMZ International Documentary Film Festival. Retrieved 9 June 2012.
  21. ^ [6], “Visions du Réel:The Impossibility of Knowing. '’visionsdureel.ch'’ Retrieved 9 June 2012.
  22. ^ [7], “Programme for Short Film Festival Oberhausen”. "kurzfilmtage.de" Retrieved 9 June 2012.
  23. ^ Chua, Genevieve (4 January 2016). "Malaysian censors take issue with Singapore films". MediaCorp. TODAY. Retrieved 6 January 2016. 
  24. ^ Lim, edited by David C.L.; Yamamoto, Hiroyuki (2012). Film in contemporary Southeast Asia : cultural interpretation and social intervention. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. p. 155. ISBN 9780415617635. 
  25. ^ [8], “Berlinale: ‘’Invisible City’’." “berlinale.de". Retrieved 9 June 2012.
  26. ^ Leow, Joanne (20 June 2005). "Local film to be screened at Rotterdam Film Festival". Entertainment News. Channel NewsAsia. Retrieved 5 March 2007. 
  27. ^ Chng, Patrick (6 March 2006). "Singapore Gaga: Sounds of a Nation". MTV Asia. MTV Networks. Archived from the original on 27 August 2006. Retrieved 5 March 2007. 
  28. ^ "Singapore GaGa pulled from Malaysia event after film censored". Channel NewsAsia. 4 January 2016. Retrieved 4 January 2016. 
  29. ^ Lim, edited by David C.L.; Yamamoto, Hiroyuki (2012). Film in contemporary Southeast Asia : cultural interpretation and social intervention. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. p. 159. ISBN 9780415617635. 
  30. ^ Tan, Kenneth Paul (1 January 2011). "Violence and the supernatural in Singapore cinema". New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film. 8 (3): 213–223. doi:10.1386/ncin.8.3.213_1. 
  31. ^ Tan, Kenneth Paul (1 January 2011). "Violence and the supernatural in Singapore cinema". New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film. 8 (3): 213–223. doi:10.1386/ncin.8.3.213_1. 
  32. ^ Lim, edited by David C.L.; Yamamoto, Hiroyuki (2012). Film in contemporary Southeast Asia : cultural interpretation and social intervention. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. p. 155. ISBN 9780415617635. 
  33. ^ [9], Moving House wins Student Academy Award for Best Documentary.
  34. ^ [10], Moving House wins Best Documentary at USA-Asean Film Festival.
  35. ^ [11], “International du Court Metrage: Rogers Park”. "Clermont-filmfest.com". Retrieved 9 June 2012.
  36. ^ [12], microwave screened at the Chicago Underground Film Festival.
  37. ^ [13], microwave screened at the Women of Color Film Festival.
  38. ^ [14], microwave screened at Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.
  39. ^ Frater, Patrick. "Filmmaker protest movement leads to Tan's AFA departure". Film Business Asia. Retrieved 4 January 2016. 

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