I discovered a wonderful website that archives film locations in Singapore called www.sgfilmlocations.com. Browsing through the copious material, I found a rarely-seen 1958 movie called Azimat or Seal of Solomon, written and directed by Rolf Bayer, who did the screenplay for iconic postwar Filipino film, Anak Dalita. The movie stars Pancho Magalona and Tita Duran who are best known for their tailor-made musicals from the 1950s-60s. We find their tandem out of their comfort zones as they play a couple torn by the curse of an Azimat (Bahasa Melayu for Talisman, related to the Tagalog word, Agimat).
From the website:
Said to be a loose adaptation of French novelist Honoré de Balzac’s ‘La Peau de chagrin’ (‘The Magic Skin’), the Malay-language film Azimat was Filipino (some say Filipino-American) Rolf Bayer’s first directorial effort for the Shaw Brothers’ Malay Film Productions.
(Before his stint with the Shaw Brothers, Rolf Bayer had written a number of scripts for his compatriot director Lamberto V. Avellana, most notably Badjau/1957, a Philippines-Singapore co-production with backing from the Cathay-Keris film studio; it was released in Singapore/Malaya as ‘Badjau Anak Laut’.)
For Azimat (a Malay word for ‘talisman’), Rolf Bayer was probably inspired by an old French tale about the excesses of bourgeois materialism (‘La Peau de chagrin’), and adapted the story for then-contemporary Singapore, an island city with a modern, cosmopolitan side that was inhabited by rich urbanites reveling in the trappings of material wealth and luxury. The film’s narrative centers on Rene (Pancho Magalona), a rich man’s son who indulges so heavily in women, music and wine that he has a falling out with his father. Down and distraught, Rene roams into an elderly Chinese man’s basement shop and chances upon a magic skin (a talisman) which is said to be able to fulfill whatever he desires for, shrinking slightly upon the realization of each wish. With the powerful magic skin, Rene moves quickly to quench his desires for the usual obsessions, but soon realizes that misfortunes begin to befall the people around him.
Befitting an urban tale of greed and debauchery, Azimat’s film locations were likely chosen to comprise places that were associated with the affluent in Singapore – where they live (Runme Shaw’s villa in Queen Astrid Park); where they hang out (Bukit Timah Turf Club, Sky Palace Restaurant at Asia Insurance Building, nightclubs and classy restaurants); and where they look for adventures outside of their domain (Singapore River’s Boat Quay; it was formerly a working-class district of go-downs and shophouses before it was gentrified in the 1990s).
I am particulary interested in the movie as I am currently reading David Freedberg’s The Power of Images (The University of Chicago Press, 1989). From the review of Rudolf Arnheim in Times Literary Supplement: “Freedberg helps us to see that one cannot do justice to the images of art unless one recognizes in them the entire range of human responses, from the lowly impulses prevailing in popular imagery to their refinement in the great visions of the ages.”
Cinema being a hundred-year old or so medium now, can offer us a view of the residual attitudes towards the power of images. Films that discuss the supernatural or adapt popular stories about it are particularly insightful. For example, the description of the Talisman as a “weapon of wisdom,” which takes more than it can give is something of theory on magical belief that runs through several narratives.
Images themselves stand against all these theoretical trivializations. They convey a proximity between our present lives and that which are unameable, undescribable motifs from ancient peoples and their rituals.
Images in their strangeness, conjure up other worlds and impossible vision. Mere color can give us an inkling of the tragic nature of mortality. As if we were afraid to name this secret, the art-theoretical texts proliferate around aesthetic colors and shapes. As if we had to “colonize” the great strangeness of these frightening images as quickly as possible and “castrate” their power (cf. David Freedberg, The Power of Images), the texts hide the real thing, the great experience of standing before the inexplicable other, which is visible in the talisman, but remains incomprehensible. What we get from this movie is that the Azimat contains signs from extinct visual worlds that challenge the individual to face his alterity and otherness.
The Talmud scholar, philosopher of being and Heidegger critic Emmanuel Lévinas ties in with the ability of man to imagine his own limit, his death, the second ability, namely to open being to others, to experience being in this opening in general. Exactly this great experiment of each individual threatens to be covered with handy comments that quickly speak of harmless leather talismans and their mantras instead of respectfully silencing the frightening nature of these pictures.
There’s certainly more to discover in the archive and I will update this blog as I go along, with hopes that this will somehow sort itself out and become a material for longterm research.