Against The Hype

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SIFF 2010: The Short Film Finalists

April 23, 2010 By: Colin Low Category: Capsuled Thoughts

I had the pleasure of chatting with two Singaporean filmmakers, Jeremy Sing and Leon Cheo, about the local short film finalists at this year’s Singapore International Film Festival over at SINdie, the local indie film blog headed by Jeremy where I also write. The films were screened in one sitting at the Sinema Old School theatre, which can be reached by climbing a flight of over 140 steps from the nearest train station—much like being a prospective disciple to a kung fu master.

I’ve never enjoyed a more promising slate of local short films, which speaks as much to my relative inexperience in this area as it does to the state of our indie film “industry” and the diverse quality of this year’s crop of finalists. You can find my distilled reviews of each film under the jump, or better, read them in context: Part 1 and Part 2 of our conversation.

Que Sera Sera (dir. Ghazi Alqudcy)
What a sweet film, and how cheeky indeed that it achieves this by being as profane and borderline racist as it is! A lot of this can be attributed to the disarming figure of Syahidi, who plays the chubby kid that is the film’s centre; as well as the ever-present voiceover by the director Ghazi himself. Like I noted, the voiceover can be rather profane, at one point even getting into a chant of words I won’t repeat here, while the sanitised subtitles keep swapping between “Dick.” and “Head.” It also tempts charges of racism, despite disclaiming that “I am not racist”, when the kid, late for school, bumps into the Indian discipline master at the school gate. It helps, of course, that I know the actor playing the discipline master is a sporting friend of Ghazi’s. But what saves all this even more is the disparity between the cursing voiceover and the boy’s sweet and natural disposition, which ends up making the former seem more harmlessly amusing.

I also loved that, like Philothea Liau’s Brazil (where the value of an eraser reaches absurd heights), Que Sera Sera manages to evoke nostalgic details of past school days, and appends to that a kid’s perspective on those details. I’m referring here to the discipline master’s punishment, so idiosyncratic to its time and place, and so random and unfitting to the problem; and to the boy’s reaction, never questioning the punishment’s logic, but troubled by an unrelated set of problems that it will cause him.

The only complaint I have is that the film contrives a tummyache just so that the main character will miss his class. This makes sense logistics-wise, since you’d only need to cast the teacher and none of his classmates; and it helps the emotion of the scene where he presents his ambitions to the teacher alone, since it’s no longer a chance to show off to peers but a more intimate reveal of his dreams to someone who seems to care (which prompted another filmmaker during the Q&A to ask Ghazi if he ended up marrying that teacher, heh). Yet since the rest of the autobiographical film feels light and frothily believable, the tummyache could have been better foreshadowed so that it wouldn’t seem like a mere storytelling device. For instance, his voiceover could have mentioned that he eats just about anything (and showed him eating something bad), or he could have been filmed eating just before he was made to run laps around the parade square. A minor point, really, when the rest of the film manages to be so funny, truthful, and above all sincere.

Contained (dir. Harry Zhuang, Henry Zhuang)
Great stop-motion animation nearly always catches me in the throat, just for the sheer technical bravado and patience involved, and Contained managed that early on with its depiction of those plasticine waves sloshing. But despite the breathtaking difficulty of crafting those wide shots of the island, I find that my favourite scenes of the film are those set in the dark, tight confines of the hut interior, where the main character tends to his dying flower. There’s a surprising rage to his attempts to save the mere appearance of the flower’s health, culminating in that sad image of the re-attached petals blowing off the flower, leaving strips of cellophane tape flapping in the wind. I love that, while most films would opt for making a similar character pitifully emo, this film drives him insane instead—and breaks out that madness visually in its memorable final shots.

Sunrise (dir. Platon Theodoris)
The theme of being left alone carried over to Sunrise, about an eldest son who has to care for his younger sisters after their mother leaves them for work. It’s the most “foreign” film among the finalists, filmed and set in Cambodia with the orphans of the Sunrise Children’s Village, which may explain why I found it hard to identify with it… although the languid first half may also be to blame. There’s an approach to observational detail (e.g. a shot of a plastic scoop bobbing in a full bucket) that works when these details are tethered to a narrative throughline, and I don’t think it’s achieved in “Sunrise”. To be fair, I like the scene where the boy heads to the temple with his siblings to arrange his mother’s funeral; it reminded me of Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Nobody Knows (Japan, 2004), which also involves a kid having to step up to being an eldest sibling, an adult, and even a surrogate parent, long before he ever deserves to.

Promises in December (dir. Elgin Ho)
In Singaporean cinema, the taxi driver and the maid are in danger of being far too common character types, the film pairs the two as leads rather fruitfully. I like that it opens with the maid on her phone, shaping her as a person with an imaginable life back at her Indonesian home, without abstracting it into a burden as many migrant films do; and I like that her employer family’s daughter for whom she makes breakfast actually seems appreciative of her work, when so many other filmmakers want to harp on the flashpoint of abuse.

Instead the film makes the taxi driver the worker-class character who is beset with problems. His HDB flat and packet char kway teow are clearly meant to contrast the landed property and pancakes where the maid works, and yet the film does this while skirting past a lot of the cheap oppositions that are one of my pet peeves about local film. I suspect it works because the maid doesn’t actually live there, making the contrast more complicated, and because the film doesn’t demonise either way of life.

This leads to what is absolutely my favourite shot among all the finalist films: when the maid is in the driver’s taxi, he tosses off a comment that she probably wouldn’t want to live in Singapore if it weren’t for the pay, right? As he says this, we get a shot of the maid looking out of the cab window, on which is reflected a row of HDB flats, and she is silent as they drive by. It’s such a profound shot, capturing the perspective of a woman who probably dreams of a life that the man is disavowing, even as we acknowledge that her six years’ work in a landed property would likely misrepresent life as he knows it.

And then the film has to spoil that by contriving an explicit link between them, of all things by invoking the Asian tsunami of 2004, and delivering “justice” to each character. Not only does the link make the whole setup feel artificial, it’s a little unfair to use a senseless tragedy like the tsunami to give fictional characters grief, especially if it’s a fake-out or if it’s to “punish” a character for not being understanding. Promises in December does both, and I haven’t even mentioned the awful closed-captioning on the film, which mars a potentially horrifying tsunami recording over a black screen with the words “[woman screaming]”. (Or that, at an earlier point, reads “[phone vibrates]” even though the onscreen phone isn’t visibly vibrating.)

Life with Ummu (dir. Tanya Lai)
Life with Ummu‘s central features are the shots of the autistic Ummu whacking herself, frantically rearranging the pillows on her bed, and screaming for no clear reason. These are easy for unfamiliar viewers to misunderstand, so it helps that we approach her from the perspective of her empathetic parents and younger sister, obvious though this approach may seem. Life with Ummu is an amateurish stickler for talking heads and unneeded voiceovers, which brings up a recurring issue I have with the still-young Singaporean cinema: the divide between fiction filmmakers, who often have great technique; and documentary filmmakers, who often have great content. Of course, there are notable exceptions in both cases, but I still haven’t encountered a Singaporean fiction film with a narrative as urgent, politically and emotionally, as the ones I routinely find in any of our half-decent documentaries. Predictable it may be, but Life with Ummu is no different.

The 25th of Laura (dir. Joshua Simon)
Counter to the film prior, The 25th of Laura struck me as emotionally detached and clichéd in content (a man moping over his muse—meh), but where technique is concerned, its attempts to innovate are evident. I suppose I was somewhat receptive to director Joshua Simon’s willingness to scatter the logic of his film, even though I get that his efforts can be seen as total wankery. Out of the slipstream bits I can still remember a good few: the estranging Korean voiceover, a figure swathed in light on a bare stage, an attempt at suicide gone absurd, a verdant if under-composed heaven sequence, and an afterimage emerging from a mosaic of photos. But I suspect that as time passes, the absent backbone of emotional meaning will quickly blot these images from memory, so I hope Simon follows this up by discovering a worthy story to which he can apply his talents—without, of course, being overwhelmed by the need to show off.

Mu Dan (dir. Lincoln Chia)
It’s apt to discuss these questions about self-indulgence in conjunction with the last film, Mu Dan. This film is also easily charged with wankery, and not just because it features a shot from behind of a man doing that very deed, his buttocks half-exposed, in its opening sequence (an homage to Sun Koh’s Dirty Bitch, last year’s S’pore Short Film Award winner). It’s also because the film calls attention to its surfaces: hostile cant-angled shots of an HDB lift lobby, a curiously empty and dark HDB unit, Chinese actresses exchanging a blonde wig, wafts of cigarette smoke, red peonies as a metaphor for youth.

I haven’t even gotten to how whole scenes are shot voyeuristically, either from behind doors/corners onto unsuspecting characters; or into mirrors, so that we watch the characters’ reflections the whole time. And that’s before the film ends by re-appropriating a lover’s song of heartbreak to the central situation of a divorced mom losing her son to a girlfriend. Cuh-reepy. I can excuse the odd lapses in directorial control, as in the two-person medium shots without any sense of theatrical blocking, because the rest of Mu Dan emanates discipline and oddball imagination at a level unmatched by its fellow nominees, save for maybe Contained.

1 Comments to “SIFF 2010: The Short Film Finalists”

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