Salawati - A Post-Mortem discovery

I watched Salawati one and a half times. Once at the Berlin Asian Hot Shots Festival and once at home on dvd. I was told the berlin screening was a littled watered down in terms of colour due to poor projection. So in fact, watching the dvd felt like a good post-mortem, which gave me the chance to appreciate the simple wisdoms and progression of the story.

Salawati is the name of a young Malay girl who lost her brother to the Kallang river. She is central to the film because her journey of coming to terms with the death is the film's journey. And in this journey, she relates to 2 other characters, related to the incident. One is a Chinese and the other Indian. Sometimes trespassing into a '12 Storeys' territory, the film portrays the parallel existence of 3 separate lives. Each are bound by a state of helplessness amidst social pressure. Like a complement to the subject matter, the colour palette of visuals seem bathed in somekind of a Formaldehyde greenish-grey overtone. This makes it sometimes a challenging film to watch but a little patience will pay off as I discovered how the storyteller in Mark, the director, wielded his craft quite gracefully.

The film wafts its way into your consciousness with the natural and effortless treatment of the scene. Right from the start, the details of the boy's demise are not clearly established. Hints are dropped but never enough to form an overall picture. They only serve to lead you on wondering further. Yet, along the way, when clues are broken, they add on to your sub-conscious understanding without screaming the words 'plot development'. In fact, the full details of his death are withheld right till the final portion of the film.

While the 3-races set up seems a little contrived, there is much license for that because this was based on a true incident. For many Singaporeans, the biggest surprise would be how an American director (Mark Grigoroff) managed to get his actors to deliver such convincing performances in their mother tongue. Despite the vernacular barrier, it was easy to tell that the actors were very much in their element and comfortable with the director. Perhaps the weakest link was the Chinese story in which the workaholic character bordered on becoming a caricature. Amidst the acting cliches in the character, there was still one saving grace - when he practised his sales pitch to the office chair.

Also quite glaring in the film is the portrayal of Singapore as a very straight-jacketed, stiff and humourless society. In the scenes at Salawati's home, her father's brooding presence apprehends the women in the house. And behind all this, a kind of religious puritanism. In the scenes with the insurance salesman, the intensity in his eyes are unnerving and foreboding of something disastrous to happen. In the bar scene with the Indian motocyclist and his beer mates, a raunchy joke bounces off an intolerant mind and results in a little but fierce scuffle. And to rub salt on open wounds, after living under so much pressure, you may even die from cancer.

This is why I like the slightly happy (though ambiguous) ending to the film. The Indian guy who had an accident later in the film recovers from his injury (maybe a little help from a little 'Ganesha' idol sitting next to the hospital bed). The Chinese man bags the best employee award and earns S$15,000. On the flip side, we are not sure what happened to his son (will not spoil the film). Finally, Salawati's father slowly grows to accept his daughter's way of coping with the incident while on the other hand, Salawati finds her way out of her emotional tunnel in a way that could be partly religious, partly secular.

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