A Dialogue: Panasonic Digital Film Fiesta 2010


Nine promising filmmakers created their films under this year's Panasonic Digital Film Fiesta competition. As the judges make their tough decisions towards the Awards-giving on 11 March, here are some views from the floor from Colin and Jeremy.

Colin: Let's kick off with the two shortest of the Competition Films: Darren Tan's 31.12.2009 and Goh Kun Lei's The Sight of Music. Both clock in at about three and a half minutes, and each work out a spare but evocative premise. 31.12.2009 reminds me of Paranormal Activity, with its static closed-circuit TV camera, and I'm sure it's trying to be a horror film: it's capturing a rape along a deserted street alley in a long shot, all in black and white. And then The Sight of Music switches gears by blooming into colour, another mostly long-taked film about a busker playing the erhu, and the boy appreciating his performance. What did you think?

Jeremy: I was happily being entertained by Lee Chee Tian's Beam and Mohamed Tasshir's CheckMATE until 31.12.2009 set my mind off in a different level engagement altogether. Despite this being a Panasonic Digital film competition, history has shown that the judges do not really care even if the film does not harness the most of what Panasonic cameras can do. They mostly care about good films. Like the year Victric Thng's The Mole won. It was 80% paper cut animation. So the Blair-Witchy 31.12.2009 did a good job in a short time. The Sight of Music was also very impactful but in a more subtle, graceful and cinematic way.

Colin: I agree that 31.12.2009 is quite different in register from almost all the other films in the competition, because it's trying for a rather dark mood. I think the film overdoes its message a bit by having that one curious person taking a phone-photo of the rape from behind the corner, and then punctuating the whole film with the word "apathy" — as though we don't get the point, or as though avoiding the scene of a rape is a fundamentally similar scenario from the rave-scene molest at Sentosa. But I credit the filmmaker for conceiving the idea of capturing this scene in a single take, to force us to question how much we can take as a passive watcher of the film.

Jeremy: Agreed about the spoonfeeding. On a wider note, the films belong to such different schools and disciplines! There are the child motif films like Beam and CheckMATE. There are the statement mini-shorts like 31.12.2009 and The Sight of Music. There are absurdist, surrealistic ones like Grieving Conscience and Maybe She Loves Everyone. Then there the standalone ones that make judging like comparing apples to durians. There is heartbreaking a la Mediacorp father-son drama Homeless in the Heart. It evens sounds like Channel 5! Then there is impressionistic Tear Love Smile. Lastly, there is the rather kooky and somewhat clumsy Ain't It All.

I don't envy the judges.

Colin: Actually, I think Homeless in the Heart fits nicely into a category with Beam, CheckMATE and The Sight of Music as sentimental pieces whose narrative structure is never really in question. Of course Homeless is the least compelling drama of the four, since the blurb already gives away the "prodigal son + unconditional love" ending, and the father and son spend most of the film moping. The intrusive voiceovers are obvious signs that the director doesn't trust his actors enough to convey the feeling of his scenes, too. But I'd like to single out an ambiguous note in Homeless that I enjoyed: At one point, having frustratedly loaded the washing machine, the father pours a capful of detergent, and then holds it for a while, frowning. The film then cuts away to him hanging up the clothes to dry, skipping over his decision to continue washing the clothes instead of attempting suicide. Did you interpret this scene in this way? Which of these four films did you like best?

Jeremy: No, I did not interpret it in this way. Maybe because I know Yew Yee. He's not the subversive type who would create disturbing moments (Just my very surface assessment of a friend). I liked CheckMATE the best because it captures unabated spontaneity and morsels of truth. You don't feel the actors are sweating out in their roles. Both old man and boy are like matchstick and fire. They just (pardon the cliché) light up the screen! Beam was heartwarming but old-school and very My Secret Heaven (Sun Koh) and Di (Michael Kam). But it's just new talents in old clothes (Yup, the singlet is like a instant emblem of "HDB whimsy").



Colin: Can't disagree with your assessments of either film. I'd say that Beam is the most sturdily constructed of the four sentimental pieces, and the bulk of it is My Secret Heaven with the parental figures swapped: now it's the father who is brutal and authoritative, and the mother more sensitive and concerned. I think it's possible, and desirable, for short films to get past this sort of black vs white shorthand, and I'm sorry that Beam succumbed to it. I did enjoy the transience of the unknowable friendship at the story's core, and I was grateful that the flash-forward to the main character's adulthood didn't ruin it by having him discover who it was.

And you're right, too, about how wonderfully natural both actors in CheckMATE are, though I didn't get how the crucial move of the title fits into the story. Does it mean the boy has outsmarted the old man? Or that the old man is, in fact, destined to lose? For me, that final move is a tiny sliver of mystery in a film that's otherwise didactic.

But that mystery is nothing compared to what some of the other films offer! Were you surprised by Chantel Li's Ain't It All or Andy Chung's Grieving Conscience, which both started out straightforward only to get more and more bizarre? Or were you more intrigued by the upfront enigmatic structures of Wesley Leon Aroozoo's Maybe She Loves Everyone or Ho Wen-Shing's Tear Love Smile?

Jeremy: These are certainly the bolder and more challenging of the cohort. Kinda shows the competition places a high premium on the abiliy to push boundaries. But challenging can also become painful. This is where I see a dichotomy between the four. Maybe She Loves Everyone and Tear Love Smile are impressionistic and cryptic but you know the director is persistent in his/her vision. Almost like someone who is fervently selling you the idea that the world is actually square: it can suck you in if he hits the right keys. The other two work less well because they rest on less sturdy vision. They seem less coherent and make it more liable to being questioned on its artistic choices. So it seems directors sometimes have to be like professional con-men; they can get away with hogwash if done well.

Colin: "Well done" is a good way to NOT describe Chantel Li's Ain't It All, which is least professional-looking film of the bunch but, mercifully, not the least interesting. Despite the amateurish editing and acting I'm rather impressed by how brazenly the film barrels from one plot to another with even less connective tissue than TalkingCock the Movie: a cyclist who gleefully picks up a vulnerable woman → a copywriter's audition → a snatch theft → a self-defense training montage (with typically embarrassing results) → a mutual, non-sequiturish taunting session with a training mate → that training mate walking away from being bullied. W-T-F? I loved how trainwreck-y the whole thing was, especially since the alternative wasn't another hokey sentimental film, and I'd be interested to see what Li does with more professional resources on hand.

By contrast Grieving Conscience is quite staid: tastefully art-directed and acted in that fake-aristocratic manner that Singaporean productions of imported plays tend to be. Not too surprising, since the script seems to have been based off Roald Dahl's short story William and Mary, about a long-suffering wife who resents her controlling husband.

Finally, I want to single out Wesley Leon Aroozoo's Maybe She Loves Everyone for praise. Heartbreak films are difficult to make, because the sentiment is so universal that the director must have a creative vision so that he can bring something new to the table. The structuring device of the learn-French CD that spouts off phrases that get more and more intimate; the motif of the thankless grass-cutter; that cross-dissolved shot of the bound ex-girlfriend being swept by the grass-cutting device; the final slow-mo, low-res take of the girlfriend's smile — all struck me as very original. The only other film of Aroozoo's I've watched is Lion's Pride, and after this I can't wait to see what else he might do.

View all the Competition Films at the Digital Film Fiesta site. Competition judges include filmmakers Tan Pin Pin, Royston Tan and Kat Goh.



Additional comment from the judges (April 2010):
The judges of the DFF noted that Andy Chung's Grieving Conscience was too much like Roald Dahl's story and disqualified this film from the competition; it was not considered for any prizes. The judges want to stress that filmmakers must give credit where credit is due, and plagiarism is unacceptable.

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