A 'Trilogue' on the SIFF 2010 Singapore Short Film Finalists (Act 2)


Here's the second half of Leon Cheo, Jeremy Sing and Colin Low's conversation about this year's SIFF Singapore Short Film Finalists! Be sure to check out Act 1 first!

Act 2

Jeremy: You know I feel the next short film "Life with Ummu" could have almost been lumped with the heap of non-finalists at first glance. It's got that "First Takes" look and feel. Not that "First Takes" showcases bad films but a number of its films are made by people who have a strong story or message but need not necessarily know how to stage it. "Life with Ummu" is mostly linear, to the point and effective. I could feel for once in the cinema, the usually restless audience sat up and kept their eyes wide open. It is a gripping story and it captured several gritty moments that I feel the director (a Chinese) should be given credit for being able to get a very pious Muslim (tudungs and all) family to bare it all.

The director also teased the audience by getting Ummu's younger sister to introduce her at the opening. So Ummu is immediately humanised before she makes her appearance.

Now given the fact that this could potentially be the film with the least creative merit, what do you guys think? I think the fact that I have a soft spot for this film comes from personal experience so I am a little biased.

Leon: I'm not sure if you want to say that "Ummu is immediately humanised". It's not like she's a monster. The subject matter, an autistic child, has immediate intrinsic value. It's something that is interesting to almost everyone. As an addition to the documentary landscape in Singapore, I think its academic "roots" are betrayed by how straightforward the style of the film is. Two scant passages of voice-over narration are really unnecessary and if taken out, would make the film less student-y. Nonetheless, "Life with Ummu" is heartfelt and illuminating.

Jeremy: Well, you can't deny there were a few compelling scenes where we see Ummu in some disturbing behaviour and what I was trying to say was that her sister's introduction set the tone right for getting to know Ummu, one of acceptance. Many 'humanising' is too sweeping as an adjective.

Colin: Yup. "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. Leon does notice some areas which would make "Life with Ummu" seem less amateurish, and this brings up a recurring issue I have with local 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.

And "The 25th of Laura", the film after it, might just prove the other side of my point.


Jeremy: That's strange. Surely you mean the opposite right? I find "The 25th of Laura" the weakest in terms of getting its message or point across.

Colin: What I mean is that, counter to "Life with Ummu", "The 25th of Laura" struck me as emotionally detached and clich├ęd 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.

Leon: For some time, I've had this "fantasy" of making a film entirely in the French language, entirely for the sake of it. I suspect Joshua Simon has the same fantasy, and he fulfilled it his film "The 25th of Laura" with the Korean language. I can't really explain this fantasy but I guess it's a way to be different - call it a language fetish if you will. It's like how some filmmakers would use Cantonese, or like me, want to use French because I love how it sounds but can't really speak it. Maybe it's because of the potpourri of languages used in Singapore that affects how we deal with language in film. Most films are usually made in a language from their homeland. I recall a Singaporean short film made entirely in Japanese. Are Singaporean films the only ones which like to use non-indigenous languages?

I don't mean to digress: I think "The 25th of Laura" is a bit showy and there's certainly a level of competence. But enough of man-trying-to-find-muse stories already.

Jeremy: I know one local film dominated with a Japanese voiceover. It's "Cafe" by Kelvin Sng.

Actually Colin, many films can be very "wankery", or indulgent. But a good question to ask is what makes an indulgent film good and another bad? It is hard to say how to make an indulgent film good? Entertainment value? Shock value? Execution? Strength and tenacity of the director's vision? What makes one bad could be compromises in style and consistency. I personally find this film expressive but without bite or film grounding. And I agree that other than being stylistically enhancing, it tends to alienate the audience.

Colin: Well, it's apt to discuss those questions in conjunction with the last film, "Mu Dan". That 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". What do you guys think?

Jeremy: Has anyone watched the perfume-ad-of-a-film A Single Man by Tom Ford? It is a good reference point for this perfume-ad-of-a-short-film, "Mu Dan". Coincidentally, both Lincoln Chia and Tom Ford are in fashion design. The eye for colours, texture and composition is meticulous in "Mu Dan", making it a real treat to watch. This film is a really a meeting of talents. Mesmerizing visuals aside, Li Xie, a seasoned actress really takes the film to a new level with her performance, blurring the lines of genre... very Freudian and very liberating to watch. The other aspects of the film are also equally competent.

I have to say it is my favourite of the lot because it eschews the traditional structure of a film, executes it well and does not rest on just stylistics. For me, it is the issue of sexuality which has the quality of being both very frivolous but affecting at the same time.

Am I just too beguiled by the prettiness of the film?


Leon: Compared to "The 25th of Laura", "Mu Dan" is so much more visually realised, and that's the strongest suit of the film. Each element in the film is particular and you can see the director's hand in every shot. I vividly recall the slow-mo shot of the girlfriend in a photoshoot, the mother's fractured reflection while smoking, and the boy walking through floating peonies. And this captured my attention for the duration of the film.

Colin: Well, to wrap up our discussion of this year's SIFF Singapore Short Film Finalists, I'd like to say that I've never been more rejuvenated by a slate of local short films that were screened in a theatrical setting. It's not an easy task to sit down to watch a continuous series of short films, since you have to reboot and prepare yourself for the next story just as the last one is wrapping up, but the diverse nature of these films makes the task that much easier, and so much more enjoyable.

Finally, a short look at our respective favourites:
Colin: "Contained", for sheer technical bravado
Leon: "Promises in December", for its emotional payoff (+ shout-out to "Mu Dan")
Jeremy: "Mu Dan", for being non-traditional, accomplished, frivolous and affecting

« Back to Act 1
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The Singapore Short Film Finalists were picked out of 70 submissions this year as part of the Singapore International Film Festival 2010, and will compete in the following awards categories: Best Film, Best Director, Best Performance, Best Cinematography, and Special Mention. The prize winners will be announced at the Silver Screen Awards and Gala tonight.

They will be screened again on Sat 24 April, 11.30am at Sinema Old School. Get your tickets!

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