Review of LASALLE College of the Arts Thesis Films 2011 Part 1

With a vibrant, relatively new campus but a history that goes back to Singapore cinema's Dark Ages, LASALLE College of the Arts has the potential to produce films that offer fresh perspectives while remaining rooted in – for lack of a better word – tradition. Boo Junfeng is among the graduates of the college's The Puttnam School of Film, so there's every chance that the next new name on the scene will surface in this group of young filmmakers.


Wild Dogs
Directed by Saravanan Sambasivam
Synopsis: A documentary about a busker, Regu David Arekrishnan, who plays his music in an underpass.
Review: If there's one particular type of film that doesn't receive enough attention here, it's the documentary. The likes of Tan Pin Pin and Royston Tan have made their share, and films like 12 Storeys, 15 and Red Dragonflies are, in essence, documentaries, but Singaporean filmmakers are far behind when it comes to producing compelling films of the genre. For better or for worse, a character like Michael Moore is something we could use. If we take away the questionable editing, inherent biases, personal motives and less than agreeable personality, we still have films that spark debate and conversation that make us question our ideas of reality while making a whole lot of money at the box office.
Wild Dogs is a sentimental, heartstring-tugging documentary narrated by its subject, David. Laid over images of his daily routine (interacting with people walking through his underpass, going up to patrons of a coffee shop to offer songs for a fee and performing in a a pub) he tells us how he's given up on some aspects of his life (getting married, settling down) but also how music can make the world better. A simple, well-shot character study, this film isn't groundbreaking in its tribute to someone on the fringe of society, but it offers an uncommon depiction of Singapore's underpass culture. From our transport, to our malls and even some of our schools, much of Singaporean life takes place beneath the surface. The exploration of this underground space is fleeting, but it frames David's story nicely, and definitely makes him seem more interesting than your average pub singer.
David also brings up the fact that tourists tend to be more generous than Singaporeans, which is something to be expected. Is it because we're too concerned with money? Is it because we're not spontaneous enough? Is it because we see him every single time we pass by and already donated money a couple of times? Whatever it is, it's something worth considering at a time when so many of us are up in arms over “foreign talent”. An interesting subject and a discussion starter; Saravanan Sambasivan's film has the right stuff.

Strings
Directed by Surianti Sulaiman
Synopsis: A guitarist in a school band is reprimanded for being an individual and not performing in the manner expected of him. A storeman or jagah in the school supports his talent though, and they write a song together.
Review: The most "Jack Neo" of films in the set, complete with shaky acting performances and an obvious message, the virtuoso guitar player in Strings finds himself caught between conforming to demands of his school band, and playing what he “feels”. The film is dominated by the common theme of being true to yourself, and only its final scene (a montage with our protagonist playing alone as the band plays without him) is memorable, but Strings' take on Singapore's education system is bitingly accurate and prescient in a way.
The teacher who conducts the band is a typical example of a terrible educator we've all encountered at one time or another in our school days. Someone who punishes individuality, someone who'll make you stay back during recess for talking in class, someone only focused on results and someone who emphasizes on rote learning. More interestingly, at a point where Singapore is being touted as an “arts hub”, it reminds us to ask if all arts will be embraced or if only the profitable disciplines will receive funding and support.

The Red Veil

Directed by Chua Seng Yew

Synopsis: A girl prepares her sister to be “married” in the Hindu devadasi tradition as she dreams about what an ordinary marriage would be like.
Review: It's been so for many centuries and it continues to be the case today; India is an undoubted source of artistic inspiration. How Chua Seng Yew ended up chronicling an obscure religious practice in India is probably a story in itself, but it comes across as an accurate, well-researched film without the outside-looking-in vibes of a Western take on the country.
The focus of The Red Veil isn't initially clear. It introduces us to a wedding preparation that almost seems sinister and as it begins to show the internal conflict faced by one of the girls going through it, we realize that there is a darker side to what we see. It's not stated explicitly in the film, but research will tell you that the it's about the devadasi tradition, an ancient practice which originally saw women “married” to deities, but which in modern times became a form of prostitution. The devadasi practice has been banned in India for over 20 years. The film stops short of of passing judgment and reveals its story subtly and tastefully. There's no happy ending here, but for the hopes that things will one day be better.
The film seemed to have the highest production values of the six thesis films and it was beautifully shot. Technically speaking, it's among the more inventive of the films presented; extreme close-ups of characters, lots of play with reflections, the dreary indoors, the dreamy outdoors and the attention to detail with the set design give it a distinct visual appeal. As a student film, The Red Veil is ambitious yet compact with great potential to be expanded into a feature. As a Tamil language film, it's incredibly subtle and understated (judging from some Vasantham programming, that's quite an achievement).

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