5th Singapore Short Film Awards - SINdie's Takes on 'Best Director'


Still from 'Bird' by Kristen Ong

A director lends his set of eyes and views to the audience, almost like a magician, making them believe in a certain scheme of things that may not be universally true. A good director makes this so convincing, whatever the form it may take, be it real or surreal. For this, the jury for the 5th Singapore Short Film Awards must be lauded for weaning off from the stack of entries, 5 very diverse films in terms of directorial style and each a convincing one in its own right.

Essentially, it was a competition between a film lecturer, a film writer/filmmaker/academic and 3 recently-graduated film students. But in no way could the merits of the direction on each of the entries be compared on an apple-to-apple basis. They were genetically different.

‘Bird’ by Kristen Ong, a film student, was a sensitive performance-driven piece that has a nuanced and fluid art-house tempo to it, with a penchant for pregnant pauses and poignant accents. ‘Abang’ by Dzafirul Haniff, film graduate from NTU, while exhibiting soap-worthy theatrics, is actually a confidently helmed drama that presents some endearing brotherhood moments despite its quasi-TV form. Wu Ling Feng, a graduate from the La Salle Putnam School of Film, takes a bold step in directing an intense immigrant drama with ‘Tightrope’ that screams ‘serious Chinese film’.

Daniel Hui, a filmmaker who also is one of the driving forces behind filmmaking collective 13 Little Pictures eschews traditional enactment with 2 narrated sequences that are nonchalant yet undeniably arresting in ‘Animal Spirits’. Finally, Michael Kam, a film lecturer, reprises his ‘brotherly-antics’ genre but with a rather stylized and highly-punctuated approach in ‘Detour’.

When presented with such a diversity, it becomes difficult to conclude if Dzafirul’s subliminal touch to family drama is superior to Wu Ling Feng’s penetrative treatment of migrant woes. Or if Daniel’s radical reinventing of narrative form is a bigger achievement than Michael Kam’s spot-on effort in offering what short-films have been traditionally defined to do – condense great stories with knowing where to put a full stop.

It seems the judges have gone for the safe choice this year by giving the award to Michael Kam. But if we pushed the boundaries a little, there are streaks of geniuses the other directors have displayed in their works. In ascending order of preference, I share why I have ranked these films in the following ways (though ranking is so wrong in theory).

 
Still from 'TIghtrope' by Wu Ling Feng

‘Tightrope’ is a film that seeks a little adventure from conventional structure by following 2 migrant characters vigilantly as they seek to survive in Singapore. The intimate depiction of these characters is a discernible achievement in this film. For his youth, Ling Feng is able to bring colour, depth and authenticity to the characters, rather effortlessly. Where the film falls short is the looseness of the plot and a tendency to indulge in the various encounters with strangers. In fact, an alternative name for the film could be ‘Encounters’.  What’s with the dallying with the flautist? By the end of the film, the inability to control the story just suggests this director, while adept at crafting situations and moments, needs to see the forest apart from the trees.

Still from 'Detour' by Michael Kam

‘Detour’, a simple, minimalistic film told in black and white, reflects the director’s mature treatment of relationships and the shocks that could come between them. Two young brothers (a recurring motif in Michael’s films) find a connecting point in their relationship from a dark encounter with a stranger, also played against the ignorance of their testy and ranting father. While the dynamics of the set up is clever, the actual interplay seems stilted with conversational flow being too clean. Perhaps, it might be a directorial decision to create this stylized black and white world in a film about losing ‘innocence’. But the choice of style in fact does little to bring immediacy or connection to the events in the film. Interestingly, the minimalism with the acting and directing is emblematic of some of a certain Eric Khoo- school of directing evident in several local short films seen. Think heartlanders or commoners in normally boisterous heartland situations but strangely trapped in a world of silence and minimal dialogue.

Still from 'Abang' by Dzafirul Haniff

Dzafirul who directed ‘Abang’ clearly demonstrates a mature hand at handling drama point blank. Confrontation seems to be a rare commodity in many of the more contemporary independent films here. They either understate confrontation with symbolism or never give it its full glory on screen. The brotherhood cum family drama in ‘Abang’ is reminiscent of some of the good family soap seen on the big screen from seasoned commercial filmmakers. The dialogue is natural, the delivery is nuanced and the inter-reactions never too predictable. While Wu Ling Feng in ‘Tightrope’ also seems to have a good grasp of realistic dialogue, Dzafirul displays a stronger footing in his craft from also being able move the narrative along and not allow his characters to indulge in too much navel-gazing.

Still from 'Animal Spirits' by Daniel Hui

The lines between a film and an essay in Daniel Hui’s works are not always clear. His films, of late, seem like visual essays where the sounds and images lead us to an argument or a point. Without saying the style is fresh and a much-needed departure from the confines of conventional narratives. What’s even more refreshing is the presence of an unwavering voice with a fervent view about something. ‘Animal Spirits’ embodies this, in a sense that the film is resolute and single-minded in its journey to make a point. It throws up a series of questions along the way. While many of these do not have an answer, the film is very clear in its attempt to make a point with these questions. That’s a breath of fresh air. To be exact, unbendable direction is a breath of fresh air. A concept like this in ‘Animal Spirits’ is ingenious. There are hits and misses in the way the thoughts are being visually represented but none of these take the thunder away from the very unique film ‘Animal Spirits’ has presented itself to be.

Innovative mechanics and fresh ideas aside, nothing can take our attention off a film that is grounded in the basics of good story, storytelling and heart. Also, good films seem to have a certain heartbeat and rhythm to it that is hard to measure and rationalize about. ‘Bird’ has this beguiling nature about it that makes its understated nature so apt. This film is seamless in its grasp of rhythm and the interplay between some opposites – the opposites of memory versus present, tenderness versus tension and dialogue versus silence. These narrative and visual undulations are so beautifully strung together, (and pardon me for saying this), it makes you forget the narrative aberration of the love between two girls. Kristen Ong, the director, displays what seems to be a balanced and confident hand with details, vividly transporting in the character’s world but never overly-indulging in sentimentality. In a way, this film demonstrates how it is difficult to quantify or measure good directing. To put it in an abstract way, a good director seems to be able to breathe in tandem with the situation and its characters and I feel Kristen has demonstrated that in ‘Bird’, never letting us see it flutter its wings but making us feel dreamily afloat.

The Best Director Award went to Michael Kam of 'Detour'.

Review by Jeremy Sing


Still from 'Bird' by Kristen Ong

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