18 Levels of Hell at the Substation, certainly a Halloween to remember! (Part 2)
(Continued from Part 1)
Held at The Substation on 23 & 24 October 2014, Nightmare on Armenian Street was a reinterpretation, reimagination and recreation of the 18 levels of hell in Chinese Mythology. 18 filmmakers came together to create a multisensory piece dissecting the filmic craft in a truly nightmarish interpretation of hell.
Nightmare on Armenian Street was curated by Nelson Yeo and Chris Yeo, with live music by SA(仨), and with support from The Substation Moving Images.
SINdie spoke with the 18 filmmakers to find out about their mad descent into the depths of hell. Here are the remaining interviews with the remaining 9 films.
"Chamber of Ox" (Mads K. Baekkevold)
Folklore: In the 10th level of hell, the Chamber of Ox, those who abuse animals will find themselves being bullied by animals.
Filmspeak: In this darkly funny and surreal film, after drowning a bag of kittens, a man finds himself haunted by feline apparitions out for vengeance.
- How did you find the actor for your film? Did you closely direct him or was improvisation involved?
My actor, Dayal Gian Singh, is one of my oldest friends here in Singapore. We met when he was acting on a short film I was the production designer for, Caveman & Zebra Girl. We struck a chord and have collaborated often since…even though he’s a dog person. When directing him, I did allow for a certain amount of improvisation—after getting the scripted takes. I’m sure I could cut together a whole new, overtly comedic version of my film, where my main character is a sassy, wisecracking Aussie with a proclivity for busting out the jazz hands.
- How (technically) did you film some of the surreal elements in the film?
The film has a blend of CGI, stop motion, and in-camera practical effects. The CGI, like the head-spinning fortune cat, vanishing monster and more, is done by a VFX artist by the name of Shirin Chawla, currently residing in Vancouver. The stop motion is done by a Malaysian animator named Timothy Tan.
As for the in-camera stuff…it’s all pretty tactile, simple and straightforward. The explosion of blood and guts when he throws the fortune cat is achieved by filling it with liver and chocolate syrup. The portal into hell is just one of the underpasses at East Coast Beach, made (more) menacing by a fisheye lens. The underwater sequence is shot in someone’s pool with waterproof casing for the camera. And so on and so forth.
I wanted to incorporate little aspects of different chapters of horror history in the short film, which is why we went for a relatively wide range of effects. It hopefully makes the film less predictable when you don’t know whether you’re going to get treated to a winking fortune cat, a spinning shark foetus in a jar, or some dude in a dirty dress farting around a sound stage with a burlap sack over his head.
"Chamber of Rock" (Yeo Siew Hua)
Folklore: In the 11th level of hell, the Chamber of Rock, those who abandon or kill newborns will find themselves being crushed under a rock and soaked in filthy water.
Filmspeak: In this film, a young boy who is unable to sleep seeks some answers about the afterlife from his grandfather who later gets taken away from a Minotaur.
- Where is this house where it was shot in and why did you choose it?
The house featured in the film is an old house along Holland Road scheduled for demolition. It belonged to a friend whose grandma used to live there. Since her passing, the house has been uninhabited and left to ruins for many years. Apart from telling stories, I am also interested in documenting spaces and since it was a big house with many interesting corners, I suggested to the others working in this anthology to use the space as they please.
- Is there any reason for the ox-faced monster's polite gesture of removing his 'shoes' and placing them on the shoe rack?
The film is first and foremost on the idea of myths and how it weaves itself into the fabric of our reality. But myths apart from being an alternative to science as descriptive explanation, serve a dual function of embedding normative prescriptions in our daily life; a symbolic ritualization of the sacred into something banal and mundane.
The film points to a sense of ritualized politeness; when for example, grandfather is compelled to open the door to a guest when he or she knocks regardless the circumstances, and also, as you have pointed out, the act of removing his hooves when the Minotaur enters the house of another.
These acts become symbolic of something greater than what the characters as individuals have autonomy over and is, what I suspect, why traditionalism and the ritual component plays such a pivotal role in the horror genre as a representation of our collective fears.
"Chamber of Pounding" (Ila)
Folklore: In the 12th level of hell, the Chamber of Pounding, those who wilfully waste food will find themselves being pounded like crops.
Filmspeak: A lady is eating while being engulfed by droplets of vomit-looking sludge.
- What are those orange spots all over the screen?
I'd say it’s a mixture of excrements, mucus and blood. But in all honesty, (just in case someone decides to try it at home and create some kind of new strain of virus with that made-up concoction, that in the end will wipe out the human race), it's a simple mixture of alcohol ethanol and iodine with a little bit of cooking oil for that much needed shine.
- Why the choice of a repetitive motif and sound throughout the entire film?
My idea of hell, both the ethereal and physical sense of it, is a neverending loop of mundane repetitions. I wanted to create a dull undertone within the repetition as I personally feel we all go through these mechanical and mundane routines of hell on earth every single day. In addition to that, since the punishment for my level of hell is the act of pounding, I feel it's only apt if the film conveys that in a more visceral manner as opposed to something that is verbalized and can come off as preachy.
"Pool of Blood" (JD Chua)
Folklore: In the 13th level of hell, the Pool of Blood, those who do not respect others will find themselves soaked in blood. It is said that those who died of bleeding are actually given a preview of their afterlife.
Filmspeak: Uncle Tan may look like your typical nondescript uncle, until he is provoked. A noisy motorcyclist in Uncle Tan's neighbourhood finds this out the hard way.
- How did you find the actor who plays Uncle Tan and how was it working with him?
The actor playing Uncle Tan is Mr. Vincent Tee. We knew each other for a long time and have always wanted to work together. Vincent is rather popular and has been cast on many other projects, even if we don't know each other, I would have considered him anyway. I was overseas when the team confirmed having me onboard. So all I had to do was to ask Vincent on Whatsapp. I told him about my own revenge fantasy (this is made realized by my DP, who could tell that I have it) and he agreed quickly.
Working with Vincent was very easy, and so was Michael Foong, the motorcycle guy. That is probably because I make it a point to know my actors before working with them. It is a very small and simple project and we took a couple of days discussing about it. When we are ready to shoot, we are pretty much on the same page with regards to the direction. Most of my job was actually done during prep!
During separate times, both actors were sick and did not inform me. They used their discomfort in their own respective performances! They knew their roles well to do that. Poor Michael Foong, kicking and screaming and we never see his face.
Both of them are truly committed. If you have a project coming up, please do consider having them.
- Was it a deliberate choice to go with very minimal dialogue / written lines?
Yep. So that the actors can have more freedom to express themselves. I know it sounds funny when one guy struggles while the other guy just stands there. But trust me, they are putting hard work into what they do. Imagine for a moment, that you are folding a paper plane, would you narrate what you are doing? So for "Uncle Tan", setting traps and kidnapping people is something normal for him and requires no explanation. With this in mind, you can consider who exactly is "Uncle Tan"?
"Loop" (Linh Duong)
Folklore: In the 14th level of hell, the Town of Quitters, those who commit suicide will find themselves wandering in this town of misery where the wind of sorrow and rain of grief blasting day and night. They are the ones slipping off the normal incarnation paths and will live in the gaps of the worlds for a long, long time.
Filmspeak: After a bizarre dream, Xiao Fei goes out to look for her mother. She finds both her parents instead, but not exactly in the way she used to know them.
- What triggers Xiao Fei's memories or experience in this film?
I remember reading somewhere that people who kill themselves will have to repeat that action everyday, at the exact same time and place. In this film, I want to imagine what Xiao Fei's spirit has to go through before she kills herself everyday. If the punishment for her sin is simply "to cut her wrist" over and over again, then it wouldn't have been Hell. She must go through the same trauma that led to her suicide, or something even worse than that. It should be something that leaves her in a terrified and hopeless stage, yet before she can find any answer or solution, it's already time to die.
So you can say that what Xiao Fei experiences in the film is a punishment mechanism. Depending on the audience's interpretation, it can either be a nightmare, or a twisted version of her life story.
- Do you have any takeaway message for viewers of your film?
To be honest, this film is based on a very dark and suicidal episode of my life, where I often thought about death and what comes afterwards. It is a very stupid thing to do, but surprisingly very common among troubled kids in our society nowadays.
So by offering the audience a glimpse into Xiao Fei's life story, I want to let them join me in my imagination of life after death, and also experience a child's emotional world when living in a broken family. Comparing to what the character experienced in the film, it is just as frustrating, sick and hopeless. I want to make sure the audience go through that.
"Chamber of Dismemberment" (Ghazi Alqudcy)
Folklore: In the 15th level of hell, the Chamber of Dismemberment, those who disturb the deceased by digging tombs will find their body being torn into pieces.
Filmspeak: Nursery rhyme "Bah Bah Black Sheep" turns gothic and vulgar in this film of textured dark nothingness.
- How do you feel the use of nursery rhymes contributes to the mood of your film?
I felt that the nursery rhyme felt in place. But I did not start with thinking that nursery rhyme works with the genre, but simply that my character was 10 years old and at that age, I was listening to nursery rhymes still..
- Did you feel that your film is on a dark or even controversial subject and did you face any conflict in developing it?
I do not think it’s controversial. These things have happened as I was working with a psychiatrist for this project. We talked a lot in all possible situations to be realistic. And being based in Bosnia after the war, there is a form of anger that I try to channel in this film.
"Mountain of Flame" (Syazali Bin Mohd. Faizal)
Folklore: In the 16th level of hell, the Mountain of Flame, those who steal, bribe and rob will find themselves surrounded by the lasting inferno.
Filmspeak: An ode to Kung Fu with the fireball special effect.
- Why the choice of a kungfu-with superpowers-style genre for this film?
It was more wrestling with superpowers. I was exploring the idea of mixing two fictional fighting styles blending together as a fun genre on its own as I love watching wrestling and superhero movies.
- The animation was entertaining, how long did you take to do it? And how is it done?
I had to rush for the first draft within 6 hours. I touched up and added a bit more when I had more time for the final submission which took me about 2 days. It was done with After Effects.
"Yard of Stone Mill" (Thong Kay Wee)
Folklore: In the 17th level of hell, the Yard of Stone Mill, those who abuse their power and oppress the people will find themselves being ground into powder.
Filmspeak: In this haunting film, a lost soldier takes a powder bath in the jungle with no ordinary talcum powder, but crimson-hued powder.
- Where did you film your film and did you face any challenges (technical, administrative, etc.) in doing so?
We filmed it in the forested area around Hort Park, behind Gillman Barracks. Although it was not something that was explicit, the history of the shoot location did lend a certain atmosphere and add another dynamic to the context of the film.
I was approached to be on board this anthology maybe a week and a half before flying off for a long term overseas assignment, so having to conceptualize, plan, shoot and organize everything within this short period of time wasn't the easiest. Time commitment wise it was a dilemma initially, but I also knew such a fun and conceptually interesting platform for filmmaking doesn't really come by often in Singapore.
- What does the red powder signify in your film?
I wanted to observe and explore the authorial identities and power relationships presented in the film, right up to the despotic mandate itself which I find rather ironic to be honest. I guess I was more interested in what the red evokes and can evoke, within the experience and ritual of the performed powder bath, rather than what it definitively or necessarily signifies.
"Branches" (Teo Wei Yong)
Folklore: In the 18th level of hell, the Chamber of Saw, those who exploit the loopholes in the law to cheat and engage in malpractice in business will find themselves being sawed into half.
Filmspeak: Like in a nature documentary, a cool voiceover explains a complex food chain while Singapore history comes to life on screen.
- Where did you obtain the archival footage for your film?
I got my archival footage mostly from YouTube. I got to know who are the owners and contacts through it, although this current cut was made for festival/event screenings.
- How did you develop the metaphor of a food chain / food cycle (amphibians, etc.) for Singapore's history and why?
The metaphor is basically an allegory to the evolution of the country, as well as in a more general sense, any progressive country on the globe. I was kind of trying to emphasize that blame is but a memory, and problems indifferent cultures may be more universal than often insinuated to be. However I cannot be too precise with such a conveyance as of yet, and I think the film shows such.
I picked 'amphibians' mostly because of us humans obviously being in that category, but it can also refer to zombies crawling their way out of the ground (or along the ground) in their earliest development stages, like most amphibians. "The sand/friend" thing has multiple meanings in the film. But on a genre-nostalgic level, it can also refer to how soil can simply be resistant against clawing one's way out of the ground, which also kind of alludes to amphibians. I love almost any kind of zombie flick, and hope to make a very tiny contribution to this particular arena.
Interviews by Aditi Shivaram and Jeremy Sing