SGIFF Review: Standing in Still Water by Ric Aw
STANDING IN STILL WATER reflects the lives of damaged Singaporeans, including a crippled young woman on the road of recovery; a man who sinks a dark secret to the bottom of the reservoir; the tale of a man struggling to recover from the loss of his daughter; and a young father who fails to reach out to his autistic son.
The reservoir, the life giver and life taker, connects these four characters who face loss, death, hope and love. And they are ultimately swept away by unrelenting waves of change.
As a debut feature, director Ric Aw has chosen to focus on a thematic that is familiar and close to his heart. During the Q&A session at the Singapore International Film Festival of Standing in Still Water, Ric recounted a childhood accident at a local reservoir that almost took his life. This traumatic experience clearly assimilated itself onto the screen, as the motif of the power of water and the natural anchors this tale of four interwoven stories, providing an entry point into its intimate examinations of the familial tragedies in everyday lives. The aptly named Chinese title is telling enough – the word “溺” translates to the act of drowning, and is made up of two characters denoting ‘water’ and ‘weakness’ separately. It is a concept that, on paper, possesses enough intellectualism and scope to materialize itself into a powerful morality piece.
And the cinematographic approach is indeed spot on. The film has a painterly quality to it, filled with largely pastel colors and a spattering of vast natural settings. The patient stillness of the shots, informed by the observational ideology in the filmmaking, hones in on the mundane and normalcy of these characters’ lives. All these choices afforded the film a sense of magnitude and serenity that makes the simmering dangers feel ever so disquieting. And when the impending tragedies surface themselves, the drama can become all the more hard-hitting and unsettling. This is best illustrated in a memorable early scene where a father, after what seems like an innocuous family day out, discovers his daughter lying motionless at the edge of a nature reservoir. He sprints across the waters in the wide frame, trudging through prolonged time and space, with shrieks of anguish piercing into the hearts of us observers from afar. We, the audience, are made to feel as devastated, helpless and diminutive in the presence of his unexpected tragedy, and in the presence of this force of nature.
But all these devices can only continue its work if the drama can hold up on its end. Referring back to the same Q&A session, Ric mentioned that a key objective to the film was to achieve and maintain a prevalent sense of realism and naturalism. Ironically, and unfortunately, this is exactly what’s lacking throughout the film in all accounts. A fundamental shortcoming lies in the casting and the lack of control in directorship. The abovementioned scene only works because only one actor, and a good experienced actor at that, is holding the emotional core of the scene. However, when the film follows up with an ensemble cast of varying acting styles and qualities, most of the later scenes and depicted relationships simply fail to gel together. In this project, there is a mix of actors and non-actors, veteran and the inexperienced, mandarin language based foreigners and the locals, the local television trained and the others and, most essentially, the good and the bad. Watching the film, I am not convinced that this hotchpotch had been acknowledged or addressed as the leads and non-leads alike feel ill fittingly assembled into the same world. A strange sense of muteness and stiltedness, a distinctive quality of Ric’s works, permeates Standing in Still Water’s entire universe, while the over-expressive and dramatics punctuate jarringly. This awkward inconsistency makes for rather uncomfortable viewing.
Back at the Q&A session, the direction was described by the cast as largely “minimal” and hence, “freeing”. In this case, this freedom afforded to them backfires, because unlike non-actors who might come off as authentic through their non-acting, the professional cast are saddled with their own baggage. This is also clearly not one of those narratives, with its accumulation of afflictions and crises, which can allow the director to relinquish its grip easily. Without much mediation, tempering or guidance, the actors are left to their own devices and this shows when they hardly looked like they were pulling in the same direction when working together on their scenes. It certainly does not help when the film’s predominant use of proper Mandarin further stifled most of the Singaporean cast and extras as they struggled with the utter fluency and expression of the language. What we ended up seeing are unconvincing stagey moments, uneven sparring and a discomforting lack of chemistry in all of the key relationships. The acting becomes apparent instead.
I would liken this film to a patchwork of four vignettes connected by its theme of human fragility and cosmic karma. Its seams are bulging from its overt moralisation, judged from its multiple religious references and a rather didactic narration of a farewell letter a la poetic summarization of the film. The stitch work is rough and unhandy at best; it often feels like many moments are cut off too impatiently when I was ready to let them grow on me just a few seconds longer. The interweaving also feels a little unrefined when its only too easy to slap on a tingly little overture by composer Sonicbrat almost every time a transition happens from scene to scene, story to story. Structurally, the whole piece feels fragmented, like four short films forcibly pieced together. As much as the overlapping of some its plotlines take skill and thought in its revelations, and the belated surrealism feels like a welcomed touch to the overarching realism, the ludicrous conclusions still undermined the film as a whole. I admire the philosophy behind the film; where the stillness and serenity of the water reinstates itself despite the temporality of its ripples. But maybe the filmmaker is not quite ready to tackle a theme of such complexities and profundity just yet. The intention is there, but the stories and execution do not quite match its ambition. Like his turn from short to feature filmmaking, a more sophisticatedly stitched patchwork may still be a step too far right now.
Review by Thong Kay Wee