Review - Short films from the La Salle PSOF Graduation Showcase
The recent La Salle Putnam School of Film Graduation Showcase at The Projector while being an exhibition of new talents in the scene, turned out to be also a barometer of current social attitudes. This year’s crop of works demonstrated an apparent curiosity on the marginalized and the underdogs of society and delightfully showed a rather mature hand in the treatment of these matters, particularly in the documentaries. There is no surprise why some of the filmmakers we have are also prominent civil society voices. They have a great voice to lend!
The documentary “Quinn’ by director Rave Puah was like a blinding beacon of light in the showcase, forcing the audience to sit up and give the subjects their full attention. ‘Quinn’ presents an often talked about but seldom captured reality in our society – inevitable shotgun marriages. The biggest of achievement of the film is being able to find a couple to agree to be put under a microscope for the benefit of us viewers. ‘Quinn’ documents he life of a young couple and their journey in raising their child, born out of wedlock. The young definition of young stretches our perception of this issue as the couple looks like they could fit right into a set of school uniforms.
The documentary is largely a talking heads piece, interspersed with a roving eye on their daily affairs. The devil of course is in the details and the unspoken trust between the filmmaker and the family. Singapore, as a society does not handle taboos well but this film and the family featured have given an oddly inspiring face to this taboo. One particular detail the film has picked up and captured is the strange ‘confrontational’ rapport the couple has between them, like the reverse of being passive-aggressive. The interaction between them is thorny yet nuanced with sweetness. Indeed, the film hits a note beyond just presenting a situation, it is also a character study, which draws us closer to the circumstances they are in. Not forgetting to mention, baby Quinn has a deformity on the feet. For the ‘double whammy’ circumstances she is in, the film thankfully does not over-sentimentalise. In fact, there are moments you laugh along with the couple or giggle at the little teething parenting boo boos they make. Given that it is potentially difficult to see this on national TV (as I think the couple may have reservations), this is a gem of documentary that needs to seen.
‘Blurred Lines’ by director Jeremiah R Oh continued along the thread of societal anomalies with a peek into the life of a Chinese medium and the questioning of religion. Again, the film chooses the path of relatively great resistance by picking a rare occurrence like this family’s experience and probably had to exercise a fair amount of persuasion to let the camera in on their lives and especially their vulnerabilities. They are vulnerable because they have recently sensed supernatural presence in the house and are seeking help. The family is established as staunch Catholics at the beginning but out of desperation, the mother seeks her brother’s help in dealing with the supernatural forces. Her brother is a Taoist medium. Without too much explaining, the sensationalistic plotline is clear and also the reality-TV allure of the film. The footages are eye-opening as the film takes us into the altar room of the medium and the journey to exorcism is conscientiously documented.
Interestingly, the film opens up more questions than it answers, which also distinguishes it from reality-TV. We are not sure the rituals of the Taoist medium worked in the end but more importantly, our understanding of the family’s strong Catholic faith is put into question. This has a slightly disorientating effect on the audience, especially if they were hoping for closure. What’s even more confusing is the family sitting down to say Catholic prayers right after the medium has finished his loop of exorcising around the house. Weird people indeed! Or the lack of a closing note?
My first introduction to October Cherries, the local band, is the song ‘Sunday Morning’ sung by Jacintha Abishanegaden. When the original recording of this song played in the documentary film ‘October Cherries’ by Cristy Amanda Rodrigues, it created a point of connection for me to the film. Documentaries like these tend to divide, you either watch it because the fan boy in you is looking for some musical gratification or the film presents a compelling story on the journey to getting the show together, or it becomes a pain to watch. The film documents the potential regrouping of the band through the eyes of Benny Siow, the percussionist and through this journey revisits the days of their former glory in the 60s and 70s. The younger members of the audience need to work harder to see these men beyond kopi-drinking uncles sitting in a coffeeshop trying to catch up with the times. With the interjection of old photographs, we get a whiff of their glory beyond their current silver-haired selves. The length of this film is perhaps its stumbling block for the reason that the film only manages to document the members on the watershed point of getting together again. On the other hand, of course, the meat, or rather the future of their new collaboration, has yet to materialize and the film ends up mostly a tribute film that ends with a question mark. The film does have a priceless moment though – when the band visited the record store, chanced upon their own albums and took a while to get used to seeing them!
The narrative fiction shorts seemed to pale slightly in comparison to the documentaries but were thoughtfully crafted nonetheless. The marginalised continue to take centrestage in the films but each of the three narratives displayed a different approach. ‘Torrents’ directed by Aloysius Koh harbours a style echoing the ‘HDB Blues’ apparent in the early films of Eric Khoo, essentially a mix of domestic struggle brewing within the confines of the narrow HDB flat walls, despair and a dark visual palette. I would add Tsai Ming Liang to this for the use of water leakage as a motif. ‘Torrents’ tell the story of a young man, David, who is still living with his father and does not see the point of hos father trying to salvage the ‘leaking’ situation in the current home. What ensues is then an inter-generational struggle between sentimentalism and ‘younger generation sensibilities’, as the son wants to sell the flat and live somewhere new. While the film is largely predictable and its treatment and production design seem ‘borrowed’, the father’s acting was moving and genuine and that anchored the film mostly. A note on lighting though, the storeroom that contained the old photo albums could be given an accent of lighting, to avoid the look of a blackout. Proves the point that film can be stagier than you think!
The film ‘Chen Jing’ by director Alvin Soh recreates the world of prostitutes in Geylang, flooded in red light and filled with shadowy corridors and corners. ‘Chen Jing’ is the name of the protagonist, a Malaysian girl who finds her way into the trade to make money to pay off her debts. She strikes up sisterhood with one of the older girls but her own intentions to reach her pot of gold faster get in the way of the relationship. The premise is familiar. Unfortunately, the treatment, too is familiar. It is probably the linear and literal treatment of the story and characters that reminds you of TV soap opera And the scripted Cantonese dialogue too. While the film recreated the space of this trading den appropriately, it needed to look deeper beneath the soap opera clichés of clandestine plotting and plans destined for failure. A little more backstory perhaps.
‘Harbour’ the final film of the evening, directed Cheng Chai Hong, is a film that communicates a several levels, though this took a while. The opening misleads you into either the realm of science fiction or horror with the discovery of a mannequin or rubber life-sized human doll on the bed of a lady who stays alone. Then when her fascination with the doll gets compulsive, you wonder if you are watching a thriller. For sure, you could conclude she was psychotic by now and you are just waiting for the moment when she kisses the doll like a real human being. Of course, more clues are laid out as the film progresses and it is revealed that she has stolen the doll from her own company where she works.
What looks like a genre-bending journey is really the director’s attempt at completing the picture of this woman’s strange obsession with the doll in steps. The result is a layered portrait of a character who exists at two levels, one who is taunting the audience with her antics and keeping them in suspense on what she will do next to the doll, the other one who is really a person in love, though a forbidden one. The cryptic film may require a double take to piece together an understanding but this is really a modern take on relationships and it is gratifying when you finally see the full flesh (no bones) of it and get what it is trying to say to you.
Reviews by Jeremy Sing