@SGIFF2015: Review – Singapore Panorama Shorts 2

Singapore Panorama Shorts 2 @SGIFF 2015 was a showcase of four distinctly local, Mandarin short films by young filmmakers. Here are our thoughts on them.

‘Afloat’ (斗鱼) by Reuben Foong
Foong said during the post-screening discussion that this film was inspired by events from his own past. As a child, he had a tutor who was a “peidu mama” (“study mama” – a colloquial local term used to describe foreign women who come to Singapore to accompany their children who attend school here) from China. Her daughter would sometimes talk to him after his tuition sessions, and speaking once about the journey taken by herself and her mother, she told him something he never forgot: “We’ll do whatever it takes to stay together.”

Afloat is an unflinching take on the realities faced by a similar mother-and-daughter pair thrown into the choppy waters of an alien, unforgiving society, with nothing but each other to cling to.

Xiao Wen, a withdrawn, introspective seventeen-year-old, is picked on by her younger classmates and relies on two pet fighting fish for companionship (the Chinese title of the movie translates as “fighting fish”). Her mother is a steely, determined woman, working as a masseuse to support both of them.

The acting of both main characters is brilliant, and scenes with the two of them have moments of tangible tenderness. In one scene, Xiao Wen’s mother buys her a hearty meal at a fast food restaurant, eating nothing herself. She appears to take pleasure just in watching her daughter eat, even if this is a particular indulgence given their limited means. However, when she asks hopefully if Xiao Wen is enjoying the meal, the homesick girl artlessly replies that it is okay but that it doesn’t taste as good as a similar meal back in their home country. The short exchange speaks volumes.

With a focus on realism underscored by Foong’s liberal use of long takes, Afloat is a true example of showing rather than telling, refraining from moral judgments and letting the actions of the characters speak for themselves. Despite an ending that is somewhat predictable (yet still distressing), it is all around excellent.

 ‘Happily Ever After’ (祝你幸福) by Shaun Neo, Apple Hong and Pek Hong Kun 
The premise is simple: three weddings over three generations. Defying conventional narrative structure, these are almost isolated snapshots of families taking wedding photos in the ‘60s, ‘80s, and 2015. The thinnest thread connecting them is revealed in the finale.

The simple structure of Happily Ever After works surprisingly well to the directors’ advantage, like a blank canvas on which they layer a wonderful complexity. It’s obvious that considerable thought has been put into the little words and expressions of each unnamed character, subtly conveying the nuances of family relationships. This makes the film worth re-watching to unearth new details.

While ostensibly portraying joyous occasions, as co-director Neo said during the post-screening discussion Happily Ever After is intentionally ambiguous about whether the families are truly happy, and leaves viewers to draw their own conclusions.

‘Freak’ (怪物) by Nelicia Low 
Freak is extremely creepy. Centring on the disappearance of Mrs Wang’s second husband and the suspiciously cheerful reaction of her daughter (Xiao Ma) to it, this is an oddball drama with a unique premise. The terror and despair of Mrs Wang are palpable, and in one instance I actually jumped in my seat. But is she driven to paranoia with grief and distress (along with emotional trauma from possible spousal abuse), or is her protective daughter actually the perpetuator of a dark crime? Who betrays whom in the end? The film denies us resolution and leaves us craving for more.

As a side note, this is not the first time Low has explored the idea of a strange mother-daughter relationship, with jealousy over the mother’s romantic relationships as a central theme.

‘Open Sky’ (其实哪里都好) by Tan Jingliang 
Open Sky is the longest of the four films. Unfortunately, the extra time does not translate into more engaging plot development. Afflicted with slow pacing and stilted dialogue, it is difficult to relate to the two main characters as they ramble through various urban landscapes – a ramen shop; a night market; a rooftop – musing about work, family, their dreams, and the possibility of leaving the city.

The film may suffer due to the fact that the theme of disillusioned youth is well-covered in all forms of art, making it easy to fall into clichés. There is a lot of staring into space and contemplative silence especially by the female lead, yet any deeper meaning behind this melancholy is elusive. And while the actors are reasonably convincing in their roles, their on-screen chemistry as supposed long-time friends falls flat.

Missing the poignancy and light touch that Tan showed in Strangers, Open Sky comes across overall as aimless and slightly bored: much like its central characters.

Review by Melissa Zhu

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