`Dreams From the Third World' by Kan Lume

On a rainy day, under a shelter, our protagonist meets a stranger who, like him, has been left stranded by his circumstances. They share fags and their precarious futures.
`Why don't you go to Batu Cave?' the stranger matter-of-factly suggests.

Jump cut to the damp-looking opening of Batu Cave and the image stays for a good moment.

For its oddball detraction, its randomness, under the hands of an unassured storyteller, the film could end up being pub rambling, brilliant in its conception but diffused in its conclusion, like it's just a `dream' from someone's world.
Knowing it is coming from Kan Lume, there is little doubt of a strong proposition and question(s) posed in the film. He is after all, known for his strongly pointed films and even more so for his unabashed commitment to his personal beliefs. Sometimes, a voice that speaks louder than his films (or at least those he has managed to materialise).

Well, the set up was clear and very easy to follow right from the beginning. Man stays out from home after a tiff with his disillusioned wife. His fascination with the human body and the carnal endeavours it could undertake breathes new life into his morale. In a gush of voyeurism more than hardcore filmmaking geekiness, he sets off with his DV Cam to liberate a series of bottled up fantasies.

If you don't have that many close female friends, and your wife is the nemesis of your filmmaking ambitions, it leaves you with no choice but to turn to people who can already get past the hurdle of stripping for a man, i.e. a prostitute. This was the point where I discovered Kan's comic streak. The set up is enough to make you anticipate the laughs (think I was only one of the few who took the risk of vocalising my laughs). Protagonist is proud to be his own filmmaking`towkay', complete with suit and tie (the army socks peeping out between the black of his trousers and shoes are quite giggle-worthy). Malaysian-accented prostitute approaches him thinking she could dig up a harvest for the day. they enter a room and he sincerely expresses his wish for her to `cooperate'. And the humour runs along this set-up.

And it runs quite a long way actually. From the hotel room, they move to a beach. At the beach, he spots another girl and experiments with shooting a homoerotic scene between the 2 girls. Back in the hotel, he tests his limits even further by coercing the prostitute to stay on for him to complete his project. As a meagre token, he buys her styrofoam packet lunch to her fed. But when she is not looking, he sneaks his hand out to steal the `liao' (main dish) from her economical rice pack. On the other hand, Ms dunno-know-her-rights Malaysia seems to be allowing herself to be dragged along in the game, perhaps with the delusion that he will pay up eventually. And for that, became one of the most naked characters in the film. In a deeper way, of course.

This is what was apparently the first half. The second half is centred on the exposition of the strained relationship between the protagonist and his wife. His wife is disillusioned with him and stops loving him. He fails at getting a proper job and keeps a lie about it while continuing with his filmmaking attempts. And in between all that, the wife experiences little bouts of annoyance like his failure to fix the tap, his request for sex and the petty theft of $50 from her purse. In return, his wife taunts him with all kinds of insults like `all your projects are failures', delivered a little non-chalantly, as if to lessen the pain of knowing she has ended up with a loser husband. As expected, she asked for a separation towards the end.
The wife chapter is a pretty-straightforward exposition that perhaps helps us break the codes of his oddball behaviour in the film. Hence, driven by these pressures, he is out to seek an answer. In the film, it comes in the form of flesh, then, the curious or perhaps intellectual obsevation of flesh. When it fails, he is brought back to the original battle ground which is his home. He grapples with it and when it finally gives way, we are brought back to a repeated frame - that familiar cave. Owing to the circularity the storytelling uses by introducing the cave right at the beginning, it seemed that the cave had always been the answer. Like you finally read that self-help book you chose to ignore.

It seems paying a visit to Batu Caves works, like he has found something at the end of this `dream-like' journey. At least for the time frame of the story. But glaring like the spotlights in Batu Cave, were questions posed in the film that obviously made `Dreams from the Third World' the discussion film it really is. And to be specific:
Is it our protagonist a mirror of Kan's personal experience as a filmmaker and a young husband?
Does the protagonist speak for Kan or us as indie filmmakers or does he represent something more general?
Why porn?
Why the strange eccentric behaviour of the protagonist (somehow reminding me of Xiao Kang in many Tsai Ming Liang films)?
Why Batu Caves? (So random)
What's in that long take in Batu Cave?

If I believed Kan really had an answer `tattooed' on his flesh, this would be how I see it:

`Dreams' is mostly allegorical to a filmmaker's experience. It is like a Freudian voice hidden in the minds of many filmmakers (myself included). Perhaps not all, but certainly in Kan for he chose to tell this story. While, our voice of sensibility steers us towards conventions, rules and societal acceptance. There is this other voice that makes us sometimes really want to make a porn film deep in our hearts! And it is not just about porn, it is about letting loose your spirits.

While I am not sure about the state of Kan's married life, I am sure the inner dilemmas he faces balancing the role of a husband and a filmmaker did lend some inspiration to our protagnist in the film. About the idiosyncratic behaviour of the protagonist, I would like to draw some parallels to Xiao Kang in many of Tsai Ming Liang's movies. In The Hole, Xiao Kang urinated into the sink instead of the toilet bowl to prevent water leak. In What Time Is It There?, his desperation led him to adjust the times on all clocks to Paris time. If we let our animal instincts take over, this is how we will behave. So, in this context, it can be seen as quite natural. As a result, I did find Kan's protagonist funny, for his antics reflected the extent of his desperation.

Batu Caves was probably an intended displacement. And for this spiritual journey to be exhaustive and thorough, you need an off-shoot. But what exactly did he find in Batu Caves? I raise both hands in surrender on this one.

From his interviews, Kan did imply during that `Dreams' is a flawed experiment. So I am inclined to believe that its merit would lie in the concept behind making it and that this genre-bender will leave us with questions inevitably. Why would we then bother answering those questions in our head? For me, it's (rather bluntly) his reputation, his approach to filmmaking and finally, it is that Freudian voice in me that somehow wants to make porn films as well.

Reputation is an unspoken bargaining tool in convincing your audience. The boundaries he has pushed with The Art of Flirting and Solos makes it difficult for me to walk away from `Dreams' without disentangling those knots in my head. Approach. When someone has bothered to take an unapologetic artistic leap, you are secretly curious about what new benchmark this will set in local cinema. And it is for the same reason, people will go to watch Lucky7, except that Lucky7 has much better packaging and the `safety net' of being directed by several SIFF past winners.
Finally, no need to repeat about why every filmmaker secretly desires to make porn someday.

The last I spoke to Kan, he is in the process of removing his famous `FILMMAKER' tattoo on the back of his palm. He did share that `Dreams' coincides with a `crossroads' phase he might be going through - that he might want to make commercial films thereafter. In my heart, I would say to him that I have not heard enough from him and `Dreams' could hardly be a `crossroads' piece. There must be more he wants to say. And for that reason, I hope he keeps the other tattoo on his other palm that reads `LEADER OF THE LIGHT'.

Panorama Crosstalk #7

Stefan (S) : I got this comment on my blog by a reader who didn't mince his words... and I quote "Dreams from the 3rd world was crap. With no disrespect, I think Kan should stick back to basics or maybe do some short film before deciding what he wants to do and not just try this and that and say he is at some crossroads etc. If his skills are raw, if he doesnt know, go back to school. Don’t give excuses and expect everyone to take this nonsense. "
Jeremy (J) : Ow Ow Ow! (Beat) I got to understand this visionary of a filmmaker this year better and I am impressed with him really. Kan has a reputation certainly but I think more than half the time, his intentions are misunderstood.
S : Yup, that's what I called Kan Lume back in 2006.... and he proved me right, with the movies he's made so far, all pushing the boundaries, and producing really diverse works to see what can work, and what couldn't.
J : He has a stand (which can explain the reason for doing 3rd world), that I fully applaud - don't be afraid to fail. And making films can a sure way to teach one to make better films.
S : (Approving nod). J : The problem is Kan is still experimenting and maybe he got famous too fast. And people judge him by conventional standards already.
S : I mean, I can give you two examples that support Kan’s motto. Han Yew Kwang with Unarmed Combat and 18 Grams of Love, and Colin Goh and Woo Yen Yen with Talking Cock and Singapore Dreaming. Look at the progress from 1st to 2nd film.
S : I thought 3rd World had its moments.
J : I know! I know!
S : The cheeky sight gags. What with the strategically placed water bottle (lol) and those anti-establishment breaking the rules pot-shots.
J : The whole flesh-seeking episode gave me stitches inside out. Rather funny in a Tsai Ming Liang way.
S : Did u see Kan's cameo? I thought I was the only one laughing.
J : You can’t hear me though, remember , mine are `inside-out’ laughs (silent lol)
S : Lol. (Beat) I think that marks the first time he's not behind the camera.
J : I also wondered if the prostitute represented the phenomenon of underpaid independent films talents.
S : Interesting thought, how so?
J : There are so many in Singapore who are being exploited by ruthless filmmakers kekeke!
S : You mean work for free and tasked to do everything?
J : Look at Sunny from Lucky 7! (pause) He had not one but 7 slave drivers.
S : You know, I was actually quite surprised his wife and him are quite well to do. So he's not really that poor a director, despite having little money in the pocket.

Jeremy is trying imagine how Kan’s wife looks like.

J : But these days condo doesn’t mean very rich hor.
S : Still.
J : Anyway, this was the straight-forward part. A Marilyn Lee reprise somehow too. S : Until Kan throws you a curveball with Batu Caves, extremely open ended and subject to your own interpretation.
J : They say if you look closely enough at the cave, you `see'` something.
S : Really ah???
J : The cave as in the cave in the movie.

Ponderous silence not different from that Batu Cave moment.

S : Nothing leh. Just a shadow. Leon’s.

Jeremy ponders another Mas Selemat joke but refrains from it.

S : I thought his Hokkien friend should've accompanied him to Batu Caves. At least you can be sure of some interesting dialogue.
J : He is like those aunties who ask you to go pray this temple that temple for 4D, kids, better sex and many other things.
S : But he (Hokkien friend) encapsulates a lot of presumptions toward local films - the notion that all local films suck, without even watching anything other than `Money No Enoug’.
J : Yeah I remember now.
S : Sums up probably how local audience in general view local films, which is quite a pity. I do know people whom each time I recommend a local film, without thinking, or even seeing the trailer, the first word that comes out, or the first few words that come out, is "nah, it'll suck" or "wtf".
J : I feel like making them do 2.4 up and down the steps to Sinema. Bunch of traitors!
S : I mean, where's the sense of adventure, of discovery, or taking that plunge and leap of faith? I think it's quite unfair to pass judgement on something without first experiencing it

Music rises to a crescendo. Stefan begins to sound like Sun Yat Sen from `Road to Dawn’ the SIFF closing film.

S : So back to the commenter at the start of our conversation. At least he/she took that leap of faith, didn't suit his/her taste, so fair rant he/she's entitled to, don’t you think?
J : Of course. I have something to say about local filmmakers too. (Pause) If that commentator is the example of taking the leap of faith in watching. Then Kan Lume's certainly the equivalent for filmmakers, as in taking another sort of leap.


Excerpt of Kan's interview with Sinema http://www.sinema.sg/ in which Kan touches on how he develops his scripts.

I like working without scripts as a starting point of a film because it allows actors to be free to fail. In fact there are no mistakes because there is no script to tell them they are doing things wrongly. This method is born out of desperation and necessity. Firstly, I was never formally trained in scriptwriting. Secondly, many of the actors I used at the beginning had no formal training in acting. I still wanted to make films, so I made things up as we went along and found ways other ways to develop story and structure. Instead of being a mess, it was fun, lively, spontaneous and felt powerful and instant. I honed my instincts to know where to push my actors and what scenes to develop.

There is also another write up and full-length interview and review on http://anutshellreview.blogspot.com/ by Stefan Shih, my partner in crosstalk.

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