Singapore Short Film Awards - Swimming Lesson by Kat Goh

How often do we find local films shot as confidently as Swimming Lesson? The whole film is composed almost entirely out of breathless long takes—one take per scene—thus trapping us in the drama of a family sending a girl off to study overseas. We kick off at home, where grandpa watches a televised swimming match. Behind him, in a flurry of well-blocked activity, a mother fusses to her daughter over the travel adaptors she needs to pack, and to her husband over the time they must leave the house, while the targets of her fussing themselves shuffle around the living room with muffled exasperation. In this take alone, we get to know what everyone feels about the trip at hand (in descending order of worry: mother, father, daughter, grandpa). We can predict, then, that the mother's nagging will persist through the following scenes, pushing tensions to a threshold. We even bump into clich├ęs like "we're wasting time" blame-shifting, and painstakingly prepared bottles of bird's nest soup.

For me, Swimming Lesson handily defeats these obstacles by offering a few striking moments of respite. First, the film scatters bouts of humour within its scenes. Script-wise: Mum explains how to sneak liquids aboard the plane, and dad gets in a punchline on her deftness. Direction-wise: Dad gets into a slapstick scenario in the background of a sustained shot at a coffeeshop (he needs to manoeuvre around a queue), while the rest of the family holds a separate conversation in the foreground. It even comes down to details like Mum re-ordering one less coffee because "girl needs to sleep on the plane"—until we note how the drinks are finally distributed.

Second, Kee Chiew Hiang's shrill characterisation of Mum turns out to be vital to a late-breaking decision by the character. The film even doles the mother a generous close-up as we watch her anxieties preying on her, playing out on her face, and she utters a line in dialect that made the audience gasp with disbelief, not because we didn't believe the character would say such a thing, but because we'd bought wholly into her motivations for such a choice.

Finally, the film takes its time to unfold why it chose its title. For a long time, we wonder if Grandpa's swimming match, lasting through home and car and coffeeshop, is the film's only tenuous link to a "swimming lesson", until it intersperses brief shots of an unidentified girl floating serenely in a swimming pool. The relationship between these meditative shots and the storyline remains a mystery, until a frightful action by Grandpa, a cutaway to the floating girl, and our memory of subtle hints sprinkled earlier in the story tie it all together. I still catch my breath when I think about that finale, and wonder how the filmmakers captured these authentic long-take driving scenes on the roads by the Esplanade. A masterclass.

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